review

The Short Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

Breece D’J Pancake killed himself at 27. Whenever someone who evidences some kind of brilliance kills themselves (or merely meets an untimely end,) it seems difficult to separate the art-as-object from their own personal narrative. It’s a damn difficult thing to read these stories without the context of Breece’s decision to take his own life seeping into your mind -I had a similar experience while reading “Infinite Jest,” with its narrative density of suicide and jokes about the act. There’s also a certain tendency to romanticize people like Breece, to define them as fires so bright that they burn themselves out -this particular culture of romanticizing of mental illness in the context of artistic brilliance is especially fucked up, and has no doubt lead a few people down those bad, twisting alleyways.

But I’m going to do my best to separate my thoughts about the book from all of that, regardless. These stories are amazing. They’re is definitely a bit of youthfulness on display, but never in such a way as to detract from the writing itself. The prose is obsessively wrought on a word-by-word level, clearly the product of dozens of passes with the red pen. And Pancake doesn’t seem to have any trouble inhabiting very different kinds of people, very disparate narrators, even when those people are from the same place, the same socioeconomic standing, and often even the same age and gender.

Pancake is often compared to Hemingway, and the comparison is valid. But there’s also a good bit of Falkner in here -that sense of place, of an identity intractable from the landscape that surrounds. And while these fictions are unmistakably masculine, there’s no shortage of nuanced and compelling female characters present as well, just as broken and dysfunctional as the men. It’s a damn shame the world lost Pancake so soon. I can only imagine what he would have been able to create with another forty years’ time.

Recommendation: Read it. Go buy it on Powell’s and read it as soon as it arrives. This one needs to move to the top of your queue.

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Hesse’s “Siddharta”


This one wasn’t for me. Hesse’s popularity as a countercultural icon in America seemed to have led to this book becoming the subject of Zeitgeist-fixation, but in spite of very moderate expectations, I was completely underwhelmed. The narrative of the searcher is fine, but nothing of any particular interest, and the titular character’s linear progression toward The Meaning of Life left no room for any interesting subtlety. Hesse’s prose was equally unremarkable.

I can see how this kind of book might be a powerful experience for an intelligent and emotionally sensitive young teen. More power to them. It’d be a hell of a lot better than reading Divergent or John Green books. At them same time, unless some rather compelling reasons make themselves known, I’ll wander past Hesse’s other offerings.

Siddharta
by Hermann Hesse
Powells.com

Reading Log: ‘Barrelhouse 13: Comedy’ or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ephemeral

I have a hard time with pop culture. Specifically, I have a hard time with intellectually rigorous examination of pop culture, because it always seems like too much thought is being given to far too weak a nexus. Shit starts to feel over-examined and nothing interesting comes of it. This complaint is at least partially horseshit, though, because some of the things I love most are deconstructions of pop culture (Watchmen, all my standup comic memoirs, all my rock-nerd books). Point is, I’m really sensitive about this kind of shit, and Barrelhouse asks everyone they interview what their favorite Patrick Swayze movie is.

My pretentious nervousness was clearly misplaced. Barrelhouse killed it. All the stories in here were great. The poetry was fantastic. It was a unique issue with a single editor, (not their usual editorial format) but from what I can gather by reading their website and the work published their, Issue 13 is nothing unusual. Great stuff.

I often find myself railing against pop culture artifacts within my own writing. I find them ephemeral and distracting, staking a story to a particular time and place without reason. This is probably borne out of the terribly narcissistic assumption that people will be reading my shit in 90 years and I don’t want to seem anachronistic, but… damn. Maybe it’s OK to mention a band name or the internet every now and then.

Recommendation: Buy it. From Barrelhouse. Support indie lit mags! Or we’ll get you when you fall asleep.

http://www.barrelhousemag.com/#!store/c1uba

Reading Log: ‘Maus I & II’

Art Spiegelman’s two-part graphic novel blends humor and pathos in such a natural way that the reader doesn’t even notice the transitions. Although I’ve read excerpts, I’d somehow managed to miss this one for a long time. I’m very glad I finally rectified that situation.

For those not familiar with the conceit, Spiegelman portrays the conversations and interactions he has with his father, an immigrant Polish Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz. The art depicts each ethnic group as a different animal -the Jews are mice, the Germans cats, the Poles pigs (Americans are -of course- Golden Labs). This (along with the heavily accented syntax and word choice of our narrator, Vladek) gives the whole affair a dreamlike quality that sharpens the horror and depravity. It’s a brutally honest portrayal, and not only of the Holocaust. Vladek, a survivor of one of the most heinous culminations of hatred, is a blatant racist. His son (the author) is somewhat embarrassed by him confessing that,  “In some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew”. He is even more disturbed by his suspicion that this is one of the reasons his father may have been able to survive.

Maus confronts and attempts to illuminate complicated and interconnected ideas about family, trauma, and cultural identity, among much more. Both big ideas and big events are addressed in novel and powerful ways -everything that has followed these two books is touched by their powerful effect. While traditional narratives like Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ are certainly powerful, the straightest path is rarely the one that provides the most encompassing view.

Recommendation: Buy them both. Even if you don’t think you like ‘comic books’. Get over yourself and buy the goddamn books.



Reading Log: ‘Thrice Fiction No. 9’, Free Literature, and the Pleasures and Irritations of Finding the Cutting Edge

From Thricefiction.com

From Thricefiction.com

http://www.thricefiction.com/

Thrice Fiction is a free lit mag. They publish some damn good stories, most of which can be defined as short-shorts (…not those kind of short-shorts) or longer flash fiction. Since Thrice is a normal-sized journal and the entirety of it is taken up by these short stories, there are a hell of a lot of authors in here. This is no complaint -the likelihood of finding someone really good or personally resonant goes up when you have six or seven times as many fiction authors as The Paris Review between the covers. Of course, there are always going to be a handful of writers who either irritate me or do nothing for me, but, hey, these stories are pretty short. No skin off my back.

Thrice is pretty aggressive. They give out the work for free (so you really have no excuse for not checking them out) and they even offer the journal neatly formatted as a PDF, or in EPUB or MOBI for your digital readers/e-readers (I read No. 9 on my old Kindle). They get authors out there and the stories they select tend to fit in with the experimental and cutting edge aesthetic of the mag itself. Like most emerging stuff, this means an interesting blend of being out there and seeing what comes next before the culture at large -or even the cultural gatekeepers- but it also means you’ll slog through some forgettable failed experiments. I was pleased to find thatThrice keeps that ratio firmly on the side of emerging quality.

Recommendation: Download either this or the latest issue of Thrice right now. For fuck’s sake, man. It’s free. Just download it. It’s really damn good -at least read it on your phone the next time you’re stuck on the john.

http://www.thricefiction.com/

Reading Log: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Crossing’

Heavy book. I read the last 90 or so pages in a single sitting and after putting it down I felt like I was walking around in a fog, disassociated from reality and a little depressed. It’s long (428 pages) and McCarthy’s prose -although beautiful- isn’t often described as “breezy”. The brevity of his sentences are deceptive, and the minimalism requires a close, slow look. The narrative arc doesn’t follow and familiar archetype, giving the entire affair a tenseness born of the terrifying random nature of “real life”. McCarthy’s stories have always struck me as a precisely distilled reflection of the realities of the world we live in (especially this book’s predecessor, ‘All the Pretty Horses’) but ‘The Crossing’ is more like a high-contrast photo that hints that the true shape of things is something you might be happier not to see.

I don’t want to go into plot here, (although the book is more than worth the read just on a sentence-by-sentence examination of McCarthy’s brilliant use of language) since there is a certain powerful effect that relies on tension and lack of specific foreknowledge.The Crossing is the second book in the Border trilogy. It’s squarely in his wheelhouse, eschewing traditional grammar and conventions -the lack of punctuation or attribution doesn’t make it any faster to read, either. It’s also full of untranslated Spanish, and I’m far enough along to pick up about half of it, which actually means I’m spending more time with it, puzzling things out. The book is fantastic. At the same time… it isn’t the very best he’s done.

Recommendation: Read ‘All the Pretty Horses’ or ‘No Country for Old Men’ first. If you’re a fan, then you don’t need me to tell you to read this book.

(Aborted) Reading Log: Gone Girl and Why I Need to Give Up on Reading Books That David Fincher Makes Into Movies.

(Image via Wikimedia)

(Image via Wikimedia)

I gave up eighty pages in and skimmed the rest for plot (I always try to make it at least 50 pages in good faith with any novel-length reading endeavor). The writing isn’t bad at all; far superior to most fiction that makes its way to a similar spot on the charts. What I can’t handle is the voice. I have no problem sticking through books full of -or narrated by- horrible people. Portnoy’s Complaint, Lolita, and the short stories of Annie Proulx and Thom Jones are all personal favorites, because the shitty human beings within are interesting. Not to say that Amy and Nick (Flynn’s two main characters) aren’t round or convincing; they’re fine, but they’re no more compelling than a couple suburban soccer moms comparing hair treatments and minivan MPG.

I understand that the book is full of action, full of intrigue and dramatic tension, I just can’t stand being in the heads of these two. They think boring thoughts about interesting things, their musings painted with a facade of hip cleverness that feels unnatural and forced. I’m also more than a little tired of hearing New York writers write about writing and New York, and writers in New York. If they must, -especially in 2012- they’ve got a lot of tropes to surmount. Flynn reaches for low-hanging fruit instead, describing a party of NYC writers with the word “ironic” no fewer than four times in the same chapter (ironic t-shirts, ironic apple schnapps, etc.).

This isn’t genre-bashing. I loved Denis Johnson’s novel Nobody Move, a modern noir thriller with pretty heavy Raymond Chandler shading. I loved it because the characters were interesting and genuinely funny and because the book stood on it’s own either on the level of prose or plot. A clever story is nice, but anybody can come up with a clever idea. It’s the the lucidity of implementation that’s actually impressive.

Recommendation: Pass. Don’t buy it, don’t borrow it, just don’t waste your time. See the movie if that’s your thing.