Book: Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals
Author: Kirk Jones
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Bizarro is always odd. Always.
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: And a new Bizarro Week begins!
This Bizarro Week is going to focus on books from the New Bizarro Author Series. Eraserhead Press takes a chance on new writers, allowing them to put out a book and if they sell enough copies, they get to publish more books. If they don’t sell enough, the first book with Eraserhead will be their last. Sort of draconian in a way but in a world where the number of publishing venues seem to grow smaller every day, a foot in the door is no small thing. So I plan to focus on the NBAS this week.
And best of all, I plan to give out a free copy of every book I review this week. In order to enter to win a copy of Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, all you have to do is leave a comment to this entry before 9:00 pm CST. I’ll announce a winner shortly after. Anyone anywhere can enter because I take perverse pleasure in mailing strange books to the hinterlands. So hop to it.
Now to the book discussion.
I am beginning this Bizarro Week with Kirk Jones’ book because I am finally able to do one of those “It’s X mixed with Y if Z was really a school bus on Mars” sort of statement. I can really never come up with those because to me they are always such a horrible stretch and I am pedantic in so many pointless ways, but this time, as I was trying to explain this book to Mr. Oddbooks, I came up with the perfect summation:
If you put Charles Dickens’ tendency to heap ignominy and ill-use on his young heroes, Horatio Alger’s optimism for the merits of work and a job well done, a progressive eye for worker rebellion, a chat room of forniphiliacs, and the entirety of Tod Browning’s Freaks in a fast moving caravan and crashed it into an IKEA store, this book would be the result. Truly, this will be high concept. (In the interest of full disclosure, this book doesn’t technically portray forniphilia but that’s as close a phrase as my rudimentary research into sex with furniture revealed. I don’t think there is an exact word for this but if you read the book, I suspect my label will be clear.)
This book really did take some pretty disparate elements and blend then into a relatively smooth book. The plot, as is typical with most bizarro, is quite insane. Gary has led a life of woe. He lost an arm working as a wee boy, only to lose his parents later in a terrible car crash. He also loses a leg and finds himself a beggar. A chance question to a fellow two-limbed man, asking about a potential job, led him to yet another accident in which he is turned into an enormous blob of self-contained vitreous humor. Things happen, as they do, and he becomes a trainer for furniture – animated furniture. Traveling in a carny-style show, a HAARP device keeps the carnival just ahead of the terrible weather that seems to stalk the carnival, and Gary finds he has something of a skill for dealing with the animated furniture. Oh, and the furniture has sex with each other on command and those who watch the performances vomit to show their appreciation, as you do. Gary meets the blind niece of Uncle Sam, a girl called Liberty, and they fall in love but their love is threatened by Uncle Sam’s nefarious activities. The ending is suitably cathartic, restoring order and ending this book of strange combination in a dreamy manner that should not have worked but did.
How does the furniture become animated? Well, that’s a mystery I can’t share or it would spoil the whole book for you but it’s suitably creepy and unsettling. Uncle Sam’s methods of maintaining his carnival are harsh and cruel and endanger everyone around him, even his loved ones.
As I said in my description of the words, ideas and style Jones uses, this book takes some very disparate elements and combines them into a narrative that feels similar to other things but is wholly new. The beginning had a very Dickensian feeling to me. This is the first line of the book:
Those who cared to peruse the historical records of Gary Olstrom, now known as the man made of tears, might observe that an extended streak of bad luck began for him, ironically, with a stroke of good luck at age eight…
Gary is near a mirror when it shatters and severs his arm and his boss quickly informs him that not only does he not have any insurance or means to go to the hospital, but he also will not receive his first paycheck as he will have his pay docked to cover the cost of the mirror. Very bleak to the point of wondering if there was gaslight. It goes on from there as Gary loses his parents:
While the news of their fiery crash distressed him initially, he recovered a few days later when he discovered that their departure from this world was preceded by their visit to the orphanage for disabled children, where Gary was shipped the next day.
It just gets worse in an Oliver Twist, workhouse for the poor sort of way. The orphanage sends Gary to work in a textile factory at age 12:
But upon re-spooling one of the nylon machines, Gary lost his footing, and, as a result, his right leg. Like many before him, his claim for compensation was denied, his employment terminated, and he was held fully responsible for cleaning his remnants.
But in among this modern slant on Dickens, there is a small amount of Horatio Alger and maybe a hint of Samuel Smiles, as well, for Gary never hates the shop owner who exploited him as a child and in fact considers his tight money management skills something to aspire to in his quest to prove himself. As a supervisor of other children at the textile factory, he is careful to deny all insurance claims made by his maimed peers. Even after he loses an eye, Gary is still quite certain that he will fight his way out of the gutter and continually looks for productive work. He danced for change, stole a cane from a blind man, and even when discouraged, managed to embrace the system that had deformed him, feeling, like the heroes in Alger’s tales, that hard work and determination will get him off the streets.
One day, he observes a man missing an arm and a leg and, his ambition still intact, asks for advice:
“Sir, by what means do you sustain yourself?”
“I’m employed by Uncle Sam, at the furniture factory,” the man replied.
“Would it be possible for me to acquire a job with him as well,” Gary asked.
The man looked doubtful. “Come with me tomorrow and we shall see,” he said, explaining, “I was in full health when I began working for him, and have been allowed to stay in due to seniority. Otherwise, I’d likely be accompanying you in the gutter. But I might be able to get you in. Meet me in front of the factory tomorrow.”
And Gary spurs himself into action, stealing a razor and tarting himself up as best he can, still too willing to become a cog in a machine that had already cost another man his arm and leg, only too happy to be similarly employed. But in another terrible turn of luck, his contact is crushed by a bus outside the factory and in another Dickensian detail, Gary steals his coat and gets mistaken for him as he enters the factory. Uncle Sam puts him to work, a disaster renders him made of tears and he hits the road with the carnival.
On the road, he learns to manage the furniture, encouraging couches to have sex with each other under the big tent, to the vomiting approval of the perverts who come to see the display. But as he interacts with the others in the furniture freak show, he begins to understand something is wrong, traveling to different cities in a wagon carnival caravan, leaving trails of murders in its wake. By the time he narrows in on the problem, his lovely Liberty is in peril and he faces with no small horror the terrible abuse the sentient furniture is experiencing.
But Gary, despite the brevity of this book, has a definite character arc. He reaches a point where he is no longer willing to be a company man and begins to question things, made angry by the ill-treatment of the furniture and concerned about the strange conspiracy around him. When he finally understands what is happening, he and the furniture storm Uncle Sam’s convoy, and Jones uses language that made me think of an epistolary version of the scene in the Frankenstein movie where the villagers storm Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, and I began humming La Marseillaise:
From the tent, a billowing cloud of shadows erupted, spreading across the landscape towards Gary and his inanimals. With them they carried weapons of graphite and shields of parchment, so they might rewrite history, revitalize movements and substantiate self-oppression.
This sentence is also a good example of some of the damn fine writing Jones executes in this book. Despite, or maybe because of the bizarre premise, he manages language in a manner that is quite lovely, creating beautiful scenes without venturing into baroque over-description.
All in all, this was a fabulous novella. Of course, I have no idea what Jones’ influences were – though increasingly I have some contact with bizarro writers in other venues, I still try my best to remain in my own little headspace wherein I know little about the authors whose work I critique. But the fact remains that this novella for me evoked Dickens, Alger, and Browning while utilizing elements of an interesting sexual fetish and ideas of labor revolutions. A nice little love story in a dreadful alternate universe not wholly different from our own but still different enough wherein the media is literally made of shadows and HAARP devices are portable. There were some small editing problems but compared to a lot of bizarro books, they hardly bear mentioning.
I hope Jones manages to sell plenty of copies because I think he’s got a unique voice, and that may sound spurious since I think his voice reminds me of so many other voices and ideas, but the only conclusion that leads me to is that Jones is likely an indiscriminate reader and consumer of various media. You read and watch enough, your voice becomes full of the best of what affects you. This was an excellent, strange, well-written, inventive book and I definitely recommend it.
If you’d like a copy for yourself, be sure to enter the drawing for a free copy. Just leave me a comment to this discussion and you’re entered. The contest ends today, 2/14/11, at 9:00 pm CST.