8.30.2005

What did you read this summer?

It's time to trot out our reading accomplishments. I'll start.

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
I adored this hilarious romp through the old west, narrated by a sort of 19th century Forrest Gump. A white man raised by the Cheyenne, he moves back and forth between the white man's world and the Indian's without a shred of sentimentality or misplaced malice. Highly recommended.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
Read this slim book in one day. Fairly impressive the way he inhabits the autistic narrator. Kind of a light read. Perfect in-flight book.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
What a frigging great adventure tale. Bigger than life, full of betrayals and vengeance, with a grand and massive plot that won't stop.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
I reread it every few years, like The Great Gatsby. What struck me this time was just how annoying Tom Sawyer is. I really struggled with how Huck, despite his adventures and growth, did not challenge Tom in any of that little monster's cockamamie plans.

Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf
I'm about 100 pages into this one. Has anyone else read this? It's frightfully funny. I don't know that I've laughed so much at a book since A Confederacy of Dunces. I don't think the author, who killed himself not long ago, can keep up this level of quality, which starts out Impossibly High and has slid down to around Very Good by the point where I'm at now.

I leave you with an excerpt from the book's Prologue -- which reminded me for some reason of some of Vampiro's writing:

"... The Railway-Miscarriage/River-Rat Theory would have it that John was prematurely miscarried into a stainless-steel toilet bowl on a high-speed express train cutting through the woods due southwest of Baker, and that he ended up, battered and disoriented, though still alive, face-down on the Patokah railroad tracks with half a rail tie in his ass and two pounds of afterbirth scattered through the gravel for a mile to the south. His mother, reportedly a wealthy heiress from Chicago who was seven months into term, had gone to the lavatory after developing acute stomach pains. Ten minutes later a passing conductor heard a series of screams and a thrashing about in the commode. After trying the handle and finding it jammed, he kicked down the door. He found the lady in question in a bloody awful mess. She was straining and lurching with one leg hiked up on the sink and both fists wrapped around a pustulating umbilical cord leading from between her drawn legs downward into the bowl. The conductor flew into a panic. He squeezed through the doorway and grappled for a hold on the cord. He could make out the misshapen infant jammed in the chute and howling in a high-pitched wail on the other side of the drop flap, just over the tracks. The screams sounded out all over the passenger car. The mother finally lost her footing in the sauce and pitched over into the hallway. She lost consciousness, leaving the rest in the conductor's hands, literally. The conductor made one last effort at dislodging the maimed infant, but the cord soon snapped, and up came the broken end. It was a terrible scene. By the time the young mother came to her senses with a crowd of passengers standing over her, she wanted nothing more than to turn her back on the whole dreadful affair. Of course, no one thought for a second that the child might have actually survived..."

"The View from Castle Rock" by Alice Munro

New Yorker fiction -- August 29, 2005 issue

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I read this a few days ago and refuse to reread it for this review, not just because it was fairly boring, nor just because I'm too lazy to turn off the Terri Gross Run-DMC/Chuck D interview that's currently blasting from the kitchen and I would have to do that to concentrate enough to read but not to write this, and not just because it's in slightly annoying present tense -- but mostly because as usual for an Alice Munro story it is loooooooooooooooong.

New Yorker stories, I have found, typically run in length from about 7 columns to 20. A NYer column contains 400-500 words (1.5 manuscript pages). This story is roughly 33 columns long. A full column is 59-60 lines, at somewhere around 7.5 words per line. 33x60x7.5 = 14,850 words (and we know they pay a dollar a word ... a nice chunk of change for Ms. Munro). At 300 words per page, this hefty piece would weigh in at 49.5 manuscript pages. Oh, the groans in the Dey House hallways when someone did that! It would easily qualify as a novella in Ethan's novella seminar.

Why are her stories so much longer than most people's? Are her plots more involved, does she bite off larger chunks of time and jump around in them more, does she include more character details or scene description than most writers, are her stories really micronovels? Maybe. Certainly it's working for her. She must be one of the top five most respected living short story writers. I won't spend time here praising her style, use of language, etc. -- her mastery of the form is well known.

But what I read the other day hasn't stuck with me much. I was glad it took place in 1818. That was refreshing. Scottish family on a ship, immigrating to Canada. Each character is given motivations and idiosyncracies and taken through various levels of development in the story. Then we flash forward to today and she describes their resting place, which is some graveyard in Canada by a highway. It's like she saw this family gravesite and made up a story about them. Why is this important enough to end the novella with? Search me.

I dare say I don't need a novella about these people. And I wonder whether this novella would be here at all, to not be needed by me, had it been sent to the magazine under the name, say, Jane Smith. I doubt it. For Munro completists only.

8.29.2005

El Gordo de Amore, Interview III

Earth Goat: It's been a long time. I'm glad you've agreed to do another interview.

El Gordo De Amore: Well, last time was a little depressing

EG: Oh what rot! It was just a bit of the old tea and crumpet -- too sweet to be bad!

EA: Yes ... Er. Well.

EG: Has Old Miss Havisham got your tongue? I say, you are as close-lipped as Jaggers at a Sunday Church Meeting! Do you have nothing to say to your good friend Pip?

EA: Pip?

EG: Yes! I am interviewing you in the guise of a beloved literary scamp! It's the newest thing in clever criticism. Wot wot?

EA: I'm pretty sure Pip never said "Wot wot."

EG: Oh, you're as despicable as Old Provis! Tally ho!

EA: You sound nothing like Pip. I'm not putting up with this crap.

(unintelligible on tape -- noise that sounds like a duck. Loud bang.)

EG: Now, show me your scrivener's notes! What are you working on? What blood-thirsty rows and derring-dos have you scratched down for us poor gentlemen? We will read it as we row down the Thames, my beloved Estella in the bow!

EA: Err-- What's that in your hand?

EG: Why Miss Havisham's wedding dress and the chains that once bound my old benefactor! Wot wot! Here, hold fast!

EA: Dude, get the hell away from me.

EG: Wot wot!

(unintelligible noises -- loud banging)

EG: Lie back and think of England!

(unintelligible noises and a loud banging sound).

8.26.2005

Eat the Burned Flesh of Lesser Creatures!!!

Bar-B-Q this Saturday at Jimmy Ruskell's house, 5 o'clock.

Just bring your sexy self.

If your unsexy self is available, he or she can come too.

Dance Dance Revolution Provided.

Found Photos

What a swell idea for a Web site. People find photos, these folks take 'em and scan 'em. Thousands of pictures, many of them excellent, many amateurishly charming, many bizarre. Compulsively did I scroll and scroll and scroll and wonder who all these people are. Great for getting ideas for characters. Behind every one of these is a story. Always the chance you'll see someone you know -- or see yourself in one.

8.24.2005

Arab /Jew literary double-header

"The Disturbing Occurrences," by Naguib Mahfouz
Harper's fiction -- August 2005 issue

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"The Disturbing Occurrences" was first published in 1979 and, apparently, only recently translated. A simple tale told in first-person, it's as easy to read as butter is to spread on hot toast. Beginning as a straightforward crime story narrated by the investigator, it kind of implodes or dissolves 2/3 the way through and ends up as a philosophical piece in the way that only translated foreign stories are allowed to do.

The investigator-narrator is looking into incidents in a certain Cairo district, ranging from bags of money given to paupers to mass poisonings and fires. He receives an anonymous tip that one Makram Abd al-Qayyum is behind these shenanigans and goes about interviewing everyone who has had contact with this esteemed rich gentleman. The reactions of those who live and work in the building he just vacated are all over the map, from very positive to very negative, which might seem to be par for the course if you ask a bunch of people about anybody, but for this increasingly obsessed detective the range of opinion just makes al-Qayyum all the more mysterious and frustrating and, therefore, suspicious. The detective goes so far as to have printed in the papers various allegations and sketches of the suspect. My favorite part is where al-Qayyum himself, just back from vacation in the Red Sea, turns up in the police office and asks, "What is the meaning of what you published in the papers?"

The suspect turns out to be clean, and the investigator leaves his post -- which he is clearly not fit for -- to practice law while still retaining a secret belief that al-Qayyum is guilty of the crimes. In a twist, al-Qayyum hires him to manage his business and legal affairs, which he agrees to, while still having an inner certainty that the man is guilty.

This is the kind of direct character study that Chekhov and Maupassant were so good at, and when compared to a typical contemporary story it seems simplistic, not much more than a sketch. Some of those Chekhov and Maupassant tales are hardly three or four pages long -- and yet they manage to distill and dramatize some aspect of human nature without any distracting adornment whatsoever. In other words, this is an old-fashioned tale whose moral and philosophical qualities are stripped clean and laid bare for all to see and ponder without anything else getting in the way. Call me a relic, call me what you will, but I still love and admire stuff like this.

"Thicker Than Water," by Gina Ochsner
New Yorker fiction -- August 22, 2005 issue

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This tale of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in a Russian Jewish section of a Latvian town soon after the collapse of Soviet rule is narrated by Ada, a young girl whose provincial family is suspicious of foreigners and Jews, but who is herself fascinated by the differences she sees in them, which she romanticizes, especially the "brilliant" Jewish Ilmyen family on her street.
I loved to be at the Ilmyens' house, where everything seemed exotic and better than at home: their lace curtains were more elegant than the yellowed muslin hanging over our windows, and though I knew that the rain pelted our houses equally, it seemed to me that it fell more musically than from ours.
Her father is a drunk who maintains the local cemetary, and her mother has founded the All-Latvian Ladies' Temperance Society and appointed herself president, but when the only two people who join it are a Gypsy and a Jew (Mrs. Ilmyen), she has to change the name to the International Ladies' Temperance Society. And so on. There has never been any lack of material to be found in backwater nationalism and its suspicions of foreigners, and Ochsner mines it for all it's worth. You could replace the Latvians in this story with, say, rural Hoosiers or Nebraskans, and the Jews with, oh, Mexican immigrants or a family of doctors from Pakistan and have essentially the same story. I like that, the universality of this material.

The climax combining her visiting nationalistic drunk Uncle Maris and the chess tournament Ada is competing in thanks to the Ilmyen girl is well wrought. And the subtle, excruciating ironies and hypocricies and eventual failures of maintaining bigotry and discrimination in the face of the facts is satisfying. The treatment of Lutherans is hilarious. The ending, though I don't think it really works that well -- in fact, the whole story kind of hangs loosely together and could have used a tightening round of edits -- goes approximately where it should in terms of emotional resonance stemming from events as seen by a charming but young narrator. If it were me, I would have orchestrated a death in the end to bookend the series of deaths that begin the piece -- Jews dying in outlandish ways, having to be dealt with by the grumbling cemetary worker father -- but maybe that would be pat, and maybe that's why I don't have a story in the New Yorker while Ochsner does. Flawed though it may be, the story is worth a read for its wise treatment of provincial xenophobia.

8.23.2005

Short literary works, dirt cheap

Amazon now hosts "never-before-seen short works from a wide variety of well known authors" for 49 cents a pop.

Shameless plug

My old friend Steve Wilson has written a rip-snorting biography of none other than Paule Lynde. It was featured in today's Salon. For those of you in the Chicago area, I urge you to go to his reading this Monday, August 29, at Borders Books & Music, 2817 North Clark St., at 7:30 p.m. (That's the Lincoln Park store for those in the know.)

Also, he just adopted an adorable little boy named Wilson, so buy him a drink, already.

8.22.2005

I think maybe she's finally cracked

Kakutani has written an entire review in the voice of Holden Caulfield.

The bat situation

Last night, after we went to bed, The Real Grendel started crying, so I went downstairs and let him out. I opened the kitchen door and off to my right noticed something dark, a blob where a blob shouldn't be, fastened to the bottom of a picture. I had taken off my glasses and couldn't make out any details as I approached the thing to study it. It seemed to be some sort of gigantic insect cocoon or perhaps an alien pod. But I knew in my heart it was a bat.

bat original location

I ran upstairs to get my glasses, but when I came back down and rounded the corner into the kitchen, it was no longer there. Instead it was flying around the kitchen. It was horrifying and fascinating -- really impressive the way it was completely silent, and the lighting made its wings sort of glow brown-orange against the ceiling and walls. Then I watched it fly upstairs.

"NNNnnnnno!" I grabbed a broom and chased it, but it was too fast for me. Four of the five upstairs rooms had their doors open, including the bedroom. I started there, flipping on the light and explaining to a curled-up Tracy why I was poking the curtains with a broom.

"No way."
"Yes!"
"A bat."
"A bat!"

I could not find the bat anywhere. I finally gave up and, uneasily, went to sleep.

This morning, The Real Grendel woke us up whining and apparently watching something fly around the room, though the light was too dim for me to make anything out. We all went back to sleep, and later I let him out again. When I returned upstairs, I saw the bat in our bedroom window:

bat stuck in window

It's hard to tell in this photo, but it somehow managed to squeeze itself into the half inch or so between the storm window and screen, still very much alive. Due to the configuration of the window, I cannot raise the screen to let it out and I cannot lower the upper window. I can only close off the whole thing by closing the window. The only escape seems to be back into the room. I don't want to call an exterminator because it seems a waste of money. Why should it cost me $40 or whatever to get a bat out of a window?

I am at a loss about how to capture the bat. I don't want to hurt it. Any ideas?

UPDATE: CRISIS RESOLVED, SITUATION NORMAL
After declining a $299 offer from a pest control company, I called Iowa City Animal Control. An officer showed up an hour later, a skinny, no-nonsense blonde woman in a uniform, who was holding a square tupperware container on which was written "BATS," in black magic marker. It had air holes poked in it.

I nearly chuckled at her naivete. Surely she should be wearing military armor and be wielding an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner? But whatever -- it was her life, and if she wanted to show up unprepared, nothing I could do about it. Besides, the service would be free. I was only worried that she'd be fiddling with the thing for hours, and I didn't have hours. We went upstairs.

She looked at the window and asked for a coat hanger, which I gave her. Then she opened the window about halfway. Then she dragged the bat down inside the window with the coat hanger while holding the "BATS" tupperware container underneath it with her other hand, until the bat fell into the container. Then she put the lid on the container.

"Wow," I said. "Thanks! You do a lot of this?"
"Oh, forty a week, maybe."
"Ever been bitten?"
"Not by a bat."
"What will you do with it?"
"Let it go, far away."

8.19.2005

John Irving on Daily Show


In case you missed it, you can watch it on the Comedy Central site. Iowa mentioned, funny anecdote about Vonnegut. Thanks to Gwarbot for the alert.

8.18.2005

Happy Birthday, PJKM!

...who turns a certain number today. We still love her anyway.

For a different take on it, please refer to Brando's post over at CJSD.

8.17.2005

Here's What! Vol. 7

Busy like the rest of us on a Sunday and can’t make time for breakfast? Attend a church of your choice that’s serving a hearty communion... Yes, children are the future. But so what does that make parrots? Those fucks live a LONG-ASS time... In light of a state fair visit, I don't think middle America has so much an obesity problem as it does a big ol' titty support problem... And speaking of which, jeez, I can’t believe state fairs still allow Little People to roam the midway… And speaking of whom, did you hear The World’s Smallest Man sired a purple ribbon sow? (look it up, people)... My other car is stilts... I ate an entire Lunchable in the time it took Diane Rehm to say “nuclear non-proliferation treaties”... All the rage in Japan? Lesbian fetishists teens’ Hello Clitty dolls… Might the ADM Foundation give me a grant to eat Brown ‘n’ Serve smoky links every day for the rest of my life?... Is this love or what? My girlfriend planted a big happy smooch on me even though I’ve got meth-mouth!... Now come on, isn’t Dairy Queen really the poor man’s Hardee’s?... I can’t wait to introduce mom and dad to Rachel – my very special online avatar!… I’ve noticed that soul music is really not relevant unless it is 1:30am and one is gradually approaching alcohol poisoning... One day I’d like to meet a nice woman who almost exactly resembles my 2nd cousin on my dad’s side... Need to find a local alternative to prostate health? You’ll be glad you tried: www.anteater.peanutbutter.gauze.maps.google.com...

Quills Voting

I just voted online in the Quills Awards. I did so because I would like them not to suck in this inaugural year, though because it's a popularity contest I have my doubts.

However, what struck me the most was how many categories there are. Like voting for judges at election time, I did as much research as I could stand, but then went with my gut anyway for most of them. I mean, what the hell do I know about self-help books or romance novels?

Interestingly, the Quills will be broadcast live on NBC in October. I'm not convinced America is ready for the dork-fest that is the writerly community, but I would love to see Marilynne on national TV, pulling her hair back from her face and delivering a short speech in that musical voice of hers. THAT would be worth tuning in for, if only for the incongruity of it all.

The Ministry of Reshelving

is trying to relocate copies of George Orwell's 1984 from their present, incorrect place in bookstores (Fiction) to somewhere more appropriate (Current Events, U.S. Politics, or similar). If you do it, you're supposed to report it to the Ministry. Their goal: to reshelve 1,984 copies throughout the U.S.

It's this kind of thing that makes the Web the most valuable and important way to fritter away time in history.

Name Auctioning

This from Salon:

"Next month, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Lemony Snicket, Nora Roberts, Michael Chabon and 11 other best-selling writers will auction the right to name characters in their new novels. The profits will go to the First Amendment Project, whose lawyers have repeatedly gone to court to protect the free speech rights of activists, writers and artists.

'It feels a little scary for most writers because when you're writing, you're completely in charge -- you can say this book is all mine, it's my world,' said Chabon. 'Whether giving over some of that has any monetary value or not, we'll see.'

But bidders beware -- most of the authors are clearly retaining creative control to use the names as they see fit."

I don't really have an opinion on this. I guess it's a good cause. It got me thinking, though, about the best/most ridiculous/most inexplicable names for characters. My favorite has to be the protagonist from Tender is the Night. Indeed, I remember reading a heavily annotated edition that wondered if Fitzgerald realized Dick Diver was common parlance for fellatio at that time. Other favorites?

8.16.2005

"Writer's Almanac" canceled, then uncanceled in Kentucky

A radio station has changed its mind about the decency of Garrison Keillor's radio spot. The public told the station that getting high and breasts are okay with them.

What is the deal with Iowablog?

Is it some sort of minimalist statement? A solemn commentary on the blank page that terrifies us all? Did they not pay their bill? Are they writing in invisible ink? Did Vu win all the posts in poker? Or is it just my machine that refuses to display the words?

Fall writerly stuff in Iowa City

Prairie Lights has its new list up, which runs through Halloween. Some highlights include Aimee Bender, Margot Livesay, Jane Smiley, Gregory Rabassa, Yiyun Li, Rick Moody, Philip Levine, Cole Swenson, Ted Kooser, and Joe Haldeman. Note that Prairie Lights readings have shifted up from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Add to those Baxter Black at the Englert Theater 29 September, C. D. Wright at Tippie Auditorium 27 September, sponsored by the Workshop alone, plus something called The New Yorker College Tour (any ideas what that is?) 17-19 October.

The fiction teaching lineup for the fall will be Ethan Canin, Margot Livesay, Kevin Brockmeier, and Chris Offutt. (Can someone confirm all those? Is Marilynne teaching this fall, too? Sam's coming in the spring.) Ms. Livesay, the Scottish novelist, will be teaching a seminar on The Investigation of the Long Story, and the class will be reading Chekhov, Gallant, Gass, Hempel, Randal Kenan, Alistair McLeod, Munro, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Silber.

Kevin Brockmeier will be teaching a Children's Fiction Workshop in which students will put up two pieces of fiction for children. They'll read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsly, and the exhausting-sounding 24 Girls in 7 Days by Alex Bradley.

The tanned and rested Mr. Canin will be teaching his popular novella workshop. Chris Offutt will teach a seminar on event-driven and character-driven fiction, discussing the attributes and deficiencies of each. Readings will include short stories and short novels.

Any of us has-beens planning on taking a seminar?

Cole Swensen will be conducting a seminar on Serial and Long Poems, reading Pound, Spicer, Palmer, WC Williams, Karen Ah-hwei Lee, and Moxley. Mary Ruefle will be doing one on Idylls, Elegies, Odes, and Manifestos, with readings by Keats, Hopkins, and Stevens, plus the new anthology Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950. James Galvin will teach a Form of Poetry seminar using ye olde Norton, newest edition.

And that's all I found in those wire boxes in the Dey House -- which still has a beige, trailer-shaped parasite fastened to its south side.

8.15.2005

Not even the Cliff's Notes?

I know you'll all be shocked (shocked!) to learn Mrs. Beckham has never read a book. What IS shocking is that she admitted same. (Thanks to Bookslut.)

8.10.2005

Dear Ropes of Sand

I tried to comment on Artie Writewell's hilarious post re: those meddling crime-solving cheerleaders, but was denied! Then I recalled the earlier post about copying Earth Goat's posting policy, and I wonder if you didn't go a step too far. True, on EG only contributors can make an original post -- but anybody registered on Blogger can post a comment. What we did was disallow anonymous comments. I hope you'll hear my goat cries and make an adjustment. Of course, if you have come to a different policy decision, so be it. But note that it effectively locks the rest of us out.

I feel so used

In case you haven't seen this UI Foundation document about the Workshop, it's got some mouthwatering artists' conceptions of the Dey House renovation and the Glenn Shaeffer Library -- with some eye-popping dollar amounts (and fairly purple prose ... since when is the Iowa River "breathtaking"? When dead fish are rotting on its shores?). It also shows some pretty darned familiar faces in the "in-class" photos. I don't remember signing a release ... though I dimly recall a photographer setting up some stuff one day. (See the top of page 8 for a priceless shot of The Plunge stifling a yawn.)

8.09.2005

"Gómez Palacio" by Roberto Bolaño

New Yorker fiction -- August 8 & 15, 2005 issue

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There's been some sort of error. This story was supposed to be a poem, see. It wants to be a poem so bad that I actually feel sorry for it. It's like a kid squirming in a stiff, ill-fitting suit.

The speaker of the would-be poem has something in his past, some menacing trouble with the law, perhaps. He is vague and edgy. He can't sleep. That's all he'll tell us. He has problems connecting not just with the reader, but with the students in his poetry workshop: He can't even muster an answer to a student's question about why he writes poetry and how long he plans to write it.

Recapping where we are with the would-be poem: An emotionally dead narrator who doesn't communicate. And what else -- oh, he gets rides to work from the director of the workshop, who lets him drive even though he can't drive, and they listen to her best friend singing rancheras on the tape player, and after his last day as a teacher she takes him to some ridge in the desert where they watch distant car headlights make mysterious green lights. And then ... then he gets on a bus for Mexico City. The end.

We learn virtually nothing about the speaker of the would-be poem from his own thoughts, and virtually nothing about him through dialogue with the director, and virtually nothing about him through dramatic action. There is no build-up of tension, no crisis, no resolution of tension. No story. There's only one thing here: imagery. Which is fine -- in a poem.

8.04.2005

Superconservative superhero comic

Apparently, Liberality For All, a conservative persecution sci-fi fantasy comic book, in which cyberbioengineered G. Gordon Liddy, Sean Hannity, and Oliver North fight against an ultra-liberal Chelsea Clinton/UN-ruled America, is for real. But is it serious or tongue-in-cheek a la Team America? Click the "Next" link at the bottom to flip through the pages... Via DailyKos (scroll way down to "CyberHannity Saves the World"). There is a synopsis of the comic here. Also see Tom Tomorrow's take on it.

8.02.2005

"CommComm" by George Saunders

New Yorker fiction -- August 1, 2005 issue

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Following is a reconstructed version of the original post. Comments may reflect the fact that the post disappeared for a while. Many thanks to Antoine Wilson for dredging this up from Bloglines.

When I flipped to the contents page of this week's New Yorker and saw George Saunders's name, I literally rubbed my hands with glee. I may have even said, "Mwa-ha-ha." And he did not disappoint -- although I have to admit on first read I put it down for a while without finishing the first page, put off by his addiction to creating acronyms. We get three in the first paragraph and a half. But a few hours later, after two Advil, I forgave him and thoroughly enjoyed the piece.

Mr. Saunders has picked up the wild-assed comic surrealism mantle from Donald Barthelme. And both Barthelme and Saunders mastered the prevalent colloquial language to the point where you just have to admire the sheer flow of economic authenticity. They must be consummate eavesdroppers. Even a throwaway sentence like "Which I know is dumb, but still" in this story has to be admired. It seems effortless, but it must be the result of extreme dedication to listening.

Saunders's worlds are funky dystopian places about thirteen degrees to the left of ours. "CommComm" (Community Communications) presents a perfect Saunders canvas on which to paint his weird visions: A military PR unit. It's the narrator's job to explain military base happenings to the media and the public, through the never spelled out "PIDS" -- which I came to think of as Public Information/Disinformation Sessions.

A hallmark of his unique writing is that Saunders can't stop himself from creating outlandish and apparently irrelevant details, such as "frozen ministeaks called SmallCows."
You microwave them or pull out their ThermoTab. When you pull the ThermoTab, something chemical happens and the SmallCows heat up. I microwave. Unfortunately, the ThermoTab erupts and when I take the SmallCows out they're coated with a green, fibrous liquid. So I make ramen.
What is the tone of that? Comic, certainly, for the reader. And of course it's a comment on out-of-control consumerism. But how does the narrator feel about this? I guess he's just in it, reporting to the reader. It's a fine line Saunders walks with stuff like this, a kind of incidental deadpan trivial creativity that I wouldn't have the patience for with too many writers. He went crazy with this kind of thing back in March, in the "Brad Carrigan, American" story in Harper's. That story didn't work for me. Here, he keeps these to a minimum, to great effect. It's a spice, not a main course.

Another thing is if he's going to invent zany acronyms, I think he should stick with them, fill them out. In this story we get DST -- Designated Substitute Thoughtstream (alternative thought patterns one is supposed to invoke when confonted with "sadness-inducing events"). We are told this in column 2, but then it never comes back in the rest of the story, and not for lack of sadness-inducing events. Like I said, he walks a fine line, and this example is one of his few missteps here. In fairness, he does keep it up with the self-help tapes the narrator often consults.

But the story: the narrator has a home story and a work story going on that merge in the end. The home story is his parents and "the night of the Latvians." The work story involves the closing of the base, a dorky religious coworker named Giff, and a cynical guy named Rimney, whose wife has had a stroke. We spend more time on the work story, in which a foul smell is detected in the office, and it turns out Rimney has unearthed a couple of corpses and put them in the closet while he figures out what to do. If corpses are found, it would threaten the Dirksen Center for Terror, "the town's great hope," which is currently in the excavation stage. People on this base that is closing want to get jobs at Dirksen. And Rimney bribes the narrator to help him hide the bodies by promising a job at Dirksen.
I do an Actual Harm Analysis. Who would a reburial hurt? The mummy guys? They're past hurt. Who would it help? Rimney, Val Rimney, all future Dirksen employees. Me. Mom, Dad.
Of course, Giff catches on, and this fuels Rimneys rage. I don't want to give away the ending, in case you haven't read it yet, because there are a few elements of surprise in store that make the story more than worthwhile.

What is up with Saunders and old corpses? See "Brad Carrigan." And the paleofascination of "Pastoralia." There is an anthropological bent to his stuff, a pointing out of the Old Ways. I can only speculate that it is related to his devastating critique of current culture. Like he's saying, "We are way more ridiculous than you even fear we are, but we weren't always, and contrasting them serves my point."

Making fun of a religious loony is one of the easiest things to do in writing -- Saunders jujitsus his way out of that most admirably in the end. The ending in fact is superwacky. Too superwacky? I don't think so. Impossible as it seems with something so self-consciously soaking in irony and gallows humor, I was touched by the ending. It's unexpected, out there, and well executed, in this reviewer's opinion. A broad and triumphant redemption is about the last thing I was looking for amid all the hypercynicism. Makes for a nice combo.

The story is no "Jon," as Gillymonster pointed out on his and T-Bone's bitchin' porch this weekend, but it puts Saunders back on the odd pedestal I have reserved for him.

8.01.2005

The IC August blues

Couches, bookshelves, and broken chairs litter half the yards in town. Moving trucks block alleys, back up beeping to front steps, go the wrong way on Jefferson and Market. And as often as not going out means saying goodbye to people. Soon Mrs. Bathurst and her sidekick Agent Cooper, Nate and Nikki, and Possum will join the ranks of the Workshop diaspora. Godspeed to them and the best of luck. Things just won't be the same here anymore.

A minor aspect of this process is that the scrappy, Goat-addled softball team, The Defenestrators, is losing players. We still have enough males, but we need to find one or two women interested in playing the next two games and then the playoffs. Games are on Sunday afternoons or evenings -- this Sunday's game is at 5pm at the Hawkeye softball complex. If any current or recently graduated female workshoppers or other female readers are interested in playing, please email me at earthgoat at gmail dot com! You don't have to be good -- just willing to block out an hour each of the next few Sundays and have fun. Plus we'd love to meet you.