Tag Archives: prose

40 Likely to Die Before 40 (Alt Lit anthology) Notes #1: Sam Pink


(excerpt from his book, ‘Person’)

pg. 17 “I’m walking around Chicago, feeling like a piece of shit.”
     —I really liked this line, but for very unique/personal/weird reasons, probably. I’ve always been obsessed with big cityscapes. Chicago is one of only two major cities I’ve been to, and it’s the one I’ve been to most often & have the most positive associations with (the other being Detroit and negative). I’ve basically had a hard time falling asleep every night that I can remember, and especially during very stressful times in my life when trying to fall asleep at night I try to calm down by imagining walking around Chicago, filling in as many details and places from memory as possible. So both frequently in my imagination as well as a few times in real life I’ve literally had intense moments of thought and imagination while walking around Chicago feeling like a piece of shit.

pg. 18 “I always think about getting randomly hurt and how awesome it would be to just immediately be changed and removed from my situation. // To have something direct to worry about, like a broken leg or a really big cut.”
     —I feel like I can very much relate to this concept. It’s importantly not suicidal or desiring of pain, but entirely emotional / at a sort of stoic remove. It seems like a combination of feelings of frustrating stasis (wanting something to badly change but not knowing what/how/why to best achieve this changing) and a desire to have a focal point for anxiety/sadness/anger. This seems to be a very consistent theme in a lot of ‘alt lit’ and my own existence, the cliche generalized depression & even without contemplating how to change that feeling there’s a desire to have a direct and concrete locus to grasp onto. While never a cutter myself my understanding is that this is sort of why some people with depression/anxiety/stress cut, giving a clear physical sensation/point of focus, a way of funneling or releasing those feelings. I really enjoy the hyper-awareness of self / thoughts / emotions in this excerpt, and again it’s a consistent theme in alt lit. I feel like I really enjoyed reading one of Tao Lin’s poetry books where he talks a lot about what I perceived as both intrigue and annoyance at the ability of energy drinks to affect his worldview; I think there’s an echo of that concept here.

pg. 18 (general) The amount of self-deprecation is bothering me a little, making me feel slightly that it’s too affected / overdone, but that makes me think about how I usually like things being ‘overdone’ or excessive so maybe I like this, but I’m really not sure.

pg. 19 “And I can see either accepting everything that happens, or accepting none, but in between I lose hope.”
     —I really connect to this worldview. In a larger more abstract sense this seems to be my personality/approach to everything, I have a very addictive and obsessive personality; I’m never happy unless I’m doing something with extreme commitment, I don’t really do ‘hobbies’ well or dabble in things, I have to be doing things full bore or I think ‘What’s the point’. I’ve always not liked or not agreed with Socrates or whoever it was about ‘Moderation in all things’, the whole philosophy of moderation being the key to happiness. While self-evidently true in many things, as a larger philosophy it’s lost on me. I like how that idea is articulated here, how muddling about ‘in the middle’ means perhaps letting go of a more concrete / persuasive narrative.

pg. 20 “People are skating there together. // None invited me. // No, I don’t know, I mean that’s how I want it.”
     —Another recurring theme at least as I’ve perceived it in many alt lit pieces (and I feel a great deal of empathy toward this feeling) — the paradox of wanting to not be alone but also having social anxiety / wanting to be alone to do certain things or write, which inevitably incurs a kind of bittersweet loneliness.

pg. 20 “Not quite a piece of shit myself, but the streak for sure. // For sure the area the shit passes over and leaves behind parts of itself.”
     —I know this feeling and relate to it, but mostly marked this bit because I thought it was really funny, I laughed out loud.

pg. 21 “I want to itch my back until I feel pain. // No, I don’t know.”
     —Not this passage specifically, but it’s an example of a recurring rhetorical device / thought mechanic, where the speaker states something, a feeling or opinion, then immediately seems to reflect on it and reverse course, sort of like the skating passage. I think everyone has these moments if they’re honest with themselves, it’s interesting to me how it illuminates how quickly we can perceive/judge something or someone, have an authentic emotional response we feel in the moment is genuine and accurate but literally a second later we’ve already engaged in honest introspection and concluded we were wrong. This happens I think as easily with banal moments (like the one quoted) as it does with more complicated / deeply felt moments.

pg. 25 “In resisting the urge I feel like something like a rush of energy through my heart-area.”
     —Again this is one example of a recurring device, where the speaker uses strangely ambiguous descriptions. I feel like most of the time I understand why, because some sensations feel very vague in this is just attempting to be accurate, but sometimes it feels awkward / forced and I don’t know what it’s accomplishing and I don’t like it, it feels like a slack gesture, e.g. at one point the speaker talks about thoughts going into his ‘head-hole’.

pg. 27 (general) I really liked this scene in the 7-11, the kind of banal everyday but weird things that just happen, weird scenes we play a part in that could almost be some art house movie scene.

pg. 29 “My history is the history of things imagined and not-happened.”
     —I love this, I think it captures the feeling of how much time we spend playing out possibilities not only to current / future choices or occurrences but also reflecting on past choices and experiences and how it could’ve gone better or differently. I also had just read a quote or something somewhere on twitter I think, a quote by someone about life being 65% what-if. I just now remember this was a line from a recent Dean Young poem but I’m not going to look it up, but it was a funny chance connection and I think they’re both getting at the same thing.

pg 29. “I live in Chicago and I don’t get along with a lot of people and the reasons are always new and wonderful.”
     —Final line of the excerpt, and it it just touches back on everything throughout very well. 

Review: ‘The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq’, by Hassan Blasim

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of IraqThe Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reflecting quite a lot on this short but destructive collection of short stories by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, a writer The Guardian has called “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Taking it’s title from the title of the first story, ‘corpse exhibition’ feels like both a directly and subtly apt one. There are bodies littered everywhere, violence and death a never-ending haze that hangs over every sentence. There’s a stoic resolve present in the curation of these stories that reminds me of an art gallery, a sort of determination to let the art speak for itself without distraction — the prose is concise, brutally economic as it frames one portrait after another of madmen, soldiers, djinn, prophets, soccer coaches and wailing family members. While Blasim’s style lets these landscapes play out in a way unadorned, it’s a style that also refuses to cushion any blow or cringe at any mutilated body.

I really admired the artistic ambition throughout the collection, the author’s restraint to let the stories echo and haunt without any stilted prodding or winding up from the author’s visible hand. The cascade of savagely honest descriptions and portrayals of one atrocity after another would have cultivated a good amount of writerly capital that could’ve been spent on a more sentimental or politicized text, but these stories really kick the gut because this gesture has been resisted. This doesn’t mean the result is cold or lacking in criticism of nearly every actor in the long period of the US intervention, but Blasim has let the dark imagination of each story be its own best advocate. The result is a surprising, surreal, and necessary collection that will poltergeist around the mind of readers from any perspective.

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Review: ‘Shovel Ready’, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready: A NovelShovel Ready: A Novel by Adam Sternbergh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will be honest and admit I wasn’t overly convinced of this novel right away; as a lover of William Gibson and Warren Ellis, the setting and premise felt a bit too familiar and overall the ground felt a bit well-tread. I knew right away I’d probably not be disappointed because this kind of gritty, noir speculative fiction is deeply in my wheelhouse, but I wasn’t sure it was going to live up to the expectations I had been building up for it for months.

In the end, I had really been swept up by this book, which manages to be more than the sum of its parts, which is not necessarily a knock on the parts. Adam Sternbergh has an obvious talent for pace and a heavily stylized narrative voice. The plot remains a bit well-worn, a heavy-drinking hitman anti-hero meandering about a dirty-bombed New York City full of shanty camp towns and the rich plugged into yet another flavor of a Matrix-like mass hallucinatory cyberspace bites off big on a strange job that only gets stranger. But Sternbergh is a fine storyteller and more than competently ushers along an engrossing tale. But the real strength here is in the frenetic tempo of the entire story, the way tension is elevated higher and higher and kept taut through the end.

The real danger of writing in a familiar genre is too easily falling into tired tropes and half-hearted style, and the book manages to mostly avoid it; the grit and noir are convincing and textured, rubbing the right away and making sure it burns. I really can’t commend enough Sternbergh’s risky approach to style, rapidly hammering one scene into the next with staccato, almost absurdly lean prose. The culminating effect feels like an action movie or graphic novel, with things getting hot early and never settling into any downtime.

I was happy to learn, as I suspected, that this isn’t a standalone debut but that at least one more ‘Spademan’ novel is in the works. I look forward to seeing how these characters and this refreshing approach to pace and structure bear out with more time. The world Sternbergh has created may not be as ultimately unique, but it’s an enjoyable nod to its predecessors and well worth spending your time in.

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BookRiot Asks: Who Are Your Favorite Writers of Color?



The ever noble folks over at BookRiot have written up a great post about how little diversity exists in the New York Times Bestseller List. Just how little diversity are we talking? Well, as they point out, only 3 authors out of the 124 to make the Top 10 in 2012 were people of color, and none were African American. In response to this BookRiot has asked readers to submit their 3 favorite authors of color, with the results being tallied by January 12th. This should offer many who want to broaden their reading a bit some fine suggestions.

For what it’s worth, my submitted authors, in no particular order:

1) Percival Everett

2) Haruki Murakami

3) Tao Lin


Review: ‘The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice’, by Christopher Hitchens

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and PracticeThe Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christopher Hitchens has arguably (no pun intended!) done more slaughtering of sacred cows than any journalist or polemicist in recent memory. This book is no disappointment and is a testament to the danger of the kind of zeitgeist-wide acceptance certain cultural figures have been privilege too without, seemingly, much if any close critique.

Hitchens brings to bear very specific criticisms of a few of Mother Teresa’s doctrinal and political views that should make any decent person uncomfortable as well as larger, more philosophical criticisms. Chief among these is a dismantling of the narrative that Mother Teresa did terribly much for the poor and sick, but actually celebrated these tragedies as blessings from God to be spiritually cherished–a searing hypocrisy for a woman who, Hitchens notes, was quick to take herself into the comfortable and expensive clinics of the world when falling ill herself. After finishing this slim but thorough thrashing, it’s hard to think of Mother Teresa as worthy of attention or applause, much less sainthood.

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Review: ‘Taipei’, by Tao Lin

TaipeiTaipei by Tao Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A blurb by Blake Butler on the back of this book reads, “A work of vision so relentless it forces most any reader to respond.” I think I read this blurb, for no particular reason, three or four times while reading this book and every time thought it said ‘restless’ instead of ‘relentless’, which I liked a lot because that’s exactly the feeling I had reading this book, and it feels accurate RE: how I’ve felt reading Tao Lin’s work in the past. There’s a staccato, jutting momentum that happens in this book, with an alternating rhythm of things happening / dialogue and the main character’s constant emotional and physical self-awareness and hyper self-analysis. This starting / stopping feeling as the ‘time’ inside the book repeatedly pauses creates this restless feeling for me, an effect that I felt causes a constant level of subtle anxiety, which isn’t a criticism but an appreciation for writing that can both create such an effect and create an effect so appropriate to what’s going on in the book.

This anxiety and kind of hyper-present in the moment framework was haunting to me, in that I felt like it constantly changes how my internal thought processes and inner monologue functioned for abstract lengths of time during / after reading this book for a while. I found myself stopping to think about what and why I was feeling, even during relatively trivial moments that I’d otherwise not have paid so much attention to, as if the main character was now in my head, narrating back to me as I went through my day, creating a bizarre but I think enjoyable kind of meta fan-fiction effect. Or something.

Something I thought repeatedly while reading this book was that Tao Lin is perhaps a master of the most genuine brand of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing ever done, that it was earnest and unadorned. I wondered if anyone who thought they liked books of that style would ever read this or one of his other books and decide maybe they didn’t like it so much without the conventions of other works, which to me would seem more obviously creative than before, which is to say possibly less honest, which is not a criticism–like the difference between a realist, dramatic movie constructed to compel certain emotions versus a documentary that insists on all the banal details.

I also thought a lot about how the relatively autobiographical nature mixed with the heavy drug use insists on such a clear lineage to writers like Hunter S. Thompson and others, and how both books like Taipei and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are both used in discussions about specific generations / time periods. It felt interesting how the drug use in Taipei isn’t ‘exciting’ or ‘glamorous’ so much as just factual, just another detail to note along the way; it creates an interesting balance where there’s no specific weight to the fact that the characters are taking lots of drugs all the time, it’s not the focus of the book necessarily, and the characters don’t act like crazed addicts.

I felt a great deal of empathy throughout the book for the feeling of a kind of meandering boredom, with emotional activity spikes toward both elation and lonely sadness, triggered at times by nothing or trivial causes; this empathy made the book fully enjoyable to me. I feel like I worry with each new book from Tao Lin I’m going to get bored and not want to read him anymore, as his style doesn’t change from book to book, but I keep enjoying them quite a bit. I still feel like Tao Lin’s poetry is more enjoyable, though, than his prose, which is just because I loved his earlier books so much, and I’d like to see him return to poetry again as well.

I think also this book has ‘something to offer’ even to those who don’t particularly enjoy reading it, which is probably the best any book can offer to do. It’s more than worth your money.

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Review: ‘The Happy Atheist’, by PZ Myers

The Happy AtheistThe Happy Atheist by P.Z. Myers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While it admittedly sounds harsher than I really intend, what I want to say about this book is that I don’t have much to say at all, because neither does PZ Myers. By this I don’t mean at all that he is unintelligent or inarticulate in his criticisms and observations; he is obviously both of these things and has a relatively commensurate following in the skeptical community. Arguably worse, this book largely commits the cardinal sin that the late and indelible Christopher Hitchens warned against above all others: this book is boring. ‘Chapter’ (edited blog post) after ‘chapter’, the same metaphor kept struggling to take shape in my mind — something about low-hanging fruit that wasn’t quite right, but more something along the lines of PZ Meyers wandering alone in the fruit orchard that has been picked clean. He’s not looking for a new orchard, or planting new trees, so to speak.

Every single criticism here is well worn, every argument is an argument rehashed, every snarky aside not only a second act but a second act that can’t live up to the first. I honestly cannot locate one point raised here that is either original or at least an entertaining and engaging re-interaction with a point familiar to Myers’ audience. Anyone remotely familiar with the work of the New Atheists will feel, probably, both bored and shorted, page by page. Missing both depth and any rich rhetorical work, it just feels like a hollow collection of prose. Revisit Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, Krauss, Stenger, et al, and feel assured you’ll find the same ground and find it better guided. It’s not that Myers is wrong or bearing any great argumentative faults, and I’d argue if he were it’d actually make for a more worthwhile book. But it seems that Myers shies away from anything but the most superficial and cozily familiar ground, doesn’t seem to want to step more than a couple feet into the more challenging terrain. His writing and personality have never struck me as terribly lazy or insecure, so I’m at a loss to explain this. I’d like to see someone of Myers’ intellect and at least affected confidence put more skin in the game and dig a little deeper. It’s certainly telling that I am about as deep in his targeted audience as one could be and I couldn’t force myself to finish the last 1/4 of the book out of sheer disinterest.

‘The Happy Atheist’ is like a third-rate cover band; loving the original only makes you all the more disappointed, and you wish the frontman would apply himself a bit more.

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circularity is only becoming of planets and dancers

and the room is spinning and spinning and spinning and the world is always suddenly afloat, bowing and leaning in stern directions, a reverse marionette from unseen waves that could be under every slab of sidewalk or those old mythologies are true and the tortoise has finally died and we’re at mercy. my entire body trembles and shakes at random intervals, as if my unconscious other is shrieking in terror deep off, pounding fists and pointing or shrugging maybe, he thinks the tortoise is the lucky one. a moment of quiet and the room inverts and twists again, the ship hit from the side and going down, the plane spinning and spinning and spinning and someone has gathered up the snow from every old TV and poured it from a white pitcher into my eyes.