New review at The Collagist: The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich

The September 2010 issue of The Collagist is live. This one includes my review of The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich. The review begins like this:

This is less a final review and more the beginning of a reading of The Orange Eats Creeps, the strange, excellent debut novel by Grace Krilanovich. This is not intended to seem like a cop-out, but rather the only rational approach to discussing this unique work. The wealth of material at hand invites frantic acts of interpretation, making the reader an active collaborator in creating the story, even as it resists giving in to easy—or hard-won—conclusions. It is a slippery novel. It will never lay still and compromising in your hands, but the harder you hold on to it, the harder it is to hold. In confounding, it rewards: to borrow a line from the book, “It’s only a problem if you make it one.”

Strange and excellent are the right words, I think, but also, I think I worry I haven’t quite yet done this book justice. So I’ll probably say more about it. But not yet! Meaning you have time to decide whether this might be a book you would like, and then to go get yourself a copy, and read it, and then share your thoughts about it via your thought-sharing means of choice! Yes?

(Also, incidentally, I’ve decided one of the really fun things about writing these reviews for real publications (which reviews are, to be fair, intrinsically “fun” to write less in the sense of “wow eating this ice cream for dinner sure is fun” and more in the sense of “wow this is an awful lot of work and my head hurts where I tore all the hair out and maybe I’ll go out for ice cream when I’m done but in the mean time, screw it, let’s go clean the bathtub”) is that you get to put all this effort into writing the damn thing, and then it’s done, and it kind of just goes away for a while, and you forget about it, until one day you show up and hey, there it is, like a magical gift you left in the corner long ago for yourself to find much later, and it’s like, hey, sweet: free content you can share with your friends and family to give your life that sheen of seeming like one that something is being done with. It’s a nice feeling. It’s entirely secondary to having the chance to tell a bunch of people whether or not they should read a book, though, of course.)

Unkind thoughts about Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

I dislike dismissing a toss-off B-side of a novel by a highly respected author, particularly an author with whom I have some excellent prior experience, but: come on, guys, this book blew. At least, it did, for me, when I read it as part of my post-Drowning Tucson pop-ish-lit rock block earlier this year. I suggest the context in which I read the book may have colored my attitude toward it, as this is the Johnson book that was originally written and serialized in Playboy part by part over the course of four months. Maybe it was more impressive, at the time, partaking in the feat of it, feeling a bit like you were part of something. But as a stand-alone book divorced from that context? Yikes. I understand it’s not air-quotes literary work, but as a book that failed to excite or entertain, as a book that was not much fun, it wound up being, for me, not much of anything. What really kills me looking back on it now is that I see a parallel between my situation, reading it at a time when I desperately needed something exciting and pleasurable to pick me back up, and Johnson’s situation, writing it when he was coming fresh off Tree of Smoke, his lauded Vietnam novel, which, though I have not read it, I suspect must been an intense and draining chore to write, a book I imagine an author would want to shake off a bit before moving on to the next serious project. That sort of parallel makes me think this should have been a match made in heaven, one book written with one reader in mind. No dice. Perhaps it was a release to write it but with such a highly unmemorable end product I can’t help but feel cheated out of my ten bucks. I loved Jesus’ Son and will read more of his work in the future, but for now, I wouldn’t mind reclaiming the hours I lost to this disposable, slight book.

There is a book that hurt me and I had to get away from myself for a while

I. In which, dragons

Dragons.

II. In which, gradeschool

I did not get into fantasy when I was a kid. For my sensitive, developing tastes, fantasy was for nerds nerdier than me. Specifically, the kind that had friends who shared their interests and who were enough unaware of their own impossibly high levels of awkwardness that they were able to safely congregate and discuss their shared passion for rolling dice and casting freeze. Dorks.

I’ve watched some Party Down lately (pour one out) and it is fair to say that the Little Tiny Baby Darby who struggles to this day to remain alive and vocal inside my heart and mind and soul saw a handsome, grown-up version of himself in Roman, the insular, desperate, sad writer of hard science fiction. For me, as for Roman, fantasy never felt serious, as a kid cutting my teeth on Arthur C. Clarke and David Brin and Larry Niven. Ignore the fact that I liked epic books featuring hyper-intelligent talking dolphins; the hypothetical science behind them trumped orcs any day.

My experience with fantasy remained limited for a long time. I read, airquotes, The Hobbit for a high school assignment, my Freshman year. I don’t remember it well. I didn’t know that books could matter in a way that they had up to that point not yet mattered. Plus it felt dull and singsongy and bleah, little tiny people looking for treasure. I didn’t even read The Lord of the Rings until after I saw all the movies, four years ago.

Fact is, I was probably enough of a social and emotional wreck growing up (why yes, I say out loud again in my head, to the popular blonde girl sitting in front of me in eighth grade religion class the one time I can recall her ever saying a word to me, that I am indeed using my free time to read a 700 page novel about a black hole falling into the earth’s core, and yes, in fact, I say to you again from the distance of decades, I will feel a horrifyingly squirmy, painful feeling in my gut 20 years later when, as a fully grown adult, this memory rushes back to the surface, unbidden and covered in razor blades, in the course of drafting a largely futile blog post about how books can hurt as much as memories do) that I suspect that if I’d started reading fantasy novels in grade school, high school, whatever, I’d probably still be trying to figure out what’s so good about penises and vaginas. I intend no offense to fantasy nerds. I believe it took me long enough as is to figure these things out. And how they related to alternate universe theories. It’s just, I mean, I know what kind of kid I was, and however cool we all are with basically whatever in our adulthood when we have all set aside our childish ways and can speak rationally to each other about most any topic under the sun (hint: we are basically not all cool at all with anything in our adulthood, and will cut your face if you think otherwise) I know that it’s probably by the grace of a few ellipses in my reading lists that I got past high school and into a semi-functional adulthood, one that does not involve Magic: The Gathering cards and being in jail.

But now I am an adult and I pay the rent and I spend a lot of time at a day job doing day job things and I am not in fact ruling the world and making the popular kids work for me the way everybody said would happen by now (the nerds, in fact, have not grown to inherit the earth, whatever the marketing literature might suggest) and now I know with a heightened sense of precision how literature can do more than entertain and enlighten–it can take us the hell out of here. And not just off this planet with cardboard-cutout friends on ships constructed from hard scientific theory, but out of this time completely, to fantastical places, in pain is noble and elf chicks are hot and dragons are cool, in a totally healthy, socially acceptable sort of way, so long as you pretty much keep that business to yourself when you’re in the wrong company, which is about a thousand percent of the rest of the people on this planet. With purposelessness, comes great purpose.

In short, me and fantasy, we’re chill, these days.

Chill enough, at least.

Depending on who’s asking.

III. In which, hurts

As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I read and reviewed this book, Drowning Tucson, by Aaron Michael Morales. I said in my review that the book hurt, and that it’s a sort of personal hurt; I compared the book to a number of books, but I think it is, still to this day a little bit to my own surprise, The Chocolate War, a wicked young adult novel by Robert Cormier, that might be the one that ultimately most well defined this type of hurt for me. And so early in life. I talk a bit about rigged, unfair systems in my review of Drowning Tucson, the notion that there are things that must be wrong for the world to work the way it does. Which is nice and all, a nice enough depiction of the source of the pain these kinds of books wreck me with, but I’m not sure I adequately communicated the intensity of the pain that comes to me from reading these kinds of books, the feeling of wanting to throw a beautiful, brilliant book across the room and cry and scream at it like a psychopath after turning the last page, like an unwilling accomplice, the anguished feeling of being dissolved into something that can’t be true, it can’t, but maybe it is, maybe, and screw you, author, you asshole, for having the skills needed to drag me through it in such a magnificent manner, for being able to make me need to turn pages even as I hate the thought of knowing what comes next. It’s the sick feeling of having lived dangerously without ever leaving a chair, the terrifying feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and knowing the monsters are real, the gut-sucking depth of lightlessness made real, the horror of being human and knowing no way out but the worst way out there is. It is unfair. It is unfair. It is unfair.

It is unfair.

IV. In which, pop

After finishing the Morales book, and having to spend some more time with it, in order to draft that review of it—which was a hard review to write, probably the hardest review I’ve done yet, in so far as it required deeper analysis of a thing I was both a fan of and largely mortified by—there came a point shortly after when I knew I was done. The weighty stuff and me, we needed to cool off, get away from each other for a bit, attend to our separate affairs. I needed to have some fun. Or at least to find some pages of stories with which I could soak up the sweat that clung to the brow of my brain. Quick reads, long reads, whatever. Just don’t make me feel anything but pretty much okay.

So I went on a pop-lit-ish bender in the middle of this year. The problem with reading pop-ish-lit for me these days is that it seems like I’ve passed some kind of point which makes it harder and harder for me to enjoy disposable books. Like, my snappy fun books need to massage the literary-addicted portion of my brain at least a little bit. Or maybe it’s just a general reading malaise that leads me to get really bored and antsy and annoyed far too fast with any book that isn’t cooking for me past page 50; I’ve quit more books (literary or otherwise) in the last two years than I did in the previous thirty. When the going isn’t going and I stop wanting to read and I start wanting to not read, it’s all bad, all around. So it’s hard to want to read something that’s just enjoyable but not, like, in a really brain-working way; I need at least the right amount of verbal window dressing on my story to make me want to stick with it. It’s probably the sort of thing that leads fancy restaurants to do fancy versions of diner grub, like some kind of olive branch held out to ideologically simpler times or ways of life, even though we all know we can all see past the French words to the fact that you’re a still a have even as you’re eating a burger and fries.

To put it simply, it is with the greatest trepidation anymore that I attempt to give myself permission to have pure fun when I read. I felt my experiment with it this year was met with mixed results. In the end, the job got done, and it got done pretty much well enough, though I suspect in more of a remission-of-symptoms way than a cure-to-the-cause way.

There’s a couple other books involved here that I might go into in another post, but I wanted to take some time in this post to discuss my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons.

V. In which, discussed

I really do not understand my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons.

VI. In which, books

I read two dragon books this year. I liked them both, well enough, and would suggest they both contributed well to a rejuvenation of the part of my brain that wants to read good books that might wind up hurting me emotionally; it is probably terribly belittling of me to suggest these books acted as a mental vacation for me, which isn’t really what I’m trying to say, even as I’m pretty much flat out saying it? Whatever, there’s Jane Austen, and then there’s Jane Austen fan fiction, and if pointing that fact out makes me sound like a snooty jerk, then at least let me buy you a burger and a beer before you tell me so to my face.

From another perspective, both of the dragon books I read this year are the first books in their respective series—because it is intrinsic to the genre of dragon literature that dragon books exist in series form, because who wants to read just one book about a dragon when you can read multiple books about a dragon?—and both respective series are series I might continue to purchase books from with the money I earn as an adult, books which I might read in the time I spend pretending I am not an adult. Though, to be fair, it will probably not be any time soon that I return to these fantasy worlds, because if one of the books I have lined up to read between now and the end of the year completely screws me up, then I’m going to quit reading forever, because I can not handle two books like that in a single year.

The first dragon book I read this year was A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin which I am certain is bringing quite a smile to the faces of all of the dragon-book fans in this blog’s audience because HA HA HA SPOILER ALERT THERE ARE NO DRAGONS IN THIS BOOK. Well, I mean, and again, spoiler alert, there is dragon birth on the closing page, which, okay, fine, maybe the rest of the books in this series (which is not complete and according to all the Internet rumors I have read will not be complete until Cleveland gets a championship sports team around the day after never) feature dragons on every single page doing totally sweet dragon things like eating people and posing for prog-rock album covers (I really do not understand my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons) but you may continue to color me doubtful until proven otherwise.

To be fair, and to touch on two points at once, while I have just acted like a total spoiler alert jerk, which is the kind of jerk I usually do my darned best to not be, preferring instead to be the kind of jerk who splits infinitives, I think it is only fair to allow those curious readers who might use my blog to gauge whether or not a book I have read is one they might want to read a quick glimpse of the sort of thing that they would be getting themselves into with this book, as, if you are like me, and you walk into it expecting mind-numbing, pleasure-center-tickling, hardcore dragon action, you are going to need to get past your (my) (highly irrational) (and largely confusing) desire to read about flying lizards that shoot fire out of their noses, because the actual book that I actually did read was, actually, sort of a little hey-not-so-bad to bordering-on-being-kind-of-bad-ass? I mean, for a politically charged fantasy novel in which there’s pretty much little to zero sparkle magic, it engaged me, once I came back to the book after I quit it, because I did actually start reading it earlier in the year only to give up after about 200 pages, when I realized it was not in fact delivering the dragon-fueled dragon-orgy for which I felt such a (desperate and alarming) desire. But then the Morales book happened and suddenly Thrones had this shiny halo of awesome glowing around it and, well, it happened, and I mostly liked it, even if I got annoyed by it, when it made me feel things, like when that one thing happened that I’m totally not going to spoil for you but which let’s just say whoa.

The other dragon book I read, His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, had dragons in it doing cool dragon things. Pure win.

It’s a book I got interested in a while ago (incidentally, it seems like every time I look up the reference for a historical-in-my-life note on the blog, it comes up 2006; what’s up with that?) and have sort of kind of somewhat meant to get around to for a while now, and then the Morales thing happened, and I was at the book store within 12 hours buying genre books because I needed them more than a whiskey-and-heroin cocktail because life is hard.

His Majesty’s Dragon (which is kind enough to state its dragonocity right there in the title) sets a dragon story in the specific historical context of the Napoleonic Wars and it did a pretty good job of being what I wanted it to be, even if Novik has an unfortunate tendency to use the word “very” a lot, which is a terrible word to use more than once in your life, ever, historical setting or not. Also, to be fair, I could deal with moderately less chatty dragons, as everybody (nearly nobody) knows dragons are far more interesting when they are tearing people in half with their fifty-foot-long claws while standing on mountains with their wings spread wide and explosions and hot naked elf girls, but I suspect that’s the sort of thing that’s more interesting in theory than practice or maybe I’m just programmed wrong.

VII. In which, monsters

Still: the monsters are real.

Belated thoughts on A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; also, an awkward slap at a possibly awkward bit of kerning

I’m looking at the small stack of books I’ve read this year, and I’m realizing, I’ve really done a piss poor job of it, this year, of talking about these things–and I apologize for that; not sure where the time went, not sure what I’ve been doing with it. Well, okay, work and school and life, yes, all that, and, a general antipathy toward writing? Something. Not an antipathy. A sense of distraction, a mood of displacement. I’m shaking myself out of it. A little bit here, a little bit there. (What’s it like, to simply like a thing, and then do it a lot?)

What bugs me most is that even as I spend a significant amount of time working with a few specific books (such as Drowning Tucson, just to toss an example out there), other books, like A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, really get the short shrift. Here’s an author I really like who has written a book that I really like and by the time I get around to talking about it, what’s there for me to remember to say? I don’t know. I don’t remember. Articulating the source of my enjoyment now is sort of a challenge. I remember as much that I liked this book a good deal, more than I liked The Keep, which I liked, less than I liked Look at Me, which, of course, I enjoyed whole-heartedly, though, what? My girlfriend finally read Look at Me this year; she liked it but was not clear on why I loved it. I really must add that book to the stack of books I need to re-read sooner rather than later, so I can better say today why I liked it yesterday, or however many years ago yesterday was. Which is of course what I said when I read The Keep, so…fuck.

What I can say is that I feel like this is sort of Egan’s freak-out novel, a novel that really isn’t a novel, a formal exploration that itches at the constraints of what it is to be a novel today. It’s the frames of The Keep, cracked over the knee, and scattered at the feet. It’s a book that questions the point where novels and stories intersect, without looking to make any bold claims, or really even any claims at all. It just is what it is and it doesn’t look to excuse itself. My ARC, I don’t see it classifying itself anywhere in print as either a novel or as a story collection which is about as it should be, this unclassifiedness–though, to be fair, I’d call it more of a novel than Drowning Tucson, which, well, really simply was not a novel at all. But this book, Goon Squad, isn’t a novel, either, per se, itself. It’s something else. It’s a bit ragged, cast on fine strands that think of themselves as ropes. It’s really more fun for it.

Kerning. Serious Business.
Kerning. Serious Business.

(Also, speaking of the differences between ARCs and official copies–this whole getting-books-before-they-are-books thing being still kind of new and fascinating to me and being something that really doesn’t even happen that much, not a billionth as much as it happens for others, I mean–I’d like to ask if maybe someone with an official copy of Goon Squad and an eye for kerning can tell me if the word “From” on the cover is, uhm, doing it wrong? Anyone? I mean, I know I haven’t been put through quite enough design bootcamp yet to get to be a real dillhole about it, or maybe it’s just some inherent latter-day humility or something, the feeling like I’ve crumbed up enough of the stuff I’m supposed to be good at that to speak with any sense of emphasis about things I’m not supposed to be good at would be really like begging for a slap to the face, but, whatever, either way, yow; where’s that O going? Up, up, and oway, you big fat black hole I can’t help but stare at now, now that I’ve noticed how awkwardly you want not to join the party, R over there making out with F, M pretty much trying to go as far from you as it can. Ahem. Or maybe I’m way wrong. Anyway.)

PowerPoint. Serious Business.
PowerPoint. Serious Business.

Anyway. The reactions I’ve tracked on the book have been mixed, from all out “boo” to “ehhh” to “cautious yeh,” which I pretty much understand. If I rave about the book and talk about it being the novel in which Egan sort of freaks out for a while, and if you hear that yes there is in fact an entire chapter set as a PowerPoint presentation (which really is pretty well done and sort of awesome in its way), I can totally understand if you expect the book to be absolutely transformative, a work of art for all eras. Expectations boosted, and all. And truth is it’s not that good. I can get that someone might find it fluffy, disposable–there’s portions I recall dragging for me a bit, here and there, though not enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth, not enough for me to say I less than really liked the book. Again, of course, if this was a couple months ago, I might be able to offer a better defense or deconstruction of my defense, but I’ll leave it for now as, yeah, not for everybody.

That said, what I’ll say is this: I think Egan’s got a White Noise in her, or go ahead and pick a big novel of your choice that isn’t actually big. Maybe Goon Squad is actually it, and I’m just secretly hoping it isn’t so I can still have yet the best to wait for. Maybe not. Either way, I’m having fun coming along for the ride and I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

But, in the meantime, if you’ve read Goon Squad, and you think I’m a jerk for liking it, let me know in the comments. If enough people call me a jerk, I’ll have to do something about something else I’m going to talk about in a bit (or in more than a bit) so I can get myself on firmer ground from which to call you jerks right back. Or you could tell me I’m right for liking it. I’m not going to judge.

In partial defense of over-writing; or, some thoughts, belated, on The American Girl

So, having finally shared my thoughts about The Invisible Bridge last week (no? not last week? not even close? time? what?) I can now offer some previously promised (somewhere, sometime) comparison-thoughts to another book that I believe takes a more successfully luxuriant, indulgent bath in a tub of warm overwriting, The American Girl, by Monika Fagerholm, as translated into English from the original Swedish by Katarina E. Tucker, and published by Other Press. First, I admit I read this book before I read Bridge, and I read it to read it, not to report on it, so with a lack of notes and underlining, I’m a bit rusty with regards to the particulars, but the now long-held impression I’ve been left with is of a book that is hardly afraid to shout, to stand up on the table and wave its hands over its head and kick your plate aside and spill the wine, a book that will remind you that it is a book full of words that are active and full of life and energy and desire and passion for the story they are creating; this book, in other words, foregrounds its writing-as-writing-to-be-read-as-writing in (to me) a more satisfying fashion than Bridge, the metaphorical brushstrokes, in Girl, being more playful, energetic, dreamy-eyed, sparkly, multidirectional–or, what the hell, rather pleasantly fucking excited to make your acquaintance–than Bridge, which, to my mind, were far more plentiful, detailed, precise, or perhaps studied, classical somehow, finely sculpted in the service of creating a denser, heavier whole, a thicker product, a sturdy thing designed to stand strong against the winds of the ages, while yet still in the current moment offering an ultimately more dull final image than Fagerholm’s what-exactly-was-that-anyway Finland murder mystery (-ish), chock full of holes and alleys and edges and folds and frays. (Different goals, different means, of course.) To be fair, Girl starts beautiful but also a bit rough, can feel sort of ridiculously disorienting at first. It took me several attempts to get into it, to find the rhythms and the paths I could stick with, I think I read the first fifty pages or so about three times before I broke through and into the rest of the book. And even when I did go with it, I wasn’t always with it, but I wanted it enough, there was enough going on so that even when it felt like it was dragging or going off in some weird purposeless or incomprehensible direction, the whole way through I still wanted to see where it was going, to be taken somewhere, to take a little part in taking apart this book’s little world. When I speak of over-writing I think I speak specifically in part of a certain quantity of repetition, the sort that, being as of now about 188 pages into Imperial, reminds me of certain tics of William Vollmann’s, key lines that come back like an idée fixe in a piece of music. This isn’t a particularly post-modern thing, whatever that means anymore, though I would hazard a feeling that the narrative is itself a bit aware of itself, from time to time, or at least that it is a little more cognizant of the fact that there is a foreground to be foregrounded; the artifice of the work is as much the work as the thoughts, ideas, stories it communicates, and I took greater (if not perfectly great) pleasure in it, for it.

I don’t want to draw much more comparison between the two books than I’ve already done, and I hope this serves less as a anti-Bridge commentary and more as a pro-Girl essay; it is an exciting book, and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to saying more about it. (And there’s plenty more to be said, particularly in light of recent Franzenfreudeania, and all the accompanying baggage that comes along with that, which I won’t go deeply into, but will suggest that yes, this is a book about (in part) young girls by a female author that deserves wider readership by both dudes and chicks.) This book, enjoyable entirely as a stand-alone tale, is the first book of a two-part story; should I learn that the second book were being translated into English, I would likely take the time to re-read this first book with the goal of enhancing my enjoyment and understanding of both books. Which, well, high praise.

But okay, no, for serious: Stoner by John Williams

But okay, no, for serious: Stoner, by John Williams, is a great book, and is one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year, or even in the last several years. In part because of context: I was working on my next book review when I read this one, and I’d read that book once, the review title book, and that one did things to me that I could not entirely define for myself yet, and so I knew I’d need to read it again, but I didn’t want to read it again immediately–I needed to step away from it, for a moment, the way you might step away from a mirror only to return to it later to find yourself familiar in some surprising way, like deja vu refracted through a glass of thick water. And that review title does a whole bunch of complex things in intriguing ways, and for whatever reason, I picked up Stoner off the perpetually one-foot-tall TBR pile, and, I mean, it’s cliche to say you can’t stop reading a book, but, like love, it’s so damn real and completely not cliche when you’re actually in it, all the more so since I hadn’t been in that specific place in a while, it seemed like–I mean, I’d read some other good books earlier this year, but usually in a, well, this is great, but I can also go rack up some trophies on the PlayStation, too, and have a good time tonight as well, right? Not so, with Stoner. I spent my days at work looking forward to going home so I could read more of it. This book reminded me that I had forgotten slightly just what the fig leaf a good book is supposed to do: strip away your modesty, leave you emotionally naked before it, make you need it. It is a book that makes you become a person. And this from a book that from its opening paragraph seems like it’s got jack-all to do or go toward–I mean, it lays out the fact in the opening paragraph that the title character lives a life and then he dies and it didn’t much matter to anybody except maybe to him. Which is pretty much a huge bummer but, what, now I have to read a couple hundred more pages about this fellow? No. Please. But! The thing is, the opening paragraph is a feint, or perhaps a huge lie; because, yes, spoiler alert, you are reading about the life of a guy who will, by the end of the book, die, except, in the time you spend with him, in the time you spend reading Williams’s perfectly reasonable, perfectly paced, perfectly rhythmic, perfectly unostentatious prose, he, Stoner, comes to mean a little more to you than most strangers ever will. At least, so it seemed to go for me. And it’s sad but it’s so strong. If I was the crying sort, I probably would have, around the time I finished. But I did not cry, and I set it down, and I returned to the book about which I was due to write a review, and I felt recharged, and refreshed, and ready to take this world of literature on again, one book at a time. My craving was reborn.

And so, tell me, please, because I would like to know: what book has done that for you?

Books I’ve read this year; or, the blog-post equivalent of eating the entire friggin bag of chips

Books! I’ve read a few this year. So far. I’m not expecting much in the way of surprise between now and the end of the year, though–seems like it’s all sort of mapped out. Like, there’s this guy, you may have heard of him, Jonathan Franzen? Yeah, he’s got a new novel coming out in a week. I’m looking forward to reading it. I don’t care that the entire internet is already tired of hearing about Jonathan Franzen and the fact that he has a new book coming out. I’m still looking forward to reading it. Marketing: it works! Or it does not work! Either way! And there are some other things I’ve got roughly slated out, seems like; there’s a book I’m reading now, which I’m going to be writing a review of for a place other than here for later this year. (I’ve got another review slated to come out in about a month for a place other than here, which I’m really looking to seeing hit the streets, and for the book to hit the streets, because I want other people to read the book, and then I want them to read my review, and then I want them to either whole-heartedly agree with me, or violently disagree with me, such that discussion of a civil or uncivil nature may occur. It is a book that after reading it twice and writing a review of it I am still struggling with my feelings and opinions about it, and more so than many books I read, I want not to feel like I am in a cultural vacuum of my own making with this one. So.) (Also, yes, no, I do not talk about the books I am doing reviews of, while I am doing the reviews of them, or before the reviews come out; I do this in part out of a vague sense of professionalism, a vague sense that if I’ve got a word to say about the book I really ought to save it for the review, a vague sense that if I start talking a book up outside a review I will curse the existence of the review which the book is intended for me to prompt–for vague reasons, in short, but reasons none the less, all of which is unfortunate in that it makes it seem like a book’s got to be targeted for me to write about it anywhere but here for it to get any play from me, which would be fine, if I was writing reviews full time, which I am not, nor do I see myself doing so any time in the near future, or even a less near future, so. It’s a thing. A situation. A sitch.) (And yes, I do mostly realize my blog-post writing style of late (or of ever) sort of makes me look like a jerk–people don’t read, Darby, you jerk!–but that is okay because something has to remind me that there is more to life than succinct customer-focused messaging. Ahem.) (Oh, but yeah, like I was saying up there, you know that since I don’t talk about books I’m reviewing outside of the context of the review before the release of the review, that the fact that I’m even almost writing about a book before a review I’m writing about it has been released means that I am positively bursting at the seams to talk about it and see it talked about. I want more for this book from me. Whatever that more may be.) (Whatever that more ever may be.) And there’s a new Rick Moody book out? Which is a science fiction future satire or something? Whatever, sign me up. And I’ve got a stack on the coffee table which seems to perpetually remain at the same height however many books I take off of it. Which isn’t that many, lately, what with school, and school, and work, and life, and other projects, and things, but still, I know I do read books, I see the small pile of books I’ve finished, but, like, the “to be read sooner than other books that are also very much to be read” stack seems stuck, like some tower made of hands? That are playing that sandwich game? You know the one? So like, I take one medium size book off, and then Francine Prose writes a glowing review of some books by Hans Keilson, and then there’s two more smaller books back up on the pile? It’s a rough calculus. And, I mean, Summer of Dostoevsky ’06, right? Gonna wrap that one up any day now? Am I? Am I. Point being, there’s no sense in me not starting to wrap up the year now by finally getting around to talking about the books I’ve read over the course of the year. It’s future-leaning retrospective. Yes. Books. I’ve read a few of them this year. And a few of them, I’d like to talk to you about them. If I may.

Thoughts on Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr

First Up, the Short Version

I really liked Joshua Mohr’s first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me; I reviewed it at The Collagist last year. Since then, he has published his second novel, Termite Parade, which I also really liked. It’s a different kind of book, though certainly written by the same author with the same interests. They’re both well-written books, quick but impactful, and I don’t mind recommending either of them to you if you’re looking for a good book to read.

And Then, the More Vaguely Review-like Version

With his second novel, Termite Parade, Joshua Mohr sounds the depths of the space between human decency and indecency; he does so to striking, engaging effect. It’s a project he began in his fine first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, which offered, in part, a heart-felt, grimly quirky look at a to-some-degree victimized childhood. Termite Parade stands as World’s wicked step-brother, compressing more complexity into a leaner, meaner package. Here, Mohr focuses on the wholly present-tense process of pain and its making. That people are dumb is no surprise, and it won’t shock anybody to learn that we do terrible things to each other: we’ve pretty much made a full-time job of making life more complex for each other than, strictly speaking, it really needs to be. By wrestling with the notion that, even though we can be the biggest tools going, people can still come off as redeemable is where Mohr gives his novel its literary-quality staying power.

The story is told by a core cast of three characters. These include Mired, who describes herself as “the bastard daughter of a ménage a trois between Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eeyore;” her boyfriend Derek, an auto mechanic who is “not the sort of guy who waxes philosophical or blubbers about the way his life ends up”; and Derek’s twin brother Frank, “an aspiring filmmaker” and “mastermind behind The Unveiled Animal, which will soon be a brand name synonymous with cinema.” The plot is sparked by a stark and, frankly, at least to this reader, surprisingly shocking act of violence, with each character relating his or her self-centered, questionable, conflicting view of the story.

(And, now, here’s the kind of parenthetical aside I doubt I would have gotten away with had this actually become a review for a real publication: I say “surprisingly shocking” up there because this book, Mohr’s book, was one of my rebound books from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I tried and failed to read earlier this year. The thing here being that the Bolaño book featured this whole section about violence done against women that’s meant to be this gut-shredding walk through misery but which I found sort of dull and uninspired, which, before I even go and put a period anywhere near this sentence, let me go ahead and clarify or re-clarify that I in no way support or tolerate the idea of violence against women and that my complaints about the book 2666 are solely to do with the book 2666 and the fact that I thought it kind of did it all wrong; and endless (or at times at least it felt endless) catalog of the results of horrible activity which frequently used the same damn sentences over and over again did little to inspire me to horrific contemplation of the state of mankind, or whatever, any more so than a glance at the morning paper would do. You can tell me that there’s some nonsense out there or you can show me that there’s some nonsense or you can make me feel the existence of that nonsense in my bones and 2666 went for the former, in my opinion. Whereas–and here’s the kind of statement that’s likely to be get me in more trouble than it’s worth but what the hell–Termite Parade actually showed me an act of violence and made me feel it in my bones in a totally simple, totally straight-forward way, a way which, alone, makes me think that Termite Parade might actually be a better book? Question mark? At least it is to me. At least to me, being a guy who, in a scant page or so, saw some nonsense go down, and could not for a second deny the fact that that nonsense is the stuff of which, you know, people are actually capable of? It makes you confront something about yourself, is what I’m saying. 2666 does too but not in the same way. Not for me. It’s totally disingenuous of me to couch all this language in “for me” and it’s also disingenuous of me to be trash-talking a book I gave up reading months ago and which I gave up much caring about a few fewer months ago but hey. This is how I blog now? Question mark?)

In part, this (ahem, “this” referring here to the multiple-narrator method through which the story of Termite Parade is told) serves to develop a portrait of Derek and Mired’s toxic relationship; as Derek puts it, “there was barely trust between Mired and me, and the trust we did have was heavy and rundown, a burden we lugged behind us like concrete shadows.” What would read as too thin (by which I believe I mean, too dull, or too standard, or just too uninteresting on its own to warrant an entire book for the telling) finds itself shaken up nicely by Frank, the story’s primary unbalancing agent, its vocal note of discord. His film project, the sort of idea likely smoked up by most modern-day film students (or, really, anybody with a cell phone camera and a head full of The Real World re-runs), is a sort of back-to-basics cinema vérité:

It revolved around the notion that the cinema needs to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings. There needed to be a convergence between mainstream filmmaking and documentaries. And with the blazing popularity of reality TV that developed in the late 1990s and early millennium, it seemed I might really be on to something. The public wasn’t craving actors anymore, but people in real situations, real people who weren’t pretending to feel sadness and anger and letdown but were learning to navigate the tangles and ignominies of everyday life.

Suffice it to say that reality is never enough and, given a spoonful of the stuff, Frank contrives to turn it into a glossy jar full of the quote-unquote stuff. Here’s where Derek comes to find himself standing at the mid-point between actual reality and what passes for it in front of a camera.

The story gains momentum as the twining plot lines spiral toward their collision. Mohr keeps a light touch through the proceedings, easing up a bit on the “Push Here for Stylistic Quirks” button he pressed more than once in his debut novel (which, I should note, never bothered me, but I feel compelled to, at least once, blatantly point out, because it’s likely to bug somebody). The whole thing kind of comes to revolve around notions of blame, this quirks-versus-not-quirks thing. Where hallucinations and memories might have served as big red EXIT signs for any sense of culpability on the part of the narrator of Some Things, there’s nothing equivalent in Parade; suffering, guilt, these are things people do to other people and themselves. A brief sequence of memories involving the boys’ father serves to underscore the fact that these are people of their own making. What happens to us does happen to us, yes, but we ultimately are how we react.

Get past the terrible (to be quite honest) cover art (which, to be fair, a cursory review of the artist’s Web site shows it’s not the execution but the concept behind the art that’s to blame) and the reader–once, me, and, perhaps, someday, you–will find a bracing story of complicity, of the misery we make for others and ourselves. Mohr tells the story with a stylistic terseness that keeps the proceedings snappy, and, without ever drawing answers, at least sketches in the idea that the answers are worth looking for, somewhere in the darker values. As one character puts it, after an awful lot of awful things happen: “We could figure things out, if you gave us enough time.”

Addendum

Update to note, I just noticed the book comes out in July. (It’s June, if you’re curious.) Because I read the book earlier this year. And I wrote most of this post a while ago. Consummate professional that I am, I took all this and translated it into an over-riding sense that I was late to the game on the book. Like, oh, man, nobody’s going to care anymore! Oh no! When I’m now safely ahead of the timeline. By, like, a while. Oh no! Nobody is prepared to care yet! I’d say I feel like a jerk but I don’t, because it’s still a good book and you should still look it up when you have the chance. Anyways.