In Seeing, Believing, and Other Things, PC Scheponik employs eager pen and abundant heart to explore the sublime interstices of quotidian existence. Whether pausing over the beautiful brutality that makes us sigh the moment the truth bleeds into consciousness or losing himself—and us, his readers, along with him—amidst the helixed emptiness that all living species share, the poet approaches not only the world but the universe at large with a curious blend of wide-eyed wonder and world-weary experience. Evoking shades of Whitman, Scheponik’s poetic eye spots the divine majesty in all of creation as he sings of the delicate balance between life and death with joy and reverence. Here is a poet with humor and heart, at home among the silken protein notes of a spider web as he is partaking in the beautiful dance of the galaxy across the field of infinity. His poems are self-described love letters to God, family, and all of creation, and although—spoiler alert—everything falls to pieces in the end, we are fortunate to have the poetry in this collection to shine a light on all that is beautiful and wondrous in our universe until then.
In Albion’s Secret History, Guy Mankowski offers what he describes as “snapshots” of those he deems the outsiders of English pop culture. “Snapshots” is certainly an apt term, as the book moves through a wide range of figures at a fast clip: Oscar Wilde, Shelagh Delaney, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, David Bowie, Ian Curtis, Gary Numan, Paul Weller, Robert Smith, Morrissey, and PJ Harvey to name just a few. Stylistically, Mankowski’s approach to discussing his subject matter echoes that of Greil Marcus in works like Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of 20th Century America, and The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. What emerges is a dreamlike parade of personalities whose efforts to speak their own minds, follow their own muses, and be what we might call in contemporary parlance their “authentic selves” reflect a larger, arguably unconscious, yearning within English culture to break free from otherwise stifling social norms and, in so doing, to steer English history into uncharted waters. This struggle comes to fruition in the book’s final chapter when Mankowski turns his attention to contemporary English political figures whose antics, for lack of a better word, bring to life (and to light) many of the tensions the author has described throughout the volume.
Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.
None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.
While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notion that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.
One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”
Let’s just assume that if you’re curious about a book called Agitprop for Bedtime, you have a half-decent sense of humor and will be okay with a very short textual reimagining of the Kama Sutra titled “Laurel and Hardy Have Sex.” On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered why you don’t get an erection the moment you hear the opening notes of the national anthem, then many of the pieces in Charles Holdefer’s latest collection of miniature polemics, story problems, and humdingers might cut a little too close to the bone for your comfort. For everyone else, it’s a jolly, twisted, phantasmagorical romp through the American psyche.
As with Holdefer’s Dick Cheney in Shorts, this latest collection has a decidedly political edge, with a wide range of targets that include gun rights, healthcare, for-profit prisons and blind patriotism. In many ways, he’s depicting the cartoonish landscape that programmers at Fox News would have their viewers believe lies just beyond the safety of their gated communities. It’s an America where Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein trudge dutifully from house to house like errant trick-or-treaters taking fire-arms from gun-toting citizens while lonely white men on diving boards leap to meaningless deaths in empty swimming pools. It’s a weirdly bleak vision of a nation divided, but a hilarious one as well.
The proceedings, laugh-out-loud funny as they may be to a particular type of reader, offer more than just slapstick comedy. They’re also surprisingly nonpartisan—or at least as nonpartisan as a book of this nature can be. The funhouse-mirror version of America that Holdefer depicts is one that implicates us all. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a short piece titled “Here Lies a Myriad,” which finds a young couple perusing the menu of a fine-dining establishment whose delicacies, served by heroes, include air strikes, naval destroyers, and infantry while what goes on in the kitchen remains (mercifully?) out of view. Our ignorance, it turns out, is as purposeful as it is central to our continued comfort.
Stylistically, Holdefer is not afraid to take risks and play with form. Plot and character in his short works are often implied and arguably Rorschachian reflections of the reader’s psyche. Personally, I can’t help reading “Kickstart Me Harder, Harder” as a knowing critique of my own (shameful, shameful) past dalliances with crowdfunding and the icky feeling that the practice engenders, while “Love Kit” reads like a work of art-by-instruction gone horribly wrong. Fun, in other words, for the entire family.
At the end of the day – which, as the title suggests, is arguably the best time to read this collection – Agitprop for Bedtime is a real humdinger that dares to ask the eternal question: Is hell other people, or is it just the coffee shop where they all hang out?