Reviews

One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.

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!”

The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax

Wallace_AMAT_CVI’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who could read an entire book by David Foster Wallace, but I’ve always been intimidated by their sheer length–not to mention the density of their prose and the level of minute detail with which the author observes the world at large. But the good folk at Madras Press — the proceeds of whose books go to nonprofit organizations — have, with the publication of The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax made it possible for me and readers everywhere to boast without lies or exaggeration that they’ve read — not merely skimmed or glossed or hefted or otherwise demonstrated an awareness of — one of Wallace’s books. (Though, to be completely honest, it’s a slight exaggeration, as The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax is actually an excerpt from The Pale King, but who’s counting?)

In many ways, The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax reads like a cross between a tax manual and a latter-day version of Catcher in the Rye. Wallace’s reputedly preternatural attention to detail and minutia is on full display throughout the narrative, particularly since his narrator is afflicted with an odd combination of OCD and malaise that leads him to count every word he hears without ever really understanding what any of them mean. Indeed, this curious manifestation of OCD makes the narrator somewhat of an outsider — or a “wastoid,” in his own words — cut from a pattern highly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield.

Much of the narrative deals with the protagonist’s fraught relationship with his parents, a mother whose own personal and emotional issues make her ripe for consciousness-raising reawakening in the early 1970s, and a straight-laced father who wants nothing more than to see his son succeed through hard work and, for lack of a better phrase, the gumption he just doesn’t seem to have. His journey, then, is both personal and, in an odd way, spiritual, for as the narrator comes to grips with all of his own idiosyncrasies, a Damascene encounter with a substitute tax professor points the way to a new life for the narrator and a reconciliation of sorts with his father.

The above revelations, by the way, aren’t spoilers, as Wallace reveals nearly everything relevant to his plot very early in this 177-page book, a strategy that frees him to riff on all manner of topics and to philosophize ad infinitum about the nature of humanity in the final quarter of the twentieth-century. Engaging, quirky, and oddly spiritual, The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax makes for an excellent introduction to Wallace.

Note: All net proceeds from the sales of this book will benefit Granada House, a substance addiction-recovery facility in Boston MA. Residents of Granada House are provided a safe, stable environment in which to begin their substance-free lives, with supportive peers, counseling services, and a variety of integrative 12-Step programs.

Vs. Death Noises

vs-death-noises-marcus-pactor-paperback-cover-artIn the final story of Marcus Pactor’s Vs. Death Noises, a man discovers a single hair in his bathroom and obsesses over the shape it has taken. The problem, he realizes, is that geometry can’t solve his conundrum because geometric definitions are “concerned with perfect impossibilities” whereas the world we live in is “a world of approximations.” The human experience, in other words, only translates to “[a]pproximate forms, approximate phrasings, approximate feelings.” To put it another way, we’ll never communicate perfectly with one another. Something is always lost in the translation from the lived experienced to the written or spoken word no matter how hard we try. It’s a theme that Pactor explores throughout this collection in a way that allows him to simultaneously explore the exquisite agony of the human condition.

Early on, this agony settles on a young woman struggling to understand her relationship with the man in her life only to discover that she’s unknowable even to herself in many ways: “I could not have done anything but cling to Bander because what I have been calling mistakes were simply the motions of my love and these motions were always uncertain, no matter what smiling mask I wore.” Elsewhere, it gnaws at a restaurant worker feeling remorse over an ill-fated fling with his manager: “She might try to will indifference, the same as every one of us, but my failure had nicked her heart. We all get nicked. They add up over time, and then some people lose it… and others it pills, and we tell ourselves not to care. Inside, though, we’re this bubbling cauldron of fears. We cover it with a heavy pot top and forget it on the stove.”

Yet if it’s our tendency to bury emotions deep within ourselves that contributes the most to our inability to ourselves and each other, Pactor is doing his best to uncover the hidden emotions that make us human, to lift the heavy pot top off the human heart, as it were, and shed light on the pain and suffering that are frequently so hard to describe that language fails whenever we try to talk about them. Hence, perhaps, Pactor’s fondness for the downtrodden. His characters include a starving runaway, a father and son almost wordlessly mourning the death of their wife and mother while drowning their sorrows in booze and Mel Brooks movies, and a wide range of hapless strangers trying desperately to connect with each other and the world around them.

As the stories in Vs. Death Noises all indicate, we’ll never achieve geometric perfection in our efforts at connecting with each other, but Pactor’s fiction offers hope that we can all find solace in trying.

Safe As Houses

bookcoverI’ve been intrigued by the phrase “safe as houses” since I first heard it in Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” many years ago. What, exactly, I’ve often wondered, is so safe about houses? Doesn’t some high percentage of household injuries occur within the home? And why are so many of my best observations completely solipsistic?

In many ways, Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories Safe As Houses obsesses over all of these issues with a wry blend of wit, humor, irony, magic realism, and ultimately hope. Throughout the collection, Bertino offers her readers inventive scenarios in which her characters long for the various and frequently elusive forms that the comforts of home might take. There’s the young woman who loses her home in a fire and attempts to win the affections of her wayward father by buying him a dachshund with the insurance money — all while trying to avoid picking up a free ham she’s won at the local grocery store. There’s (How do I explain this in as few words as possible?) the estranged couple whose component members bump into each other while dating idealized versions of each other. (The story is called “The Idea of Marcel.” I assigned it in my American Lit. class. Trust me… It’s great!) There’s the former record-keeper for a group of rebellious college superheroes who combs through memories of the best years of her life in an effort to figure out how she ended up married to a millionaire and living a beautiful but boring suburban home.

To put it simply, if you like quirky, heartfelt short stories, you’ll find a lot to love in this collection. Throughout the collection, Bertino exhibits a proclivity not only for making the outlandish seem at least provisionally plausible, but also for effectively reversing that formula and making it clear that so much of what we take for meaningful and real is ultimately ephemeral. Though it would be a cliche to suggest that Safe As Houses reminds us that home is where the heart is, I’m half-tempted to say that this is the over-arching point of this collection. Yet Bertino takes that cliche and makes it new by exploring all of its implications and reminding us that home is as much a state of mind as anything else. We are all longing for home in one way or another. Though no story could ever fully satisfy that longing, Bertino’s collection goes a long way toward reminding us that we’re not alone in our quest.

(For a longish, meandering, and somewhat creepy prologue to this review, visit Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings.)