Monday, December 31, 2012

Long Goodbyes: Ben Tanzer's "My Father's House"


In my work for Instafiction/Longform Fiction, it's gratifying to note the writers I admire whom I had no introduction to prior to my research. Some of these favorites are due to selections by my partner--Jeremy is responsible for my knowledge and subsequent love of Lindsay Hunter, Blake Butler, and Roxane Gay, to name a few, but I was happy to stumble upon the likes of David Yost, Amber Sparks, and, the focus of this post, Ben Tanzer. Tanzer is based in Chicago, and when I read his 2005 story "The Gift," I made a mental note to return to his stories and other writings. He's been very prolific over the years, appearing in tiny, independent journals and serving as a Writer-in-Residence for bigger publications (he recently did that stint for Necessary Fiction). I picked up a copy of his 2011 novella My Father's House with no knowledge of the plot or how it could potentially reflect the handful of stories of his I've read. As I made my way through the book, I was reminded of an idea I haven't mentioned in quite some time. I usually do my best to make connections (tangible or intangible) between different texts and authors, or between different books by the same writer. In a loose, roundabout way, I kept thinking back to Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, and, at least in my mind, I feel My Father's House is a sort of fictional mirror to O'Rourke's non-fiction work. In different ways, both works explore grief, the loss of a parent, and the subsequent activities of the narrator in fresh, unexpected, and intentionally unsentimental fashions.

The narrator of My Father's House is referred to by his first name once or twice, but is best referred to by the title rather than a name. After his father is diagnosed with cancer, his life becomes a revolving series of moments: internal thoughts while running along Chicago's lakefront; cross-country travels while his father seeks out new doctors and treatments; "unofficial" therapy sessions at a local bar, with some unexpected/unsavory reflections on his personality; complex, detailed conversations with his wife; and his work at a drop-in center for homeless addicts. As I mentioned before, the narrator is emotional without veering into needlessly sentimental ruminations. As the novella unfolds, the actions and happenings themselves are strong enough to stand on their own without any added emotions. This is evident from the very beginning. The work is established with clinical details, and Tanzer is smart enough to let the reader determine his or her own emotional involvement in the proceedings.

"I don't remember how this started exactly.
I know it was 1999 and I know that my father had a seizure. I know his blood didn't look right. And that there was something going on with his bone marrow that looked to be pre-cancerous, but needed to be confirmed with a genetic test.
I also know it turned out that he has myelodisplasia, a rare form of bone cancer that causes immature bone marrow cells to explode before reaching maturity; that these explosions are known as blasts and without treatment these blasts are going to escalate until he has full-blown Leukemia.....

My mom says people can walk in to see a doctor, hear they have this disease and die three months later. Of course, she also says that people who get bone marrow transplants can live five more healthy years (Tanzer 1)."

I know nothing about Tanzer's personal life, so I'm not going to assume this novel is autobiographical, but the sheer force of the clinical details feels like the proceedings are being explained by someone in the shock of realization. There's no denial, no acceptance, no rage, but a matter-of-fact, almost terse setting of where the work begins, but with no hint as to where it will end up going. As the story progresses, sadness and memories do come into play, but with no embellishments or ploys. The narrator does end up working through stages of grief, but not in any grand sense. He's cognizant of his mental state, and as he works through toward the end of his father's life, there's so much more he has to tackle beyond the imminent loss.

"'Yeah,' she says putting the book down and looking at me, 'I noticed that, but then again, you never have cried much.'

Which is true, I never liked crying, and I always thought I was above feeling anything that strongly, but I've changed, haven't I. You should have seen me at the end of the movie Affliction, I cried so hard I couldn't breathe. And yet, the tears don't come. Not when my heart feels heavy, nor, when I find myself pursing my lips or when my eyes start to brim with tears while looking at some dumb greeting card or just contemplating the what-ifs.

It might be denial of course. I am clearly not allowing myself to deal with this. Or it could be the surreal nature of this whole thing. I mean what exactly is going on? How did it happen? When did it happen? I don't care what the facts are (Tanzer 16)."

The narrator does deal with things, but in odd fashions that provide a crucial theme to the novel. He ends up cheating on his wife multiple times with the same woman, and at first, he tries to use the excuse of his mental state and stress.

"She's leaning in to talk and touching my leg, and she has long brown hair and a big smile, and I know I shouldn't do this, but tonight I deserve to act out and not act like myself, just once, don't I? How could anyone call me on this?
I'm in pain. I've got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it's okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father's house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless (Tanzer 29)."

He knows what he's doing is wrong, and one gets the feeling that his excuses are merely that--it's an easy card to play. What I get from Tanzer's prose is the understanding that human frailty and bad decisions are parts of life that don't stop when faced with loss and dramatic changes. To be blunt, the narrator can be an asshole at times. But this is rendered very realistically. There are no dramatic realizations, no overt confrontations, and most importantly, no apologies on the part of the author. Perhaps the narrator wouldn't give into his impulses if not faced with his father's demise, but his faults march on even when the reader should be giving him sympathy. He's not completely without redeeming qualities. While he notes his attraction to his therapist, there's the implied realization that he's attempting to sort through his problems, even if the therapy sessions intentionally leave us with more questions than closures.



Tanzer also provides some unexpected detours into the sociology of death and the reactions it garners. The narrator makes comparisons between his father's looming death and the news coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Of course the deaths of famous people receive more coverage than everyday citizens, but when these differences are explored in the text, they provide for some curious explorations of how public and private grief are such different animals.

"Of course, it has nothing to do with what he has done, but who he is. JFK, Jr. is a rock star. No, he's more than that, and he's more than a celebrity. Maybe he's even royalty. Well, no matter what he is, he will always be the little boy saluting his dead father. So yeah, I know why he's getting all of this attention, and maybe, maybe even why he's being called a hero, but it doesn't change the fact that my father who is likely to die sometime soon won't receive anything remotely similar.

Is JFK Jr. a bigger hero than my father? I don't know if either of them are heroes, but one of them has the dead father, and the assassinated uncle, and the endless family history of pain, and so somehow his loss is more tragic. The thing is, even as we lie here in our air-conditioned hotel room, trying to protect my dad from whatever horrible things lurk outside I just don't know what's going to happen or if it even matters (Tanzer 21-22)."

The fact that my review is focused more on the surrounding events rather than the main plot line shows how My Father's House provides a complex exploration of such a common life event. Some of the happenings in the work were well written, but didn't speak to me. The narrator deals with a series of confrontations with the jealous boyfriend of a woman in his care, which leads to a mutual understanding between the two men about the nature of honesty and perceptions. These sections of the plot are just another stress dealt with by the narrator, but I didn't find them as compelling as his other ways of acting out and dealing with his upheaval. Again, I don't want to make any assumptions of autobiographical undertones, but some of the scenarios feel just specific enough for me to wonder. I'm not implying that there are "throwaway" sections in such a slim work, but I simply found more value in the other chapters. Tanzer provides meticulous details of hospitals, the physiology of his father's disease, and the variety of treatments, but I was more drawn to the psychological impulses of the narrator. The medical side of the book provides realistic material in a work that is just as realistic in its fictional depictions of how we deal with grief. Returning to The Long Goodbye, the similarities I found between Tanzer and O'Rourke were thematic rather than literal. O'Rourke's biographical examinations of her mother's death also contained references to running, sexuality, and the trials of everyday life continuing in the face of such a monumental occurrence. Tanzer's fiction is a little more emphatic on the narrator's shortcomings, whereas O'Rourke grapples more with her guilt and pain. But both works are two touching, literary additions to writings about death, which will never stop being written and will always highlight such universal and unique reactions.

I genuinely don't like ending this review on a criticism that might seem trivial, but it's more an act of tough love due to my support of independent publishing. My Father's House was published by Main Street Rag, a publishing company based in North Carolina. The passages cited above are done word for word, and there are occasional, slight typos throughout the work. Independent publishing is quite often a labor of love, since most small houses don't have the recognition and advertising power of the bigger publishing companies--their strength is the art of the writers, and I found it disheartening to note a handful of typographical mistakes. Am I being picky? Perhaps, but these mistakes jumped out at me in an otherwise worthwhile reading experience. Have I made my own typos and mistakes in my own writings? Of course. But when a publisher has a chance to put out a work by a respected writer, there should be more of an emphasis on editing, even when pressed for time and resources. I bring this up because I've read Tanzer's work in other publications without issue. I'm not at all doubting or picking on the people behind Main Street Rag, but these small details are important to me.

And on a final, happier note: Happy New Year. I'm looking forward to reading, reviewing, and promoting more writers and independent publishers in 2013. Thanks for reading this blog, and here's to a productive, enlightening, and creative new year.

Work Cited:
Tanzer, Ben. My Father's House. Copyright 2011 by Ben Tanzer.



Monday, December 24, 2012

The Deleted Era: Blake Butler's "Sky Saw"


After finishing my reading of Sky Saw, Blake Butler's newly published novel, I went back and looked over my review of There Is No Year. I was (and still am) amazed by his writing; his short stories and samples are some of the most profound, emotional, and daring pieces of writing I've read in quite some time. But after finishing one of his complete works, I felt like I had missed something, as if the novel had built up such a careful examination of characters and mystery that ended on an unsatisfying note. In the original review, I wrote: "Butler is a masterful storyteller who is intentionally audacious in his forms and philosophies, but there's an unnerving wonder as to whether he built the work up so much that it collapses under its own weight." To reiterate: I didn't dislike the book at all, and I still consider him one of my favorite writers. I was excited to learn about the release of Sky Saw and bought it immediately when it was released. I'm a firm believer in emotional states or a specific time periods affecting how one responds to a piece of art, be it a book, a film, or a painting. That said, I noted quite a few similarities between the two novels, but my immediate reaction to Sky Saw was pure satisfaction. Perhaps I had a better idea of what I was getting into, but I think the more appropriate explanation is his execution.

Sky Saw takes place in an undefined time period and, in a nod to There Is No Year, follows the actions of a woman, a man, and a child living in a mysterious world of repressed memories, totalitarian forces, and horrific acts of nature. In short, the meticulously detailed world and actions are nightmares in the most definitive sense--there are no explanations, fantastical happenings are presented as everyday occurrences, and the reader moves from one detail to the next with trepidation and dread. Butler's writing emphasizes small details within a vast network of intentional confusion.

"In the pockets between shrieking, Person 1180 read aloud. She read the book she'd found wedged among the folds of the long curtain in the hall just after Person 811 left, a date whose definition she could no longer remember, nor did she know why they'd chose to hang the curtain there--the only thing it hid was flat white wall, marred with no windows. The book was the same size of the book that you hold now. The front page had an inscription handwritten to Person 1180 by someone with an illegible signature, in bright blue ink that stung her eyes:

READ THE CHILD THIS BOOK OR HE WILL SUFFER

The text on all the other pages had been printed in a code, or in a strange language she did not recognize--babbly syllables and glyph fonts, planar symbols and number reams--and yet when 1180 passed her eyes over the lines and let her voice go, she felt the syntax easing out. Her reading voice was low and burnt and came up from her linings, something old and rhythmic as it passed. Doing the speaking in this manner juggled color in her lungs and made her woozy, a kind of crystal glass around her face (Butler 13-14)."

The totalitarian forces in the book could be part of a government, but sometimes appear simply as mysterious entities. This isn't a novel like 1984; the controlling bodies aren't given any backgrounds or motives. The real emphasis is on the exaggerated, sometimes horrific events that the characters endure. Some of these are grotesque births that the mother deals with, a collection of children conceived and birthed in a myriad of ways and circumstances. Butler doesn't present any of these scenarios for the sake of shock value--he's using fiction to open possibilities within these unsettling depictions. Some might be tempted (or even right) to describe his writing as experimental, but he has such a careful eye for detail and imagery, and sometimes the "experimental" tag is too easy a designation. There are no standard plot points, but the paragraphs and chapters are undeniably great works of storytelling.

"The mother now had given birth twenty-two times since the father's exit five days prior. Each time the span between the births decreased. The pregnancies were swift and brutal. She expelled her paste in gush and crumbs. The warblings of her and the babies' bodies both boomed through the empty rooms around them. Sometimes the mother felt she could have named the ancient human names of all the men that made her bigger, despite the blindfolds, the ice and biting--she could taste them in the branding of her flesh--a permanence mostly lost on the ejections.

Person 2030 had been 811's, who like the mother had descended from two bodies rendered during DELETED ERA. This child--the only one of hers that had thus far survived behind its eyes, held in its cruddy back and black saliva--had been the reason the father left, she knew. Though he'd not expressed this so directly--he'd said nothing really, just been gone--she could tell he'd despised the baby for shucking off his image, for already beginning to grow old. The air had seemed to buzz between them.

The other births after 2030's were a different matter, following a similar structure to the system of her aging, if reversed--one for each year, young and coming, if all crammed into such a short amount of time--the same spiral cut procession seen in all things, of all things one after another--new infants bloating in her as if in instants, spooling ropes on ropes of breathing cells. She tried to hold them in but they came out (Butler 29-30)."

Alongside these daunting bodily actions, nature comes into play as well, sometimes combining to create an unsettling bond between humans and nature. In the world of Sky Saw, life goes on despite the unknown and the changes rendered to anatomies and physiology. Humanity and nature sometimes become one, and it's difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. As with the other passages, the emotional qualities and visualizations take over, and while the work as a whole is intricately patterned, the reader becomes drawn to the singular moments and how they unfold.

"The mother vomited a bird. First there was one bird, then there were many, their tremble rummaged up her middle, from her throat. They scratched her cheeks and pore meat with their clawing, her O-hole stretched wide as it could go. Enormous birds, she saw, as white as nowhere, thrushed with feathers matted in a gel. They kept coming up out of her in a chain, all gushing and aflutter--silent--each one imprinted all through and through their gristle with a word, one word for each all written in their linings and down the contours of their suits, the word and word again all densely textured, though the mother could not read the words as they emerged--she could not make out the letters or what about them, or their presence there at all. Each bird's word was its own word for it alone, though all their screeching came out of them the same, brief and lame and hellish (Butler 59)."


Throughout the work, Butler inserts pages and pages of seemingly free-verse prose, poetic ruminations and statements that manage to guide the proceedings as stripped down versions of the more standard paragraphs. The form is different, yet the emotions and evocations are the same. The sample I'm citing is taken at random, but when matched up to the citations featured above, it's not hard to tell that they all come from the same work. Again, these seem like random stanzas, and while they're beautiful in their own right, the feelings presented are crucial to the mysteries surrounding it. One of the blurbs on the back of the book called Butler "the 21st century answer to William Burroughs," but I'm not sure that's a proper designations. Granted, my last attempt at reading Naked Lunch collapsed halfway through, but these words aren't meant to be some edgy drug haze. Butler is creating a fantastical world unbound by natural laws.

"It with our old names imprinted on it peeling

The sky wide with bodies hung from it in troves, fat pock-marked purses of slopping people


Colors not of how the skin had been in living, but the current state of their decay


Some of the bodies' globes glistened picked apart by gobs of sight and gnats grow fat off of the black-blistered ankles charred apart and caking pink (Butler)."

While Sky Saw is very, very different, I noted similarities to There Is No Year. Therefore, why did I enjoy the newer work more than the old one? I feel like the 2011 novel had too many sly hints to a concrete plot, as if an explanation was forthcoming at the end of the purposely vague horrors of the people and the house. Sky Saw has the potential to seem like it is heading to a standard climax, but I very quickly found myself enjoying the prose as it unfolded, not expecting the unnamed characters to be marching toward any sort of "reveal." The revelations are the actions and happenings themselves--the reader is often just as (intentionally) confused as the characters. I know some readers who still prefer Butler's writing in smaller doses. His stories and excerpts are some of the best works I've read in the last two years, and arguably the most original. This new work won't appeal to everyone--Butler has been criticized for his occasional repetition--but there's no denying his visions. I've read far too many stories lately attempting to be unique, edgy works. In the midst of his mix of forms and fantastical scenarios, Butler strives to move the reader via sadness, wonder, or genuine shock. For all the seemingly improvisational and quickly-passing pages, the lack of a resolved plot is set aside to engage the reader's senses. In short, Butler's fiction achieves what a lot of writers hope to do, and in extremely memorable fashions. Sky Saw has been making the rounds among independent literary circles, but with blurbs from the likes of Time Magazine and Publisher's Weekly, it's possible that his work will reach bigger audiences. At the very least, it's a great example for people who claim there's nothing left to read.

Work Cited:
Butler, Blake. Sky Saw. Copyright 2012 by Blake Butler.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Beautiful Monstrosities: Matt Bell's "Cataclysm Baby"


I rarely read outside reviews or synopses of the books I review, but a certain phrase led me to look over Will Kaufman's essay on Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby. Writing for Quarterly West, Kaufman offered a piece of mild criticism in the hopes of countering his “slack-jawed endorsement-gasm.” My own mentions and analysis of Bell's writing would seemingly fall into that category. Bell's diversity and craft were on full display in How They Were Found (2010, Keyhole Press), a story collection that touched upon almost every genre, in experimental and classic styles, and I was enamored with his writing to the point of my own endorsement-gasm, recommending the work to as many people as possible. For years, Bell has published his stories in a variety of journals, amassing a varied bibliography, and now he's moving into longer published works. Cataclysm Baby, a recent offering from Mud Luscious Press's Novella series, has been receiving praise in the same fashion as his short fiction: word-of-mouth recommendations, independent reviews, and most importantly, the strength of its content.

Cataclysm Baby is divided into twenty-six chapters united by a common theme: fathers dealing with evil, mutated, and animal-like children. The time period is left intentionally vague, and there are recurring hints of plagues, biblical doom, and post-apocalyptic calamities. The chapter headings (“Ulmer, Ulric, Ursa,” “Nessa, Neve, Nevina,” etc.) form a strange, alphabetical baby name list, and I spent the first few chapters attempting to connect the names with the events, but after awhile, I realized this was unnecessary: the real focus is on the isolated fathers and their reactions to the sad, twisted offspring. The trials of parenthood have been fictionally documented in many ways, but rare is the book that features a father dealing with problems like “...our dark-eyed beauties so impossible to keep in their wicker cribs, to keep inside our rude-made gravedigger's hut, perched at the rent edge of this barren plot. See them squirm free of their cribs, their new and segmented bodies falling to the packed-dirt floor and out of this home I built for them and their mother.”


Even in the most fantastical, mythological settings, Bell manages to keep the scenarios grounded and perversely plausible. Other writers would make the mistake of attempting to top each passing chapter to the point of making this type of work a distracting collage of transgressive fiction. While different in scope and tone, the events of Cataclysm Baby work in the same vein as the stories in How They Were Found: even when dealing with the extremes, Bell's writing is focused on descriptive excellence and not a need to make the children and atmospheres outlandish. The reader becomes caught up in the suspense and gloom, but also in the bigger picture: all of the chapters hint, either explicitly or metaphorically, to much larger themes. For example, a section describing a wolf-like pack family offers this aside that not only ties into the story, but could stand alone as its own exploration of communication and togetherness:

“When the meeting is over—when the moon enters the waning that awaits it on the other side of our words—only then do we give up one language for another, to come together as one people, one troubled nation of tribes. As one mouth we combine our voices, a cacophony rising as if to crack the earth, as if to shake the heavens, as if to loose the turning moon from her mount and bring it crashing down upon us, the only mass heavy enough to bury our giant grief.”


Are the twenty-six fathers and their various children supposed to be connected, or do they inhabit singular biographies? A case can be made for either, since Cataclysm Baby is composed in such a way as to lend itself to a myriad of definitions and structural possibilities. This could be one world, or it could be a mural of isolated scenes. Stretching this even further, Bell even adds sketches of dark comedy and straight-forwardness, therefore adding strains of normalcy to situations that are anything but normal. In some of these chapters and worlds, what appears to us as freakish are just ordinary happenings in the lives of the characters. What never wanes, however, is an overall atmosphere of desperate hope. Even with fragile sanity or utter perplexity with the physiques and actions of their children, the fathers strive to hold their lives together, even if this sometimes means taking drastic measures. With that, there's a sociological, universal thread that ties the reader to situations that seem to be straight out of a pure horror story.

Matt Bell continues to be an invigorating artist, exploring different forms and storytelling angles. None of his works have ever relied on gimmicks or stories without at least a handful of potential meanings, and Cataclysm Baby is no different. I've read the work twice in the last month, and even going into it that second time, I found multiple passages that seemed fresh or exposed new territories for the course of the book, offering even more ways to analyze such a slim volume. To counter my own “endoresment-gasm:” should Bell ever produce a work that stumbles in its execution, it will be easy to criticize, since his first two publications have shown what he is steadily capable of doing. However, that's a purely hypothetical scenario, and Cataclysm Baby is the latest offering from a writer who really needs more attention than he already receives.

NOTE: Recently, the publishers of Mud Luscious Press have encountered financial difficulties to the point of their next four publications being in jeopardy. Writers, readers, and other presses have started a big push to shed led on the publisher's excellent works in the hopes of helping them raise enough capital to be able to continue their book publishing. Visit the site to learn more about their available materials.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Announcing Longform Fiction


Yesterday saw a very exciting announcement. After a year and a half of working on the website/feed Instafiction, Jeremy P. Bushnell and I agreed to become the first Fiction Editors for the great website Longform.org. The work on Instafiction was very gratifying and introduced me to dozens of amazing literary magazines and writers, but occasionally, Jeremy and I would have the "where is this taking us?" conversation. A few months ago, he introduced me to a conversation with Longform co-founder Max Linsky, and the plan was set in motion. And here we are.

The fiction page for Longform was released yesterday, along with a complete redesign of the entire website. I, of course, had nothing to do with any of these changes, but I'm humbly hitching a ride with some phenomenal editors and designers. Jeremy and I are beyond excited to start sharing and promoting great writers and journals via a new site and audience. And I want to thank the Longform founders (Max and Aaron Lammer) for giving us this chance, and the biggest thank you goes to web designer Will Mitchell. A good 85% of Max's e-mails mentioned how much Will was doing behind the scenes to get the new Longform pages up and running. I actually haven't met these gentlemen face to face, so these digital shout-outs will have to suffice.

I hope you check the site out, if you're not already familiar with it. Longform.org has a large, passionate following and has been praised in articles by such publications as Time magazine (it's one of their Top 50 websites of 2012), Slate, and the Washington Post. If anyone was a devoted follower of Instafiction, the content isn't changing, just the venue. We're still going to be searching for great, unheralded fiction from a variety of sources. Drop us a line if there's anything you've read that stands out.

The new Twitter handle is @longformfiction. Pay us a visit. Thanks.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Whole Analysis: Geoffrey Nunberg's "Ascent Of the A-Word"

(NOTE: Not safe for work due to choice language.)

"Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master." --A Christmas Story


Language has always fascinated me in its forms, slang, double-entendres, and ability to be cut up, mixed, and worked with as a medium. If you visit this blog even semi-consistently, you've likely noticed my penchant for witty and (more often than not) lame puns for the titles; this piece is no exception. It's my way of inserting some amusement and goofiness into what are otherwise serious critiques and analyses. Growing up, I'm sure that most people were familiar with these argument regarding profanity: "it's not creative," "it's an easy way to complain about something," and the like, with the underlying message being that bad words, in addition to being distasteful, are weak substitutes for linguistic play. There's an element of truth to those ideas, but it's a sort of cop-out: it's a way to critique someone's intelligence instead of deploying the usual argument of "you shouldn't use those words." But in reality, dirty words themselves have an amazingly diverse history, both linguistically and sociologically. Many of them can be traced throughout centuries and have compelling origins. Recently, analyses of "dirty words" have resulted in some very well-regarded books, including but not limited to: On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt; The F-Word by Jesse Shiedlower; and Cunt by Inga Muscio. All of these titles have been on my to-read list for quite some time, but recently I was drawn to the recently published Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years by Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at UC-Berkeley.

Despite the book's cover, I read the book because it promised to be a look at the ramifications of the meanings behind "asshole" from a linguistic and cultural lens, not a scathing, tired look at celebrity and political figures on whom the designation has been applied (although Nunberg does write about some public figures). It also looks at the "quality" of what he coins "assholism:" the personification and actions that lead to one being branded that way.

"The notion of the asshole is a much better place to start. There's a lot to be learned just from tracking the history and use of the word itself. Unlike civility, asshole operates underneath the radar of reflection. We might deliberate over whether some colleague or relative is better described as an asshole, a prick, or a piece of work, but that's a debate about personalities, not semantics. In fact, people often talk about the word as if it didn't actually have much of a descriptive meaning--even dictionaries are content to define it with vague phrases like 'an irritating or contemptible person.' In truth, asshole is a lot more specific than that, but in any case isn't a word we acquire from dictionaries or explicit instruction....Ask people what an asshole is and you're more likely to get a list of names like the one this book opened with than a semantic analysis (Nunberg 15)."

Nunberg performs an eye-opening look at how the word is generally used. It's almost never applied to a woman, and seems to fit much better within specific scenarios, rather than as an all-encompassing slur against annoying people. It ties into a sense of entitlement and the understanding that an asshole doesn't know that he (or sometimes she) is acting in a such a manner. For example:

"Yet there's a fair consensus about what kinds of behavior qualify someone for the asshole label, and they're only a fraction of the things you could do to make yourself 'foolish or contemptible,' as the OED defines the word. You can be an asshole for abruptly cutting into a line of cars waiting in the left-turn lane, but probably not for failing to signal a turn or texting when you drive. You can be an asshole for cheating on your wife or girlfriend, but not for cheating on you expense reports or a final exam. You can be an asshole for taking credit for a colleague's work, but probably not for plagiarizing from someone else's book. A CEO may count as an asshole if he yells at his assistants or makes sexual advances to women employees, but not if he simply gets his board to pay him a bloated compensation package. And even if you believe that George W. Bush lied about WMDs in Iraq, that by itself wouldn't make him an asshole, though he might have earned the label for his press-conference smirks (Nunberg 28)."

Given today's media, political, and entertainment culture, it's almost impossible to imagine this book without concrete examples, but I found the political sections, while relevant, to be tiresome, but through no fault of the author. Personally, I'm still tired of the constant political ads that dominated the internet and television for the last few months, so Nunberg's political analysis felt like something I've already read and experienced multiple times. The general, non-specific sections appealed to me more. I can imagine other writers getting the idea for a book of this nature and finding themselves stuck in a pattern of rehashing or constantly referring to the same ideas. But first and foremost, Nunberg is a linguist, and since language can sometimes be overlooked in cultural sketches, he has a variety of angles to play. I quietly groaned when he introduced Tucker Max's "writings," but instead of going for the obvious critiques, he takes Max's form of assholism and explores it for what it truly is. The passage below is wonderful in its deconstruction and humorous conclusion:

"This posture clearly has some appeal for the sorts of young yobbos who walk around wearing 'I'm an asshole, deal with it' T-shirts. But asshole isn't about to be rehabilitated as a positive term, no more than bitch is, outside of some feminist circles. In fact it really isn't meant as an effort at reclamation so much as a show of bad-boy naughtiness. There's a certain delusion in the assumption that there's some virtue in coming clean about one's assholism. The fact is there's no such thing as an 'honest asshole'; it's in the nature of being an asshole that you're obtuse about your entitlements and about the way others see you. If you're consciously and deliberately offending or manipulating someone, you necessarily belong to another breed. So when you hear someone proudly declaring himself an asshole, it's a fair conclusion that he's not an asshole at all, he's just a dick (Nunberg 132)."



Toward the end of the book, even as the political examples mount (and Nunberg deserves a tip of the cap for pointing out examples of assholism on the left and the right), the overall theme becomes one of civility, or lack thereof. For all of its paradoxical variety and uniqueness, assholism boils down to how humans interact with each other. Civility has strains of social class relations, an idea given a good number of pages, but turns into a simple notion of respect. If you're an asshole, you simply don't think about others (alas, this isn't narcissism--assholism is its own singular entity). What people normally view as an asshole behavior is sometimes a very different piece negativity.

"The items in that list hardly exhaust the forms of political assholism--and they certainly don't represent all forms of incivility that are abroad these days--but they underscore assholism's destructive efforts on public discourse, the license it gives to dishonesty and self-delusion. The problem isn't with the moral logic of assholism itself, but with the way it has bubbled up into the public sphere. In the course of our daily rounds, we're frequently reminded how useful it is to have the sentence 'What an asshole!' available to us, whether or not we utter it aloud. I suppose someone could argue that the existence of the word itself creates a vicious circle of rudeness, and that faced with an asshole's provocations, we'd be better people if we could resist the temptation to respond in kind (Nunberg 210-211)."

What I found myself enjoying in The Ascent of the A-Word was Nunberg's seriousness. There are humorous asides and examples sprinkled throughout, but overall, it's an academic exploration of a word that transcends all people and classes. With some of the books out there on profanity, I sometimes get a vibe that some of them might be a wink at the reader, a sort of juvenile thrill at examining bad language. But Nunberg's goal isn't to induce thought-provoking giggles; we live in a time when assholism invades virtually every relationship, opinion piece, and look at cultural studies. Remarkably, this is one of TWO books on the subject to appear this year (In October, Aaron James published Assholes: A Theory). My review of this work might seem very basic, but it's the sort of book that some will avoid altogether or lump into the still-growing pile of thinly-veiled political works. The examples I've chosen show the variety of paths Nunberg has chosen, and it's a carefully researched look into a wide range of studies. Most importantly, it continually reminds the reader that referring to someone as an asshole is sometimes self-reflective; the words we use to disparage might sometimes cover up personality traits that we assume we don't have within ourselves.

Work Cited:
Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Ascent Of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years. Copyright 2012 by Geoffrey Nunberg.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Telling Stories: Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"


I've read very little of Aleksandar Hemon's writing, so I was excited when my book club voted for The Lazarus Project last month. His books have been on my list for quite some time, and aside from a short story (or two?) and a handful of essays, my fascination with him is limited to the scattered readings and his history of living in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, a five minute walk from where I grew up and live now. His reputation has been equally fascinating, leading to his being the rare writer whom I knew I wanted to read, but whom I knew precious little about, stylistically. I didn't know what to expect from his full-length books, and unless his other pieces are even more varied, The Lazarus Project proved to be a dizzying mix of genres, voices, images and intentionally questionable narratives. But these combinations (and said dizziness) are not meant to be synonyms for "confusing." Upon completion of the novel, I was struck by how the narrative was so straightforward, jumping consistently from past to present, from fictional imaginings of real events to fictional depictions of fictional characters. The complexity lays in Hemon's themes: there's really no way to pinpoint an exact tone or message in The Lazarus Project, but rather, the reader sits back and is overcome by the variety of what the text accomplishes.

The novels tells two intertwined stories, one of them a compelling, ugly piece from Chicago's early twentieth-century history. In 1908, for still unknown reasons, a young Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch paid a visit to the home of Chicago's chief of police; not long after arriving, he was dead from multiple gunshot wounds, and the police and media were quick to paint a lurid picture of a violent anarchist with ties to Emma Goldman eager to commit a crime against the law:

"Neither does Assistant Chief find it insignificant that the anarchist has been meticulously shaved, probably that very same morning, and that his hair was carefully cut. His clothes are musty and worn, but he doesn't exude any stench; the man has without a doubt taken a bath recently. It is not customary with alien men of that class to take care of their persons, Assistant Chief tells William P. Miller. It looks as though he didn't expect to come back alive. 'He looks like a Jew to me," Chief Shippy says, as Foley is tearing the end of the bandage with his teeth to tie it up. Assistant Chief unbuttons the man's pants, pulls them down, then does the same with his long underwear; in doing so, he slips on the blood and brains, nearly falling on the body, but quickly regains his balance.

'He's a Jew all right,' he announces, leaning over the young man's crotch. 'A Jew is what he is (Hemon 26-27).'"

Lazarus's sister Olga knows he's not an anarchist, and sets out to attempt to clear his name. However, this proves to be a daunting challenge: she's struggling with poverty and is malnourished and has to deal with authority figures who sneer at her for being an immigrant woman, not to mention a sibling of a "dangerous anarchist." She remains undaunted, even as her brother's name is smeared and his body desecrated (the photo below appears in the book and is an actual photo of Lazarus Averbuch's body following his killing):


"Oblivious to the surroundings, she walks slowly. She moves quietly between the detectives, her dress too sweat-damp to rustle. It is only when they open the door of the room that she begins to hold back. Men are gathered around the chair where Lazarus sits, and she is relieved to see he is alive. She sighs and grips Fitzpatrick's forearm. But one of the men is holding Lazarus's head; her brother's eyes are closed, his face ashen; her heart stops, frozen. Fitzgerald urges her on; Fitzpatrick says, as if delivering a punch line: 'Happy to see him? Give him a kiss...' The crowd titters, transfixed by Olga's stepping toward Lazarus, as if she were mounted on cothurni: a short, reluctant step back, then two awkward steps forward to touch his lifeless cheek, whereupon she collapses, unconscious. The crowd gasps (Hemon 57)."

The second story is about Brik, a Bosnian writer living in Chicago. He's married to a surgeon, and their marriage alternates between blissful love and heated, violent confrontations. He becomes fascinated with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, and upon receiving a literary grant, he decides to travel to Eastern Europe to chart and track the Averbuch line and to see how the contemporary homeland reflects the early twentieth-century immigrant experience. He teams up with Rora, a fast-talking photographer who also hails from Sarajevo, with the hopes of having him document their trip. Brik and Rora become an uneasy odd couple, balancing between their natural alliance as men from the same land (and travelers on a sometimes dangerous trip) and their occasional but mounting friction. Rora is an avid storyteller, creating grand, embellished tales of war and travels. He is consistently annoyed with Brik's questions and conversations. Brik, despite his personal faults and boorish behavior toward his wife, is naturally observant, gleaning philosophical and sociological details and hypotheses from the most casual surroundings. Hemon's writing is excellent in these details, and is continual marked by moments of unexpected (and dark) humor, and the passage below ends with one of my favorite lines from the book:

"One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling coffee grounds all over the counter, I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness (Hemon 73)."

As these two story lines alternate, the reader is presented with a myriad of themes--the obvious ones are how the immigrant experience in the United States has changed and remained the same, especially regarding the notion of terrorists and anarchists (substitute Muslims today with Eastern Europeans then); traveling as both a physical journey and an existential one. But what stayed with me the idea of storytelling. This might seem like such a simple, obvious idea, but Hemon crafts various avenues of storytelling, from the historical to the contemporary, but also with a balance between fictional and autobiographical. The little I know about his personal life and history in Chicago is reflected in careful detail via Brik: the mentions of Chicago's Edgewater, Andersonville, and Uptown neighborhoods; the Bosnian angle; and the fact that Brik is a writer who has received a substantial grant. I'm not suggesting that Brik is the complete personification of Hemon, but there's enough there to make the reader wonder how much Hemon has pulled and crafted from his own life, especially when the fictionalized stories of Lazarus and Olga are based on real people as well.


Within the stories lie what I feel is the biggest focus of The Lazarus Project: the art and complications of storytelling. There's never a moment or happening within the text that can't stand alone as its own tale or isn't part of a bigger one. Rora, for example, is meant to be a foil for Brik as well as a source of comic relief. However, his character is constantly telling stories, and after while, these mini-narratives become their own part of the plot:

"These people, these gangsters, Rora said, they are the same wherever you go--the same smirk, the same cell phone, the same goon. There used to be a guy named Pseto, a big gangster in Sarajevo just before the war. His business was racketeering. He ran a crew, including a few cops, who would break up a vendor if he did not pay for protection. He had a jewelry shop for money laundering, and sometimes he wore half of his inventory: diamonds and gold all over. He walked down Ferhadija Street with that Sarajevo-street-thug strut, and people would part reverentially. (I could see him: throwing his shoulders and jerking his neck, pursing his lips, the mouth half open to show that he was halfway to being very pissed) He would walk into a bar and the owner would have to buy drinks for everybody present, as though Pseto were the king. As his headquarters, he used a cafe called Djul-basta (I knew exactly where it stood); the owner was blessed with his protection but had no customers other than the people who came to do business with Pseto. He had trained the owner to bring him a short espresso every half an hour by the clock, and he would sit there, drinking coffee all day. Once he made a disobedient cop suck his cock. And when a stupid journalist wrote about the collusion of the police and Pseto, he had sent goons to bring the fool and had him tied to the tree in front of the cafe. He put a gun at the journalist's temple and told him to bark, so he barked. And he barked all day, was fed pizza leftovers, and had to fetch a stick (Hemon 131-132)."

As Olga processes the story of Lazarus's murder, she does her own painful storytelling. She keeps mentally crafting letters to her mother to break the news of the killing. These drafts are always brief, yet constantly switch in tone and climax as she goes about her investigations.

"Dear Mother,
You will think me cruel and mad, but I cannot keep this inside me anymore. Lazarus has been slain like an animal for no reason at all yet they call him an assassin. He--an assassin. There is no end to evil, it reaches us here too (Hemon 169)."

"Dear Mother,
Lazarus's funeral was beautiful. The rebbe spoke of his kindness, and there were hundreds of his friends, mountains of flowers (Hemon 148)."

The photographs that break up each chapter add their own layers to the narrative. Some of them, like the one of Lazarus above, are real photos from old newspapers. Others are meant to be Rora's photos as he helps document his travels with Brik. Some of these are beautiful landscape shots; others are random snapshots of people related or unrelated to the corresponding text. However, there's a definite subtlety to these images, even if they are jarring and uncomfortable. For as meticulous as Hemon is in his fiction, the idea of imagery and photography are vital to the stories, and therefore the photos become necessary as well as aesthetic. They make The Lazarus Project feel like a sort of time capsule. The early murder is its own historical document, and the travels of Brik and Rora feel like recordings for their own future prosperity. After awhile, the reader is no longer awaiting closure to the events of Lazarus, Olga, Brik, and Rora--the stories unfold into themselves as present-tense happenings, as if we're seeing two events becoming part of one long strain. There's never really a question of reliability--Brik is so open about his own faults and shortcomings that the reader focuses on experiencing the mysteries as they unfold. Also, the blatant lies of the police in covering up Lazarus's murder are the only truly unreliable narrations, but those are expected and obvious.

This is one of the more memorable, expertly crafted novels I've read this year. I found myself inserting Hemon into Brik's stories, and I somehow get the feeling that, personally, Hemon suffers from his own outbursts and unsavory tendencies. But going strictly by the novel, I'm still amazed at how much complexity he wrings from what is otherwise a very simple collection of tales. He writes with emotion without going for obvious sentimentality. During our book club meeting, I expressed the critique that Hemon piled too much misfortune on Olga, getting to the point that it seemed too much to handle. A fellow participant made an excellent point that rendered my criticism false--in history, the Jewish experience has been that way for some people: sometimes there's so much strife and pain without a "happy ending." Hemon's mix of themes, plots, and philosophy were extremely well done, and I'm happy not only that I've finally read one of his long-form works, but that it was this one. It's storytelling both big and small, and a constant stream of information and history that keeps one constantly deep in thought. I very much look forward to reading his other novels and stories, and I plan to tackle these (hopefully) sooner rather than later in 2013.

Work Cited:
Hemon, Aleksandar. The Lazarus Project. Copyright 2008 by Aleksandar Hemon.