New Review at The Quarterly Conversation: Stephen Dixon, What Is All This?

The Winter 2011 (2011?) Quarterly Conversation is live. It includes my review of What Is All This?, the new Stephen Dixon short story collection. The review begins sort of like this, though you’ll have to go over there to see the footnotes (footnotes?):

What Is All This? is a potent, refreshing collection of previously uncollected short stories by Stephen Dixon. Though the music world might label this an “odds-and-sods” collection, this volume cannot be dismissed so lightly. This? is a book that reminds us fans why we enjoy Dixon’s writing and gives inquiring neophytes an excellent opportunity to sample the kinds of things he has gotten up to over the last five decades.

Any attempt to sum up Dixon as a writer would be a fool’s quest. So, allow me: he uses male narrators and a lot of dialogue and limited description and down-to-earth language, except when he doesn’t. His language can be transparent, translucent, opaque. His sentences can last for pages; three words alone can knock you out of your chair. He avoids grand statements and shuns the workshopped sheen of the parabolic arc, preferring instead straight lines or scribbles, action that bleeds off the edges or compresses all into boxes of black ink. Sometimes he shatters frames and builds new things from the slivers. Sometimes, his stories are simply stories. To put his work in context, the back flap author bio has it that Dixon grew up reading Joyce, Hemingway, and Kafka. Fair enough: his work reads like each filtered through the rest.

Also, timing is everything, I suppose? The December 2010 issue of Bookslut includes a lengthy, excellent interview with Stephen Dixon (not by me). The money quote comes down at the bottom and gives me the chills:

You have been working on a novel, His Wife Leaves Him, for the last four to five years. How would you best describe the scope and scale of this epic length work-in-progress?

I’m not quite sure. It’s definitely my most emotional work as well as, perhaps, being my funniest. It might also be my most adventurous structurally, and also the cleanest and clearest writing I’ve ever done. It’s also my most elegiac. I’ve never been so satisfied with a work, which is why it’s so difficult to complete. I don’t want to let it go, but it’s told me recently I have to — that I’ve come to the perfect finish — and anything beyond what I’ve planned as the ending will hurt the book.

Today’s November 15. I’d say that by December 1, the novel will be done. It won’t reach 900 pages, but it’ll be close.

Uhm. Yes. Please.

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.)

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.