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.