Elaine by Ben Arzate

Book: Elaine

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, novel

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I descended into the depths of a rabbit hole as I tried to puzzle out what this book meant.

Availability: Published in 2020 by Atlatl Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: On the surface, Elaine appears to be a relatively straight-forward read. It’s a fun little book, creepy and frustrating with forays into the incestuous and the priapic. Good times!

But say you’re a woman who has recently been thinking of immigrating to Finland* because you are certain the legislature, the governor, the climate and the slowly crumbling infrastructure in Texas are all teaming up in some god-forsaken superhero quad that will destroy the world in general and you in the specific. If you are such a woman, you might find yourself a bit… uneasy. In fact, I’d finished reading a book about the charming custom of kalsarikanni, translated as “pantsdrunk,” right before picking up Elaine. The Finns take relaxation and drunkenness very seriously, it seems, but mostly I mention this because it seems a bit weird that once I had finished a book about Finnish relaxation, I immediately picked up a book, written by an American, that was populated by Finnish-Americans, most of them named Elaine.

Synopsis: Chris is dating a woman named Agnes, who grew up in a town in Michigan called Elaine. Agnes’s mother just died and Chris is joining her in her hometown as funeral plans are finalized. The roads to Elaine are closed, and the only way he can get there is by train. Every woman he meets is named Elaine, and none of them seem aware that every other woman is named Elaine, too. Agnes functionally disappears for the duration of the novel, leaving Chris in the company of her father in a town that is isolated, empty and unnerving. Chris is disturbed by bizarre, sexual dreams that initially focus on his sister, growing to include Agnes and other women he encounters in Elaine. No one is where they should be, Chris cannot find Agnes, her father eventually disappears as well, the town seems like a ghost town and the train in and out of Elaine stops running. Terrible things happen to Chris at the hands of the Elaines in Elaine, he finds disturbing connections between Agnes and the Elaines that are increasingly menacing and sexually overwhelming, and all of this is punctuated by a creepy, incestuous TV preacher who encourages father on daughter incest. Later Chris finds photos of Agnes with an Elaine who behaved sexually provocatively around him, and it seems very likely that the overall atmosphere of sexual degeneracy in the town caused Chris’ dreams that began on the train into Elaine. Was Agnes a victim of the Elaines herself? Maybe – the ending makes me believe perhaps she was. But all of this doesn’t really help me answer the question of what the absolute hell was going on in Elaine?

It’s a quick and fun read, but my inability to answer the above question plagued me. I didn’t descend directly down into the fear, paranoiacally assuming that the book was cosmically trying to tell me that my desire to go to Finland was a bad idea, Ben peppering the text with clues that would convince me to stay put. But Elaine did raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer. Well, I can’t answer them yet. I finally asked Ben some very generic questions, just outright demanding to know if there was subtext. Ben said there is, that he intends to follow this up with a story that will answer some questions. He didn’t give me any specifics, thankfully, but that confirmation that my instincts are on the mark, that there is something going on and the text gives clues caused me to descend yet again into the rabbit hole and worry all kinds of names and details to see if I could connect the dots.  I haven’t connected them yet but give me time.

Some rabbit hole samples:

“Elaine” is a French form of the Greek name, “Helen.” Helen literally means “shaft of light” or “rays of sun.” That might lead one to believe that there is some greater truth in Elaine, a symbolic revelation that occurs when in Elaine, or a beacon that leads people to Elaine so they can experience some form of enlightenment.

But the link to Helen also makes me wonder if all those Elaines wandering around the city of Elaine were the mid-western equivalents of Helens of Troy, possessing such intoxicating beauty that men would engage in all kinds of heroics to possess them. Most of the Elaines were young and very sexually attractive, and seemed more akin to sirens than a beauty so profound wars were fought over her, but the point is certainly worth mulling over.

A young couple goes missing early on in the book. A cat finds their bodies and the cat’s owner isn’t the least bit alarmed when her cat comes back home covered in viscera – in fact, the cat’s first instinct was to eat the couple’s exposed organs, which is weird behavior for cats. I know we all hear the stories about a cat lady dying and her starving cats eating her body, but cats have to be pretty hungry to do such a thing, and the cat, named Prami, is a pet who is presumably fed by its owner. But the cat is its own rabbit hole. “Prami” is a Finnish name that means “the sea” and a variant of this name is “Pontus.” Pontus was a son of Gaia, ruling the oceans before replaced by the Olympian god Poseidon. We also see the name in “Pontius Pilate,” the man who ordered the death of Jesus Christ. There’s so much there but I have no idea how to pull it together, and it’s made all the more maddening that I am doing this with a cat’s name but what would you have me do? Not worry all these details?

The couple who went missing in Elaine were young, and Elaine is an easy town to disappear into, as Chris will himself experience a bit later. Elaine appears to be a ghost town almost, but there are always people around the corner, in a store, scurrying around unseen until they enact some form of violence or create confusion for Chris. The town also has issues with power supply and cellular phone connectivity so one cannot seek help very easily. The couple who disappeared immediately rang a bell for me. In 2005, a young couple became lost in the Nebraska winter. They were on meth, and became so hopelessly turned around in the snow at night that they could not give accurate information to 911 operators, and their cell phone pinged from one tower to the next, making it impossible to narrow down where they were. The couple eventually left their car and died of hypothermia, but this case has some interesting traction because, much like the Elisa Lam case, many have a hard time believing that psychosis is a thing that happens, be it via mental illness or drug consumption. The couple reported seeing people in the trees, dressed in robes, convinced that they were being stalked and were about to be murdered. Some believe the couple were indeed being stalked by a cult of some sort, and were specifically driven out of their car into the snow in an attempt to kill the couple via hypothermia, based on the female’s account of blacks and Mexicans in cult garb moving cars around to confuse them. There is something very dark and cult-like in Elaine, something that obviously killed the young people whose innards ended up as cat snacks. And cell phones wouldn’t have saved the dead couple in Elaine either.

Does this mean anything? Probably not. But maybe?

Last point I niggled around with was Pastor Toivo, the repulsive televangelist whose giddiness describing biblical incest was unnerving. Later the pastor revealed he himself had been having sex with his daughter, named Elaine of course, and had sired children with her. Agnes’s father doesn’t have much of a reaction to any of this and says that he knows Pastor Toivo and that he can introduce Chris to him. Agnes’ father, Karl, says Toivo isn’t that much of a kook once you get to know him. If Ben revealed Toivo’s last name, I missed it, but “Toivo” means “hope” in Finnish. Pastor Toivo was the final nail in the coffin for me, so to speak, where Elaine was concerned. A lot of what is happening in Elaine can be explained away as just a young man experiencing sexual dreams under stress, a sad daughter acting strangely after her mother’s death, a small town that seems strange to outsiders, an overzealous police force with a Barney Fife level of incompetence combined with a demented blood lust. But Pastor Toivo? What father is okay with a man who uses the Bible to justify raping his daughter and having children with her? Who can look at such behavior and call it kooky? There’s something very wrong in Elaine and even the common folk there don’t seem to recognize it.

There’s more in this book to analyze, from the sexual behavior of the Elaines to a cloying figurine with an upsetting spiritual message. But you can also ignore all of my digging around and just enjoy the strangeness and upsetting nature of the book, which is often softened a bit by some of the ridiculous things that happen to Chris. Ben’s style is one I enjoy – he paints a picture without excruciating scene setting. He uses caricatures of specific behavior to paint ambiguous looks at surprisingly complex characters. It’s an enjoyable book that doesn’t require the sort of poking I do to enjoy it. But, if like me, you have a love of Finland combined with a lot of knowledge about weird stuff that resonates with you as you read, this book may become a bit more than a story of a young man in love being swallowed up by a weird town full of malignant people.

I recommend this book and really need for Ben to explain what Elaine is. I’m very likely on the wrong path, not seeing what Ben is hoping to convey in Elaine, but even if I am completely lost, it was still an enjoyable trip. This is a book that invokes a sort of creepy, insular pagan behavior that causes outsiders to call out for a cleansing fire, though who should burn isn’t entirely clear. Have a read and let me know how you feel at the end.

 

*Invariably, when I mention my desire to live somewhere in Scandinavia, people helpfully mention that it is cold there. It’s evidently very hard for people to believe a native Texan would want to go to some place so cold, and I guess they figure I must not know that Finland is a bit nippy at times and want to save me from making a terrible mistake. To me, the weather in Finland seems delightful because the only time they really seem like they are sweltering is when they specifically recreate in their saunas the conditions I find on my back porch nine months out of the year. Though as I type this I am sort of remembering how awful the February snow storm was, but I suspect Finland doesn’t have the same grid issues we have in Texas and I would have access to heat when the snow begins to fall in Helsinki.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye by Ben Arzate

Book: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Increasingly I wonder why I continue with this explanation for each book.  If I am discussing it here it’s odd, that’s a given.  But I think, for the time being, you should consider this book odd because one story features a landlord strapping thick books to his head and goading his tenants into punching him when rent is due.  Also a house gets cancer, and the cancer isn’t a horde of stray cats moving in and destroying everything the humans love.

This collection also contains the line: “Hank walks home with the neck of his guitar shoved up his ass.”  You need to buy the book to find out why this happened to Hank.

Availability: Published in 2018 by Nihilism Revisited, you can get a copy here:

Disclaimer: Ben Arzate is a frequent commenter on this site (and I should return the favor but I sort of suck lately, you know how it is), and I consider him an e-friend. We’ve never met in person but who does actually meet in person anymore since the Internet has come to ensure we can have friends without ever leaving the house?  At any rate, you run the risk of being called a shill if you don’t disclose such things so be aware that I e-know Ben and approve of him as a person.

Comments: Ben Arzate is a very good writer, but in addition to being favorably inclined towards him because he keeps my morale up over here in Hell’s Half-HyperSpace, I really like this collection because it is filled with the kind of strange little stories that have made me a fan of Hank Kirton, Jon Konrath, and Andersen Prunty.  These stories cover a lot of literary and psychological ground in very few words – 33 stories in 104 pages of text.  I find such stories remarkably detailed because their spare nature causes me to fill in any blanks with my own life, sort of modifying them to fit my experiences.  I do that with everything I read, to an extent, but it’s all the easier when writers like Arzate give me a perfect framework upon which to build my own literary reaction.

Most of these stories are flash fiction, more along the lines of vignettes. A few of the stories are longer form, like “Meth-Lab Nursery,” which sadly does exactly what is indicated in the title, and “The Arranged Marriage,” a strange story about a young couple forced to marry by their intrusive parents.  The couple eventually find a way out of their predicament when they meet the girl’s ex-boyfriend, who works for a side show because he has what sounds like a cinematic form of progeria.  We also get snippets of the miserable, post-apocalyptic, life of Alex, a protagonist who, in the course of three stories, gets coffee at a terrifying cafe located in an utter hellscape, is forced to fetch his mail from a locked cuckoo clock, and watches what appears to be the televised version of Best Gore punctuated by ballet performances. They’re unnerving stories, the Alex tales.

My favorite story in the collection is “The Rent is Due.”  A lunatic landlord wakes all his tenants on the day rent is due.  At 3:30 a.m., he lines them up, uses a belt to attach a large book to his head, and forces his tenants to punch him.  If they don’t punch hard enough, he makes them hit him again.  I don’t know why this story delighted me so much.  Another of the shorter pieces I appreciate features a man dying after eating literal doughnut holes – like he has regular doughnuts but does not eat them but eats instead the void in the center.  It kills him.

The above stories are all entertaining, but evoke less of my verbose need to fill in the blanks. Not the case with “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye,” a story that spoke directly to my largely unexplored animism.  I am that person who is sure the pair of shoes she never wears feels slighted, or that her carpet is sad because the cats have been puking a lot lately.  The last time a story pinged this tendency to imbue the inanimate with spiritual and human traits happened during S.D. Foster’s bizarro story about a piece of fruit that never gets eaten.  In Arzate’s story, a house literally gets cancer.  It’s an old house, and the owners kick themselves for not getting it checked out sooner, making sure it was healthy before the lumps formed on the stairs and under the carpet.  Maybe they could have prevented the cancer, and they struggle in much the same way a person might when the dog they’ve had since they were a child becomes terminally ill.

There are things I don’t like about our house, and I hate saying any of it out loud because I know the house can hear me.  It’s not the house’s fault that the cats have wrecked the carpet and baseboards, that Sally (whom we have to nebulize in a weird crate Mr OTC made out of stuff he got at Home Depot) has coated every surface from the knees down with snot, that Boo Radley has scratched large chunks of frosted glass off the front and back doors as he tries to catch moths outside the house and on and on.  So when I criticize the house or complain about the amount of time I spend crawling around with a magic eraser in one hand and enzymatic cleaner in the other, I am certain to make it clear to the house that I don’t blame him for all this mess. I also worry that when we finally move or die the house will be bereft.  It has had a weird time in its short life and I sense it is sort of happy with us living here.  The dude who lived here before us sold DirectTV things, you know, those gray disks people install on their roofs?  Our garage was full of the boxes when we moved in, and all the boxes were empty except for a ton of gecko carcasses because those things infest this house and yard.  The garage had been turned into some sort of indie-band sound studio and that’s my most optimistic guess. I am 90% certain porn films were shot in there. Dozens of electrical outlets still remain along the ceiling and we will never be able to mask all the surround sound speaker mounts in the TV room.  We could replace the drywall entirely and they would still be there.  The whole house is covered with scars, and I know the house doesn’t like these scars.  These are not the sort of scars that chicks dig.  Neighbors seemed visibly relieved when a quiet-looking couple bought the house.  So you can imagine how our house felt.

And let us not mention the… weird stuff that happens in this house, the almost Lovecraftian entities we are certain inhabit this space.  I brought it up discussing Konrath’s fine lunacy, and you may have thought I was exaggerating for comedic effect, but seriously there is something living in this house that makes me certain it will kill me.  The stairs have already come for me, and I now have a limp every time the temperature dips into the sixties or below, so in addition to worrying about my house’s feelings, I also fear it.  Or rather I fear the things living here I cannot see.  The house does, too, which is another reason I will feel really bad if we move.  Our house doesn’t have cancer.  It has PTSD.

My reaction to this story is longer than the story itself, I think, which is the real magic of the sort of writing Ben presents us with in this collection.  Some of his stories really are a foundation upon which you can build your own cat-infested snot hole that will one day kill you or maybe just leave you feeling guilty about the messes that your slovenly pets make along with the certain knowledge that all the cleaners you use give you your own tumors to deal with.

But it’s not all “fill in the blanks.”  In “My Church” I didn’t need to descend into a near-psychotic analysis of my house to appreciate the story.  A kid attends a dismal church held in a basement and the best way to describe the philosophy of the church is Pointless Aggression Theology.  After prayers they turn off the lights in the basement and beat each other with hymnals that were accidentally printed in Russian. I love the reason the pastor gives for these book beatings but I’m gonna keep it to myself to keep from wholly spoiling the short story.  (It’s also interesting that this collection features a character who wants to be beaten by a book via the punches to the tomes he straps to his face and a religious group who smack each other with books written in a foreign language none of them can speak.  I want to psychoanalyze Ben but I’m currently using my powers for evil.)

The book ends with “Love: A Parable.”  It may seem like a jaded, cynical look at love, but at the same time it is a kind look at the nature of some sorts of romantic love, a perspective that can become very sentimental if not kept in check.  It’s strange to say that a story can be both cynical and sentimental but here we are.

This book contains some rough and/or gross content: a neighborhood descends into really uncompelling group sex, a war criminal recites a nauseating soliloquy, weird angels wreck cars when they fall from the sky, and similarly unnerving content can surprise the reader unprepared for this sort of bizarro-ish splattery writing.  Luckily I was prepared.  You should be, too.

I find it interesting that a style I find intolerable in other writers works to Ben’s advantage.  I’ve spoken before about the tiresome, emotionally-removed, flat style that caused me to rebuke books from Tao Lin and Stephen Elliott, yet found myself enjoying from Sam Pink.  And now I can add Ben Arzate to the very short list of writers who use this style well.  In Ben’s case, this flat remove is needed because you really can’t create a strong emotional attachment to characters in stories that are often two paragraphs long.  Nor would you really want to.  Additionally, extremely violent content can often be better appreciated at a certain emotional remove.  It’s a variable that I now realize I have to solve on a case-by-case basis.  I used to think I detested the style.  Now I think I simply dislike when it is not done well.

This style is especially well-married to the stories Ben tells.  Absolutely dystopic in almost all cases, yet often tempered with a bit of affection for the story or a little serving of hope.  Such stories need a simple, direct method of story-telling.  Too much emotion would clutter up these spare tales.  As would too much detail.  Ben achieves a sort of spartan reserve that lets him tell outrageous stories without crossing over into the false wackiness and pointless gore that eventually turned me off so much bizarro.

I want to leave you with this line from “Deep Sea Diving Suit” because I relate on an almost spiritual level to the protagonist Jeff’s decision to live his life in a deep sea diving suit:

He is so used to spending time in an environment hostile to his survival that he finds himself unable to leave his protective suits despite the fact they make existing in a welcoming environment difficult.

And now you know one of the many reasons why I cannot hold a day job.

You should get this book, highly recommended.