Monday, November 21, 2011

Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee, 63/100

Read Muumuu House's most recent publication, Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee, a poetry collection by Megan Boyle. I was really excited to read it, being a fan of her blog (, twitter, and ThoughtCatalog articles (including the classic Top Ten Things to Imagine Happening to Nicolas Cage as He's on His Way to a Dentist Appointment he has Postponed for Three Years).

The first word that comes to mind in regard to this collection is "funny." The second is "honest." The third is possibly "relatable" and/or "internet."

Boyle's collection is an amalgamation of chronological blog posts and poems, describing her daily actions, thoughts -- pre-meditated and stream of consciousness -- confessions, memories, and self-reflection. It brought to mind that Jean-Philippe Toussaint quote I posted yesterday:

literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the "not interesting," the "not edifying," on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books

and from the same interview

The problem with the idea of the "minimalist novel" is that it's very simplistic. The term "minimalist" calls to mind the infinitely small, whereas "infinitesimal" evokes the infinitely large as much as the infinitely small: it contains the two extremes that should always be found...

Boyle's collection contains the infinitely large and the infinitely small. Large ideas like the difficulty of human connection, small actions like eating noodles and "surfing the web."

But can I stop waxing literary and say that I really really really really really enjoyed reading this book?

Here are some passages:

i could never be a sports writer, unless my assignment was to write 'sports sports sports sports sports' for three pages

i want to delete everything from someone's computer except a giant microsoft paint picture of a dick that takes forever to load

am i consciously trying to think interesting thoughts because i think i'm going to write this down later? am i actually interesting or do i just want to construct a view myself as 'interesting' so i can feel like i shouldn't die? 'interesting' seems mostly dependent on other people's perceptions, less on mine, maybe. or more like my idea of what will 'interest' others. if other people didn't exist i wouldn't worry if i was interesting or not

i keep thinking about updating my blog, twitter, and facebook with 'AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH,' then leaving the internet indefinitely

it feels like i could die in 50 years or tomorrow and the world would be relatively the same place

there would still be trees and people loving each other and killing each other

i feel insane and maybe on the verge of some kind of breakdown right now, like i'm not even sure what the internet is right now, i feel like i've taken a lot of pills but i've just had hummus, pita bread, an apple, some oreos, coffee, water, and birth control

i would like to matter to every person in the world

i would like every person in the world to matter to me

neither of those things will ever happen

i strongly feel that everything is and always will be okay while walking from subway to my apartment, holding a sandwich and a diet coke, usually around 9PM, seeing maybe two other people on the street and very few cars

when i close my apartment door and turn on the lights something changes in my stomach and i think 'shouldn't there be something else, something is missing'

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Camera, 62/100

Finished the slim but worthwhile Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew Smith. The novel follows the thoughts and actions of a Parisian man as he pursues a relationship with a driver's ed instructor. The style of writing, what you might call minimalist or matter-of-fact, combined with the narrator's actions, had me convinced in the beginning that the man was possibly a psycho or murderer. I was prepared for something dark and grisly. This is what happens when you pick up a book and start reading without looking at the back cover or any reviews or descriptions. That, and you've been reading American Psycho for ten months.

But here's why my mind was set on him being a psychopath. The man is presumed to be older and doesn't have a driver's license. He goes to sign up for driver's ed classes, doesn't have all the application materials necessary, and keeps returning every day to the driver's ed office without them just so he can hang out with one of the employees. And by hang out I don't mean have conversations with, but just to be in the office with her. I found it terribly creepy, although the back of the book describes it as a "love story."

Perhaps I'm sensitive to this particular brand of creepy, since I once had a workplace stalker. A library patron who would play solitaire on our computers, waiting for me to get off work so he could follow me out and try to start one-sided conversations. Possibly wouldn't be so creepy if I hadn't lied and told him I was engaged, and wasn't interested. Several times. Creepers please stop with the creeping.

The story in Camera turns out not to be creepy or murdery at all. Instead it is an account of an uneventful period of time in the self-obsessed narrator's life, not special for any particular reason, but given importance through description of his activities and his thoughts.

Take the very first line:
It was about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The novel is split into two focuses (foci?): the first half dealing with "the struggle of living," and the second half with the "despair of being," both lines used by the narrator.

In the "struggle of living," most of the narration is centered on his actions -- step-by-step the things he physically does during the day. Often sprinkled with extreme detail. Think of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" when he spends nearly ten pages describing the house and its surroundings, except with this guy eating an olive. In an interview with the author he refers to this mode of writing:

Underlying my novel is, although it isn't expressed theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the "not interesting," the "not edifying," on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

In the "despair of being" the narrator slips into philosophical thought, with his self-obsession turning from "what I am doing" to "what am I doing here?" Self reflection not of the body but of the mind.

It was night now in my mind, I was alone in the semi-darkness of the booth and I was thinking, protected from outer torments. The most favorable conditions for thinking, the moments when thought can let itself naturally follow its course, are precisely moments when, having temporarily given up fighting a seemingly inexhaustible reality, the tension begins to loosen little by little, all the tension accumulated in protecting yourself against the threat of injury...and that, alone in an enclosed space, alone and following the course of your thoughts in a state of growing relief, you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.

The novel never becomes grisly, but it does turn a bit dark.

A nice read, and I'll be looking into Toussanit's other work in the future.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

When She Woke, 61/100

The premise behind Hillary Jordan's When She Woke is what made me grab it. In a near-dystopian future (when will I tire of dystopian fiction?), Hannah Payne awakens in jail with her skin dyed bright red -- her punishment for having an abortion.

When She Woke is a re-imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but it is also heavily influenced by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In Jordan's dystopian future, a sterility epidemic has caused an under-population crisis. In some countries women are subjected to forced insemination. In the U.S., Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and the government has devolved into a dictatorial theocracy.

A feature of this new society is a process called "chroming" -- a form of punishment alternative to prison, in which citizens are punished for their crimes by being dyed a color relative to their offense. These "chromes" are then shunned, discriminated against, abused, and in some cases hunted once released back into society. Hannah Payne (think Hester Prynne) is guilty of murder in the eyes of the people: she had an illegal abortion to save the reputation of the already married father.

Not everything about chroming or the logistics of this dystopian world really sticks together or remains believable from beginning to end. But it's not meant to be. It's more of a plot-device to explore the concepts of guilt, faith, and dogma.

Some might consider the novel having an anti-Christian slant, and it definitely focuses on questioning the standard practices and doctrine of evangelical religion. However, I wouldn't consider it anti-god or anti-faith. The protagonist is a deeply religious young woman who, through her chroming experience, comes to question and ultimately rebel against the theocracy governing her. Her faith in god is explored, but never completely denounced.

Similarly the novel takes a pro-choice stance, but acknowledges the complexity of the issue. Hannah retains a feeling of personal guilt and responsibility for her action which she explores, while simultaneously refusing the guilt placed upon her by the puritanical society she lives in.

Jordan provides the best answer for the abortion argument: "It's personal."

...the procedure. Hannah remembered how the term, along with the other equally clinical and dispassionate words he'd used, had calmed her. She saw in retrospect that they had in fact enabled her to go through with it. You didn't temporize, much less agonize, over a procedure, you proceeded with it. A procedure didn't induce regret or require expiation. But how different the scenario became when you substituted words like "murder" and "abomination." The truth of it, Hannah thought now, lay somewhere in between. She'd ended her pregnancy out of love and fear and necessity. It hadn't been simply a procedure, but neither had it been an atrocity.

I would consider When She Woke to be YA fiction, despite it not being classified as such. I'm sure the publishers decided not to market it this way to avoid controversy with parents over it's subject matter. But everything about the way it's written and the way the subjects are approached point directly to YA. How disappointing that a book which could help young adults work through issues of faith and sexuality won't find it's way into their hands. I'm sure if the book was about actual murder, full-fledged and gruesome, it would be sitting right there on the school library shelf next to Twilight.

Friday, November 18, 2011

American Psycho, 60/100

The very first substantial piece of creative fiction I remember writing, as a junior in high school, was a short story about a well-dressed business man who attempts to murder a woman he approaches on the street. From what I remember it was horribly-written, tied up with a great big moral at the end, along the lines of "don't trust appearances!" or the like. Little did I know this premise had already been used 10 years previously by Bret Easton Ellis.

I've been reading American Psycho since February, which has kept me in a constant state of paranoia and anxiety nearly the entire year. If you're not familiar with the novel or film adaptation, let me fill you in:

The story is told in the first-person by the protagonist Patrick Bateman; an extremely wealthy, young, good-looking Wall Street investment banker in the late 1980s. By day at least. On his own time he's a psychotic serial killer, torturer, and rapist.

Bateman narrates his day-to-day activities, which for the most part revolve around materialism and participation in Manhattanite and yuppie culture. There are pages and pages of him and his colleagues going to nightclubs, doing drugs, talking about fashion, and discussing proper etiquette and popular culture. It's a life obsessed and saturated with consumerism. There are endless descriptions of designer clothing and products, name-brands thrown into every sentence. I'm guessing at least 100 pages are dedicated entirely to describing what people wear.

Let's put it to the test. I just did a search in the ebook format, and the word "wearing" is used 208 times. 208 times in 438 pages.

But all of this is Bateman's surface persona. The guise he's undertaken to appear human. He's studied what he believes human behavior to be, through movies, TV, and catalogs, so he knows how to act. A mask of sanity.

This is my reality. Everything outside of this is like some movie I once saw.

Surface, surface, surface was all anyone found meaning in...this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged...

There's a lot going on this novel, and I can see how people could go different directions with the meaning. It could act as an indictment against yuppie culture and the Wall Street elite, who are greatly satirized (spending gross amounts of money on meaningless things, cruel and heartless towards the poor, compare business cards to see whose is better, etc.) An exposure of unfair capitalism and separation between classes. Bateman's attitude toward the poor and needy -- almost all of his victims are dependent: beggars, prostitutes, animals, children -- is that of total disgust. Like Ayn Rand if she were a psychotic murderer. How apt that I finished reading this at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Or the novel could work as an indictment against human consumerist behavior in general, elite or not. 1% or 99%. Patrick Bateman isn't human. Being a materialistic pop culture obsessed asshole is his human disguise -- what he considers to be the norm.

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other... There wasn't a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being--flesh, blood, skin, hair--but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

On the other hand it could be a study of how a psychotic mind works.

When his mask of sanity slips, he indulges his dark impulses by viciously torturing and killing people. He progressively becomes worse throughout the novel, with relatively little violence happening the first third of the book, to WOW, I DIDN'T KNOW THAT WAS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE by the end.

The chapter titles give you a good heads up:

Ch. 2: Morning
Ch. 7: Health Club
Ch. 13: Video Store then D'Agostino's
Ch. 18: Lunch
Ch. 22: Killing Dog
Ch. 38: Killing Child at Zoo
Ch. 44: Tries to Cook and Eat Girl
Ch. 45: Taking an Uzi to the Gym

The novel's very graphic and extreme depictions of violence, primarily towards women, has made it controversial. In many countries it cannot be sold to minors, and stays shrink-wrapped until sold. I haven't seen the 2000 film adaptation, but it was only given an R rating, so I can guarantee you it's fluffy in comparison.

I wanted to hate this book, but I couldn't, being so well-written. It's one of the best books I've read this year. If there was a way to read it again, skipping all the extreme violence and endless descriptions of ties and dress socks, I would do so right now. But it could never be a favorite book. In fact I don't think I could be friends with someone who listed American Psycho as their favorite book. And definitely wouldn't spend any time alone with them.

So was there a point or need for all the graphic violence in the novel? Could Ellis have gotten his point across without that scene with the girl, burning acid, a starving rat, brie cheese, and one of those play mouse tunnels? (whatever you're thinking, yeah, that's what he did).

Here's Ursula Le Guin's take on violence in literature:

Can fiction still really flabbergast its readers, shock, shake, amaze, dumbfound, disturb, frighten them? Or can it merely continue meeting the expectations of those whose literary diet consists of revelations of infamy, perverted sexuality, violent injustice, monstrous brutalism, physical deformity, deliberate cruelty, and the mutual infliction of misery on one another by the members of dysfunctional suburban families?

These are revelations?

Is it news to most readers over five that people can be really, really mean to each other?

Or do they just like to read about it?

They do. I do. I sit open-jawed, horrified, enchanted to watch Atreus’s or Hamlet’s dysfunctional families destroy everybody who comes in contact with them in the process of destroying themselves. I am fascinated by Heathcliff’s cruelty and Ahab’s wicked madness and Lennie’s innocent murderousness.

But I don’t think Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Bronte, Melville, or Steinbeck were writing to horrify, to shock or frighten or sicken, to sear eyeballs or to wrench guts. They were aware of audience, oh yes indeed, but their intentions were not violent. They were not in assault mode. A writer whose intention is to frighten and distress the reader has a very aggressive program and a very limited goal. Serious writers want to do something beyond asserting power over their audience, beyond self-satisfaction, beyond personal gain — even though they may want all those things very much.

I'm not sure I can answer whether Ellis was going for pure shock value, without intention, or if the extremity of Bateman's actions was meant to illicit something more from the reader. Possibly it's a way of undermining the "moral voice" that's so prevalent in literature (as it was in my high school story). This time the reader gets to be the moral conscience.

Some moral conscience I am though, being unable to stop laughing out loud after reading the following line:

In the kitchen I try to make meatloaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skins I ripped from her body, then I rest by watching a tape of last week's new CBS sitcom, Murphy Brown.

I am a horrible, horrible human being.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wilson, Ghost World, 58-59/100

Here's a short post, basically just updating the numbers on what I've read.

Finished Wilson by graphic novelist Daniel Clowes a few weeks ago. It's about the unlikeable Wilson, a middle-aged guy who's honest to a fault. The kind of guy who will start up a one-sided conversation with you in Starbucks, and turn it into a rant against society. You know that guy. But because he's honest, he's still relatable. He says what we're all thinking.

Here's two panels I liked:

I used to fantasize about being is prison and having time to read/think. What a privileged, surburban thing to fantasize over. Even though I've never lived in a suburb.

The panels are done in newspaper style, with the art style on each page being different, and every page being a new "chapter." I loved the alternating art work. But the setup got a little old by the end. Since every page has to be self-contained, they followed the same pattern: Wilson talking or doing something brash, awkward silence, one-liner by Wilson. Repeat. It was okay, but no one wants to read an entire book of Garfield, even if Garfield ranted against consumerism or went to prison (presumably for killing Nermal).

It was fun, but I think the biggest thing I'll remember about this book was that Wilson bears a striking resemblance to Drew from Toothpaste for Dinner.

When writing this "review" I tried to find my review of Ghost World, the other Daniel Clowes book I've read, but realized I never actually did a post on it. Whoops! Really thought I did. I could swear I remember scanning pages from it. I think I just mentioned it one day and made a Steve Buscemi joke.

Rather than do a full review, which would require a reread and some scanning, I'm just going to leave you with the fact that it's really good and you should consider reading it. Lisa Simpson concurs.



Monday, November 7, 2011

Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs, 57/100

Read Ellen Kennedy's book of poetry, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs, the second book I've read from publisher Muumuu House. Started by Tao Lin in 2008, Muumuu House will be releasing its third (fourth?) book, SELECTED UNPUBLISHED BLOG POSTS OF A MEXICAN PANDA EXPRESS EMPLOYEE by Megan Boyle next week, the title of which I had to copy/paste to ensure accuracy. Why are there so many links in this paragraph.

Like this more articulate and thought-out review on goodreads notes, Kennedy's writing seems a bit too derivative of Tao Lin's style, and it comes off more as a parody than original. The poems that are more sincere and (seem) to reflect her own voice are the strongest. That being said, I still laughed at the Woody Allen/Ned Vizzini one.

Here are the two poems I liked best:

I wish my life consisted only of
riding my bike with you
down a giant hill that never stopped
while listening to music
with no one else around
in the middle of nothing,
except a few shiny and relaxing lights above in the sky
like stars but a little brighter
and more orange

I'm violently stuffing
the void in my life
with cute toys
from fifty-cent machines

and they aren't helping
but they might give the one
who performs my autopsy
something to bring home
to the kids

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bed, 56/100

Advance apologies for all quotes below.

Sometimes I have a lot to say about a particular book, and sometimes I don't. I've never been very good at coming up with abstract reviews for things like poetry, short stories, conceptual novels -- anything without a big ol' plot. I can write about plot. But I can't write a review with phrases like "impressively smart" or "highly entertaining." Because that wouldn't tell you anything. I may just as well say "I liked it. It was good."

So trying to tell you why I liked Tao Lin's Bed would be like me trying to tell you why I like Seinfeld.

Seinfeld is a show about nothing.

Bed is a short story collection about:

College students, recent graduates, and their parents work at Denny's, volunteer at a public library in suburban Florida, attend satanic ska/punk concerts, eat Chinese food with the homeless of New York City, and got to the same Japanese restaurant in Manhattan three times in two sleepless days, all while yearning constantly for love, a better kind of love, or something better than love, things which--much like the Loch Ness Monster--they know probably do no exist, but are rumored to exist and therefore "good enough." [From the back cover]

And I liked it. It was good.

Bed has to be my favorite of Tao Lin's books. And it's probably the most accessible. Start with this one rather than Eeeee Eee Eeee. Work up to that one.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Outside, crossing Fifth Avenue, he looked up at the buildings and felt a kind of rapture, something of apology and thanks and intelligence--though maybe just a thing of coffee and wakefulness--forming, like a good idea (the world thinking hard, finally), here, in the little wind, the slightly infrared space between the buildings, the wet, shucked gemstars of the traffic lights, and all the glassy windows above, bright and comprehending as eyes, watchful as a world that wanted, truly, to know--and to love--all its lost and bewildered people.

"And what's gravity? No one knows. No one cares. Why is there gravity? That's so weird. That's like, why are there things? That's so depressing, that that question even exists. But sincere, I think."

[Aaron] began writing sort of science-fiction conceits for workshop; crude, uncritiqueable things that did not fuck around, but got straigt to the point, which was always bafflement. In one, an alien civilization discovers that gravity is the cause of worry, love, and fear, the underlying desire of all things to occupy the same space (to correct the big bang, go against God's, or whoever's, big impulse move, that shady decision of somethingness) to again become one final, gravityless, unchangeable thing--and is baffled.

He thought it might make a good children's book one day, a collection of them "Fairy Tales for the Young Disillusionist", or something. "Handbook for Doomed and/or Disenchanted Children: a Pop-Up Collection".

As one had to expect very little--almost nothing--from life, had to be grateful, not always trying to seize the days, not like some maniac of living, but to give oneself up, be seized by the days, the months and years, be taken up in a froth of sun and moon, some pale and smoothie'd river-cloud of life, a long drawn-out and gray sort of enlightenment, so that when it was time to die, one did not scream swear words and knock things down, did not make a scene, but went easily, with understanding and tact, and quietly in a lightly pummeled way, having been consoled--having allowed to be consoled--by the soft and generous worthlessness of it all, having allowed to be massaged by the daily beating of life, instead of just beaten.

"Depressed people...are so depressed and harmless. Bin Laden and everyone, Bush--they're always grinning on TV. What the fuck is that. No on ever thinks about this shit, really."

First week of February you began to suspect that, for the rest of your life, nothing might happen. This was one of those years. You mail-ordered a special mattress, and napped too much. In restaurants, people ordered the ice-cream cake, shoved their hands under their thighs, and talked loudly about death. On TV, politicians began to snack from Ziploc bags, like a provocation. Almonds, raisins. Sour Patch Kids.

Things, you felt, had changed.

There was a new foreboding to the room in which you slept. There was the fear, now, that all your anxieties and disconsolations might keep on escalating and never stop. There was the theoretical chance that if you threw a banana at a wall the banana might go through the wall.

You were one person alive and your brain was encased inside a skull. There were other people out there. It took an effort to be connected. Some people were better at this than others. Some people were bad at it. Some people were so bad at it that they gave up.