Category Archives: midwest

fowler

Nebula Nominees: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

When I was in my first (and, come to think, only) year in the dorms, I had a friend down the hall who was Swiss. By which I mean she had Swiss parents, and her first language was French; she was otherwise American. She was raised, however, in a small Wisconsin town, if not from birth, then from a very young age. She liked to tell this story about her parents taking her to the zoo as a young girl, her French still the primary language, and shouting at the seals, “Le phoque! Le phoque!” You can imagine the consternation of small town Wisconsin when confronted by a girl yelling, “Le fuck!” which is more or less what the French word for seal sounds like.

We didn’t have much in the way of video stores on campus — this is back in the dark ages, before Netflix, or even DVDs, come to think of it — so we were mostly stuck with the selection at the dorm kiosk (which I ran on Saturday and Thursday; a story for another time) which was not good, or the selections at the local library. The library mostly had art films, documentaries about The War, and early cinema weirdness. I can thank the lack of selection for my actually sitting down and watching stuff like VampyrMetropolis, and Battleship Potemkin. My Swiss friend went in for the French art house stuff at the libs, as she actually spoke the language, and knew more than your average bear about French cinema, her upbringing being what it was.

So I watched a series of French films with her — a trilogy, I think, but my memory is a little hazy. They were in an essay style popular (I think) in the 70s. French people chatted and had upheavals of the lunching sort, interspersed with cards that informed the viewer of the philosophical import of the scene. She and I also had a thing where we’d go in together on a bottle of liquor we’d never tried before, purchased by another friend’s upperclass boyfriend with a car and a sense of capitalist opportunity: Everclear (not legal in my home state), stomach-churning gin (which put me off a fine alcohol for years), or, memorably, peach schnapps (I didn’t drink in high school, so I hadn’t learned this lesson yet).

I have this vision, no doubt manufactured, of us sitting in her room sipping a tragedy in the making, watching French films and arguing. I remember quite vividly when she was yelling about some character in the essay film — you know, the Italian woman? — and I was like, what are you even talking about, Italian woman? She blinked at me with the slow blink of the inebriated. You know, the woman with the Italian accent? The one having an affair with the other guy, the husband? Okay, I said, I know who you mean now, but how did you know she was Italian? Couldn’t you hear it in her accent? She asked. No, I most decidedly could not.

She had an entrance into the nuances of the film that I simply did not, raised as I was with English only. I couldn’t hear the accent because all I heard was foreignness, concentrating hard on the philosophical placards and the translations over the lilt of another tongue in a character’s speech. Since then, I’ve caught this lilt in a couple of movie characters in languages foreign to me — Ah Ping in In the Mood for Love, who sounds so different from everyone else, for example — but I couldn’t tell you what this means, exactly. Someone who spoke Chinese — or maybe more importantly, was raised with an understanding of Chinese cultural politics — could explain the inexact, interpersonal meaning to me, but some of it would end up being “le phoque” shouted at seals.

Which is my long-winded, digressive way of getting at We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s something about the narrator that’s off, which is not to say I didn’t completely love her wry, understated anecdotal style, or her loopy, sedimentary storytelling style. Her awkwardness and self-doubt were disarming and lovable. the way a story told by the gawky and odd can take the shine of comedy in retrospect. Comedy happens to other people, as they say; it’s tragedy when it happens to you. She knows how to split the difference between bathos and rhetoric like a champ. She takes the little philosophical placards, and doesn’t so much shred them as fold them into accented shapes that you can’t access through language.

Good gravy, what the holy hell am I on about? The tough thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a spoiler which is so central to the book’s bookness that it stops me up, in any language. You have to meet the narrator and stew in her thoughts long enough to understand her accent and where it comes from, her foreignness despite being a fairly average girl from a flyover state. You have to get good and drunk and argue what all that accent might mean, whatever meaning means, and you have to do it grappling with the way personal anecdote, or even possibly memoir, is a slippery, personal delivery mechanism for whatever essayish philosophy, insofar as as any of our lives can exemplify an argument.

And I’m at it again, twisty sentence fuckery — or possibly phoquery — blathering and bloviating when I should just get to it. Here’s one thing: the plural of anecdote is not data, as the scientists rightly say. But as a talking ape, the force of the anecdote has its place in rhetoric. I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because it was one of the nominees for the Nebula this year. It took me a long time to accept this as science fictional. Doesn’t this all exist in the here and now? Isn’t this the experience of some few — some very few, admittedly; but still, it moves? I eventually looped around, after starting in the middle, the way the narrator does, into acceptance.

There are levels of foreignness beyond the dorm floor Tower of Babel  that occurs when we all get drunk on unfamiliar scotch — one girl lapsing into the Spanish of her native language, another’s Southie accent thickening to incomprehension, the French, the Wisconsin, all of us speaking the language of our homes at each other in some kind of bonding exercise that won’t be remembered with clarity the next day. But we’re all human, our accents notwithstanding. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate at some level, the one that looks around after the party has ended and wonders at our profound miscommunications with those closest to us, let alone the strangers, the neighbors, the acquaintances. Alien isn’t just alien, in the end; it’s the familiar. Which is the worst and best thing about it, the end.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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Leaves of Grass: Things I Don’t Want to Talk About

1940 edition of Leaves of Grass which contains illustrations from Lewis C. Daniel and an introduction by Christopher Morley. I believe the illustrations are from 1928.

She received this as a gift, and when I go to ask her, her mouth can’t form the words. I think I hear the name Kathy, and maybe a Mc, but the throat goes to glottal stops after a stroke. I don’t want to talk about this.

Dad and I are standing in front of the farm house, and it’s throwing light into the cicada buzz of Indian summer. We stand near forward, turned in a little the way Minnesotans do, elbow to elbow. He’s got a look in his eyes I can’t consider too closely without losing it. I smoke, and it rolls in the porch light. Dad talks. I talk. We tell stories about people we know. I am so angry and sad. There’s a house full of people, and we can hear their chatter and light-making. She is in the back room, my sister at her side. I don’t want to talk about this either.

It would have been not so long before she was married when she got this book, but the flyleaf notes her maiden name – Doris Bahls, R.N. It’s covered in green wool burlap and has a slipcase. It is sun-faded. We thought at first this was a gift upon the completion of nursing school, but that would have been two years earlier than the publication date. Dad read her “Song of the Open Road” that morning. We talk about Whitman. Dad is incandescent, surprised. He is a farmhouse throwing light into an angry darkness. 

I knew these assholes in college who ruined Whitman for me, the way assholes who own literature do. You know the kind: the Brahmans wielding citation. My anger at her dying spills into my memory, which is already angry enough. Sometimes, like now, my instinct to anger depresses me. I resolve to read more aloud to her, if she wants to hear, tomorrow morning. That afternoon I saw a piliated woodpecker batter the lightning-struck tree on the roadside. It seemed prehistoric and a pathetic fallacy. I wanted to feel wonder, but my anger kept getting in the way. 

The morning is better. I think murder to my aunt when she pulls bullshit both too complicated and subterranean to explain to anyone but my sister, but that infraction bleeds out into an empty house and my sister and I quiet and sitting. She reads aloud, and I listen. I don’t take in much meaning. Grandma isn’t awake, but she isn’t asleep either. Rain threatens – the sky hanging low and still – and the morning is napping and expectant. We hear the burr of the lawnmower pushed by the aunt who makes me angry over an acre of land. The sound is an odd comfort. Work is good. 

My sister finishes, and there’s silence and low murmurs. Coffee cups are refilled. We turn her body the way the post-it on the wall instructs to do every four hours, asking if this pillow is right. God, she’s so thin. She smiles so big that she is radiant. On her bed is the quilt made by her grandmother when she was nine, in the year before her grandmother had the stoke, and then never spoke again. I don’t want to talk about this. I read “O Pioneers!”

I start to read “Song of Myself”. I begin choking in places, the early parts about the immortality of grass, the green hair of the grave. I keep thinking of Dylan Thomas, and the synagogue of the ear of corn or the fern on the windowsill dropping its seeds. I think about finding Fern Hill and the eulogy to Ann, but these poems are bright with loss for other people for me, and I’m not exactly keeping it together already. Whitman reminds me of the Beatitudes: blessed are the angry and sad. Blessed are the dying. 

I read for a long time. My sister is laid out on the day bed in front of open windows. She watches the ceiling or closes her eyes. She listens. My voice begins to go muzzy, and I page through, counting. I didn’t know this poem was so long. It is repetitious until it nails you, a lulling patter of window-struck rain until lighting strikes the tree out front. I don’t even know what to do with the illustrations, which embed hammers and sickles in nearly every plate, Abraham Lincoln flying like one of Marc Chagall’s lovers over the rooftops, wrapped in the arms of a dark figure. I don’t think but store them away.

It eventually rains. The house fills with people who fill my anger, and I retreat to the porch, sitting off the edge, talking on the phone, tamping cigarettes into the gravel. I sit at the edge of her bed and read her anecdotes from James Herriot about dogs while dinner occurs like a rainstorm. I don’t want to talk about this either, and I don’t have an ending. 

Revival, Volume 2: Winter isn’t Coming; It’s already Here

The second volume of Revival is not quiiite as awesome as Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends, but some of that is just the inevitable settling that occurs when reading a series which starts with such a bang. Revival, Volume Two: Live Like You Mean It collects issues 6-11 of the ongoing Revival series, which details the travails of the town of Wausau, Wisconsin in the days and weeks after a discrete number of their dead get back up. 

a figure digs through snow to get at the frozen earth of a grave. it is snowing in the foreground

These reanimated people aren’t cannibal shamblers, and the reanimation does not appear to be contagious. Although the setting, art style and dialogue is naturalistic, there’s an edge of the supernatural: rural noir, Midwestern Gothic. While the revived seem mostly unchanged, some are still…twitchy, and everyone is on edge. The town is quarantined; various jurisdictions jockey; locals sandbag the Feds; religious leaders attempt to score points; scumbags attempt to profit. You know, the usual with a civic trauma. 


This second volume sinks into the boredom and profiteering of the quarantine, with minor revelations punctuated by lots of wheel spinning, both literal and metaphoric. Winter is deepening. I wasn’t real enamored of the meth brothers and their theatrics – it felt like too much of a red line under a point – but the several conversations between two central sisters, the weird, dumpy religious lady lit up with her faith, the Hmong woman’s monologue – all of this worked in the strange, understated, deflected language of my Midwestern people. 

cops talking at a roadblock

Fuck it, Tim Seeley is my new boyfriend.

Sow by Tim Curran

Tim Curran writes such wonderfully juicy tactile horror prose that it makes me wish Sow bit off more than it chewed. Sow starts with Richard realizing his pregnant wife, Holly, is not just pregnant with their unborn child, but with an unspeakable, nameless horror. Richard is only hastily sketched – he’s described as the kind of guy who bores the census takers – and Holly even less so – we get not much more than wistful descriptions of her summery smell before the possession turns her into a stinking baby bag. 

Curran captures a lot of the male anxiety around pregnancy, which, as you might have noticed, has become an absolute political nightmare in the US of A. Richard’s wobbly mental state, and the ways he shifts between seeing Holly as Holly, and Holly as this fecund sow-witch that he vividly imagines murdering reminded me of the factoid I learned when I was pregnant myself with my first: American women are more likely to be murdered (usually by the father) when they are pregnant than to die from any other pregnancy-related condition. Spousal (or partner) abuse is more likely to start at pregnancy than any other time. But Curran’s not really interested in such psychological jibber-jabber, and Sow is instead a sticky, straightforward witch-possession story with a lot of gross-out fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. 

Maybe this is just a gendered response on my part. I’m not even kidding when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is absolutely the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever read. It’s freaky for a lot of reasons, but one being the way it broke the mother’s terror into all these perspectives, all bearing down on her, this cacophony of people expressing all the things she cannot about how fucking gross and wrong the whole thing is, leaving her, the mother, smiling beatifically at a baby covered in blood with a full set of teeth. That’s possession, for me, but I admit I have my girl bias. This may work perfectly for dudes as an expression of procreative terror. 

I did really like the almost off-handed descriptions of rotting, rural Midwest. I just drove through 200 miles of the Minnesota outback, and the half-caved farmhouse just klicks down the road from a sign for some shitty office-park in development (“Ask us about our signing bonus!” “Think Barnum for your headquarters!”) spoke to the bleeding rural landscape and its metastasizing suburbanization. There’s a land war out there, fought over the most fertile farmland in the world. That the abandoned piggery would spit forth horror into the mushrooming condos spoke to me. 

So, a fun little thing, shot down in a sitting. I don’t think this is novel length, though I find it hard to determine length in the ebook format. The brevity is a selling point, as there isn’t enough here, in what Curran has decided to take on, for many more pages. More’s the pity, because I think there’s more here.




Thank you to Netgalley and DarkFuse for the ARC. Their novella series is just aces for horror shorts. 

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The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

I don’t feel great about this, but I’m going to abandon The Lives of Tao at the halfway mark. I don’t think it’s bad; I just think it’s not for me. The set-up is fun: it’s a man who knew too little slash buddy cop scenario involving the origin myth for Scientology. Millions of years ago, aliens called Xenu the Quasing crash landed on earth. Being sort of nebulous light-blob beings, they can only exist in the bodies of Earth creatures, kind of like the aliens from The Host. Unlike The Host, there isn’t a love triangle…no wait, just kidding, there totally is. It doesn’t involve the alien though, so phew. The Quasing been busy little alien beavers interfering in the cultural evolution of the human race, and have since split into white hat and black hat factions at war over some philosophical differences that I honestly didn’t track. 

Which is where we are when the novel starts bangingly with a jaded, hunky secret agent dude, who has a white hat alien symbiote called Tao inside him, gets into a big freaking shoot-out and chase scene with the black hats. Hunky agent is killed, and Tao must find another host, and fast. He ends up inside Roen Tan, a chubby IT drone with no real ambition. I was rubbing my hands here, because I can totally dig the whole arguing in your head angle of the symbiote relationship – like in Deep Space Nine when Dax ends up in a symbiote unprepared for such a thing. (It can also be dumb, like the Big Bad from Buffy’s season 5. I get that Glory wasn’t exactly a symbiote, but it’s in the ballpark, and it was mostly used as a goof when Glory’s host dude wakes up in a red dress. Waa waa waa waaaaaa.) 

But it takes six chapters to get Roen and Tao talking, during which I was watching my nails dry for the most part. They have pretty funny conversations, when they have them, and I enjoyed that. But it turns into Roen leveling up, complaining about wanting to eat pizza, and waaaay more confusing backstory than I’m interested in. I’m going to admit right here that I can be a really lazy reader, in that I will ignore complicated mythoses…mythos’s…what is the plural of mythos?…in books, assuming I’ll either get it when I have to, or not get it at all and just enjoy some ass-kicking. There was precious little ass-kicking to divert me from the nail-drying and mythology. 

I get the sense that The Lives of Tao is supposed to be comedy-action – comaction? worst portmanteau ever - but it was light on both, for me anyway. Again, I think a lot of this is me, in that a tech geek getting set up into a love triangle with two hotties doesn’t really ping my reader insert buttons. Also, I just read Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You, which also had an unambitious slob finding miraculous powers, but I felt like that owned some things about slobs and their wish-fulfillment that this didn’t? I may just have slob fatigue. I mean, I am a slob, don’t get me wrong, I just couldn’t find an entrance point here that I felt. It was too long cutting to the chase for me.

But, I did dig Tao’s (somewhat sloppily relayed) musings about Great Men in history, especially because he hits a lot of historical figures that I rarely see in SFFnal stuff. Everyone goes for the Greeks or the Romans, or possibly Persians if they’re feeling expansive, but here Tao hits Genghis Khan pretty hard, and some other foundational figures of various martial arts that I don’t know the names of right now, sorry. (Did I mention I’ve been drinking on this fine evening? Gosh, it is so beautiful out right now. I wish summer would last forever.) Also, and this is not related to the book in any way, but did you know Genghis Khan is a common ancestor for one out of 200 men? Whoa. I could do without some of the historiography, which felt sophomoric and silly, but whatevs. That’s not uncommon to have SFFnal views of history bug me – it can’t be as simple as whether “conflict breeds innovation” because seriously. 

And this is totally my problem, and I don’t expect anyone else to have this problem, but the names didn’t work for me. I get that there are a limited number of phonemes that can be arranged into a limited number of word-sounds that don’t already have meaning, but every.single.time I read the word Quasing, my brain turned it into quisling. And I didn’t read far enough along to get to where this might be thing, but Tao – in that exact spelling – has a meaning already. If it is a thing in the book, where Tao explains that he was inside Lao Tzu, I would freak the fuck right out. Alien symbiote fight-show is awesome, but it has zero to do with Taoism, and any shoehorn job making them relate would displease me. Again, problem with the DNF review is that I didn’t finish, so this might not be an issue. I’m just worried enough to stop before I freak out. 

So, this is one of those unfortunate things where I might have dug this book at another time, or been in more of a mood for it, or a different kind of reader, or something. It’s got back porch read all over it for me, but alas, not this time.


I received my copy from Angry Robot and Netgalley. 

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

About halfway through Fiend: A Novel, I thought, fuck, what am I doing. I’d sworn off drug abuse fiction after Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Christ, already. I get it. Drugs are bad. (And before you go humorless on me, understand that I’m kidding about “drugs are bad” being the PSA of Requiem.) But good thing Greg sent me a message alerting me to the existence of this, because it’s also got zombies and it’s set in the Twin Cities, two things I pretty much adore when they’re done right. This does them right, in my humble, undead, Midwestern opinion. I always fucking knew St Paul was full of zombies. (Minneapolis might be too, but our heroes never venture to my side of the river.) 

Chase is coming off of a week-long tweak when a little girl tears the throat out of a Rottweiler, then attempts to eat his face off too. Being on the end of a meth binge, he’s not so sure she’s real until his friend Typewriter caves in her skull and sets the house on fire. Like 28 Days later or Rick in Walking Dead, Chase and Type have missed the zombie apocalypse in their altered state: turns out everyone died one night, and then the next day, a bunch of ‘em got back up. Following the odd, but mostly unbroken convention in zombie lit, no one calls them zombies. Because the zombies giggle – which is hugely ominous at points, all this soft laughter coming from god knows where, or loudly from behind a straining door – the band of survivors call them Chucks. For the chuckling, you see. And the really fun part: only people high on meth, and continuously high on meth, survive the zombie apocalypse. The tweak shall inherit the earth. 



Concentrations of meth labs in the US. 



The voice is first person, with a stripped down punctuation and almost stream-of-consciousness. I say almost, because its really more stream-of-highass-award. This sort of damaged-by-drugs narration can grate, I find, often taking the lazy way out when it comes to control of the prose or the tone. I found Stenson to be quite good at both, and he just did a masterful job of vacillating through the extreme highs and lows of the junkie. There was a lack of affect and incuriousness running through even the highest sections, so that it wasn’t too precious either (a problem sometimes in druggie lit, I think). Lots of body horror, juicy, yucky descriptions, and repellent metaphors. The horror went comic a lot too, because bodies are funny as often as they are gross. The lack of quote marks on the dialogue was cool, running it so that you sometimes can’t tell if Chase said it or just thought it real loud, and it’s not like he knows or anyone is really listening anyway. The obvious analogy to make here is The Road, but I think it’s much more like The Reapers Are the Angels in terms of use of dialect, idiom, and genre pulpiness. (Though this isn’t nearly as stagy or ponderous, for better or for worse.) Certain punctuation won’t survive the apocalypse, apparently; literacy is as cooked as the meth when you’re dealing with zombies. 

I also really liked the local setting, because I totally know those kids from White Bear Lake – called, uncharitably but accurately “White Boy Lake” around here – who come rolling in with their privilege and rebellion, and then acclimate to the leveling effects of a decade of being strung out. The Hmong cook certainly has some shit to say about Chase and his ilk, and the demarcations of the neighborhoods and landmarks comes from someone who hasn’t just googled that stuff. Locals, heed this passage:

At Summit, the apex of our shitty little town, stands the governor’s mansion with its slabs of imported stone and then the Summit Club, and I picture F. Scott sitting in there writing about Bernice bobbing her hair. From this elevation we can see West Seventh, the flats of St Paul, where we see poor white Chucks shuffle around, tiny as ants, each and every one of them unified in their singleness of mind. Beyond them, across the Mississippi, not really visible, streets like Chavez and Independence, the skin once again darkening. Our city: each neighborhood segregated, first by economics, then by race. Each neighborhood now hosting its own walking dead, its own hidden pockets of shit-smoking motherfuckers trying to find the next hit.

I almost has the fury of Colson Whitehead’s final pan of a zombie New York in Zone One, but St Paul isn’t New York, and Mark Spitz’s averageness is a different coping strategy than being fucked up. Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz could never get up to the grandiloquent bullshit of a junkie, the sine waves of hope and despair; Chase would never ruminate with such urbane disconnect. There’s no taxonomy of survival narrative, just a sloppy, ugly existence from one hit to the next. Plus, really, fury isn’t a Midwestern thing when you get down to it. These autopsies of cities are personal things, and I respond to that personality immensely. I can see my house from here. And it’s on fire.

I thank Netgalley heartily for the ARC, and apologize if I’m not supposed to quote. 

Worm by Tim Curran

an infographic of all the sandworms in fiction: the pit of Saarlac, the things from Beetlejuice, the sandworms from Dune, and the Tremors monsters
from DanMeth.com

Worm is a gross, nasty little smash-and-grab about toilet monsters, and absolutely as fun as that description implies. You know, if you like nasty body horror stuff with a queasy sexual overlay, which I do! Sometimes. Here, anyway. (Sheesh, this review is stupid so far.)

 One fine morning in a possibly Midwestern town, the streets all fill with black, disgusting sewage, like all the underground pipes have flushed onto the street. There’s not a lot of screwing around with characterization or motivations, because really, when you’re being attacked by a blubbery sludge-dripping razor-toothed worm, how much other motivation do you need? 

I wasn’t very into this at first because the first character you meet is one of those unemployed assholes who’s dealing with his (supposed) emasculation by being a total fuckwit about his wife and dog. If it’s such a chore to have someone feed and clothe you, then GTFO. But that’s before I realized that this story wasn’t going to be about whatever interpersonal gender blahblah, but ass-eating toilet monsters. The sludge in the streets starts bubbling up through the sinks and drains and (yay!) toilets. All the possible gross permutations of phallic sewage monsters with chainsaw-ish teeth killing people are explored, including a few that surprised me. Go toilet monsters! 

Unlike the various sandworms from fiction I can think of – and Tremors is probably the best comparison here, though that’s more intentionally campy – these are sewage worms, and as such, are pretty great. I almost always think that horror novels should be shorter than they are, unless they’re, like, psychological and shizz, so the brevity here is good: gross out, gross out, gross out, BIG BOSS, the end. Worm is apparently one in a series of horror novellas put out by Dark Fuse, and I have totally put in for a couple more of them from Netgalley (which is where I got this one.) 

I’m a sucker for pulp imprints, because while they put out a lot of dross, the experimental nature of the manifesto can result in some really electric stuff. This wasn’t one of the electric stuffs, for me anyway, but slogging through the sludge is part of the fun of pulp, and that’s made horribly manifest here. Toilet monsters’re gonna getchu!

Eleanor & Park: Alternate Histories

I kind of wanted to jump out of my skin the whole time reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – which I did in a single, compulsive sitting – because Eleanor is one of my best friends growing up. One of my best friends now, really, but I knew her back in 1986 too. There are differences. Amy wasn’t nearly as withdrawn, and got into a lot more fights. I don’t think she would ever voluntarily listen to the Smiths either – hair metal was much more the thing – but the fundamentals are all there: the home life, the poverty, the complete and total sense of being stuck and stuck forever. She had big sweaters and a lot of hair and mistrust, and pretty much everyone she knew had earned that mistrust twice. And then a third time, because that was the charm. So many of the details of Eleanor, just little things, made my throat strangle because I knew exactly what they meant, what they were covering for, even if Eleanor herself didn’t. Oh Lord. 

Which is funny, because tonally, this story is a little dopey. I don’t mean that dismissively, more with affection towards my younger self. Eleanor is the new kid in an Omaha high school, and on the first ugly day on the bus, she ends up sitting next to Park. Park’s not an outcast exactly. He’s from the neighborhood, and has those weird, long relationships that neighborhood kids have with even the popular jerks. (When my bff Alicia got into a fight with Olivia, another neighborhood girl, Olivia pulled some dirty shit on me later. But I knew Olivia’s house and her mom, and we’d hang out occasionally if no one else was on the street. Because it’s neighborhood, you know? It’s not like you’re getting out until you figure out how to use the bus system, and even then.) But Park’s mom’s Korean, so even though he’s neighborhood, and his dad is neighborhood, and his grandparents are neighborhood, people look at him and see the only Asian kid for miles. “That’s not even the right kind of racist,” Park deadpans when his friend says something stupid. 

Eleanor and Park fall into a strange, wordless courtship (sorry, hugely dorky word choice there) predicated on comics and mix tapes and never looking each other in the eye. I know, gag. Double gag. But it totally works, because Rowell knows how weird you are, and what a spaz, and how it’s all so embarrassing you’re going to die. How you think that everyone can see that your brain is absolutely covered in ants. And she knows how to write a hand-holding scene that makes me want to freak out. There was this one time, sitting in this boy’s car, where I knew if he didn’t kiss me I was going to die. I was also going to die if he kissed me, and then he did, and the ants escaped my brain and ran all over my skin. Shee-it. 

The middle of Eleanor & Park goes a little slack, I think because the book has an almost claustrophobic focus on the two of them. It’s not that the supporting cast is weak – I think Rowell can pull off some very concise character work when she does it – but, as I said, the focus is pretty tight. I can dig why in some ways – the novel is called Eleanor & Park, and the claustrophobia mirrors the ant-covered feelings of young love – but I think it weakens the motivations. Eleanor’s siblings could be better fleshed out, especially the brother closest to her age. They would have had more of a thing, I think. Her school friends also don’t factor like they should. Also, if you hate eye-gazing and romantic love, you should probably steer clear of this novel. Both those things make me itch, but I didn’t mind them here, fwiw. 

Two things: I don’t know if I would have loved this story if I didn’t love an Eleanor, and if I hadn’t been a kiddo in the late 80s. I don’t know if any of this 80s stuff would figure to someone born in 1986. (Who would be the young adult in the target audience, if my math isn’t disastrous.) Which is not to say that Rowell lays on the 80s with a trowel, not like a lot of half-assed fictions which use referents in lieu of character (cf.The Wedding Singer, et al.) Even then, I don’t know that this difference between the Smiths and Sex Pistols (who Eleanor hates) would mean anything at all. My musical understandings of the era are completely weak – I recently, embarrassingly identified the Guns N Roses album “Appetite for Destruction” as “Welcome to the Jungle” (I know, right?) – but I had enough cousins, ex-boyfriends, older brothers and ambient whatever to know precisely what that all meant, even if I’m shit for titles.

But I did have an Eleanor, and even a Park less so. I had a mid-80s upbringing in a Midwestern town with the same stupid racial and class divisions, with the same stupid neighborhood ins-and-outs. I totally get Eleanor and Park and everyone they know. As a first novel, I don’t think that Rowell is speaking to anything but the choir though; she isn’t explaining the neighborhood lingo to the outsiders. Which is fine in some ways: fuck you assholes for not getting it. But it narrows the audience for sure, and I want to gesture to other book by Ms Rowell, Attachments, which runs this Midwestern claustrophobia with more adroitness and expansion. 

My Eleanor did not have her story work out like this Eleanor at all. My Amy’s young life was hard and unsparing and cruel. So it both hurt and staunched the wound a bit to see an Eleanor find someone like Park. It was like watching an alternate history, one where the neighborhood wasn’t a barrel of crabs who would drag you under just because they were drowning as well. I kind of want to send a carefully folded letter to Ms Rowell (can I call you Rainbow?) with a sloppy, earnest entreaty for her to be my friend? Check this box. Please. I am in love with her for giving my Eleanor a Park. Maybe it’s hopelessly romantic, but it’s absolutely the sweetest thing, and I thank her for it with all my heart. <3

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.