Archive for February, 2010

Mr. Squishy – Story Review

February 26, 2010

Mr. Squishy is a dense, jargon filled, lumbering behemoth of horror. Except I don’t think horror is the correct term. Terror or dread are much closer to the truth, for Mr. Squishy and for the collection as a whole, in describing the feeling fostered by its reading. Mr. Squishy is a 64 page story built around the machinations of an ad agency, their focus group for a product of high end snack cakes, and the levels of secrecy, of study, and of office politics that layer over each other.

Throughout the work we are barraged with lingo, with jargon, with symbols I frankly don’t know if there is a greater meaning to outside of their being a simple symbol used for naming. For instance, one group is designated by a triangle with a y immediately following it. Having never taken a marketing class, or involved in any type of advertising corporate structure, I can only take such a symbol, first, at face value and then see if such a symbol can also have a meaning within the story but which is disconnected from any “real world” meaning the symbol may have in marketing.

The rampant use of jargon/symbols/etc. combined with Wallace’s signature maximalist density is something that nearly made the story a non-starter for the collection as a whole. Whether the story is really a masterpiece whose complexity is so great that I simply can not appreciate it for what it is or it is just a cumbersome piece of work that lumbers along beneath the weight of its own over-written immensity, I’m not sure. Either way, I’m not sure it was the best way to begin a story collection but is something Wallace can get away with by the simple weight of his reputation.

Perhaps the language was meant to help foster this idea of otherness, of terror, of displacing the reader into an uncomfortable world where the language is near foreign (it would be interesting to see how this story would be translated to foreign language and how much of the dense jargon is kept and how much is replaced by an erstwhile translator trying to make it more “accessible”).  But it’s too jarring to have this effect, at least within the context of the story. Instead, it creates a tension outside of the story, constantly removing you from the reading with a state of discomfort. It could be that Wallace was gunning for a Brecthian response, creating a work so jarring that it forces the reader to disconnect from the work to give the work greater thought and to force the passive viewer into active participation with the text, but this isn’t something that is consistant with other stories within the collection or with Wallace’s past. While his other works can be lengthy/cumbersome/etc., they can also be accessible – something this work can not claim to be in any real shape or form.

A way to read Mr. Squishy that might be more rewarding would be to read it as a bleak satire on case studies and business management course material. Not only is the story filled with specialized verbage but it also written with a certain disconnect that is reminiscent of college text books. Full of information, ordered in a seemingly coherent (but strangely inaccessible manner), it smacks of a $112 text book a student is forced to buy once, use for three semesters and never open again.

In the end, I think this was just a story that didn’t quite work. The idea of exploring the drama within an ad agency doing focus group testing that is just the facade for other tests being done upon the test takers in an effort to even more narrowly refine the information gleaned from the focus group testing, and repeating this over and over to construct a multi-layered conspiracy worthy of The X-File s (but minus the aliens)(maybe) has a lot of potential and Wallace was a writer who could be counted on to do something different, complex and interesting with it. Only his work seems to buckle a bit beneath the weight of its own complexity.

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar – Review

February 24, 2010

Outside of his comic book success, it would probably be easy to call Harvey Pekar a failure. He slinked through high school, avoiding anything that might have been a challenge. He washed out of the Navy. He ditched college. He jumped from job to job, blowing opportunity after opportunity to begin setting himself up for a pretty decent life. He had a habit of getting into fights to boost his self-esteem, he was uncomfortable approaching women, and he spent massive amounts of time in his room listening to jazz records. But along the way he also found himself being successful at writing criticism for jazz magazines. He became a primary figure in underground comics. A critically acclaimed, box office hit movie was created based on his comic American Splendor. And, perhaps his greatest achievement in many ways, he found long lasting love with his third wife and adopted daughter. 

So what is the title all about? Well, it seems to go hand in  hand with a string that ran through the early part of Pekar’s life: his ability and willingness to quit anything the moment it showed the least bit difficulty. The Navy. College. Women. etc. etc. etc. Pekar blames this trait, at least partially, on a crippling lack of self-esteem fed by an overly critical and depressed mother and a father with whom he shared nothing concerning culture, social views or anything. 

Pekar’s success in life, in comics, seems to stem from his eventual overcoming of this fear. It was his success as a jazz critic that seemed to have stemmed the tide of self-doubt and provide the stepping stone for his later determination and success as a comic writer. 

One of the things that I find most interesting with “Quitter” is the conversational tone of the work. It reminds me very much of a script. Stage directions are provided but the real meat of the story is in the dialog. Even in panels where the exposition isn’t dialog, Pekar’s writing makes it feel as if he is in the room telling you the story. It is a trait of a story teller and is immediately engaging. Such a conversational tone engages the reader in a way that a more distanced tone is incapable of.

An interesting note about Pekar’s work is that he doesn’t do the illustrations. While I am sure he has a definite hand in the work created, he is still largely only half of  the team. While the story is autobiographical and the words are Pekar’s, the story is essentially told through the interpretation of another. The illustrator of Quitter, Dean Haspiel, is someone who has worked with Pekar in the past. He’s the creator of a couple of romance  comics, Billy Dogma and Opposable Thumbs, as well as having illustrated for DC, Marvel and Dark Horse comics. Considering the visual nature of comics, I wonder if this doesn’t take away from the credibility of one of the narrators, either the writer or the illustrator. The text matches up well with the illustration, but considering the effect small things from facial expressions to stances to shading can affect how a panel is viewed and interpreted, there is a clear possibility for one to provide an interpretation of the story that might be different from the intended interpretation the other half of the story telling might desire to communicate.

For anyone familiar with Pekar’s work, Quitter won’t disappoint. For anyone unfamiliar with it, the graphic novel won’t present any difficulties in allowing you to access his world and may even provide a good stepping stone for fleshing out Pekar’s ongoing life narrative through his American Splendor comics.

Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt – Review

February 21, 2010

Looking through Byatt’s collection, the strong feminist slant is the single most impossible to ignore thread looping from one story to the next. From the girls learning to survive as women from the experience with The Thing in the Woods to an older woman finding definition for her life after the passing of her mother as she gradually turns to stone and slips into a different plane of being to a woman possibly materializing a younger version of herself to push her abusive husband into senility.  Gothic fiction was never something I had much interest in so learning a bit more about it has been a bit of a crash course. But what I’ve found most interesting about the strength and transformation of the women characters is that it seems to take a convention of gothic fiction and put it on its head.  The women seemed to have been the weaker sex, always fainting, fates forever at the hands of their masculine counterparts. The most active part they would take would be allowing themselves to be seduced by a guy more virile and “masculine” than her husband.

With Byatt, the idea of the heroine being defined as either the fainting damsel in distress or the Lover in Need goes out the window. All of the women are searching for more than that, are defined by more than that, are stronger than that. If anything, they take on the roles traditionally given to men in gothic fiction. Dr. Frankenstein is wrestling with matters of existence, trying to usurp the role of God for himself in conquering death while the heroine in A Stone Woman has a similar goal but transforms herself rather than creating a monster from harvested limbs and organs.

The Thing in the Forest is the most traditional Gothic work in that it takes place at an old mansion and the surrounding woods where nature literally rears up and leaves its mark upon the two young women. But instead of fainting, and despite living lives scarred by the event, they come around in the end as true heroines and use the event as a way of regaining control of their lives through the attempt of shedding light upon the horror that had befallen them.

I have to admit, I attempted to find some critical work involving the Little Black Book of Stories but I came up empty. Critical work on Byatt as a whole seemed lacking compared to what I had expected to find. So for the criticism minded reader, I think there might be fertile untouched ground on Byatt as long as you don’t mind avoiding her work Possession.

Links to Story Reviews:

The Thing In The Forest

Body Art

A Stone Woman

Raw Material

The Pink Ribbon

The Pink Ribbon – story review

February 15, 2010

A few days removed and the concluding story to A.S. Byatt’s collection, The Black Book of Stories, still doesn’t entirely come together for me. You have a man taking care for his demented wife. He torments her in small ways, such as giving her a pink ribbon when she hates the color pink and a hideous green teletubby instead of the red one he knows she would prefer. At the same time, the demented wife talks to “ghosts,” apparent memories of her past that materialize and make themselves real for her and with whom she talks with and about on a daily basis. The husband begins taking out some of his frustrations on the green teletubby, sticking pins through its belly.

Then a mysterious woman shows up on his doorstep on late night, running from an apparent attacker. She is mysterious, sexy, dressed in red, etc. and over this and a following visit, appears to know far more about him and his wife than she should – including that his wife hates pink and would have preferred the red teletubby. And, at least I was, left to wonder if this woman is some sort of materialization of the wife when she was younger and working in “Intelligence” while her husband was fighting WWII or if she is purely a figment of the husband’s mind as he falls into madness or if she is something else entirely, a creature born from thought but not of this world. After all, there are physical reminders of her having been in the apartment such as her lipstick on a drinking glass…or could the lipstick be imagined, too, and the woman who helps the husband be reacting to the presence of the drinking glass and not some imagined lipstick?

For my money, I like the idea that it’s the old man’s conscience coming back to bite him on the proverbial ass. Having the mysterious woman be a figment of his deranged imagination, perhaps also fueled by a growing alcoholism, and a re-imagining of his wife in her youth seems fitting. The wife gets a measure of vengeance for the mistreatment she has suffered at the hands of her husband while the husband is effectively taunted a bit by the image of his wife of better faculties. It would also fit with the theme of his wife suffering from visitations by imagined agents of the past –  a symptom of the wife’s madness coming full circle to visit upon her husband.

Also, it would make the silence of the other helper woman more understandable. It is made out that her and the husband have a fairly close, though non-romantic, relationship. Finding out that he is occasionally being visited by a woman with red lipstick seems to be an item that would be fair to discussion with them. However, noticing an increase in empty drinking glasses, and a growing dementia with the old man would be something that would inspire silence. Her silence seems to be a more appropriate reaction for the realization that his faculties are dimming rather than the realization that he has a visitor.

The pink ribbon itself seems much like a bookmark. In fact, across the cover of Byatt’s book, The Black Book of Stories, is a pink ribbon such as the bookmarks woven into the spines of books past. Taking it as a bookmark, it also seems fitting for a running analogy of lives left off at some point to be picked up again later. As the husband and wife went separate ways to fight the war, one to the trenches and one to the desk and alleys, the impression is that the life they were leading before was never resumed in quite the same way. The returned to their marriage but their roles were effectively inverted (she made more money in him as she continued her spy work) and the old dynamic seemed to be lost. This is not to mention the veil of secrecy that fell over his wife’s life where her work was concerned and how a fair deal of her day to day existence was effectively hidden from him.

Raw Material – story review

February 11, 2010

The fourth story in Little Black Book of Stores is Raw Material, a story of a man who makes a living teaching writing classes that are taken by people who largely write self-involved stories that are less than excellent. Tied to his spectacularly unspectacular classes is his own inability to continue his own writing career. His first book sold well years before, the second flopped, and he has sold nothing since and is agentless. All of this changes when an old woman takes his class and begins submitting work that is leaps and bounds above not only the work of the other students but of the teacher himself.

Predictably, the students react with a fervent ugliness, displaying a creativity in their cruelty that they lack in their actual writing. While the teacher attempts to defend it, knowing that the old woman’s work is the “real thing” and feeling it rekindling his own latent creative energies, the old woman herself simply accepts the cruelty and sits through it.

Of course the story ends horribly with the teacher going out to the old woman’s house to inform her that she had won a contest she had been unknowingly entered into by the teacher. She is found naked, badly beaten and scarred on the floor with a crazy human thing nearby acting like a crazy human thing. The story ends with the fact that this news is greeted by a grotesque cheerfulness by the class, the teacher knowing that the following week will breed a host of stories about the old woman’s gruesome death and mysterious lodger who appeared to not only have killed her but to have beaten and scarred her for throughout much of her life – as many of the scars on the old woman’s body were far from fresh.

It seems to be that the old woman has never written before, that this is her first foray into the form. Her success melding life story with creative license is a counterpoint to the teacher’s near lack of life story. After publishing his first novel and failing with his second, he sunk into that life of teaching but never really incorporated what he was learning through living into his work. It mentions how he would occasionally lift and idea or two from his students and try to improve upon them but that these never really went anywhere. While it is mentioned that the teacher believes writing shouldn’t be therapeutic, after learning of the old woman’s home life, it is shown that her stories are at least drawn from her experiences and very likely are at least marginally therapeutic.

Maybe this is an admonition for writers who try to live only as writers while running out of things to say. There is something to be said for living life for the reason of living it while focusing on turning it into some sort of best seller as a purely secondary thing. To gather the “raw material” to fuel the creative process, the ore needs to be mined through experience.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan – Review

February 10, 2010

The Keep is a novel centering around two stories, one about two cousins coming together 20 years after a horrible act committed by one against the other, the second focused around a woman teaching creative writing at a prison. There’s a clear metafictional quality to the work and you are left with the inability to trust any of the narrators.

Still, it was a work that left me unsatisfied. The whole metafictional aspect of it doesn’t win brownie points from me. Writers have been writing about other writers writing for too long to care about. It’s nice but it doesn’t hook me.

The problem, for me, is that I’m not entirely sure what my problem is. It was an enjoyable read, it was a quick read. Part of my problem are the characters. They don’t seem fleshed out and the Mom on Drugs character seems like someone recycled ad nauseum. This is something my girlfriend and I talked about the other day at lunch, how the recovering drug addict seems to be everywhere now. It seems as if we live in a world where drug addicts no longer exist but only recovering drug addicts and all recovering drug addicts are characters with clear weaknesses trying to be strong. It seems as if there can’t be characters who are essentially good but who also happen to kinda do heroin on the side. The days of Sherlock Holmes are gone.

Of course, there’s always the refutation that the story in The Keep is secondary to what it says about writing itself, to the very metafictional qualities that I shove to the side. And to this I say we must simply come from separate schools of writing/reading. I am not a believer in books with a message as the message sending being the primary goal. I think you end up with works that ultimately come up short of their intended goals and leave much promise unfulfilled. The example I think is best is Ayn Rand. She is clearly pushing a philosophy of her writing but the philosophy just gets in the way of her story telling. She seems to set on making a point rather than telling a good tale and the work suffers because of it.

The Keep strikes me as a work in a similar vein. The metafictional qualities it has, its exploring of authorship, its doubling of stories back over the other, are nice talking points but could have been more interesting had the stories themselves been more engaging. As it is, The Keep feels more like an exercise in metafiction than an attempt at a novel.

However, none of this is to say it’s a bad read. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read and it makes me curious about what other work Egan has done.

A Stone Woman – Story Review

February 3, 2010

The third story in A.S. Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories is “Stone Woman.” It follows a  woman named Ines, who is grieving over the death of her mother. She doesn’t have a significant other, she works mainly from home, and the only thing in her life is this grief. Then she begins to slowly turn to stone. The process is such that, eventually, she decides to wander around and try to find a suitable place for her to eventually solidify into what she seems to expect to be some sort of living statue. So only naturally she finds herself wandering around a cemetery, because where else do big statues of people gather, and she’s finding it entirely unsatisfactory when she comes across an Icelander named Thorstein who has set up shop for the winter, stone carving and repairing the more dilapidated sculptures in the cemetery. He informs that Iceland is very much okay with women who turn to stone and agrees to take her there if she allows him to study her gradual transformation and to “track it” (presumably through work of his own). They go, she changes, and skips off to the mountains to dance, quite literally, with other bizarre creatures that exist just beyond the perceptive abilities of us normal humans but which are easily noticed by rock women.

From what I recall neither Ines nor Thorstein are given ages but I got the impression that Thorstein was maybe in his forties while Ines in her fifties. Neither seem overly sociable, or at least have many or any notable friends. Given how old Ines seems and how attached to her mother she appears to have been, she almost seems a spinster living alone her whole life, never having a romantic entanglement and for whom their parents are the only important pillars in their social existence. I’m not sure what it says that the only way Ines could transform from this existence to some sort of new existence was to turn to stone with molten lava for blood. She doesn’t seem to blossom into the world as much as bypass and forge into a new world entirely.

Is this what it is like for a woman, grown past adult, left truly alone for the first time and having to find a way to subsist and to find their niche in existence? Perhaps. The fact that her blood turns, literally, lava hot can be seen as a positive thing – the heat of life has visited her, she is living again, but she still has that harsh exterior (and perhaps interior, as well) to separate her from the world around her in literal and figurative ways.

then there is the fact that the only person, the only man, to befriend her is a foreigner who is as outside to her own society as he is. And that this foreigner transports her and her new strangeness to a new land which is the only place she has any hope of fitting in.

It might also be worth noting that, so far, the only two primary male characters have both been somewhat detached from the world around them, interpreting it in ways that are at once intriguing but also foreign and even somewhat scary.