Monthly Archives: January 2014

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Memoirs of My Life and Writings

Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”

This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.

Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.

As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places(published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.

I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War

betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.

There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.

On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.

On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.

On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…

On immortality: In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.

not a pipe

Video Game Art Museum

I’m not sure where I saw this, but The Video Game Art Museum totally makes me flip my shit. I worked in picture framing for nearly two decades, so I’ve spent a good parcel of the my life thinking about how and why people display art. I’m not a visual artist, and I have no academic or other formal training in the arts – short of some trade-based stuff about conservation practices and the like – so I’m not talking about how and why we create art, but the more unromantic issue of what we decide to hang on the walls in our homes. So the concept of displayed art within an art medium itself is bananas – a simulacra within a simulacra – but then taking it a step further and decontectualizing the recursive art from the simulated display environment…that’s pretty much a recipe for me to start breathing into a bag.

To quote the Manifesto-ish blog that goes along with the VGAM:

Over the course of this residency I will be creating The Video Game Art Museum (VGAM). VGAM is constructed with art objects appropriated from the backgrounds of video games. In their original context, these “works” function as proxies, or simulations, of art. By recontextualizing these simulations into a virtual gallery, VGAM will playfully refocus attention onto the works themselves, explore the intersection of art and simulation, and satirize recent institutional forays into the subject of video games and art (see the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games and Google Art Project).

 My interest in this subject extends from the proxy, a simulation to be replaced by the object it mimics. I am interested both in the theatricality of these forms, which communicate function while often obscuring or containing meaningless content, and the irony/humor that arises in cases where the simulation and the simulated begin to converge, and the distinction between the two becomes muddied.

The pipe from Super Mario Brothers with the line from the Magritte painting as a caption:

A colleague once pointed out to me that people have to love the things they are framing; it wouldn’t be worth it otherwise, given the cost of custom framing. Before getting into fine art, I’ll just observe that people tend to frame whole bunches of things that aren’t fine art at all: family portraits, diplomas, awards, letters, programs, personal effects like jewelry, lace, embroidery, ticket stubs, rugs, or even in one memorable case, a taxidermied turkey’s tail fan. (Yuck.) All of these items have meaning for the person framing them, a reason for displaying it. Often they are reminders of events, but cultural expressiveness can factor (as is the case with a lot of textile items like antique christening dresses or Grandma’s handmade lace), as well as memorializing the dead.

Much of the sort of low-level fine art is framed for these same reasons. Posters are often commemorative and commercial, printed on very low quality paper and intended, as the name implies, to post. Posters are often well designed or have fine art embedded within them – like I could not even tell you how many of the the posters for the Monet exhibit that went through Chicago I framed – but they are still ephemeral. The display of “I was there” is as important as the art when framing band flyers, marathon posters and tourist art.

I have an abiding love for tourist art. People often tell these wistful, reverential stories about their acquisition of a piece of art that is close to mass produced, but with this tiny touch of the personal imprinted on it. While I don’t particularly like Pop Art aesthetically – with some exceptions – I really love the play and the thought behind it, and tourist art is often in this weird pop tradition. It’s not unusual to see tourist art – like the sketches of buildings – that are hand-colored xeroxes of an image, but with little flourishes to disguise the xerox template. Mass production disguised as artisanal for the purposes of interpellation. It’s Warholian, except unlike Warhol it’ll totally work in the breakfast nook.

Images from Leisure Suit Larry, which riff off of Warhol's Marilyn Monroe paintings

From the blog again:

The first set of images in the archive (posted 1/4/14 and 1/5/14) are pulled from Final Fantasy VI.  The game cannibalizes it own graphics to create the images used as art within its universe. For instance, the exact arrangement of pixels which comprise a chair also comprise a painting of a chair. The art precisely simulates the environment it exists in. It is virtual realism.

Fine art is institutional, and I mean that in all of its lazy entendre. Much fine art is created for and hung by institutions, either aesthetic wallpaper for the corporate environment or displayed by the museum for community edification. The average person may hang a copy of this institutional display in their home, but she does it for personal reasons. The Video Game Art Museum is so funny to me, this kinky, comic observation of the recursive artistic display. Whoa.

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The Pentrals by Crystal Mack

I received my copy from NetGalley.

The Pentrals starts credibly enough, with a strange first person narration of a girl watching another girl. The vantage is odd and disorienting, and it’s only when you realize that the narrator is the girl’s shadow that the angles lock, and you can finally orient yourself in both space and understanding. The narrator, Antares, is the shadow of Violet, a denizen of the futuristic city of Talline, which gleams from a thousand mirrored surfaces in a canyon in the desert. The Pentrals of the title refers to beings of shadows or reflections, which in the supernatural architecture of the novel, are sentient beings enacting penance for something done in another life.

As a set up, this is neat stuff: the brightness of the future city juxtaposed against the Gothic shadow, the doppelganger reading and commenting on the bright lived life through its negative image. Unfortunately, this tense imagery is squandered, and quickly. Not only does The Pentrals deny the reader much in the way of resolution, but the basic mechanics of both the supernatural world of the Pentrals and the society of Talline are so confused (or, often, downright stupid) that any resolution is close to meaningless. Altogether, this was one of the more frustrating novels I’ve read in a while.

[From here on out, what I talk about might be considered spoilers, though much of it occurs in the first half of the book. I’ll note more clearly when I’m talking about end-of-the-book situations. The marketing materials are so vague, though, that really anything beyond the basic concept might be considered spoilers.]

I would first like to grouse about the taxonomy of the Pentrals. Antares tells us pretty early on that Pentrals are split into four classes. Class one is for immobile objects, like buildings, and we are informed this stationary changelessness drives the class one Pentral insane. Class two is for living things, like people (and presumably animals, but this isn’t made explicit). Antares, as a class two, considers herself an artist, watching closely and mirroring her Person with pride and experience. Class three is *cough cough* and class fours are in charge of the whole business somehow. This is all well and good, and I’m willing to ignore questions like, “How does Antares know this if she had her memory wiped when becoming a shadow?” or even deeper issues like, “Why is Antares so surprised when she’s told her existence is a kind of afterlife late in the book, when she told us the very same thing at the very beginning?”

My real issue is this: what kind of moral system requires the cruel, unending servitude of sentient creatures to literally stand in for natural processes in numbers that are both fixed and arbitrary? Class one is a punishment. Does that mean the number of people to be punished are always pegged to the number of indivisible things in the world? If I tear a sheet of paper in half, does a soul previously unpunished pop into servitude? That’s a shitty moral system, and I thought the unconditional election of Calvinism was bad. Moreover, is a teapot with a lid one shadow or two? A drop of the ocean divisible from the ocean? What about the shadows of rain? (Zen has some things to say about this.) In addition to being morally dodgy, this system is physically unworkable, calling up questions of the very ontology of thing-ness.

There’s also what I would like to call the Thomas the Tank Engine Effect. (I have just now coined this term for all of literary criticism. You’re welcome.) In addition to having a whole mess of Anglican guilt tripping over productivity, the Thomas the Train stories always drove me crazy because of the concept of sentient trains who also often appeared to have drivers. The class four Pentrals sidestep much of the guilt tripping by having Antares not even know what she is performing penance for – which, why would this be effective, morally speaking? whatever – but the problem of sentient trains with drivers continues.

Antares is lonely and in some ways miserable at the start of the novel, her actions completely determined by another being. Even though she has agency – she can pop out at night and party with the neighbors – she’s not allowed to use it due to inexplicable reasons. Her lifeless life is nothing compared to the inhuman misery of shadowing a building or a coma patient. So, why is it again that the class ones do not rebel and squirt off into the void like a set of troublesome trucks? Sure, we are told by our somewhat unreliable narrator that there would be consequences, but I gotta say, oblivion sounds better than the unending torture of being a class one. Leaving natural processes in the hands of tortured creatures who do not know the meaning of their torture seems a sad way to run a physical universe, to put it mildly.

Either shadows are the voids in the transmissions of the particle/wave of light or they are not. General relativity and Einstein’s light theory are referenced in the text, so scientific rationalism is a thing, as they say. So what we have here is a sentient train run on tracks with a driver, who is somehow still responsible for both the tracks and the decisions of the driver. And all this in a system where the class fours seem even more ineffective and bureaucratic than Sir Topham Hatt, which is saying something. He at least knew how to shame with consummate Englishness. The class fours are just inscrutable assholes.

But, okay, let’s just say that I’m overthinking this, as usual, and set this pseudo-philosophical wingeing off on a shelf. Very rapidly, it becomes apparent that Talline, in addition to having sentient shadows, is also a classic dystopia. While everything gleams and there doesn’t appear to be strife, the citizenry of Talline are unhappy and demoralized. Violet’s mother doesn’t appear from her room for days, and the teachers at the high school are similarly wan and drear. Everyone scarfs down Lifts! - the exclamation point is standard – a mood-altering drug which affects even the shadow of the person taking it. (When the shadow Antares manages to shake off the effects of the drug through willpower, I was deeply frustrated. So here’s a drug that can affect even the sentient shadow of a person – nevermind how – and then that drug can be overcome through thinking? Whatever.)

Children appear to be immune to whatever dystopic machinations, and even our deeply blythe and irrational main character can sort out the depression begins affecting people on their seventeenth birthdays. An assorted number of people also appear to be immune, which marks them in Scooby Doo style as either The Bad Guy or Stool Pigeons. The relationship between the dystopia and the Pentrals is both annoyingly vague and drearily obvious, and then ultimately pushed off to the next book like so much else. This is some tissue thin plotting, friends, and it still cannot be contained in one novel.

I’m not going to get into the exact mechanism for the dystopia, even though it seems blindingly obvious to anyone with even an ounce of sense – cough evil pharmaceutical company cough –  but that mechanism is so ridiculously contrived, superficial and fragile that its laughable. The rule for dystopia has to be that on some level it’s believable, even if that belief is based on irrational societal fear more than, like, strict plausibility. This one could be picked apart by dozens of things – photography, human curiousness, dark sunglasses, a visit to the doctor, not being a superficial git, a well-placed blanket, to name a few – and is based on such a low level and superficial human fear, that I don’t even know what to say.

Which brings me to another thing, namely, where (or possibly when) in the hell are we? I couldn’t tell you with any force of conviction whether Talline is even on planet Earth, or instead some kind of dystopia planet. It was well late in the book where I even figured out that Talline refers not to the country (or possibly planet, who knows?) but to a single city that can be gotten to by people outside the city, even if it is somewhat onerous, maybe. What do these people do for a living? How even do the evil overlords enforce whatever magical/physical parameters of the dystopia? Why is everyone so damn dumb?

And then there’s a love triangle. Don’t even get me started.

I don’t know, guys. I’m willing to give a lot of latitude to young adult dystopias slash paranormals, because metaphor is often more important than mechanics when dealing with the metamorphosis of adolescence.The Pentrals managed to botch both of those genres, piling up dubious imagery on top of a shaky scaffold and watching queasily while the whole thing shakes. Neither Antares nor Violet are interesting characters, and the few characters with flashes of liveliness – Sam, the evil queen – have just moments of screen time. For a narrative that seems to warn about the dangers of superficiality, The Pentrals managed not even to scratch the surface.

In your shitty, obvious metaphor department.

Boom.

 

 

 

 

Closer to Cracking the Voynich Manuscript

In 1912 in northern Italy, book dealer Wilifred Voynich bought an illuminated codex in an unknown writing system. Containing about 240 pages (though some are missing), the manuscript is written on vellum, and has been carbon-dated to the early 15th C. The manuscript has long been assumed to be a cipher – though that wasn’t exactly proven until analysis discovered a semantic pattern in the text; it could have been gibberish – and both amateur and professional codebreakers have taken cracks at it over the years. Nada. From this void of understanding, all manner of crackpot theories have emerged, with an emphasis on the alien/Atlantean memeplex of doom. Having a 15th Century unbroken cipher is like the god of the gaps of the secret history.

three pages from the Voynich manuscript, showing script and botanical drawings

But now, there’s been a pretty significant breakthrough with the manuscript. A botanist and an information technologist (I think this is a fancy term for librarian) compared the botanical illustrations with plant distributions of the time of the manuscript’s first recorded appearance, which is the late 1500s. (Why this doesn’t jibe with the carbon dating, who knows. Maybe the vellum was produced earlier or something; I’m no archivist.) The researchers eventually identified 37 plants and six animals in the codex from the New World, specifically post-Conquest Nueva España (New Spain). (Which is totally bananas on several levels; badumptss.) In addition to the New World plants, there appear to be similarities with a Mexican codex written at the roughly the same time, and the captions on many of the plants are in Nahuatl. Their full analysis can be found published at HerbalGram, and is entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript.” (Nice Oxford comma, bros.)

Once you place the manuscript on the right continent (or planet, even), it’s just a matter of time to break the whole thing. Like the Navajo code talkers, the codex wasn’t exactly in code, it was in a (now) obscure language. Given that the Spanish put so much of Central and South America’s cultural history to the match, the Voynich manuscript could end up being this profoundly important window into lost history. Jeepers, that’s just the coolest.

secret collect

Backwards Compatible: A Geek Love Story

Backwards Compatible reads like a cross between The Guild and Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist, though the comedy isn’t as sophisticated as the former (which, you know), nor the central relationship as affecting as the latter (which, also.) George and Katie meet cute at a midnight event for the sale of the newest version of a World of Warcraft-ish game. After a tousle over the last copy of the game is won by George, Katie guilts him into giving it to her because boobs and tears. The plot details a growing group of gamers, high school friends, losers and little sisters playing video games, hanging out at the mall, and learning a little something about friendship.

Both Katie and George are on winter break from college, back in their somewhat dire sounding small town, and the novel invokes that loose, awkward, timeless sense of the winter vacation like crazy. Though their college lives aren’t even detailed too closely (or at all), you can kind of see them in the negative of too much unstructured time and the growing disconnects with high school friends. No one has any money; rides must be scammed or jumped; younger siblings are suddenly giving out (extremely questionable) romantic advice. No one sleeps or showers. I’m maybe making this sound grim, but the grimness is really more in my recollection of those times, not in the novel itself. As usual, I need to lighten up.

As a comedy, Backwards Compatible relies on an incredible amount of trash talk and roughly eleventy million pop culture references. I found the trash talk tiresome, but then that’s an aspect of gamer culture that puts me off.  And as far as the eleventy million references go, some worked, and some didn’t, which is per usual with that kind of humor. The geeking is so constant throughout that you’re bound to find something funny, and there’s a really great gag executed near the end involving George’s Christmas traditions. The sequence at the second Hobbit movie, which certainly wasn’t out when this was written, was alarmingly prescient. Don’t even get me started on those movies.

The only sour patch for me was the date Katie went on a date with a gamer asshole, which, in another kind of book, would have ended in a sexual assault. It was too triggery in a way that was supposed to be funny, and George’s reactions were kind of the worst. Again, not to be too dour, and you know, haha that pushy dudes don’t know that cosplay isn’t consent. I guess. But mostly this was fun and diverting, not really trying to do too much and succeeded at what it attempted. Katie and George are likable dorks, even if they read a little younger than I would expect from college juniors. (The big THERE’S NO SEX IN THIS BOOK warning I could do without in the marketing too, but then given the state of most New Adult titles – which often read like a gyno exam – maybe a little warning is in order.)

Oh, and big points for having George drive a Geo Metro named Crimson Lightning. Geo Metros are the best. Mine was named The Flying Pickle before it got cracked up in an extremely low impact accident many moons ago. RIP The Flying Pickle, and my lost youth.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.

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Beautiful Disaster: Most of this Title is Wrong

There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?

Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.

Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.

Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America,  who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)

So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.

Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.

People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.

“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!” 

Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.

What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.

The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances:  Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.

Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.

Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.

Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.

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The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

I picked up David Merkner’s debut collection, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, solely on the basis of the title. “Hey,” I said to myself, “I’m a Scandamerican domestic!” I mean, whatever that’s supposed to mean, because, as far as I’m aware, Scandamerican isn’t a recognized word, and using domestic as a noun is a little off-label. Or you can use the term domestic as a noun, to mean a servant (domestic staff) or a fight between family members (a domestic dispute), but it rings weird in the title, like a stutter or something bitten off. As it turns off, my lame close reading of the title is a pretty accurate encapsulation of the book for me, this uncoined yet immediately recognizable term rubbing up against the non-normative and ambiguous servitude and dispute of Midwestern domestic life. The whole thing was alarmingly close to home and disturbingly kinked, and I felt a little like, Jesus, man, shut the fuck up about our business in front of guests. Uff da.

I didn’t love this collection, but probably more because I felt an itchy, too tight familiarity with it than anything, a sweater washed and then blocked wrong. The stories themselves have an almost prosaic surrealism, where shit that could never happens happens not because the events violate the rules of physics, necessarily, but because they violate other less conspicuous but nevertheless ironclad rules of social reality. I almost don’t want to give examples because each time I tried to with my husband, I turned into this “and then, and then, and then” idiot, laying out inexplicably related events, then back-tracking and trying to tie up the connectives which just made it worse. A man tries to make out with his mother’s pot-bellied pig after murdering her brother by accident. A couple tries to paint their house which ends up being this slippery metaphor. A man slits a dog’s throat at a funeral. Which is all somehow funny in ways that I can’t explain, don’t really think is funny, but am nevertheless laughing at. And I’m not laughing haha, I’m laughing fucked. I’m laughing grief. This may be more me than it.

I thought a fair amount of the term “magical realism” while I read, wondering, as I do, about genre and what a mess it is. I’ve gotten my back up about the use of the term magical realism in the past, because I’m a nerd, and I end up thinking, bitch, that’s just a nationalist fantasy novel. And all fantasy novels are nationalism fantasy novels, from Twilight’s Volturi Catholic panic down to there won’t be a Shire, Pippin. The term seems too specific to a certain era of South American fiction, and used only on North American writers when they don’t want to get genre cooties on their weirdness. But Scandamericans would be magical realism if the Midwest had such a thing. (The Midwest doesn’t have old money or history either, being one of the problems of the Midwest, but the kind of problem that eliminates some and creates others.) It’s not fantasy fantasy, but more weirdly personal; a private life of the domestic wars.

Maybe the less coherent observation I’m groping for is that Scandamericans runs its harsh (sur)realisms in collection because we can’t even bring ourselves to novel length. We have to run at our fantastic, coded history in collected short fictions because we aren’t even a nation, but an interstitial accident of geography and inertia. We’re not even the conquest of useless but something worse and therefore more comic. We shouldn’t even be here, and what we have to cling to, as a people, is our anecdotal longevity in a place not actually made for people. (My bitterness with the Midwest right now may have more to do with the punishing cold I’ve been stuck in for the last forever, no end in sight.) I thought of Winesburg, Ohio a fair amount, and the ways MFA programs in the Midwest push the shit out of that (or did in the Jurassic Age when I was in college), and the ways the stories in Scandamericans triangulated a specific kind of person – a dude, maybe kids, a wife, a house in the Madison suburbs – instead of a place.

And speaking of MFAs, this collection has the the shine of the MFA all over it, that rock tumbler which grits prose in a way that often embeds itself in my nails. This is good MFA writing to me though, the kind that moves from rough to shine, and the endings positively fucking gleam. I don’t know why I’m being a bitch about craft – but I am, don’t mistake me – because this is some well written stuff, the kind of thing that winds and then strangles. It’s good. For whatever reason (and this phrase means “for reasons I know but won’t divulge”) the subject of Freud’s concept of the narcissism of small differences kept coming up this holiday season in my conversations. Talking to my brother and his newly minted fiance and casually calling him a hipster and watching that tightening in his eyes. I don’t care about hipsterism, because I’m the wrong gender, age, and BMI to give a shit about that. But he’s not, and I used the term, and it probably bugged him. Sorry. That was this book, Merkner to me.

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The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic hit me in the narcissism of small differences, in that place of close but not quite close enough. I can see see his truth because I hate it like I hate all things close to my truth but just across the kitchen table. I kind of hate this book because I get it. I kind of love it for the same reason. Not all of the short stories work, but the ones that hit me hit me in the face. The one about the couple painting their house hit me right in my profession as a house painter, all the notes I leave on a kitchen table over the course of a painting project turned over and written back. I feel priest-like in the things I see in my clients’ homes – in the sense that I see them but can’t relate them because it would be a violation – but I see them. I see them and keep silent. I don’t snoop, but I don’t have to. We wear it all on our sleeves but then tuck them hard into pockets. The connectives of course are surreal.

I got the violence in the story of the funeral, my cousin and I holding onto the back of one another’s necks, forehead to forehead, while he laid the most immaculate guilt trip on me like fine fucking china.  He wanted me to go to the second funeral, the one to be attended by people I despise. I resisted and drove home, and everyone in the car fell asleep. I watched the landscape go past like the only person who could, and later got the story of it, the second funeral. I would have murdered at that event, slit the throat of a dog in the back bedroom, and then I would have passed it off just the like the protagonist of the short story, the way you can pass off the murder of a dog in the back bedroom. You can pass off anything in the right social situation, stand like a mask and joke. It’s not funny haha but funny apocalypse. It’s funny Revelations according to Hans.

And although it looks like I’m dogging on this collection, I’m really not. There’s a story about a man who goes with his daughter down into a mine in “the only mountain in Wisconsin” – mountains being something the Midwest doesn’t have either – and sees a vision of her as an adult. Sounds lame when I relate it, but that last image, the daughter waving silently from a rock like a siren, and the daughter waving back just scrambled me. The candlelight vigil in another, all of the people turning away from the woman in whose name they are there. I can relate my irritations easier than I can my affections, because the affections are so fragile and inexplicable. The old saw about familiarity and contempt.

Fuck, I don’t know. The best and most true thing I can say about this collection is that it hit me where I live in ways that I usually only find in sex writing by the French or narratives of the zombie apocalypse.  (Make with that what you will.) I’d like to see Merkner do something long form, because he fairly kicks the shit out of the short form (except for the microfictions, but then me and microfiction are not friends, so it might just be me.) It was kinda perfect to read a short story or two in the middle of the holiday shitshow, parceling out this deranged comedy of the domestics after living through the same. Well done, me. Perfect timing.