Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mini-book review: Zachary German's "Eat When You Feel Sad"

Zachary German's Eat When You Feel Sad is a slim novel (127 pages) that was published in late 2009 by ultra-trendy Melville House Publishing. Although he isn't referenced by name in the book, the shadow of Bret Easton Ellis looms large over Eat When You Feel Sad. In fact, the book really reminded me a lot of Ellis' debut novel, Less Than Zero, which was published in 1985. Less Than Zero was, at the time, referred to as "Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation." I guess you could call Eat When You Feel Sad a Less Than Zero for the Twitter generation. Like Zero the book has no plot (or even chapters) and is instead a selection of very brief scenes from the life of Robert, a young vegetarian hipster who (I presume) lives in New York City. And while the book is written in the third person as opposed to Zero's first person, it still resembles Zero's clipped and minimalist style (here's a few sentences from a typical paragraph: "Robert is in his parents' house. He is in the kitchen. He looks at the microwave. The microwave is illuminated. There is a veggy burger patty in the microwave. Robert looks at a plate. There is a bun on the plate. He opens the refrigerator. Robert picks up the ketchup. He looks at a bag of lettuce. He picks up the bag of lettuce. Robert closes the refrigerator"). It almost reads less like a novel and more like a collection of Facebook status updates: indeed, there's a scene where Robert posts a status update on Facebook. Like Zero, the book features a large cast of characters who appear briefly and vanish just as quickly, and these characters are somehow even less fleshed out than the ammoral and hedonistic stick figures who populated Less Than Zero.

There's not a whole lot I have to say about this book because there isn't much in the way of content: just a long parade of scenes featuring Robert watching The Office, checking email on his laptop computer, masturbating to pornography, reading Joy Williams books, playing video games, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with his aimless friends, shopping at American Apparel, eating at Chinese restaurants, making playlists on his iTunes, feeding his cat, riding his bike, and listening to music (like Ellis, German namechecks a lot of bands, at least close to 100, mainly indie rock bands like Death Cab For Cutie, Xiu Xiu and Broken Social Scene but also lots of hip-hop musicians like Ol' Dirty Bastard, Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne). Although there are a few scenes where Robert seems to realize the emptiness of his aimless life, for the most part it's hard to work up a great deal of sympathy (or even interest) in him or his circle of friends. I like reading these very short and minimalist modern novels because they don't take a whole lot of time to get through (and one doesn't need to exert all that much brain power in the process). But this book lacks the power of a Less Than Zero, a book where, beneath its shallow surface of passionless sex, pop culture references and 80's music, real horror lurked: serial killers and snuff films and anorexia and drug abuse and abortions and prostitution and child rape (whereas in Eat When You Feel Sad, there's practically no darkness at all, other than characters getting drunk, throwing up, and witnessing a minor car accident). German also seems to be trying to channel Dennis Cooper (whose name crops up twice in the book), but Cooper's characters possess real emotional depth, whereas those in Eat When You Feel Sad are pretty much just names on a page. Like a lot of younger writers, German strikes me as being too obsessed with style and not enough with content. This isn't to say I didn't enjoy this novel: I suppose it could function as a snapshot of today's youth, though I've never met anyone possessing the self-conscious vacuity displayed by the characters in this book. I just wish that German had something more profound to say about his generation.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mini-book review: Lonely Christopher's "The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse"

In 2003, the novelist Dennis Cooper launched his Little House on the Bowery series in connection with Akashic Books. Releasing around two books a year, this line of fiction books focuses mainly on younger North American writers who, according to an introduction for the series written by Dennis himself, "believe that fiction can be as entertaining, challenging, revelatory, and, in a word, important as any other medium. I hope Little House on the Bowery will be a reliable source for readers who want literature to be an adventure on the levels of content and style. I also want it to be an oasis for people who have come to see contemporary literature as a spotty, conservative medium." Over the years Little House on the Bowery has released a number of innovative and captivating books, including 2007's short fiction anthology Userlands (confession: a story of mine appeared in this book so naturally I'm biased) and, more recently, Mark Gluth's sublime novella The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis. Early this year they released their two newest titles, a reissue of Matthew Stokoe's cult transgressive novel Cows and Lonely Christopher's The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, a collection of nine short stories that I have just recently completed reading and will now briefly review.

This is certainly a most curious collection, and I'm having trouble classifying it. Many of the stories (which end on ambigious notes) feature characters with unusual names, such as Dumb, Vowel Shift, Burning Church, Normal Chapter, and Timmy Victim. And the writing style is very unusual. For example, the first story, "That Which," is narrated by a boy who suffered from a debilitating head injury and is thus written in a very disjointed manner. Equally bizarre is the subject matter: the fourth story, "Milk" (which is also the shortest story in the collection at a mere 4 pages) revolves around the murder of a horse in a kitchen. The better stories, in my opinion, are the longer ones that focus more on characterization, such as "Burning Church," (which deals with a week in the life of a school teacher named Burning Church), and "Game Belly," an atmospheric piece which takes place in an empty city late at night and which revolves around a number of vacuous characters going about their nocturnal activity (though I wonder what exactly a "game belly" is). By far the best story is "Nobody Understands Thorny When," which at 34 pages is the longest story of the book. It's about the relationship between an odd boy (named Thorny When) and his kidnapper (Normal Chapter), and their most strange love affair, and how Thorny's life changes when he's "saved" from his captor after four years.

Not all of the stories worked for me though. I had no idea what "The Pokemon Movie" was supposed to be about (perhaps because I'm not all that familiar with the Pokemon phenomenon in general), though if I had to hazard a guess I'd say it's about the loss of childhood innocence. And the last story, "White Dog," which is about a seven foot tall lesbian who wanders in a dream-like daze through a supermarket, goes on for way too long, with many tedious and rambling paragraphs (the narrator spends 4 pages debating whether to buy mascara or not).

For the most part, however, I found the stories to be well-written, entertaining and humorous. I can only wonder what Christopher's influences are... some of the stories have a sort of David Lynch vibe ("Burning Church" even features a hallway light that flickers constantly). He certainly has an impressive vocabulary: some words that really stood out were "videlicet," "pulchritude," and "contrastively." One thing is certain: it will be interesting to see in what direction he takes his fiction next.

Finally, like many of the other books released by Little House on the Bowery, this one also features a typically awesome cover by Joel Westendorf.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mini-book review: Robert Aickman's "Cold Hand in Mine"

As both a student and a writer of short fiction that could be classified as "supernatural," "horror," or just plain "weird," I'm constantly seeking out short story collections that fit the above terminology, if only to further refine my own craft. Hence my recent exploration of the work of Robert Aickman (1914-1982), an English conservationist and a writer of fiction (and mostly supernatural fiction at that). He wrote around 50 or so such stories, which were collected in around eight volumes over a period from 1951 to 1985 (many of these volumes are now out of print and very expensive). I first heard of Aickman through the music of Current 93: one of my favorite songs performed by that group, entitled "Niemandswasser," is named after an Aickman story of the same title. Cold Hand in Mine was originally published in England in 1975, but the American version (which I own) was put out by Scribner in 1977, with a dust jacket illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Edward Gorey. This collection of "strange" stories, Aickman's fifth, was, I believe, the first of his books to be published in the United States. It consists of eight short stories, four of which are over 30 pages long: "The Swords," "The Real Road to the Church," "Niemandswasser," "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal," "The Hospice," "The Same Dog," "Meeting Mr Millar," and "The Clock Watcher."

The collection opens with the following quote from Sacheverell Sitwell: "In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation." This is actually a perfect quote to use as it really does seem to sum up Aickman's stories, at least in this collection. Many of the stories here end in an open-ended or inconclusive manner. It's actually one of the things I find frustrating about Aickman. His (somewhat lenghty) stories have so much build-up and atmosphere, yet so often at the conclusion they just seem to fizzle out or go nowhere exciting. When Aickman is good, he's very good, but when he's not good, he just comes off as somewhat bland. There's a fine line between subtly and just plain perplexing, and Aickman walks it constantly. Some of the stories in this collection I would highly recommend (such as "Niemandswasser," "The Hospice," and "The Clock Watcher") but some of them, such as "Meeting Mr Millar" (the longest story in the collection at 36 pages) are just dull and go nowhere. I can't say that Aickman has the most exciting writing style in the world: while I enjoy the very controlled, elegant and somewhat cold manner of his style, at the same time I would often find myself hoping for a bit of chaos to seep in. For stories that were (I presume) written in the 1960's and 70's, these seem very old-fashioned, like products of the 19th century, what with their lack of profanity and sex that's only hinted at, for the most part (the writer who Aickman reminds me the most of is M.R. James, which might be a lazy generalization). His vocabulary isn't the most thrilling either, though he does drop a few words I don't often encounter in fiction, such as "ichthyologists" and "consecrationary." And there are some good quotes: "We control nothing of importance that happens to us" and "What other thought mattered than that nothing mattered?" or "As we acquire weight in the world, we lose it within ourselves" and (my favorite) "Everything to do with time is hideous." In the end, I think one of my biggest problems with Aickman (as skilled a writer as he is) is that his supernatural tales lack the grand unifying philosophies that make reading H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti (what with their deep-seated cosmic pessimism) such a thrilling intellectual experience.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mini-book review: Johnny Weir's "Welcome to my World"

Perhaps the biggest shocker of Johnny Weir's new autobiography Welcome to my World (Gallery Books, 2011) isn't Weir's now public confirmation of his homosexuality (which as even he notes doesn't even really need to be mentioned, it's so obvious) but the fact that probably 95% of the book is actually devoted to the topic of figure skating as opposed to, say, fashion or hanging out with celebrities. Although it opens up on a slightly cringe-inducing note, with a prologue full of ass-kissing and celebrity name-dropping that reads like something from a Bret Easton Ellis novel (the scene where he fawns over Sarah Jessica Parker is a bit much), Weir flashes back to his childhood and takes us on a tour of his life, from his early ambition to be a horse rider to his initial forays into the world of ice skating to his sexual awakening (he didn't lose his virginity until he was 20), to the struggles he's had to endure from skating judges who thought his style was too feminine, to his two appearances at the Olympics (the book ends after his performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics, which was when I myself noticed Weir for the first time, and became more interested in figure skating in general). Welcome to my World reveals Weir as a complex, contradictory and multi-faceted individual (he acknowledges that his wild and crazy public life is kind of at odds with his more quiet and shy private life) with interesting and articulate thoughts on topics such as homosexuality. One thing stands out clear: Weir takes figure skating very seriously (he also loves Russia, a country that seems to appreciate his skating style much more than his native America). The book was also fairly humorous (though it didn't have me laughing out loud like Kathy Griffin's autobiography from 2009, Official Book Club Selection), and gives the reader a good introduction into the back scene world of competitive figure skating. I also found it kind of charming how he thanked Lady Gaga (among other divas) in the acknowledgments at the end. The book made me want to go onto Youtube immediately after I finished it and check out some of Weir's past performances.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

More details on "The Marble Index"

From the back cover description:

"James Champagne returns to the exotic and decadent world of Trinity in The Marble Index, the long-awaited sequel to the story he began in Illuminated Shadows. In this volume, rebel girl Karen Blaise and her best friend Poison Flower (the beautiful leader of the Pagans) set out in search of a legendary book known as the Marble Index, in the hope that it will tell them where to find the Griffin, a mythological beast that is the only being on the planet who can restore Karen's atrophied magical powers. Meanwhile the Shadows, an anarchistic terrorist secret society, begin a recruitment drive led by their leader, the charismatic woman known as Jerina Markay. Jerina and her friends will travel all around Trinity, from the depths of the Dwarf Kingdom to the heights of the Karnark Imperium, in the quest to gain new allies in their battle against the oppressive Kingdom. And in the steampunk metropolis of Zone, glam assassin Sypha Nadon plans to break out of jail to clear his name of a crime he didn't commit, and uncover the secrets of the mysterious Dr. Oment, the mastermind behind all of Trinity's recent woes. These various storylines eventually intertwine and build up to a shattering, apocalyptic conclusion, in which nothing will ever be the same again. All of this sets the stage for what will no doubt be a pulse-pounding final volume."

Main cast:

Adam Lambert: Sypha Nadon
Kristen Stewart: Karen Blaise
Melanie Laurent: Jerina Markay
Katy Perry: Poison Flower
Christina Hendricks: Marilyn Curtis
Stephen Rea: Cole Galdur
Christoph Waltz: Dr. Oment Nerrod
Ian McKellen: Arthur Trevador
Christian Bale: Steve Hunter
Jeff Bridges: Bemos Sherwin
Owen Wilson: Peter Miller
Michael Clarke Duncan: Kain Setter
Rosario Dawson: Pamelon Giry
Cillian Murphy: Egon Jordan
Rowan Atkinson: Catno Catoni (voice)
????: Sophia Thaig

Secondary cast:

Lady Gaga: Isabelle DeVando
John Turturro: Victor DaScar
John O'Hurley: Duane DaTes
Grant Morrison: Oswald Wirth
Ted Levine: Donald Dubwa
????: Eom Fairhaven
Blixa Bargeld: The Crimson King
Siouxsie Sioux: The Oracle
Brendan Gleeson: Dr. Vastarien
????: King Virago
Reginald VelJohnson: Harv Durrell
Rupert Boneham: King Ian Isrengard
Willem Dafoe: Skenlark (voice)
Stephen Russell: Syd Muller
????: Oscar Twist
Brent Corrigan: Paul
Sean Bean: Jarvis Sena
David Tibet: The Griffin (voice)


Nico: Nibelungen (opening credits)
Nine Inch Nails: Happiness in Slavery
The Beatles: Nowhere Man
Nine Inch Nails: Ringfinger
Nico: Frozen Warnings
Switchblade Symphony: Doll House
Nine Inch Nails: Into the Void
Kate Bush: Wow
The Beatles: Come Together
My Chemical Romance: Planetary (Go!)
Pink Floyd: Us and Them
Nine Inch Nails: We're in This Together
Ke$ha: Cannibal
Siouxsie & the Banshees: Hybrid
No Doubt: Home Now
Genesis: The Last Domino
Lady Gaga: Teeth
Marilyn Manson: The Reflecting God
Nine Inch Nails: Ripe (With Decay) (end credits 1)
Coil: The First Five Minutes After Death (end credits 2)

Table of contents:

1. Marilyn Visits the Bonehoard
2. Karen and Ivy
3. A Conference of Shadows
4. Sypha in the Underworld
5. St. Bloch's Keys All Bloody
6. Ringfinger
7. The Hole in THings
8. Isrengard Redux
9. A Bond of Blood
10. Breakout at Blusterford Prison
11. En Route
12. Back From the Dead
13. Frozen Warnings
14. Conspiracy Theory
15. Amongst the Dwarves
16. Dr. Vastarien's Mannikin Masquerade
17. Dark Revelations
18. Into the Void
19. Wow
20. Strangers in the Night
21. Come Together
22. Us and Them
23. Kitty Empire
24. Hybrid
25. The Last Supper
26. Cross-Check
27. The Triumph of Death


Nico's The Marble Index album
The Thief computer game series
Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels
Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin comic book
Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins computer game
The music of Nine Inch Nails, Switchblade Symphony, and Pink Floyd
Nine Inch Nails music videos
the short horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti
Edward Gorey's art
China Mieville's novel Perdido Street Station
the films of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Marble Index is complete

Sometime in October of 2000 I finished writing a book called Illuminated Shadows, which was the first book of what was intended to be a six book fantasy series. I started work on a second book shortly afterwards, but ended up quitting it at around 15 pages. In the year 2005, I started from scratch again, with the intention of calling it The Marble Index and making it the central volume of a trilogy (as opposed to six books). From January of 2005 to late April of 2009 I wrote around 84 pages before quitting again.

On August 4th of 2010 I once again began work on The Marble Index, again starting from scratch. I highly doubted I'd finish this attempt either. But I guess that the third time's the charm, because this afternoon, at 12:41 pm on January 2nd, 2011, I wrote out the final page. The book ended up being 278 pages total, bringing the two books to slightly under the 600 page mark. This is the first book I've written out entirely by hand since Illuminated Shadows a decade ago. All in all, it took around 88 days of actual writing (as I barely wrote anything at all in September and the first half of January).

Even though I wrote this book mainly for my own personal satisfaction, to prove that I could still write out a whole book by hand if I wanted to, and have no intention of ever trying to get it published, it's still an accomplishment, in my eyes, to complete a book I thought would never exist anywhere but inside my own head.

I guess this means I'll be completing The Age of Nothing (the third and final book of the trilogy) in 2021!