“Orange Juice,” Personality, and Literature

Posted by @ 1:13 pm on November 19th, 2010

In the third-to-last paragraph of Timothy Willis Sanders’ new book, Orange Juice and Other Stories, from Awesome Machine Press, the protagonist sees six babies lying in a fountain. Four are lying in the fountain, and two are pissing into it. “This means something,” he says. “I just don’t care what.”

I could try to interpret what the author may have meant by placing that scene, that paragraph, those words in his book, particularly at the end of his book, but I want to point at it, nothing more.

Orange Juice is 52 pages long and includes nine stories. The stories are very short, the style is minimalist, the language straightforward. Sanders may have been influenced by Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad, as evidenced by the use of minimalist declarative sentences mostly involving actions, the consistent specifying of brand names, and the presence of characters who have names but whose external appearance and internal thoughts are mostly withheld. The characters appear through actions and words.

But this book seems to have a very different personality than German’s book. More on personality later.

It is a very subtle book. “Orange Juice,” the first and titular story, manages to suggest, in two short pages, a tense, complicated, but largely unspoken conflict between a man, Bill, his girlfriend(?), Jeanie, and Jeanie’s son, Chris. And the sentences are like this: “Bill makes a list. He highlights and underlines ‘pulp-free Minute Maid.’ Chris walks through the kitchen and Jeanie catches him by the elbow. Chris jerks free.”

A story like “Orange Juice” has the plot of a very conventional short story, but the style deemphasizes any melodrama or abstract emotions and instead presents events as they literally happen in real life. Rather than attempt to describe the characters’ thoughts and feelings, Sanders gives the skeleton and allows the reader the option to fill in the flesh and nerves.

Other stories, like “You Have A Crush on Kellz,” seem to present the funny, nice, dumb hoping of life, when people try in their way to connect with other people. In the case of “Kellz,” Sanders emphasizes the comedy of life by giving the characters the names of R&B singers and rappers: R Kelly, DMX, Aaliyah, Adina Howard, Keith Sweat. There is something very charming about a scene in which R Kelly is tonguing Adina Howard at a Kevin Bacon movie while pining for Aaliyah, that classy chick who works at Banana Republic. It’s the suburban shopping mall remix to the Tao-Lin-by-way-of-Ann-Beattie theme of the lovable protagonist attempting to live life while constantly thinking about “that one girl.”

My favorite story in this book is probably “Infinity Gauntlet.” The protagonist is a woman, Jackie. She is watching her boyfriend, Dan, peacefully sleep, and thinking about how she will soon be leaving him, because, reader, she recently fucked a man she calls Dan-in-Chicago. When Dan wakes up, they have a little mini-fight about nothing at all that is probably very familiar to anyone who has ever been in desperate need of a fucking break-up already. Sanders uses an apt metaphor in this story, the Infinity Gauntlet, a big glove in the comic Dan is reading that allows a person to control time, space, and reality.

Orange Juice demonstrates knowledge of conventional writer tools and an awareness of contemporary style choices, but it evokes the specific personality of Timothy Willis Sanders. I make that judgment based on looking at Timothy’s blog, which brings me to what I actually wanted to write about: personality.

Before I read this book, I looked at Sanders’ blog, timothypresence.com. I felt very nice feelings toward the author because of reading his blog. He has a post about classic R&B songs that includes “I Want to Be Your Man” by Zapp & Roger. He has a “blography” of highlights from the first five years of his life that includes the following sentences: “Asks Jennifer to be his girlfriend. Jennifer declines. Kicks dandelion and says ‘it’s not like I’m asking you to be my wife’ while watching dandelion seeds fly over the playground.”

To the cynic or the Defender of Serious Literary Art, this is “cute” or whatever, but irrelevant to Literature. To me it was a way to begin to sense what Sanders’ personality is like – to guess at his preoccupations and feelings and what he might be like in real life. Whether I find an author charming or not, to get a sense of what he or she is like in real life is for me another dimension of their words. I want to know things about the writer as well as read his or her writing.

Seeing Sanders’s blog made me want to be his online friend and learn more about him. I was Gmail chatting with Ana Carrete, a very good online friend of mine, and we decided Sanders was “our friend, but just didn’t know it yet.” Once again, to the cynic, this kind of cute “clubbishness” – the building of a literary clique, the making of new friends, the sharing of resources – is some kind of conspiracy/evil scheme. It must be defeated in the name of “objective, fair judgment of Literature based on the words alone; to be followed by the tasteful publication of said worthy, Important words (preferably on a slab of marble in calligraphy); followed by a dignified shipping to local independent bookstores, with a minimum of communication to anyone regarding its availability for purchase (cringe) or review (averted eyes), and for God’s sake, no insipid promotional razzmatazz!”

Sanders donated some money to help me print my magazine (I printed the first issue with my own money and distributed it for free). Sanders and I have commented on each other’s blogs. I friended him on Facebook. He sent me a copy of Orange Juice for free. Joshua Cohen, in a Bookforum review, used the term “superliterary,” beyond literature, in a pejorative sense, to describe online promotion and book giveaways – by implication, the use of the internet to actively promote (and present) oneself. I don’t think he wants life, or people – fleshy humans with personalities – to impinge upon/taint the sacred art of the word-wielder.

I say literature is secular and a human endeavor. Words are otherness, but it’s an otherness I am, too, an otherness I create based on the creation of every person before me. There is no one right style of being a writer, just as there is no one right style of writing. Every writer will be known as human first and last. I say to be “superliterary” is good precisely because it is human. I say it’s a deepening of literature, not a nullifying.

Sanders’s compact stories – deceiving in their subtlety, life-like and fun – are analogous to what Sanders might share with a close friend or in a carefully revised blog post. Timothy’s presence.

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Orange Juice is available now from Awesome Machine.

Stephen Tully Dierks is a writer living in Chicago. He edits a limited-edition art/literature print magazine called Pop Serial and maintains a blog.

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