loneliness

You Can Finish This Later

Let’s start with the dimensions: seven inches tall by four-and-a-quarter inches wide by about an eighth of an inch thick. In other words, You Can Finish This Later is, at least in physical terms, a small book — or perhaps “portable” is a better word. You can keep a copy in the breast pocket of a dress shirt, if you’re so inclined, or in the back pocket of your blue jeans, or in the front pocket of an overcoat. I mention this because I think everyone should, in fact, keep a copy of this tiny gem on hand, at least for a little while, and page through it from time to time the way others might page through a pocket copy of the New Testament or the US Constitution. It will make you feel better about yourself. It will make you feel less alone in the world. It will give you hope.

Though this particular chapbook is actually a collection of very short fiction, I was convinced from page one that I was reading the confessions of an actual human being. Thoughts on abandoned dogs. Ruminations on how to meet women. Lamentations on the lack of decent chairs in the universe. What begins to emerge from the blurry edges of Mike Parish’s micronarratives is not just a portrait of a lonely artist as a young man, but a portrait of humanity’s shared loneliness — an image of the thoughts we all have, or variations thereof, that we hesitate to share for fear of further alienation. Parish strips away the self-consciousness of his narrators and allows them to share their deepest secrets, their most uncertain moments. That these moments and secrets are, more often than not, of the most mundane variety underscores the humanity of this collection.

And, now, back to the dimensions. What if each of us carried a tiny chapbook around at all times? Thirty pages or so of tiny vignettes? Slices of our lives? The sad moments, the lonely moments, but also the happy moments, the moments of quotidian transcendence? And what if these vignettes weren’t fictional but true? What if we gathered the most telling moments of our lives and shared them with each other in trim, elegant volumes like this one?

When we met new people in such a world, we could exchange our tiny books, sit down for about a half-hour or so, and peruse each other’s souls. It would be like handing over  passports as we cross the infinite country that spans the borders between us: I’ve been here and here and here and here, and I see you’ve been there and there and there and there, and — look at that! — we’ve both been here and there, and we both came back alive! Isn’t that something?

Imagine the implications… The dating scene (one focus of You Can Finish This Later) would become infinitely less complicated as the unattached passed tiny books back and forth in an effort to get to know each other and search for like-minded mates. And car accidents! Imagine swapping a collection of tiny narratives along with your insurance information at the site of your next fender-bender: suddenly the asshole who rear-ended you isn’t so bad. I mean, sure, he’s still the asshole who rear-ended you, but he’s a human asshole, just like you. And as each of you takes some time to read the other’s book, your passions cool, your heart rates return to normal, and you can discuss the situation like rational adults.

What I’m saying is that it would be a truly wonderful world if everyone wrote a little book like You Can Finish This Later, but the next-best thing would be a world in which everyone were to read a book like this one. Illustrated by Dan Tarnowski with a series of child-like drawings that call to mind the art of John Lennon’s early fiction collections In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, You Can Finish This Later offers a glimpse of the exquisite loneliness of the human animal in a way that never gives into despair but, on the contrary, offers hope for us all. We can connect, Parish insists on every page. We only have to try.

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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.