City Water Light & Power
by Matt Pine
Cairn Press, 2013
180 pages / $18.00 buy from Amazon
1. I’m in awe of Matt Pine’s prose style. A lake has “the same texture and tone as ink spilled onto silver.” A black dress has “the same cling and quality as plastic wrap on American cheese.” These similes give me goosebumps.
2. The frisson of encountering high style in a world that no longer much values it.
3. City Water Light & Power explores the angst of being young in the city and not knowing the score. It’s about twentysomething Chicagoans figuring out how to survive in body and soul — the alternatives, in this novel, are selling out or breaking down, in bars where salaries are “revealed like flashed genitalia” or in alleys where it’s “spiritually dangerous walking there dispirited after dark.” Your choice is to be one of the manipulators, or someone who walks without a destination — both flavors of desperation.
4. Chicago is a character in this novel. A machine whose workings are dangerously hypnotic.
5. A study of corruption and alienation that gives me that sense of a ruthless and inscrutable society I get from Fitzgerald, say, or Salinger. Matt Pine writes of venality in a tone of innocent fascination — he is sensual, aggrieved, and mystified by ordinary life, in a classic American tradition harking back to the Puritans.
6. The demolition of a dive bar stands for what’s being lost. The bar is called Lewis & Carol’s… perhaps to suggest a world down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass?
7. I like it that this bar seems to be the only thing keeping Jake from becoming an alcoholic – after its destruction, Jake takes to drinking outdoors. Somewhat illogically since the novel acknowledges there are other bars in Chicago – one might even say too much of this novel takes place in bars… But these bars are full of phonies, not like Lewis & Carol’s, which stands for community.
8. Many first novels by men include a dazed and confused main character. In this case, Jake. His job involves talking to imaginary customers. His free time is spent with an imaginary friend, a woman visible just to him, who communicates only through mime and gymnastics and might work better in a movie, a mute hallucinated character being tricky to pull off in a novel…
9. Adrian is a character who success brutalizes. He is seeking the wrong nourishment, acquiring what David Mamet has called “the canting language of the real-estate crowd.” There’s beauty in the process of making ugliness happen, Pine suggests, but it’s a lonely beauty.
10. Jake is a half-hearted preserver, Adrian a developer. Jake on Chicago – “But I wonder what it is we’re wanting after. If it’s really the city, I mean. Do we want more of it, or do we want what it was? I’m sorry. I’m not articulate today. I guess I wonder why we have to fight the city for it to stay itself? Because isn’t that stopping it from being itself? And yet it’s so glorious.” Adrian on Chicago – “What would lure a boutique? How many patios were necessary to make an enclave of patios? Did condos come before cuisine? But then who would move into this wasteland? But why would you open a business where no one lived? It all seemed to leap out all at once, all the parts dependent on all the parts, like a stone archway. But also like an archway, there must be a way to build one.”
11. The tendency in fiction for the only non-alienating jobs to be borderline criminal…
12. A book whose title shares two of the same words as this book is The Motion of Light in Water. This gets me thinking that Matt Pine shares with Samuel R. Delany an obsession with physical textures and an obsession with how power structures itself, which starts me wondering how these obsessions might be neurologically or metaphorically related…
13. City Water, Light & Power is the largest municipally owned utility in the state of Illinois.
14. Michelle is the point of connection between Jake and Adrian. My favorite line about Michelle – “A chorus of her future selves sang that this was not what they wanted.”
15. After his job gets outsourced, Jake moves through the alleys “as carefree as a bead through a pachinko machine.” A homeless guy is described as “not riffing, but reciting, perhaps a poem or an elaborate and damning contract, its words learned by humiliated, horrified re-readings once the offer and stipulations, the intents and considerations were binding and his mistake entirely manifest.” Most of the characters in this novel feel trapped.
16. Jake and Michelle spend much of the novel playing phone tag with each other, but it’s set up so they’re the implied judges of each other’s conduct.
17. Chicago as a crowd coming out of a sports bar to watch a demolition. Democracy as a rigged spectator sport.
18. A career as the trajectory of a projectile. Everything is deceptively packaged.
19. The novel as dive bar.
20. Krysminski, a perfect incarnation of “the man,” is a business guy whose HQ is a kind of labyrinth. “Feeling terrible gets things done, Adrian,” he says. I was kind of hoping for another scene with him in, but maybe it’s appropriate that the last we see of him is his business logo on some scaffolding. He’s the only character in the book whose actions have the effect he intends.
21. Matt Pine asks – what should we be loyal to?
22. Taking someone high up in an uncompleted building to demonstrate your power over them… there’s a scene where this happens that alludes to a comparable scene in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. I guess Chicagoans do this kind of thing a lot…
23. Matt Pine seems to spend a lot of time gazing at the light, e.g. noting how light quality can deceive you as to texture… this comes across even in his author photo. Is there something about the light in Chicago or something? Bellow has “the light was neat,” but I don’t know if that’s neat like whiskey or neat like ideas — maybe if I ever go to Chicago, somebody will take me high up in an uncompleted building and clarify this for me…
24. Bowling trophies are compared to polytheistic shrines.
25. My father, who towards the end only read Mafia novels, would have thought Jake was a putz, and would have wanted more about Krysminski’s connections. I asked my father once if there were any Mafia novels he recommended, and he found the question odd – by then he didn’t care if the novels he devoured were good or not, only that they were about the Mafia. This seemed strange to me, but I’ve come to learn his attitude is more typical than mine — a hunger for well-written books is rare compared to a taste for books about the Mafia/unicorns/whatever somebody happens to be into. Which makes me wonder — is liking good prose some kind of psychological defense mechanism against something? Life’s sheer destructiveness? The prevalence of Krysminskis? Do we enjoy similes because they imply an order the world actually lacks?
James Warner’s short stories have appeared in Narrative, Ninth Letter, Agni Online and elsewhere, his critical pieces on the Rumpus, OpenDemocracy, and Identity Theory. His novel All Her Father’s Guns is available from Numina Press. www.jameswarner.net