Friendship is a two-headed beast. As humans, our continuous need for interaction, communication, and companionship regularly clashes with fear of exposure, the sourness that comes from the inevitable accumulation of failures in life, and our proclivity toward pettiness when faced with frustrating situations. In Made To Break, author D. Foy explores the conflicting sides of amity as well as the unexplainable cohesive element that hides in the interstitial spaces between the good and the bad and ultimately holds friendships together.
Lucille wants to celebrate her new high-paying corporate job, so she decides to spend New Years’ Eve weekend drinking and getting high in a cabin in Lake Tahoe with Dinky, Andrew, Hickory, and Basil. When the five friends get there, there’s a dead caged bird filling Dinky’s family cabin with the smell of rot. Instead of taking it as a bad omen, the group starts talking about childhood pets and argue about who’s going to get ice. Dinky and Andrew end up having to leave the cabin despite that fact that weather forecasts warn of an impending flood. On their way to town, they crash their truck and Dinky is seriously injured. Broken and without ice, they finally encounter a strange man called Super who takes them back to the cabin. With the storm raging outside, no car, and the phone lines dead, the group turn to a game of Truth or Dare to help them pass the time until the sky clears and help can arrive. However, what starts as a game quickly transforms into a series of attacks, thinly veiled insults, and cruel accusations. Old wounds bleed again and new ones open up while weather conditions worsen and Dinky’s health deteriorates. Before the night is over, everyone will have to face, and question, themselves, death, and each other.
Nothing is what it seems to be in this narrative. There’s supposed to be a celebratory mood in the air, but hidden agendas, snarky comebacks, and the type of wittier-than-thou personalities that inevitably cause conflict whenever they’re put together give the novel a surprisingly oppressive and noirish atmosphere that it never shakes off. Andrew acts as narrator and slowly reveals his crush on Hickory and a romantic triangle between Dinky, Basil, and Lucille. With each revelation, a piece of each character is exposed, and they’re all flawed. While being imperfect is part of human nature, when flaws are exposed in public and boosted by vindictiveness, they become enlarged and serve only to inflame any situation and bring forth retaliation. Foy understands this, and so do his characters. However, knowing about it doesn’t stop them from repeatedly trying their best to eviscerate each other with words, fully aware of the fact that they’re using them as weapons and deriving a bizarre pleasure from it:
“There was that briefest moment of doubt where Basil and I considered exchanging our knives for guns or throwing the knives away. But really the doubt was feigned. We knew what would happen. The kill was just a dream. The sight of blood was enough. We were only after the blood. This of course was a perversion cultivated over time, like a taste for taboo food, monkey brain or mice. The satisfaction of knowing we’d wounded one another was more than sufficient. In fact, it had become for us a fix of sorts, why our hate for one another always equaled our need. Basil and I were Siamese twins parted only in flesh.”
April 7th, 2014 / 10:00 am
The Persistence of Crows
by Grant Maierhofer
Tiny TOE Press, 2013
173 pages / $12 Buy from The Open End
Coming of age narratives are usually as riddled with tropes as low-budget horror films. Sure, there are a few outstanding novels in the genre like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but the list of must-reads grows at the speed of stalactites. Grant Maierhofer’s The Persistence of Crows, from Tiny TOE Press, has joined that short list with a story full of depression, too-beautiful moments, and kind of soul crushing realness.
Henry Alfi is a young man who’s recently stopped using drugs and alcohol. Sadly, his new unaltered state of consciousness has him feeling bored, lonely, and profoundly disenchanted by the people and institutions that surround his life in the Midwest: AA, friends, college, family, the women he dates, etc. One of the few things Henry enjoys is writing, so a trip to New York with his college newspaper seems like the perfect opportunity to get away from everything for a while and ponder the future. Surprisingly, the trip turns out to be more than an escape and Henry finds himself ready to move, eager to discover the world, sure that he wants to pursue a career in writing, and falling quickly in love with a woman who shares his view of the world.
The Persistence of Crows starts out as an unimpressive narrative about a young man about to embark on a trip to NYC. Despite the lack of an exciting start, Maierhofer manages to set the hooks in via his use of language and character development. The strategy is risky, but he pulls it off. The prose has a unique, somewhat offbeat rhythm and the dialogue is sharp. Also, he establishes early on that his main character is deeply flawed but also thought-provoking and the kind of individual you want to learn more about:
“It felt better to be walking by myself. I didn’t feel unsafe when I was alone. I didn’t care if some bum crept up to me. I would fight and what would happen would happen. It was when I was with others that I got nervous. It’s far easier for me to imagine defending myself than it is protecting the life of somebody else. Their life can be completely abstract even if they’re standing right next to you.”
Henry is the poster child for the broken/dissatisfied/irritated/Google generation. He feels alienated, gloomy, and deracinated despite being home. His life on drugs and alcohol was bad, but his life without them isn’t better. The story seems to be a character study for a few chapters because the dark past, recent troubles, and disturbed state of mind are all in place, but it changes drastically once Henry lands in New York. A bit of dark humor and pervasive dreariness quickly switch to a beautiful homage to the Big Apple in which Maierhofer’s knack for language and imagery take center stage:
“The rain beat down on all of us. These youthful faces soaked in the same Hudson River breeze as the old folks arm in arm enjoying the bright lights of the city. I was surprised to see that even in the afternoon the lights shone as brightly as all of the photographs I’d seen of the city at night. When I turned the corner, all breath was taken out of me. Any worry I had ever felt in my entire life up until that point turned into a sense of power as I stood there staring at the gray and red and silver world encircling me.”
The homage to NYC saturates the narrative for most of the middle third of the novel, which contains a few odd encounters between Henry and locals that deserve to be in film, and eventually bleeds into the brief but magical time Henry spends with Sara Lee Poe, a fellow journalist he meets at a panel. The duo allows the city to filter everything they experience together and they weave a cocoon of shared ideas and passion that blinds them from their imperfections. As soon as their time together is over, reality comes crashing in and Maierhofer uses it to destroy both everything Henry built and readers’ emotions.
The Persistence of Crows switches between a romance, a bizarre comedy, and something that pulls from most of Woody Allen’s early work. It is an exploration of loneliness, addiction, the construction/obliteration of love (or at least a reasonable facsimile), and disconnection. Maierhofer’s Henry thinks trying to pay attention to what others have to say can only lead to suicide, but he ends up contemplating suicide because of things that were left unsaid. Stories about falling in love in oh-so-magical New York are as old as the city itself, but Maierhofer has updated the premise to offer the honesty and ugliness that fans of authors like Tao Lin, Ana Carrete, and Sam Pink demand, and the result is worth a read.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and a few other things no one will ever read. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Z Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Word Riot, and a other print and online venues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 10th, 2014 / 11:00 am
by Matthew Revert
Lazy Fascist Press, Oct 2013
120 pages / $9.95 Buy from Amazon
On the evening of July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and gave the audience at the Newport Folk Festival an electric rendition of “Maggie’s Farm.” The switch was received with a cacophonous chorus of boos and hisses. Dylan had gone electric, but the audience wasn’t ready. Almost fifty years later, author Matthew Revert is doing something akin to that with his latest novel, Basal Ganglia. One of the best absurdists in contemporary fiction, Revert has built a cult following based on his previous works, all of which have used humor as the cohesive element that keeps his mixture of bizarro, surrealism, and literary fiction together. In Basal Ganglia, the hilarity has been replaced with it’s exact opposite, but the sheer beauty and elegance of the final product is much more gratifying than any of the author’s previous efforts.
Rollo and Ingrid met when they were teenagers and escaped the cruel, abusive world they’d known by moving into an underground fort made from pillows and blankets that mirrors the structure of the human brain. The lovers spent 25 years building the fort and subsequently became slaves to it. The narrative begins years after the fort is finished and Rollo and Ingrid live only to maintain it. They lead an isolated existence in which words have almost disappeared, communication is practically nonexistent, their past has been forgotten, and their love has morphed into silent tolerance. To bring them out of this situation, Ingrid decides they should have a baby. However, afraid of what another person would do to their dynamic and way of life, she opts to build one from the same materials they use to maintain the fort instead of having one the traditional way. When the baby’s done, instead of bringing them together, it makes them paranoid and each believes the other will hurt the child. What follows is a strange and heartbreaking psychological war in which Ingrid and Rollo will be forced to realize how their seclusion has changed them and how important the past is when trying to regain their individual and communal identities.
Basal Ganglia is not an easy read. Revert has a way of stuffing his prose with meaning, but the nature of that meaning changes constantly. He loves language, but expresses it by deconstructing it and putting it back together in ways that change the original meaning and create new ones:
On the surface, this novel deals with universal themes like lost love, faulty communication skills, identity, parenthood, fear, distrust, and isolation. However, there are a plethora of underlying elements that make it unique and give it depth. For example, Rollo and Ingrid’s relationship is exceptional because it’s hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. When they feel lonely or scared, the emotion is augmented by their self-imposed confinement. The outside world was mean to them, but hiding in the fort eventually made them victims of their reclusiveness. Also, Ingrid and Rollo are trapped in a perennial state of agitated stasis, and it only gets worse whenever they try to figure a way out of it. Their stagnation is never a calm one, but their growing awareness of the situation and perceived powerlessness turns it into a maelstrom that affects their sanity.
Revert has a knack for storytelling, but what makes this one an outstanding novel is the stylish, smart prose. The microcosm Ingrid and Rollo in habit is exclusive, but the author takes their circumstances as a way of exploring collective truths:
The truth is often sad, and that’s exactly what it is in Basal Ganglia. Neglect, worry, and solitude all lead to a razor-sharp sadness that cuts to the reader’s core throughout the narrative and keeps cutting after the story’s over. Sure, Ingrid and Rollo survive an imaginary loss, a confusing revelation, and find a way to move forward even with the understanding that the cyclic nature of most things is inevitable, but those silver linings arrive after Revert has fully exposed the bleakest corners of the human condition. The characters are forced to find a reason to reconnect with themselves and with each other, and the reader is there for every step of that psychological/emotional journey.
Basal Ganglia offers an immersive and very satisfying reading experience. The novel’s merits lie as much in the secluded universe Rollo and Ingrid inhabit as in the author’s beautiful use/celebration of language. By abandoning non-stop weirdness and hilarity, Revert has taken a giant step in a different direction, and the outcome is cause for celebration. I really hope he keeps walking that way.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and a few other things no one will ever read. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Z Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Word Riot, The Rumpus, and a other print and online venues. You can reach him at email@example.com.
November 18th, 2013 / 12:00 pm