Author: Arthur Graham
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the narrative is so strange I almost put it aside but Graham’s snarky cleverness made me continue reading until that magical moment when it all made sense.
Availability: Published by Bizarro Press in 2012, you can get a copy here:
(check out the Kindle version – as of this posting it is $.99, which makes taking a risk on a new author a bit more appealing)
Comments: This is going to be a hard book to discuss because half of the pleasure (and aching frustration) of reading this book is the revelation you experience when it all makes sense. I don’t think I will be giving too much away, however, when I tell you that the e-book I read had an ouroboros preceding the first chapter. This is a clue of sorts. Actually, it’s not a clue of sorts – it’s a big, honking clue – but in such matters, I admit, I often have to be hit with a shovel before I understand that an illustration is not just an illustration.
Here’s a quick synopsis that I hope gives nothing away. This book is a series of stories and it is your job to put them all together. The book features an orphan who tells his life story. It also features a strange drifter who turns into a snake. There’s also a horrifying dystopia a thousand or so years into the future wherein global warming is no longer questioned as a valid reality and, most interesting to me, some meta wherein an editor interacts with a book, which may or may not be this novel.
I really didn’t like this book at first and almost set it down around page 40 because I seriously had no idea where it was going. But even in the initial seeming-chaos of the plot, Graham’s engaging writing style kept me going. I am also not generally the biggest metafiction fan because meta as a plot device has lately become tiresome. Writers need to have a good reason for using meta elements and need to be good enough at their craft to pull it off. Writers like David Foster Wallace (whom I find very nearly unreadable and I receive a lot of flak every time I reveal this opinion) and Charlie Kaufman have spawned a lot of imitators who mistake endless snarky self-reference for fine writing and invoke meta rather than write a good novel. I am happy to say that Graham’s meta – if it is meta – works.
So with that caveat out of the way, let me share some of Graham’s fine and interesting writing. Here’s a bit from the very beginning, wherein the orphan is describing his very strange yet hum-drum life with his aunt and uncle, a life that can be summed up as eating, reading and masturbating. Were it not for his guardians’ behaviors, his life would have been boring.
It wasn’t that aunt was a particularly bad cook; she just wasn’t very imaginative. In fact, the only way I could tell the difference between breakfast, lunch, and dinner was by observing the behavior of those providing my board. For instance, I could always tell that it was breakfast time when uncle would ignore the food in front of him, opting to lift a newspaper between us for the duration of the meal, before hurrying out the door and off to work. Lunchtime came when only aunt and I were present at the table, and just in case I forgot that uncle never came home for lunch (working far away as he did), aunt would always make sure to weep quietly across the table from me, so as to prevent any upsetting confusion.
One could usually tell when it was dinnertime by the piercing shrieks and deafening bellows emitted from aunt and uncle, respectively. These periodic outbursts were sometimes punctuated by long periods of silence, but occasionally their alternating high and low frequencies would reverberate throughout the entire meal without pause.
This is a good representation of what you need to expect when reading this book. This little sample of the story sets the reader up nicely – a teenage boy in a boring house with an uncle who, like some 1950s sitcom parody, checks out at breakfast, hiding behind a newspaper. But then we get the aunt who weeps every afternoon, followed by the aunt and uncle fighting all night long, which is so common to the narrator that it isn’t even distressing or tiresome. It’s just part of the landscape of his life. This sort of bland acceptance of the strange or upsetting happens often in this book. There is always something just a bit off about everyone. It is that unsettling characterization combined with a touch of lunacy in Graham’s storytelling that will keep you going when you get frustrated by the plot. (And you will get frustrated by the plot – I promise that will happen. You just have to stick it out.)
The drifter I mentioned above engages in a bit of prostitution, and has this interesting take on the experience:
Thinking back on it now, I realize that this was probably the easiest money I ever made in my entire life (by keeping in mind that I’ve lived a long, LONG time). This wouldn’t dawn on me until years later, after I’d become a much more worldly individual, but it seems to me now that the main reason prostitutes are so widely despised is pure and simple jealousy. After all, an efficient whore can easily make $80 an hour from one $40 lay and two $20 blow jobs, each act averaging about twenty minutes after the necessary prep work and clean up.
This is followed by a charming series of stick figures to illustrate his point. The narrator goes on:
That’s more than many Americans made in an entire eight-hour workday. Granted, hookers may face graver work hazards than the average fast food employee, and they may be forced to endure the unsavory stigma associated with their trade, but who wouldn’t want to earn that much money, just for doing things they were probably going to do anyway?
This is a sweetly naive look at prostitution and we have all heard the stupid canard about how nice it must be to get paid for something one would do anyway, as if the average person would be performing two blow jobs and an act of coitus hourly as a matter of course. Still, I found this amusing because the fact of the matter is that the narrator probably would be giving two blow jobs and a lay every single day if he could.
The novel also has clever little moments. See if you can find the amusing part of this sentence:
When the quaking finally subsided, everyone in the Oval Office was huddled beneath the bust of Donald Fagan, 40th president of the United States.
This was all the funnier to me because upon reading this, the lyrics, “You go back Jack and do it again, wheel turnin’ round and round” came to me. Eternity on a loop, self-reflexivity, ouroboros…
One of the parts of this book that I really like is that in amidst the strange narrative and the bizarro literary elements Graham peppers the book with true-to-life experiences. Like the horror of riding in overly-lit elevators with strangers who just cannot stand the silence.
The elevator continues to fall at a feather’s pace and the people inside are becoming rather nervous. If they do not find some excuse to acknowledge one another soon, some sort of common ground on which to build a conversation, then the ride to the ground floor will surely last an eternity, and they will all be forced to endure innumerable psychic deaths along the way.
It suddenly occurs to one bright individual to bring up the one thing on their collective mind. Turing to the woman beside him, he seems to squint his eyes extra hard as he prepares to speak.
Don’t do it… Don’t do it you sonofabitch…
The man appears to falter for a moment, but it is already too late for him to stop – once certain wheels get to turning in people’s heads, it is damned near impossible to make them stop.
Don’t do it you fool! The obvious will kill you all PHYSICALLY!!!
The lights begin to flicker, and the man’s twisted face begins to speak.
“Sure is bright in…”
Before he can even finish his sentence, the lights go out momentarily. When they come back up, all but the editor are lying dead on the floor, their previously squinted eyes now bugging out of their skulls.
This is pretty good writing here, dear reader: the tiresome man in the elevator who just has to state the obvious (in Texas, he would have said, “Hot enough for you?”); the literary and cinematic comedic trope of having the worst happen when the obvious is stated; and this is a nice piece of the meta involved in the book.
I think the best moments in this book, the AHA! moment when you connect all the dots aside, are when the editor pokes fun at the world at large, especially the literary world he now inhabits. (In the dystopia, there are resource shortages and no Internet.)
So books were out. Ebooks were out. Certainly people weren’t going to waste good hides on scribbling when the nuclear winter was still far from over. Could you imagine? Wrapping yourself in a copy of The Wasteland, or The Faerie Queen, as you prepared to leave the precious warmth of your enclosure for a midnight shit?
The editor goes on:
And the fact remains that not many had much inclination to read in the 32nd century anyway, regardless of the dangers involved. There had been a relatively brief period of time, just prior to the collapse, when a small percentage of the world’s population achieved a degree of affluence that allowed them to pursue a variety of leisure time activities, and one of those had been reading. But then, just as now, the majority of Earth’s people had precious little space for extraneous information in their heads, especially when it was hard enough just to put food in their bellies. As for the well-fed people who still couldn’t be troubled to pick up a book in earlier times (at least one that wasn’t about vampires, celebrities, or chicken soup) – this was a mystery that would never be solved.
This book also breaks down the fourth wall from time to time, in amusing ways, and in ways that involve little illustrations.
In all, it may seem like Graham crams a lot into this 148 page book. That is a correct assumption because he does indeed cram a lot into this book. But once you get to pages 60-70 or so, the “what the hell is this book about” feeling fades and the strands begin to knit into an understandable narrative, so the humor and unusual story-telling methods, like fourth wall breakage and silly illustrations, don’t seem like too much to take in as you read. There were some editing problems that seem to plague the all small presses but none too intrusive. If you get past the initial sense that the book is too scattered to understand, this book will reward you with a good use of meta, humor, high silliness and interesting observations. I believe this to be Graham’s first book of fiction (he appears to have a non-fiction book and a collection of short stories) and it’s a strong first effort. I recommend giving this book a look!