Mother Puncher by Gina Ranalli

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Mother Puncher

Author: Gina Ranalli

Type of Book: Bizarro, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s published by Afterbirth Books, which is often a good sign post for oddness.

Availability: Published by Afterbirth Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: It’s fitting that I am concluding Bizarro Week with a review for Gina Ranalli’s Mother Puncher. I reviewed one of her books earlier this year and did not enjoy it that much. Panning Suicide Girls in the Afterlife felt bad. I felt the same way panning it the way I did when I panned Wrath James White because there are authors out there for whom the gestalt of the book does not work in some way or another but you like the way the author writes, you sense that they have something about them that makes them special, even if that book did not show the fullness of talent you sense is there.

This book confirmed my initial sense that Gina Ranalli is a very good writer. Overall, this book is more gently bizarro than some of the other outrageous, absurd and surrealist offerings out there, but the dystopia Ranalli creates is certainly not fodder for a mainstream novel, and this novella makes me invoke one of my backhanded compliments: I wish there was more. The plot got a little rushed in one of the conflicts and frankly, Ranalli’s plot and characterization were absorbing to the point that I was disappointed when the book ended. However, whether or not brevity is a hallmark of bizarro literature, it is a fact that most bizarro is novella-length so I need to get over wanting some of these books to be longer or more developed.

Mother Puncher tells the story of Ed Means, a former boxer who has become a Mother Puncher. That is, the government wants people to stop having kids, so if you go ahead and reproduce, a Mother Puncher comes and punches you in the face. Ideally, the mother and father are supposed to take a shot to the eye, but generally it’s just the mothers who get hit as their menfolk make themselves scarce immediately after the birth. Ed doesn’t like this, but there’s not much he can do about it. He just tries to do his job to the best of his ability despite hate groups, a deranged fan club president who coerces him into seeking side work that he doesn’t want, and a greedy, borderline hybristophilic wife who is seldom on his side.

Like I said above, this is gentler bizarro than many of the books I discuss on this site. The violence in this piece is subtler and more implied (you know, aside from women getting punched full in the face after giving birth), and things make sense. There is no fantasy world here, as the real world makes just about enough sense that one could imagine a law enforcing punches to the face if one insists upon breeding and a large, religious backlash that ends up in violent riots. The dystopia in this book is a mild dystopia, and Ed makes perfect sense to me. The plot does not rely on outrageous fortune to proceed and while I can see how this book would be considered “normal” fiction in some respects, I honestly don’t know if I can think of another publisher that would take on this book.

Ed was an excellent character, fully realized even within the limitations of a novella. Even more impressive were how vivid the minor characters in this book were. A pissy teenager who rats out her mother giving birth to her child in an abandoned house in an attempt to circumvent her punch – that scene painted the petulant teen who acted like a snot until shit got real and her self-absorbed, self-righteous mother perfectly. Drizzle, the underhanded, scuzzy president of Ed’s fan club and his weasel attitude. Ashley, Ed’s chain smoking, lethargic yet greedy wife. The only character I wish I knew more about was Tea, a woman who begins as Ed’s antagonist but eventually becomes his ally, willing to remain by his side even in great peril. She was interesting but I didn’t clue in to her as well, and this is a piddling criticism. In a novel with so many well-formed characters, even those with tiny roles in the novel, perhaps having a character who makes you wonder what she was really all about is a good thing.

Ranalli lets us into Ed’s mind frequently but she is a writer who, in this novel, achieved the dream of really showing and not telling, and one of the ways she did it was via her wonderful characterization. We really get to know Ed via his interactions with other characters. Ranalli contrasts him with weak men who hide to keep from taking their punches. We see his reluctance to take on side work but deciding to do it because the other man who punches mothers had a tendency to go to far, to do permanent damage, and while Ed does his job and feels he is doing a great service to his country, he does not want to hurt anyone permanently. He just wants to live in his secure gated community, have a cold beer now and then, eat a decent meal and do his job.

But Ed’s a good man. He doesn’t shut out the part of himself that feels morally conflicted just because he senses his beliefs are correct. After punching one repeat offender, a woman who takes her punches with good humor because they matter so little to her in the grand scheme of having a large family, Ed settles into a comfortable moral gray area.

Watching them together cheered Ed up somehow, but he couldn’t really say why. He still thought having babies in the current world was sinful but there was something about Mrs. English and her determination to keep doing it for no other reason than that she loved kids. And it was obvious she was a kind and caring mother. Hell, she was a kind and caring woman.

Go figure, thought Ed.

One of the reasons I am discussing the characterization so much is because in Suicide Girls in the Afterlife, I liked the characters but I didn’t buy them. They seemed unlikely at times, and that is not the case here. Motivations make sense. Ed’s emotional reactions make sense. His antagonists make sense. Ranalli’s plot is also very tight, with no loose ends.

The crisp, almost no-nonsense writing style that I found so captivating in her earlier work seemed especially well-suited for this particular tale. I am a person for whom ornate writing can grow very tiresome. The capacity to tell a story that is both straightforward yet engrossing seems simple enough but enough writers do it poorly that when it is done correctly, it is amazing.

Though this novel is not as outrageously baroque and demented as a lot of bizarro, I still think bizarro lovers will enjoy this book. But people who like a character-driven novel written precisely and with an eye to a tight plot will also like it. Like Andersen Prunty’s works, this book could be a gentle introduction into the wild world of bizarro and would be a great book for anyone new to the genre. While at times violent, it is restrained violence and in Ranalli’s hand, what could have been an incredibly misogynistic premise instead seems like an inevitable step in ZPG. I am really glad I read this book. Though the first book of Ranalli’s I read was not to my tastes, there were enough clues there about Ranalli’s style that I hoped I would like one of her other books. One of her more recent books, House of Fallen Trees, is now at the top of my wishlist and I very much look forward to reading it.

So it feels good ending Bizarro Week this way. It just worked out that the five books I had to discuss were all books I really enjoyed, but it always feels much better for me to love a book than hate it. I hope some of my readers who haven’t tried bizarro yet give one of these books a look.

Suicide Girls in the Afterlife by Gina Ranalli

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Suicide Girls in the Afterlife

Author: Gina Ranalli

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction, novella

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately, this was not such an odd book, but it is classified as bizarro and is published by Afterbirth Books, an imprint of Eraserhead. Since I review all my bizarro reads over here, this is where I decided this book should go.

Availability: You can get it here:

But obtaining this novella via The Bizarro Starter Kit (Orange) would be an infinitely better purchase. In this volume you not only get this book, but also novellas and short stories from other bizarros. Check out the kit here:

Comments: I found this book to be a sweet and charming read, but it was not what I expected and I find myself mostly lukewarm towards it. The premises – that basically every act of self-neglect, from overeating to failure to procure proper health insurance is suicide, that Heaven and Hell are under construction, and that there are levels of worthiness in Heaven – are not that bizarre. I suspect every college freshman has had a similar conversation. The idea of Satan as a goth and Jesus as a hippie are also… trite. God, I hate using that word, but there’s nothing new in the concepts and, in fact, they are common enough tropes that to see them in a bizarro book is jarring.

Okay, that’s fine, in a sense. Even in bizarro, there does not necessarily need to be something new under the sun. Bizarros retell iconic stories filtered through their own whacked-out lenses and they work more often than not. But this story was not grounded in the insane enough to forgive the various issues I had.

For example, if a book is bizarre and original enough in concept, I don’t mind if I don’t connect with the characters. I loved Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Extinction Journals, which I will review here soon. It was like nothing I have read before and the insanity of the concept was such that aside from some very shallow connections, there was no way to relate to the characters. Conversely, in some of Andersen Prunty’s short stories, the elements of magical realism in some of the pieces are mild, and some of the stories are just odd vignettes, but as tame as they can be compared to the mind of, say, Carlton Mellick III, they have an undercurrent of connection that permits the reader to relate to the characters, a pathos that bridges the gap between high weirdness and basic humanity. Ranalli comes very close to pulling this connection off in Suicide Girls in the Afterlife but ultimately, I didn’t feel it.

The protagonist, Pogue, committed suicide by electrocuting herself. She gets to the Afterlife and finds herself in a hotel until Heaven and Hell are no longer under construction. She is assigned a floor and the closer the floor is to the basement, Hell, the lower you are in the Afterlife’s hierarchy (purgatory is sandwiched between floors like John Cusack’s office in Being John Malkovich). Pogue meets another young suicide named Katina and within minutes of landing in Pogue’s room, they are bored and start exploring the hotel. One is not allowed to go to floors above one’s assigned room so they go down, with the help of a robot named Jane 62, meet denizens of lower floors, visit Hell, meet Satan, visit Heaven, and meet Jesus.

The book ends with the sort of conclusion that makes me a little nuts – was it all a dream, was it all a relativist examination of the human condition? Did Pogue not really die and was just having an electric brainstorm wherein she recreated all facets of herself into characters in her hallucination? Probably the latter and I just don’t like endings like that. This is a personal issue, I realize, but I’ve endured far too many books where such endings were cheap tricks to end that which is difficult to conclude. Others may vary wildly on this one but I cannot recall a single book I have read short of The Wizard of Oz, wherein “It was all a dream!” did not leave me feeling cheated.

There are brief moments of bizarro grotesqueness, like the shit tornados that sweep through hell and the man who is… well, committing acts of pedophilic necrophilia. There are moments of bizarro brilliance, like the food permitted on Pogue’s floor is all pie – Opera Pie, Rock Pie, and it makes a cacophony as you eat it, if you can take the noise.

But overall, the book just isn’t that odd and the story too shallow to make up for the lack of oddness. Seriously, you cannot go looking for plot holes in bizarro because you will find them. Seemless plots are not needed here, thank you. It is best just to wallow in the strangeness, the newness of ideas, the grossness of the story, the craziness of the narrative and characters. But you can’t do that in Suicide Girls in the Afterlife because the story does not employ enough true slipstream to enable you to get into the bizarro headspace that permits you to overlook plot issues and characterization problems. In bizarro, characters come and go senselessly at times, subplots dead end and the plots loop wildly, often not making sense and you overlook it because sense is not the point. In a story that has the sort of order assigned to it that this book does, as well as a narrative that is so grounded in popular imagination that it is essentially a retelling of Judeo-Christian mythos, random characters and plot issues stand out.

For example, the Salvadore who meets Pogue to escort her to the hotel? No idea what he was or who he was meant to be. Another character informs Pogue that Salvadore does not meet suicides as a rule, that he mainly escorts the rich white people who make up the upper echelons of Heaven, living on the top floors of the hotel. With his pencil thin mustache, I am reminded of Salvador Dali but I am unsure what connection to make from that. The hotel is too regimented and makes too much sense for a any surrealism to be at play. And why did he meet Pogue if he generally meets those from upper floors? No idea. And the character who explained it? In a throwaway line we are told she is really a cross dressing man. Why is this important? No idea. Jane 62 explains that there is not a Jane 61. I guess her name is just supposed to be… wacky? Inexplicable? Salvadore explains that those who are already in Heaven and Hell are fine, but the newcomers must stay in the hotel until renovations are complete. So why are Jesus and Satan there? Presumably they had a place in the old Heaven and Hell and do not need new accommodations. These are the sorts of plot issues that one should not have to think about in bizarro literature.

To address the characterization issues I had, Pogue and Katina are two of the most unlikely suicides I have ever read in print. Both are inquisitive, engaged, almost perky in their excitement to roam and discover what is what in the afterlife hotel. Why did Pogue commit suicide? We are only told she had her reasons. If there is a veil in the afterlife that wipes away the spiritual angst and misery that causes suicide, we are not informed of it. They are both fun to read about, however, one of the graces in this book, and that they both seem like restless, happy girls, neither carrying the cosmic burdens that suicide implies, is a problem.

And therein lies the problems I had with this book: Either the bizarre needs to be so outre that a personal connection is not needed and the awe and wonder at the world created overshadows the mundane needs for proper plot, or the mildly weird needs to make a connection with us, which requires it to make sense as well as probe certain universality of feeling. This book is neither fish nor fowl. It does not offer a paradigm amazing enough to suspend disbelief and it does not offer an odd conduit to real emotion. It is too normal for one, too shallow for the other.

Add to it that I read it in under two hours, and I suspect I cannot really recommend this book to anyone. That is not to say that I will not read Ranalli in the future. Far from it. I have read descriptions of the plot of Mother Puncher and it sounds crazy and dystopian enough that I hope it skirts the ho hum qualities of this book. Ranalli’s work is quite readable. Her prose is sound and in some places, a thing of beauty. That I found this book lacking did not reflect on the quality of the prose itself – she had very few clunker sentences and in a way, the fact that she can write well made disliking this all the worse. But this story simply did not work for me, given it’s brevity, the lack of unique plot, the problems with the plot and the seemingly inappropriate characterization.