Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Transgressive

Street Smarts

by Levi Asher on Thursday, February 16, 2006 10:06 pm


When I review self-published or small press books, I always try them not only on literary merits but also on street smarts. Does the book have what it takes to get noticed out there in this big lonely world? Is the design appealing and powerful? Does the back cover text offer me a compelling reason to want to read the book? Does the author have a good website?

I'm not going to champion a book that doesn't know how to champion itself. And you all know how I feel about spelling errors. (Don't even. Just don't.)

In this spirit, here is the latest installment of the LitKicks indie reviews, February 2006 edition.

Delphine LeCompte's Kittens in the Boiler, published by Thieves Jargon Press, feels more like an objet d'art than a book. The cover is gorgeous. The typography is impeccable. As if to contrast this clean white vision, the words are a dark fount of anger, guilt and disgust. "Wee wolves and big pervs/i was brought up by wolves", the story begins. Later: "Tinned death threats and plastic dolphins/i wrote stories on the tinned meat yesterday in the godforsaken supermarket". It's rage poetry with a autobiographical tint, a book-length torrent of words by a self-proclaimed former milk bottle stacker, barmaid and hooker. I'm not sure what a book like this is meant to do in the world, but I'm glad the book exists.

Tim Hall's Half Empty is another admirable effort, and a much more traditionally satisfying narrative. It's a story in the classic confused-young-man genre of Goethe's suicidal aesthete and Salinger's irritable preppie. The opening chapter relates the horrible morning observations of a deeply depressed recovering alcoholic living in a Brooklyn apartment building:

Dennis suddenly felt nauseous. He sat up again and waited for the dizziness to stop. When he felt steady enough he got up and went into the kitchen. The sink was filled with dishes and oily, tepid water in which floated carrot peelings, coffee grounds and used matches.

This guy makes his way from occasion to occasion, often obsessing about his life before and after alcohol, and finally reuniting for a tragic (wouldn't you know it) half-reunion with the love of his life, who he cannot get through to no matter how hard he tries. Tim Hall's publishing skills are outstanding (his own Undie Press publishes a variety of authors besides himself) and the cover design perfectly matches the mood of the work.

Dark, dark and more dark: the sea is not yet full is another transgressive fever dream, an intense, assaultive descent into the horrors of self, by a young Australian author named J. J. DeCeglie:

Yes, I say fuck it. Over and over and again and again. As my fingers pound this borrowed keyboard two demon deft digits me hunched over it in monitor glow drooling from a smeared mouth with food in my teeth and beer on my breath.

The cover design is, again, quite good (what? three in a row?), and I admire the author's austere consistency. But there is one thing missing: a sense of anticipation and forward momentum. What am I about to read? What will I get out of it? Who is the author? The minimalist narrative calls out to me, but doesn't call me in, even as I admire the propulsive energy of the prose. (Another thing this book is missing is a URL; I could not find a way to buy it online).

Midnight in America is by an author and poet named D. Eminizer who often contributes to the LitKicks Action Poetry board. I've always liked his eclectic and elliptical poetry, which has a weird modern music to it. But I had some trouble with the physical appearance of this novel. The cover art is okay, though the guitar and the gravestone evoke a cliched Jim Morrison aesthetic. But the inner layout is very distracting, with tiny cramped text that appears, inexplicably, only on the bottom three-fifths of each page (the upper two-fifths are blank). With that said, I was drawn in to the hypnotically depressed mind-moan narration of an impoverished drug-taking societal ne'er-do-well. He goes to a Pink Floyd concert (but fails to tell us whether or not Roger Waters was playing bass or whether they opened with "Astronomy Domine"). The narrator has a slippery relationship with everything around him, and with reality itself:

I'd merged with the chair and there was no escape. Why struggle anymore? No matter how hard I tried I could not release my grip, or perhaps the chair wouldn't let go of me.

Emiziner also runs a suitably energetic web community called 99 Burning. The design can only be described as "brutalist", and I think this is what the creators had in mind.

We move on finally to Bill Ectric, a good friend to LitKicks, who has regaled us here with excellent articles like this and this and this. His story collection Time Adjusters and Other Stories is the most ambitiously postmodern of the five reviewed here today, and no less stark or transgressive because of it. A short piece called "Bucket Head" is narrated in a cheerful, folksy cadence as it relates what happened when some schoolkids played a prank on a janitor, gluing a bucket to his head.

Gravis woke up confused in darkness. He slowly stood up and fumbled for the light switch. It was hard to breathe with his head in the bucket. Gravis panicked and tried to find the door. He tripped over a mop and went crashing into a shelf full of cleaning supplies. A bottle of solvent cleaner spilled all over him. Gravis reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter, thinking it would give him some light. When he flicked the Bic, the flammable liquid solvent cleaner went FLOOM and the big janitor felt the flames of hell engulf him.

Ouch. Ectric's stories often contain hidden nuggets of menace, though they are always told with a smile. "Cut Up (the Stolen Scroll)" is the definitive piece in this collection, a Lynchian saga about a stolen Kerouac manuscript and a secret message that turns dangerous when subjected to Burroughs-style poetic cut-ups. Ectric seems like too nice a guy to be evoking William S. Burroughs (as he does frequently in this book), and in fact it is this discrepancy that provides his unique identity as a writer.

The only thing I don't like about Bill Ectric's book is the cover. Even fluourescent orange shading can't turn a mundane photo of a Jacksonville office building into a worthy visual corollary for this book of experimental prose. But then I've been yelling at Bill for years to please stop using Comic Sans and Times New Roman on his website, and the guy doesn't listen.

If you would like your book reviewed on LitKicks, please read the instructions on the right ("Send Us Review Copies").





LitKicks Reviews

by Levi Asher on Friday, December 16, 2005 04:26 pm


Here are a few new indie publications you might enjoy:

A Voice Above the Din by Steven Holbrook Hill

Steven Holbrook Hill's first novel A Voice Above the Din kicks off like a buddies-travelling-together story, a sort of male Thelma-and-Louise. As in many roadgoing tales, the two main characters have complementary rather than similar personalities. John is the crazed, fast-moving one, and narrator Spencer supplies the caution and introspection John lacks. Anybody who knows On The Road will recognize the setup, but Hill's book is heavier on plot and lighter on tone than Kerouac's. One of the characters is dealing with a serious disease, along with legal problems and attitude problems, and the story takes twists you won't see coming. Hill has created a blog to promote this book ... he also contributes occasional excellent articles to LitKicks as Stevadore. Check his stuff out.






Deconstructing Doyle

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 22, 2005 10:07 pm


Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books and stories are overlooked masterpieces. The novels are rarely taught in schools, and the short pieces never turn up in anthologies. Despite this, Doyle's work had as wide a scope and vision as any literary novelist's in any age.

Like Herman Melville, Doyle struggled his whole life to break free of the chains of his literary success. Doyle even famously killed off Sherlock Holmes, in the hope that readers would finally agree to read about other characters. The readers wouldn't, and Doyle eventually relented and brought the detective back to life.

Sherlock Holmes is a character you can approach from many angles. Too often he's a cliche -- a dog with a felt cap and a magnifying glass, or Peter Brady with a felt cap and a magnifying glass. In fact Holmes was a troubled loner, a Hamlet figure, playing his violin alone in his chambers at night, drug-addicted and society-deprived, and congenitally incapable of ever approaching the one woman he loves, the untouchable Irene Adler.






LitKicks Reviews: Let’s Get Small

by Levi Asher on Sunday, October 30, 2005 11:10 pm


A few weeks ago we began inviting small publishers of any size to send us review copies of their work. We review anything from bestsellers to chapbooks at LitKicks, but we're hoping to focus more closely on a territory in the modern literary landscape that's neglected by most book reviews or litblogs: high-quality books from small or regional non-affiliated presses or individual self-promoting authors.

The vast sprawl that surrounds high-finance corporate publishing is more than the minor league of literature. It's a permanent home for an incredible range of wildlife and humanity. Here are some of the books that showed up in our mailbox recently:






The Birthday Party: Harold Pinter’s Bed and Breakfast

by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 13, 2005 10:22 pm


Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.

It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.






Let’s Get Graphical

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, September 27, 2005 09:52 am


David Cronenberg's new film A History of Violence is based on a 1997 graphical novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Two bad guys roll into a quiet Indiana town intending to indulge in murder and robbery and mayhem, but they're disposed of by a mild-mannered family man whose only weapon is a glass coffee canister. He's a hero, but this is only the beginning of the story. As his fame spreads, other strangers roll into town, and it turns out the mild-mannered hero has his own "history of violence". That's where the story gets twisted, and it stays that way.

David Cronenberg is a great choice to direct this compelling tale. He's the filmmaker who turned William S. Burroughs' life story into a panaroma of intimate and creepy visual experiences with Naked Lunch, but my favorite Cronenberg film will always be his remake of The Fly featuring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in performances so good they had to run off and get married immediately after making it (though their marriage apparently lacked that Cronenberg magic, and didn't last).

I haven't seen A History of Violence yet, but I have read the excellent book that inspired it. I know some people are sick of the graphic novel fad, but I like them, and I hope this film will inspire more cinematic treatments of the genre's classics. Who wants to take on Persepolis? How about Ralph Bakshi trying Maus?

On a much gentler front, Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano's The World On Sunday is a gorgeous volume of archived newspaper artwork. It's amusing to learn that Baker's wife (who we have read much about in books like Room Temperature) is his co-author here, and one has to wonder if her literary last name (which once designated a great bookstore in midtown Manhattan, before it closed down) helped inspire the bibliophilic Baker to marry her.

The World On Sunday is not a major or definite Baker book, because words are his forte. But it is an overwhelmingly pleasing visual experience, and nobody but Baker would have worked this hard to bring it to you. When is somebody going to give Nicholson Baker a MacArthur genius grant, or a Nobel prize? The guy deserves it.







Thomas deQuincey: Victorian Confidential

by Bill Ectric on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 09:00 am


I admit to pleasures that some literary academics frown on. Sure, I love the classics, but I also like books about scandal and skullduggery. Bob Woodward's Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi; Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Ed Wood; and Penny Stallings' Rock'N'Roll Confidential are fun to read.

Perhaps this is why, when I am called upon to name my favorite writer associated with the so-called "Lake Poets" of the 1800's (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, sometimes Percy Bysshe Shelley), I will tell you that I like Thomas deQuincey.

Not a poet himself, deQuincey wrote most of his prose for magazines and newspapers. Much of these works were later collected and published as books. DeQuincey's best known work is Confessions of an Opium Eater. By today's standards it's a rather tame tale, but it was considered edgy in its own time. There is evidence that both Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire were influenced by deQuincey to try the narcotic. Besides using opium in his autobiographical account, deQuincey raised eyebrows when he told his readers about a prostitute he befriended. Apparently, sex was not involved; people just didn't admit to "slumming" back then.






Lunar Park: Weird Happenings on Elsinore Lane

by Levi Asher on Friday, August 19, 2005 01:48 pm




Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park is more fun than any novel he's written before, and it's easy to see why it's become one of the hot books of the summer.

A satirical pseudo-autobiography as well as a creepy paranoid thriller, the book glides like a fast dream and keeps you in suspense, even though you won't care a bit about the well-being of any of its endangered characters. Everything still all adds up to less than zero in Ellis's world, and that's the way it's supposed to be.

The book kicks off with a hilarious summary of Ellis's writing career and his emergence as one of three super-hot lit-darlings of the 1980's (along with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney). He's bitter and funny as he looks back on all the parties he attended and all the celebrities he met, revealing that he remains just as callow, just as drug-dependent, and just as unenlightened now as he was then. But he recently got married, and trying to be a good stepdad to his movie star wife's 11 year old son and 6 year old daughter. This only seems to create a dark undercurrent of parent-anxiety, and images of Ellis's own dead father start to haunt him.

The book is packed with literary references that refuse to take themselves seriously. The Ellis family lives on Elsinore Lane and shops at the Ophelia Mall, hints so hokey that Ellis can only be inviting reviewers to sneer at them. The punchy sentences Ellis uses to advance the creepy underplot recall Chuck Pahlaniuk, while the use of the author as a character in an implausible criminal plot indicates that Ellis has been reading Paul Auster (the title of the book also echoes Auster's Moon Palace). Meanwhile, the family dynamic, complete with clueless neighbors and sweet corrupted children in an affluent college town, recalls Don DeLillo's White Noise.

Back in the 1980's, when the Ellis/McInerney/Janowitz trio ruled the party photo pages in Vanity Fair and Spy Magazine, nobody ever thought Ellis would emerge as the only serious writer of the three. In fact he seemed the slightest of the trio, and the least original. But McInerney and Janowitz, for all their good haircuts, have clearly stopped experimenting with either form or content. McInerney has tried to position himself as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his age (supposedly we'll all appreciate Brightness Falls twenty years after he's dead?) while Janowitz has simply stuck to familiar grooves. Ellis, on the other hand, has made a career of twisting his rich party boy persona into one odd tortuous new shape after another, and in 2005 he seems to belong more to this decade than to that one. We don't exactly love his books, because that's not what the Ellis experience is about, but it sure is easy to enjoy this one.





Great Moments in Literary Death

by Levi Asher on Thursday, August 18, 2005 10:41 am


Kevin Kizer has been keeping us up to date on the suitably gonzoid preparation's for Hunter S. Thompson's funeral. This ceremony will involve a very large cannon, and if you are anywhere near Aspen this Saturday it seems likely that little microscopic bits of Hunter S. Thompson will fall on you.

The best part of the whole arrangement is the Wonka-inspired Golden Ticket scheme, and the news is now out that this guy got the Golden Ticket. He's allowed to take a guest with him, of course, and we can only hope he's bringing his Grandpa.

LitKicks applauds Hunter S. Thompson for what may be the best literary final scene since Yukio Mishima committed hari-kari in 1970. We believe writers should always find a way to make their closing chapters (or afterwords, in HST's case) interesting. What's your favorite literary death/funeral moment?





Running With Lawyers

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, August 2, 2005 03:46 pm


This will be amusing for anybody who read Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running With Scissors, in which young Augusten is adopted by a flipped-out psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, a true patriarch of weirdness and by far the book's most memorable character. Now six relatives of the real-life doctor, who died in 2000, are speaking out against the book and taking the author and publisher to court for defamation of character.

Here are the sordid details. According to the article, the real Dr. Turcotte's identity was a thinly-vieled secret. The secret hadn't reached me, until now (it's not like I know any Massachusetts psychiatrists anyway, though I am now able to google him all I want). Nor had the news that the book is going to be made into a movie, directed by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck).

I'm not sure if I can picture this book working as a movie. I think the guy who directed The Royal Tenenbaums might have been able to handle the odd material, but we'll have to just have to wait and see how this Ryan Murphy makes out with it.

As for the lawsuit, it sounds like good comedy and I wish I could sit on that jury.





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