Christopher Narozny’s Jonah Man

Great design tooIt’s difficult to talk about Jonah Man without giving it away. The story is told through four narrators and alternates between past and present; the broken chronology makes for a tight, dense (even at 200 pages) narrative.

Jonah Man could easily have been delightful pulp novel: The basic story focuses on traveling sideshow performers in the early 1900s, who resort to self-mutilation for bigger crowds and drug dealing for bigger paychecks. And there is no lack of action: Narozny writes with a rhythm and economy that reminded me of Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, another book I really enjoyed. The dialog is quick, bleak and cuts like Cormac McCarthy’s, and like him, is peppered with bouts of lyricism that make you read lines twice.

What elevates Jonah Man beyond pulp-fare, is the bulldozing sense of history that motivates the characters. Every character is laced with sadness, and even when they resort to abuse, murder and cutting off their own arms, it suggests a fight against modernity and a struggle to keep their acts relevant.


Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine

There are only four words, repeated twice, on the exterior of Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine, which I just typed. On the back, there is a photograph of the author, clad in a leather jacket, stockings and looking off to her right. She looks like someone (out of frame) has begun a “I have good news and bad news” conversation and they’ve moved on to the bad news. It’s a look of fleeting happiness, trepidation and building rage.

I think this picture is a better summation of Ellen’s work than any blurb or synopsis usually reserved for that space.

Fast Machine is technically a collection of Ellen’s work over the last ten years, but it feels like a novel. The narrators endure abusive mothers, malnutrition and countless father-figures in childhood; premature marriages, alienating boyfriends and nomadic lifestyles in adulthood. Ellen’s characters live in Ohio and Florida. They smoke weed and watch mediocre movies. They masturbate a lot.

That description makes it sound like a livejournal book: angsty, melodramatic but ultimately inconsequential. And at first, I that’s what I thought too. Her story “Period Sex” (which appears early in the collection) seemed like a meandering account of a sexual encounter, told with the same passive detachment as an entertaining Thought Catalog article. Good but without substance. (I also admit to being slightly drunk when I read that one).

“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” is what sold me. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story so honest to adolescence–the alienation, the self-consciousness, the hurt and the fun–as Ellen’s story of a boarding school. It gave me context for everything else to follow. What I thought was meandering prose became intense confessionals–the kind that connects readers with the mistakes they made in their own youth. It’s such an unflinching account of family history and tragedy that you can’t help but feel a kinship. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fast Machine earned Ellen some stalkers.

Despite how damaged her characters are–from the shit they’ve seen or how they’re treated–there’s a subtle rage inside that keeps you on their side, which I think separates Ellen’s work from a lot of innocuous indie lit. Backed into a corner, this book will snap back.

Monsters born from monsters – Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby

The children in Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby are disgusting. They are disfigured, hairy, segmented. They break apart when they exit the womb. They are the harbingers of the apocalypse. The 26 stories in here culminate in a bleak, frightening vision of what happens when the  parental structure falls apart.

But for as how post-apocalyptic Bell’s vision is, Cataclysm Baby is about the past. The 26 fathers are to blame, this bleak world they inhabit is the one they’ve built–they are cowards, they abandon. They murder: in “Xarles, Xavier, Xenos,” the father gives his son a 50-yard start before “I will shoot just once”. There is not a sympathetic character in this lot.

Ever since Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin scared the hell out of me, I’ve been a sucker for evil children in movies and literature, which is why I was originally attracted to Cataclysm Baby. I think parental and pregnancy-anxiety horror (and Bell does quite a bit of the latter here) is so effective because combines all these repulsion (body horror, slasher) /attraction (parenting instincts) elements. These contradictions are deeply unsettling, hard to comprehend and, I think, keep the genre taboo while we become desensitized to other horror.

But what I think sets Cataclysm Baby apart from most others I’ve seen/read, is that it indicts masculinity. Most evil children in movies and literature are products of Satan (The Omen), science (It’s Alive), ghosts/sexualization (Turn of the Screw), or general neglect (Ian McEwan’s early stuff) to give some examples. Cronenberg (The Brood) is the first example that comes to mind when talking about an active maternal influence on evil children, but for the most part, transient forces are to blame.

Bell’s work seems to be a reaction to this notion, and in fact, all notions of the father-role in evil children art: Because of a father’s transience/inaction, the child is awful and deformed. The fathers in Cataclysm Baby can’t blame Satan or science for the end of the world; their past (in)actions have given rise to 26 little apocalypses.

Anyway, great book. Read it.

All the Lucky Things that Happen When You Read Hobart 13

Hobart is a midwestern literary journal that boasts some of the more-visceral writing I’ve seen (not to mention a solid design)  Since this issue is their 13th, all the stories have to do with luck (or lack thereof). During the course of reading it, I decided to take note of all the lucky stuff that happened in my life.

Two things: Besides the whimsical indulgence of romanticizing coincidence, I’m not sure if I believe in luck. I don’t think there are exterior forces that congregate around some people and leave others alone.

Also, I’m not a fast reader. So there I had a lot more opportunities to have “lucky” experiences than someone who can read faster. I don’t know if this in itself is luck.

Finally, anyone remember the X-Men characters Longshot and Domino? Both of them had “Luck” listed under their mutant powers. But doesn’t that negate the definition of luck? (The chance happening of fortunate or adverse events; fortune 2. Good fortune or prosperity; success: 3. One’s personal fate or lot). It seems that people who ‘make their own luck’ are really just cheaters.

Lucky thing 1: I consider my acquisition of Hobart 13 as somewhat lucky:

If it hadn’t been for Amelia Gray’s emoticon’d link share, or the fact that I had been on Facebook right then, I would not have known about the insane Hobart giveaway.

Jac Jamc begins Hobart 13 with a series of earnest essays about how she defines luck. They’re all very good, but there’s a bit that really stuck with me. Pretty much defined what I thought of luck:

As soon as I started thinking about luck, I started noticing stories about luck and theories about luck and thoughts on luck everywhere I looked.

I don’t think that’s luck. I think it’s preoccupation and awareness

She has a book that is out today. You should probably go read it.

Lucky thing 2: had two pretty decent job interviews. None of them were for jobs I was particularly excited about, but I consider myself a pretty terrible interviewee. Any opportunity to leave an interview without picking apart each line you said with disdain is a victory. Even if you didn’t get the job.

I’d consider two interviews in a week “lucky”, especially for writing positions.

Rolf Potts has a long essay in which he uses David Shield’s Reality Hunger, a text of remixed texts, as a springboard to remix his own account of being drugged and mugged in Turkey. I didn’t like it at first because I thought it was somewhat condescending to utilize someone’s method of delivery to show its flaws. Like oh… how meta of you. But when it became clear that he was using it to deconstruct his own narrative and highlight our basic love of story (I think), then I really liked it. Plus, there’s really good page formatting here.

Lucky thing 3: My mailman memoirs were printed on the cover of the SD Reader. Not really lucky because I had received payment and knew they were going to print it, but the day that it came out, I was at a birthday dinner for a local journalist and met a lot of other freelance contacts who were impressed with my work.

Lucky thing 4: won Sleigh Bell tickets from a music blog.

My absolute favorite piece was Tod Goldberg’s When They Let Them Bleed” which was about his love lightweight boxing champion, Duk Koo Kim, and the death that befell Kim in the ring. He relates that to his own adolescent body issues and the self-mutilation he endured. Really powerful stuff without falling into melodrama.

Read Hobart 13.

The Hunger Games

Recently, a friend and I were talking about the proliferation of a phrase common to our generation: “I feel that…” as in, “I feel that so and so presented his best work early in his career” or “I feel that this certain website is just trying to get a rise out of me.” My friend’s argument that it was a term put in front of a slightly-argumentative statement, a safe way to present a strong opinion; that you’re willing to throw the argument out into a public discourse, but you don’t want to be held responsible for any interpretations other than an opinion. It’s a symptom of a culture increasingly hesitant to fully-commit.

Once you’re aware of it, you’ll begin hearing it everywhere.

The Hunger Games is written much like an “I feel that” statement, and it’s infuriating. Something that has had such a huge cultural impact as The Hunger Games is always going to draw some backlash, from the much-discussed Battle Royale-stealing plot to the poor quality of the writing (you’re really going to use the adverbs thirstily and grouchily?) But these books are for young adults, and so holding them up to the quality of something literary and well… adult says more about your own pretensions than it does with your reactions.

(Blah… following could contain some spoilers about this stupid book)

However, the reason that The Hunger Games is a difficult book is because it never trusts its own statements. The way that it presents exposition through the main character’s (Katniss Everdeen) constant, internal theoretical questioning is an insult to an audience’s attention span, no matter how young they are. These occurrences happen every four or five pages. For instance, on page 241 (which I randomly flipped to), Katniss thinks:

Who knows where the Careers are now? Either too far to reach me or too sure this is a trick or… is it possible? Too scared of me?… Figured out I blew up their supplies and killed their fellow Career? Possibly they think Thresh did this. Wouldn’t he be more likely to revenge Rue’s death than I would? Being from the same District? Not that he took any interest in her.

And that theorizing happens all. the. time. Not only does she reiterate past actions (in case you forgot), but she assumes other characters assumptions. How many questions in that one paragraph? Four? Just to make sure the reader and Katniss have thought about every possibility. By the time you’ve finished the novel, it feels like you’ve read it twice.

The thing is, the Hunger Games is written in the first person, which is a stylistic choice that grants the author subjective power. When characters experience things in the first person, it can be wrong, it can be misinterpreted, it can be exaggerated. These are the powers of using first person, which can make an incredibly-dynamic read. But there is no point if you’re going to spend the book second-guessing your audience, or, not willing to commit.

As popular art becomes increasingly inconsequential, it would have been nice to have read something as fierce and dark as people keep saying it is, but the Hunger Games never makes a statement stronger than an easily-retractable opinion.


The Passage

Just read The Passage by Justin Cronin and was pretty blown away. Didn’t think I would enjoy a vampire novel amidst the post-Twilight over-saturation, but I was intrigued of the idea that a “more-literary” writer was going to take a  stab (heh) at the genre. I haven’t had 700 pages go by that fast since Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

I really hate to use the term “more-literary” because that seems to undermine some of my favorite authors. Stephen King, for example, is such a master storyteller and his craft is so pure, but he tends to get a little silly whenever he attempts lyricism or poetic language in his stories. But The Passage is full of very lush, almost florid, language.

Cronin also brings some interesting ideas to vampire lore, which I feel is an attribute to his intrepidity in the horror terrain (god, how much do I sound like an annoying fanboy: vampire lore! *Pushes up glasses*). He’s puts an emphasis on the vampires (called “virals”) losing their identity when they turn, or co-opting a collective identity which accounts for their hostility. And there is little, if any, sexuality surrounding Cronin’s virals. I’m so tired of the vampire-as-sex symbol in pop culture.
Favorite lines (pg 715):

And in that moment Michael realized that the place where he kept his fear was empty. He… wasn’t afraid. What he felt was more like anger–a huge, weary irritation, such as he might have felt for a fly that had been buzzing around his face too long. Goddamnit, he though, guiding his hand to the sheath on his belt. I am so tired of these fucking things. Maybe there are forty million of you and maybe there aren’t. In the next two seconds, there’s going to be one less.

So yeah, can’t really recommend this book enough.