Don DeLillo

Aetherchrist

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 2.05.21 PMAs he waits for the gunshot that will kill him to sound in the final paragraph of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, protagonist Eric Packer catches a glimpse of his own death in the crystal screen of his smartwatch. It’s a haunting way to end a novel, but also a frustrating one. How, after all, did Eric’s watch both predict and display his untimely demise?

Fortunately for anyone still wondering about that passage fifteen years later, Aetherchrist, the latest novel from Kirk Jones, starts at least nominally and more than likely coincidentally where Cosmopolis left off. This time around, though, the protagonist who catches a glimpse of his own death on a tiny screen is not a billionaire asset manager but a down-on-his luck knife salesman named Rey.

Unlike Eric Packer, however, Rey sees his impending doom on an old analog television set rather than a digital screen. More to the point, he has time to change his fate. Yet every move Rey makes further entangles him in a bizarre plot to rewire the collective consciousness of a nation and thus to usher into being what could either be a golden age of harmony or complete and utter chaos. Spoiler alert: This being a Kirk Jones novel, the smart money is on the latter.

In many ways, Aetherchrist serves as a meditation on the personal isolation inherent in the digital age. Lamenting the cold nature of online relationships in the early goings of the novel, Rey notes that he has to pretend that all he wants is sex when what he really wants is for someone to validate his existence. Curiously, the bulwark against this sense of isolation is the unfolding plot to plunge the world into chaos.

Indeed, as the forces he’s battling gain the upper hand, Rey experiences a curious sense of communion: “It’s actually happening. I can feel it, a faint transmission like the one you get when you watch a late-night movie that you know hardly anyone is up for. You don’t watch the movie for the content. You watch it because you can feel a small population out there like you, riding the airwaves for a sense of connection.” Arguably, the hopeless search for this sense of connection is what Aetherchrist is all about.

Hot on the heels of last year’s bizarre dance with death, Die Empty, Aetherchrist positions Jones as an author who’s clearly and solidly hitting his storytelling stride. Though dark and twisted, his imaginary universes allow for sharp plot twists and solid character development even as the characters in question face certain doom. Indeed, perhaps it’s their proximity to death that makes Jones’s characters so compelling. In their struggle for survival, they cling to hope in the unlikeliest of places and situations.

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The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door

A shark attack, a starlet in hiding, a mysterious black box. The opening pages of Stephen Stark’s The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door have all the makings of a Hollywood page turner, but the novel’s style places the author in a far more literary league.

The novel is a hefty one in terms of content as well as form. Weighing in at well over 600 pages (in 12 pt. Garamond, no less!), The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door touches on a wide range of topics — show business, fame, predestination, love, reality, lucid dreaming, and standup comedy, to name just a few. To tackle these subjects, Stark offers the reader Ellen Gregory, a thirty-something standup comic turned TV superstar whose recent run-in with a murderous stalker leaves her questioning everything about the world she’s grown used to. That her world consists largely of hype and rumors only complicates matters for the increasingly cagey celebrity.

Ellen’s Hollywood narrative alone would certainly provide enough material for a provocative examination of fame and its trappings, but Stark sweetens the deal by adding virtual reality to the mix. Shortly after escaping from the confines of her successful sitcom, Ellen falls for a computer programmer whose experiments have opened a doorway into a mysterious dimension that isn’t quite real but is, in some ways, more real than real. When Michael falls prey to a vicious attack, Ellen’s world turns upside down, and her entire world — not to mention her sense of self — goes up for grabs.

Stylistically, Stark’s writing evokes a diverse range of contemporary authors. From the more “literary” camp, there’s Jennifer Egan and Don DeLillo, while the elements of science-fiction present in the novel call to mind William Gibson’s interest in virtual reality and Jamil Nasir’s examination of lucid dreaming in The Houses of Time. Complex, ambitious, and genre-bending, The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door is a philosophical page turner that dares to ask what it means to really know someone.

Review by Marc Schuster

Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals

The first thing that will strike the casual reader upon perusing Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals is that the term “bizarro fiction” suits this debut novella perfectly. In the space of a few pages, the hero of the piece loses and arm, a leg, and an eye in a series of unfortunate events that peak with his falling into a wood chipper and being reincarnated as a humanoid mass of tears. From here, things go from bizarre to bizarrer — an especially impressive feat on the part of author Kirk Jones, given that “bizarrer” isn’t even a word — when the man made of tears is put in charge of a circus filled with inanimate objects that have come to life and subsequently grown incredibly fond of copulating. To put all of this as bluntly as possible, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals earns its bizarro stripes on every page of this trim, offbeat saga.

In addition to being bizarre, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals also offers a fascinating critique of American consumer culture. The carnival, after all, is owned by a self-proclaimed mirage named Uncle Sam, who happens to be the son of Capitalism. What’s more, when the so-called “inanimals” that populate his carnival begin to copulate, the ultimate end is not more quasi-sentient furniture but the opposite; only one inanimal, it turns out, ever survives a sexual encounter, leaving the other a shattered husk.

Needless to say, it would be easy to dismiss the sexual proclivities of the inanimals as weird for the sake of weird. As arguably distasteful as the notion of sexually active and sadomasochistic furniture might be to some readers, however, the destructive orgies over which the man made of tears presides are nothing compared to the real-world horrors that many laborers in developing nations endure so that we can accumulate vast quantities of merchandise at low prices. What’s more, the very concept of inanimals calls to mind the work of the late Jean Baudrillard, the French social theorist who, among other things, speculated that humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects has devolved to the point where there’s no difference between us and the objects we possess. In this respect, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals falls in line (thematically, at least, albeit incongruously so) with works by Don DeLillo and the Wachowski brothers.

All of this is to say that while Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals is admittedly and purposely weird, it offers the reader much to think about, especially with respect to humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects. More significantly, it raises the immortal question: Have you hugged your futon today?

Don’t Smell the Floss

The subtitle of Don’t Smell the Floss says it all: “amazing short stories by matty byloos.” Though it’s tempting to read this as a bit of snarky self-promotion along the lines of Kathy Griffin’s Official Book Club Selection, Byloos has the writing chops to pull it off legitimately. The fourteen stories collected in this volume really are amazing in every sense of the word. For one thing, they take the reader behind the scenes of lives we might not normally think about (or even want to think about) but which are no less real despite their clandestine nature. In one story, for example, he gives us a largely dysfunctional couple whose only meaningful communication occurs when they discuss the comings and goings of a fictitious serial killer. In another, he takes the reader behind the scenes of a pornography shoot to reveal the soft side of the business — which isn’t to say that he romanticizes his subject at all in this story. On the contrary, he explores the effect of pornography on everyone involved in the business from all of its intricate angles. Yes, the participants are jaded, but their lives are so complicated and splintered, their loneliness and insecurity so palpable, that it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for them.

The (at times bizarre) subject matter, however, isn’t the only thing Don’t Smell the Floss has going for it. It turns out that Byloos is an amazing (there’s that word again!) writer–a true “craftsman” of the written word, as one of the book’s blurbs rightly puts it. Stylistically, the book reads like a cross between George Saunders and Chuck Palahniuk; it’s fast-moving, occasionally gross, but always smart and funny in a disturbing “I can’t believe I just laughed at that” kind of way. Take, for example, the opening tale of this collection, “One Day, Letter from a Ghost Leg,” in which an amputated leg writes a love letter to the body from which it’s been severed. The premise alone is wild enough to win my undying respect, but what rockets Byloos into the realm of genius in my estimation is that the leg quotes Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist as it tries to make sense of the separation that has just occurred.

Needless to say, the fact that I find all of this so compelling says as much about me as it says about the book. Along these lines, it probably isn’t a book for everybody–but what book is? What I will say about it is this: If you like compelling, inventive writing and you don’t flinch (too much) at fairly gritty yet matter of fact descriptions of subjects like pornography, amputation, and masturbation (each a form of loneliness in its own way), then you’ll find a lot to love in Don’t Smell the Floss.