Ben Tanzer

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Sex and Death – by Lavinia Ludlow

sex&deathThe dark symbolism behind the title Sex and Death reminds me of a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.” There’s a similar existential sense of “cradle to the grave” throughout Ben Tanzer’s new short story collection, and one overarching theme holds constant: each subject wrangles a hopeless sense of “what’s next and what if it’s all downhill from here?”

Many of these stories are about people trapped in transition between what they subconsciously view as the best times of their lives and the uncertain road ahead. Story titles hint at the aimless limbo one feels when standing at a crossroads: Dead or Alive, Drifting, Flight, and The Anatomy of an Affair. A few subjects grapple with the loss of a father, others contemplate affairs, and some panic about the looming responsibilities of building and supporting a family. Many reflect on their past, some with nostalgia, others questioning hope for a better future, but mostly, how to react responsibly, or at least without irreparably screwing life up for everyone.

This time, Tanzer changes up the demographics. No longer is the default a middle-aged white guy thinking about cheating on his wife. This time, we hear from a few young and impressionable boys, and a middle-aged female (although one does contemplate cheating). In Taking Flight, Tanzer explores her restlessness, loss of identity, and contemplation of an affair. The stream-of-consciousness writing evenly builds tension, and never rambles or drifts into emotional vomit. 

“…you look across the dinner table at your husband, the husband you love but are not sure you still want, the husband who sometimes feels like a sibling or friend, which is fine in some ways, there’s no animosity or sadness, it isn’t even stale exactly, it’s just good, comfortable, the date nights, the movies, the trips to his family’s cabin and the brunches every Sunday, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times strewn across the table…and wondering what you, an older, married woman, might be willing to do under the right circumstances…and how could you ever do that to him, you couldn’t, you won’t allow yourself to, right, no, never, not. Facebook though is safe…”

This narrative also explores the complex aspect of social media, how a news feed can make everyone’s lives look perfect, and how there aren’t always friends on that “friend list,” but frenemies boasting about their beautiful families and celebrations, lives cropped of marital fights, familial tensions, and photo-shopped to perfection, because no one posts about misery, existential crises, or relationship drama (except maybe that one Debbie Downer acquaintance we all have, or those dominating the newsfeed by live-Tweeting political rants). 

“…everyone seems so fucking happy, married to this person or that one, little hearts and hyperlinks everywhere. It’s infuriating. And just like high school, everyone has something you don’t, and yes they are happy to connect, but after that first exchange, nothing, it all fades, and though they update their status and leave wall messages for other mutual friends, they’re gone, moving on to new relationships, and new sets of photos, the promise of excitement and release, just one more click away.”

This story exhibits how technology has changed our interactions with one another, the expectations we’ve set for our own lives, injected us with the “fear of missing out,” and exposed us to a wide rage of temptations.

The collection still contains middle-aged married guys’ internal monologue that reads like a “choose your own cheating adventure, whether you act on it or not” book. These men feel smothered in their marriages, and they wonder if the best experiences and biggest thrills are buried in years passed. The tension and claustrophobic sense of being trapped between the good times and the next phase of their lives is often so intense, that these men sound as if they’re a breath away from totally losing it over something as simple as a heartfelt ad, like that one with Bowie playing in the background of the Audi Super Bowl commercial after the old man’s son comes over with his $300k car to give him the fleeting thrill of a test drive, reminding him of his golden age. In reality, this is something a son can only do if he isn’t a total fuck up, in jail, a pothead, or living in the basement mooching off his father’s 401k. Oh, and has the means to afford said $300k car.

All in all, Sex and Death illustrates that none of us are done “coming of age” just because we graduate high school or move out of our parents’ house. Life’s trials and errors (or failures) will continuously test our resilience, faith, and respect for others, but most of all, the respect we have for ourselves.

Disclaimer: you will get to the end of this appetizer-sized collection so much more, but when it comes to a prolific writer like Tanzer, rest assured many other courses will soon roll out of his literary kitchen.

Published in January 2016 by Sunnyoutside

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Ben Tanzer: is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose Nonfiction, The New York Stories and now SEX AND DEATH, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men’s Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at tanzerben.com the center of his vast lifestyle empire.

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Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her small press reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review. Her work can be found here.

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Review of Ben Tanzer’s Orphans – by Lavinia Ludlow

695-2In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.

In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.

Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.

Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:

“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”

For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.

Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.

All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.

Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.

So Different Now

Ben Tanzer is a machine when it comes to putting out novels, novellas, chapbooks, and short story collections, my favorites being 99 Problems, a chapbook released through the CCLaP, and his novel You Can Make Him Like You, released through Artistically Declined Press. Recently, CCLaP released another chapbook of Tanzer’s shorts called So Different Now, which consists of nine micro short stories about man-boys who’ve yet to mature (do any of us?). Central themes include reflections of childhood bullies and lost loves, and current dissatisfaction with marriage and life in suburbia. And a Tanzer collection wouldn’t be complete without his trademark theme of infidelity, or rationalizing the urge to cheat.

Each story ends with a punch to the stomach (or face or kidney) in the form of a twist or blatant shock. I read this collection from cover to cover with the takeaway message that life sucks sometimes. Growing up sucks. Suburbia sucks. Marriage can suck.

This may sound strange, but Tanzer is amazing at writing the tempted-to-cheat male mind. His narrators’ thoughts flow naturally, and the internalized cognitive dissonance is well-played. There are always plenty excuses and more excuses about why the protagonist feels the need to cheat or stray or maintain a wandering eye. Take this line from A Single Bound, where our subject tries to rationalize his cheating thoughts with something as arbitrary as Spiderman, speaking through a third-person POV: “He is a superhero at work, but the rest of the time he is just a regular guy trying to deal with people’s expectations of him, his wife included. It’s not that his wife doesn’t appreciate him. It’s just that his wife doesn’t appreciate him like the intern does. The intern has no expectations at all, and frankly it’s refreshing.”

There was a laugh-out-loud moment for me in Cool, Not Removed along the similar topic: “Now, does he feel like being married is like being in jail? No, of course not, not for the most part anyway. There are moments, though. Does he get to do whatever he wants whenever he wants? No, not at all. Does he care? Not really. But is that kind of like being in prison? Sure it is, a little.”

Every story left me feeling intense emotions about the protagonist or his situation, weather it was victory, defeat, or a just plain, that totally sucks, and that’s what Tanzer does. He can evoke an intense reaction in his reader in a mere flash fiction piece. All the characters yanked at my heart strings in one form or another, I felt sympathy for them no matter how confused or fallen they were.

So Different Now reflects on the protagonist’s past, growing up terrorized by the neighborhood bully only to find out twenty-five years later, that the bully is dating one of his childhood sweethearts, if one could call her that. In Stevey, the kid doling out sex and dating wisdom brings his friends home to a father who brags about how he cheated on his wife, the narrator ending the story with, “Maybe we found ourselves resenting the fact that [Stevey] wasn’t in control all the time, that he was flawed, and that we hated ourselves for trusting him so much when he struggled just like everyone else did.”

My only criticism is that I wish the collection was longer, I think there was still so much left Tanzer could have said in his chapbook, there was some missing element that I kept searching for. Regardless, I’ve always adored Tanzer’s writing style, and this collection, So Different Now, has taken a place at the top of my list. Get a copy now over at CCLaP. It may be short, but it’ll take a swing at your thoughts on life and leave a lasting red mark.

Review by Lavinia Ludlow