A Sorta Mean Review of Grease Stains etc
This morning I woke up early and read Mel Bosworth’s book, Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom. I read the Aqueous Books version, the original one. Apparently there was some sort of disagreement between the publisher and author, though, and Aqueous dropped it. It was quickly republished and is available again here for only $3.95. I thought I’d pan it for mean week, sorta.
The book is a quick read and a good story. The earnestness at the center is keen, the elation and vertigo and palpable excitement of infatuation. I understood the feeling from my own personal experience, so Bosworth’s accomplishment is how he draws that feeling out, how the writing comes together to remind me of that experience.
The 166-page book is in six sections. The action covers a week. It concerns David and Samantha, two young people who met in a bar in Seattle and had a one night fling, then visited again in Massachussets. There are some odd interactions with Samantha’s mom, some phone calls with David’s friend Mark, a boozy night with some strangers in a bar — but for the most part the action only involves Samantha and David wondering whether or not they can create a relationship. Samantha is apparently very beautiful and talented — a great sax player and basketball player — at least that’s how David sees her through love-goggled eyes. He is so effusive that he’s sad sack. There are only two instances that show him with any good strength — once hitting three pointers in basketball and once when he’s drunkenly caring for a drunker Samantha.
The lovers are likable and the story is immersive and fun — when Bosworth is actually writing it. But the story is subverted by a second element of the book, which is a self-conscious narrative about the writing process. I really enjoy meta games, breaking down the fake wall, liberating characters like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout thing. But in Grease Stains it seemed as if the device was the result of Bosworth coming up against a block and writing through it at the expense of his characters. When David and Samantha are trying to decide what to do, Samantha says, “Your story. What the fuck do I know? I’m only in it.” Then “David” changes the books structure and freewrites for several pages, ostensibly so he can get over a difficult hump. In section four David and Samantha are at dinner and Samantha asks, “How do you think part four is coming along?”
“I’m not too confident.”
“Well . . . It’s just that I keep getting fucked up as I try to write this, and I know that it’s important, maybe even more important than the beginning of the week, and I don’t know. I don’t think I’m capturing it very well.”
At the end, Samantha’s mother reinforces the frame by pressing David on his motivation for writing. “Because I have to,” he says, then he and Samantha have bizarre sex in a restaurant. The fact that, actually, they probably DON’T have sex on the pancakes unhinges the rest of the book, which is unfortunate.
I don’t like the impulse here. I’m not buying it in the final version; hangups like this are what revision is for. The trick can work when used sparingly, as in the Bear Parade version of Zachary German’s story Eat When You Feel Sad, when the narration breaks from third person to the author: “he thinks of throwing the phone out the window, or maybe breaking it somehow less dramatically, or maybe just I don’t know, I don’t know how I could make my drunken fictional self not call her.” Overused, the gag seems mismatched to the boy-meets-girl familiarity in Bosworth’s book.
Interestingly, German cut that speculative bit from the final novel. Likewise, in the first version of Endgame Samuel Beckett writes Clov casting binoculars onto the audience and saying, “I see a multitude, in transports of joy.” It’s a beautiful line, but apparently Beckett didn’t like breaking the play’s suspension because he cut it from the French translation. The external voice that Grease Stains is missing is the one that says, “Relax Mel — you’ve got a good story. Let it be.”
Tags: Mel Bosworth