literary

SUBMIT TO PLEASURE

pleasurecover_905Look under “ABOUT” on the official Pleasure Editions website and you’ll find that “PLEASURE EDITIONS is a press founded in 2011 dedicated to fostering the furtherance of the international artistic underground via the publication of new and rediscovered art, literature, poetry and translation.” At first this claim comes off as ambitious, maybe lofty, maybe pretentious. Take a look at the content and you’ll find that, on the contrary, they’re being modest.

Any attempt to describe Pleasure’s mission otherwise than they describe it themselves would either fall short or sound stupid. It takes a statement as bold and broad as the one above to succinctly introduce a reader to the constellation of radically interrogative text and imagery that is their catalogue. This is a press that publishes new translations of Gherasim Luca (the forgotten Romanian surrealist poet once championed by Gilles Deleuze) one day and a madcap parody of a Jungian personality survey the next. This is a press that publishes serial installments of “Ill Tomb Era,” a mysterious meganovel that updates maximalist black humor for the age of annihilating post-punk cynicism, as well as new poems dubiously attributed to celebrity chef Eric Ripert. A Pleasure anthology of new writings collected under the theme “Music” promises essays that find seemingly unlikely points of contact between, for just one example, William Gaddis and Pussy Galore.

Beyond that, there’s form-defying prose and poetry, art that redefines the oldest and newest media, design that will leave the staff of any marketing startup baffled and salivating, and curation that suggests, indirectly and maybe even directly, that spirits beyond the grave (Yeats’, for one) might be lending a hand.

What will you make of however little or much of their published material you choose to explore? The better question is: what will it make of you? Pleasure doesn’t seek to contribute to, or even recognize, a consumer-oriented system of transaction and gratification. Instead, they create an immersive cultural exchange in which you will get hopelessly lost. But the rewards of this exchange are of a kind you won’t find anywhere else. If you dare, as the phrase once purposed by the press as a call for submissions demands, “Submit to Pleasure!”

Want, Wound

Want, WoundI’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.

Make Each Word Count: An Interview with Marcus Pactor

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Marcus Pactor read from his short fiction collection Vs. Death Noises as part of the TireFire fiction series in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he sent me a copy of the collection, and I enjoyed it immensely, so I was doubly excited to get a chance to ask him a few questions about writing and how he fits it into his busy schedule.

You came from Florida up to my hometown of Philadelphia to do a reading for the TireFire fiction series. That’s dedication! What motivated you to make the trip? Was it worth your while?

I read Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities last year and dug it so much. I did what I previously considered a junior high stalker thing by asking this total stranger to be my Facebook friend. He agreed. He found out about my book that way, liked it, and invited me up. I have never been a junior high stalker, but I imagine this was like the junior high stalker’s dream. Besides that, I think it’s important to read wherever people are interested in my stuff. You never know who you’re going to meet.

It was entirely worth the trip. Christian and his family are great, warm people. Philadelphia’s downtown is a beautiful, large and cared for in a particular way that I have rarely seen. That art museum is a treasury. In addition, I reunited with an old, old friend.

Note: I have since learned that what I did on Facebook was pretty standard practice and not widely considered stalkerish.

Along similar lines, what motivates you to write? I ask because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to fit writing into a busy schedule, but just keep doing it anyway, and I’m trying to figure out why.

If I didn’t write, I’d probably be talking to myself all the time. I’ve got all kinds of ideas and people in my head trying to get out. Writing is about the healthiest way to get them out. It’s purgation, I guess.

I’m also motivated by the date August 30. Some time on or around that date, my wife and I will welcome a little son to the world. I have to write as much as I can before then, because my schedule will probably become more crowded afterward.

You teach at University of North Florida, and Rate My Professors reports that your students love your classes. What, specifically, do you teach, and how do your teaching and writing inform each other?

It’s strange to think that they love them. I mean, I love my kids, but we spend about a third of the semester explaining why certain kinds of sentences don’t work and why “he ejaculated” is no longer an acceptable dialogue tag. Maybe they love it because it’s a public place in which they feel free to discuss ejaculation.

This semester I’m teaching four fiction workshops. By the end of this week, I’ll have read 130 or so stories by students. Two weeks from now, I’ll have read 65 revisions. By the end of the semester, I’ll have read close to 2000 pages of my students’ fiction.

The pleasures of teaching mostly involve seeing the students improve from one piece to the next. Most of them really do work hard. It’s great to see when it pays off, especially when they get published.

Teaching has also helped me become a much better reader of fiction and practitioner of language. A lot of people can feel that something has gone wrong in a story, but a teacher has to recognize what that something is, where that something is located, and how to fix it. I mean, he has to say more than that “these sentences don’t work.” He has to be able to explain why they don’t work, especially when the grammar is impeccable. He has to point the way. He has to make recommendations that a student can respect.

Reading their stories has forced me to think hard, much harder than I ever had before, about what makes fiction work. A lot of what I figured out went into this book.

Your book is called Vs. Death Noises. Can you explain the title and any principles that guide your writing?

The book’s title comes from the first story, “The Archived Steve.” Steve had this awful emphysemic voice. He slurped from electronic cigarettes. The narrator said the sounds were death noises. Noise isn’t an element common to every story in the book, but it’s in enough of them for the title to work. Plus, tons of people seem to dig it.

I don’t know if I want to use the word “principles.” It’s a much better word for critics to use about a writer’s work than it is for a writer to use about his own stuff. My principles shift all the time, which might be why I don’t want to call them principles. Right now, I like these: –Make each word count. –Form is content. Content is form. -Tell a couple of jokes, but be serious. Seriously tell a joke. A purely sad story is not my kind of beer.

The book’s publisher is Subito Press. If I remember my Latin correctly, that means “suddenly.” Was there anything “sudden” about the writing or publishing of this book? How did you find them–or did they find you?

It was both sudden and not sudden. First, the not so sudden: the stories themselves were written over the course of two-plus years. Then, suddenly, it was summer. I was 35. My girlfriend, now my wife, and I were getting serious. I needed a freaking book. I found Subito’s contest on Duotrope and entered. Everything worked out.

And, finally, what’s on the horizon for you?

I mentioned the baby. Mostly, he is on the horizon. I’ve also got a short novel in the hands of several independent presses and contests as we speak, so I spend a lot of time knocking wood, etc. I’m working on another book too. I’m about to learn how to put up a fence in my backyard. That should be painful.

Thanks, Marcus, for taking the time to chat with me!

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Conquistador of the Useless

Conquistador of the UselessIn many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.

The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.

The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)

In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.

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

Damascus – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Step aside Franco, Joshua Mohr has shelled out a book worthy of international recognition, and it isn’t set in Palo Alto, but the one and only San Francisco. And if there was ever an intro more honest and raw, it’s that of Damascus:

“I wanted to write about an oddball litany of players, from a berth of backgrounds, varied demography, contradictory social viewpoints ranging from veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom to performance artists. I wanted to honor my father, who died of cancer, by writing about an imagined cancer patient. I wanted to examine my struggles with booze and drugs via a female character named Shambles, whom I absolutely cherish. I wanted, in my own small way, to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to talk about the simple self-esteem battles that every human fights day in day out, by featuring a character inexplicably hiding in a Santa suit. Most importantly, I wanted to pen a wild, reckless romp, a weird world for a reader to huddle in for a few hours.” – Joshua Mohr

In Damascus, Mohr presents a series of vignettes ridden with contemporary grit. With a unique and impactful writing style, he takes the reader through the burdens of cancer, an unlucky birthmark, avant-garde art, even war scars: “One minute you were an invincible Sky Soldier of the 173rd about to grab the Bashur Airfield by its fucking nuts and flank those hajji cock- suckers from the north. Your unit frothing for combat. All that elite training and now it was time to knock skulls. But you hit the ground and mangled your knee. Your war was over after two seconds, two steps, and months later you were here, limping around the Bay Area, blowing off physical therapy and blowing into your steering wheel and still so ashamed, so hollow.”

What hits me the hardest is not necessarily the book’s content (the cancer, the irrepressible urge to wear a Santa suit, the post-war misery), it’s Mohr’s narrative voice. It bursts with a refreshing edge, a dark jingle almost. Take his description of Shambles, an alcoholic hooker casing the bar for her next drink: “Shambles was the patron saint of the hand job, getting strangers off for less than the price of a parking ticket. So far tonight she’d done only one, though there would be more fondling to finance her bar tab. The night was young and full of fisted opportunities.”

Flash to a passage where his cancer subject, No Eyebrows, finds a moment of peace in the hands of this saint: “No Eye-brows threw his head back: every disappearing detail of his disappearing life dwindled while Shambles touched his body, and he felt pleasure, actual pleasure, this was the first hand on him in months that didn’t belong to a doctor or nurse, and thirty seconds later he came, gasping for air and life and hope.”

Passages like these never felt grimy or disgusting; rather they stung, especially the parts depicting No Eyebrows’ final march toward hopelessness in self-solitary confinement. We find that he has chosen to spend his final months of life chasing a hand-job hooker in this dump bar, Damascus, away from conventional comforts like his home, his wife.

At times, I wanted to bust down the doors and save everybody whether it be with a hot meal, a shower, a tall whiskey, or “here’s a hundred dollars, don’t whore your hands out tonight.” But Mohr does something magnificent with these ragged characters, bringing them together in a single bar, in Damascus, and presents them in such a way that they shimmer while crumbling.

Rivaling Tony O’Neill’s grittiness and Dave Eggers’ polished prose, Mohr is an articulate writer with another cult classic on his hands. Damascus releases in October of 2011 over at Two Dollar Radio, a small press that is seriously “too loud to ignore.”

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey distills in its purest form author Steve Almond’s literary aesthetic by collecting a series of micro-essays on the ins and outs of writing and then exemplifying those ins and out with a brief selection of flash fiction. The result is what may be the most concise and helpful book on how to write fiction ever published — a pocket-sized catechism for writers at every stage of the game.

Early on, Almond offers a definition of writing that calls to mind the advice Grady Tripp offers his students in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. According to Almond, “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less. Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.” From here he goes on to discuss the various decisions that writers need to make with respect to plot, style, point of view and a host of other issues.

In the shortest of his “essays,” Almond offers a one-sentence definition of plot: “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” In the event that this definition needs further elucidation, he goes on to offer a supplemental essay on the subject titled “A Quick Survey of Where Your Plot Went Wrong.” (Hint: it probably has something to do with your characters and how you treat them.)

Elsewhere, Almond proffers such invaluable pieces of advice as “Metaphors Almost Always Suck,” “Excessive Emotional Involvement Is the Whole Point,” and “Slow Down Where It Hurts.” He also asks a pointed question: “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll?” As these titles suggest, the author pulls no punches when describing the difference between good writing and bad, yet he’s also quick to admit in a piece titled “This Is Just My Bullshit” that the dicta he has on offer are purely subjective.

As with all books on writing, the best the author can do is provide guidelines for writing the kind of fiction he likes to read. Fortunately, Almond’s tastes run a fairly wide gamut, and his talent as a fiction writer — as evidenced not only by the flash fiction included in this brief volume but also by his excellent short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow — renders his an opinion worth considering.

If you’re a writer, buy this book. If you’re a reader, buy this book. If you have either writers or readers in your life, buy all of them this book.

- Review by Marc Schuster