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.

Person by Sam Pink

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Person

Author:  Sam Pink

Type of Book:  Fiction, alt lit

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because I thought it was going to suck a’plenty and was pleasantly proven wrong.

Availability:  Published by Lazy Fascist Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

(WHOOT! As of Tuesday evening, it appears as if the Kindle version of this book is free. Check it out!)

Comments: Back when I bought a copy of Shoplifting from American Apparel, I also bought a copy of Person by Sam Pink.  Since my first exposure to alt lit resulted in what can only be called a complete nervous book-down, I was understandably reluctant to read Pink.  Lin’s SfAA filled me with such disgust that had I read anything similar immediately afterward and then discussed it I would have needed a new anus.

But a few years have passed, and the fire of my hatred has dimmed.  Also, Person is a slim volume and tempted me after I had finished The Goldfinch, which, as much as I love Donna Tartt, was a brick, and a very tiresome brick at around page 550.  I needed something easy and something quick and there Person was, in my nightstand cupboard, nestled in with far longer and more outrageous fare.  So I decided to just hold my nose and jump into Person and see what happened.

Person and SfAA are very similar books.  Both feature disaffected, grubby young protagonists.  Both books mine the same disenchanted hipster veins.  The very structures of the books down to the sentence formations are similar. So how come I really like Person?

It’s difficult to explain, and because I recently got my winter clothes out (Jesus, I began this discussion back in mid-November – ugh!), I think I have a decent enough explanation.  You know how it is that one red sweater can make you look like a porcelain-skinned angel and another red sweater can make you look like a chapped potato?  They’re both red, just different reds.  But you know, that analogy is a bad one because the red that makes me look like someone’s ruddy Irish nanna isn’t innately a shitty color and the one that makes me look like I’ve never once had a sunburn isn’t innately a heavenly color.  By any sane standard, SfAA is a terrible book.  I guess what I am saying here is that for the most part I hate most alt lit (and increasingly the writers behind the genre), but you can’t judge a book by its color just because some colors look better than others.  And if it seems like I am being completely incoherent so that pompous tenured professors working in the Corn Belt can insult me because every extemporaneous book discussion needs to be indistinguishable from a doctoral thesis, that isn’t what’s happening.  Nope.  Not at all.

Still, I think I can make a case for why it is that Person is such a better book.  Or at least a book worth reading.

The Tao Shoplifting Crisis by Tao Lin and Richard Grayson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Tao Shoplifting Crisis

Authors: Tao Lin and Richard Grayson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, epistolary

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Tao Lin will always be odd to me.

Availability: Published by Carnarsie House in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I love writing for this site, but I think it goes without saying that any online endeavor is going to have a downside. When I wrote my analysis of 2083, the epic-length document by Oslo shooter Anders Behring Breivik, it went mildly viral. The four part discussion, close to 50,000 words of analysis, caught the attention of news sources in Norway and was translated into Norwegian. I experienced praise and pushback, and some of the pushback was upsetting, to put it mildly. But for the most part, even the negativity that came my way was delivered with some modicum of respect, aside from the terminal cases who were outraged that I discussed the woman-hate that I discovered in the document. Even the incoming links from people who disagreed with me, even from virulent racists, simply said I got it wrong, but given that I had read it my take was still worth reading.

Will it surprise anyone that in terms of annoyance and abuse that my discussion of Tao Lin’s execrable novel, the wearying and craptacular Shoplifting from American Apparel, was quite a bit more tiresome than the onslaught of e-mails and comments I received when I discussed one of history’s worst mass murderers? I still get the occasional e-mails from smug readers who insist that a line I used wherein I discussed plunging Lin’s soul was a horrible error and that I am dumb, oh so stupid, for not understanding that. It’s hard to make Lin’s acolytes understand that plunge was a play on plumbing the depths of a soul, as the saying goes. A soul’s depths are plumbed, a toilet is plunged, and I am not the first to engage in that particular word play so all the bafflement, if not assumed, is baffling. But still the e-mails come. October 2012 was the only month wherein I did not receive a plumb/plunge e-mail, though of course the number of messages has died down. And let’s keep it that way!

And yes, I am verbose, a common complaint from Tao Lin fans. Watch my verbosity in action as I use far too many words to discuss this 38 page book!

In addition to the plumb/plunge/too wordy missives, I received a lot of feedback that I can only call bullshit. But given that I hated the book and discussed it in excruciating detail, I understand that I should expect such reactions and that perhaps it is a bit hypocritical for me to consider such feedback bullshit. But then again, this world is big enough in terms of ideas that pro-Lin and anti-Lin can both be bullshit and both be right. I was just mildly surprised by and eventually tired of the lengths to which fans of Lin will go to defend their idol/friend/whatever he is to them.

I tell you these things, dear readers, not to gain pity or to get some sort of ego stroke in the form of protestations that my writing doesn’t suck. I know it doesn’t suck. I have many flaws as a writer but if I felt I was truly a terrible writer, I wouldn’t spend a chunk of my life discussing books. I tell you all of this just so you know that, character for character, discussing Tao Lin will generate more bullshit, insults and nastiness than discussing a mass murderer of children. I find that interesting and, frankly, a little unexpected. For such a passionless book, Shoplifting from American Apparel has a lot of passionate defenders.

I also tell you all of this so as to explain why it is that I waited so long to discuss Richard Grayson’s book. Grayson was kind enough to send it to me after he read my discussion of Lin’s opus and I read it very soon upon receiving it. I had wanted to discuss it but wanted to give myself some breathing room after the stupidity that flowed after my discussion of SfAA. I am disorganized at times, and then 2083 happened, and then some Redditors found me and I received an onslaught of review copies from hopeful writers (one called me “the reviewer of the damned” and I may incorporate that into the site soon). I just lost track of things. But I found my copy of the book again when I transferred everything over to a new computer and realized that I needed to discuss it.

(BTW: Even though I hated the shit out of the book, the director of the movie adaptation of Shoplifting from American Apparel asked me if I wanted to review the movie. Hell yes, was my answer and I will get to that soon. After that I suspect Lin will never be mentioned on this site again, glory hallelujah amen! Well, I say that. I’m sure I’ll read him again should I feel adequate provocation.)

The Tao Shoplifting Crisis is a series of e-mails between Tao Lin and Richard Grayson. Grayson, a writer and activist, is also a lawyer. Tao knew Grayson through common writing circles, and when he was facing a court date as a result of being arrested for, wait for it, shoplifting from American Apparel, he turned to Grayson for help. It is here I need to clear up a couple of things that could upset an ethical reader. At no point did Lin retain Grayson as legal counsel because Grayson was only licensed to practice law in Florida and Grayson repeatedly told him his expertise was not going to be completely helpful and that any advice he could give needed to be followed up with advice from a New York lawyer. For those who may think it skeevey that Grayson published his correspondence with Lin, bear in mind these e-mails occurred in 2007. When Grayson became aware that not only was Lin not keeping his arrest to himself and was, in fact, using his arrests as the premise of a book, and furthermore was using the flyer wherein he was banned from a specific store for his shoplifting for promotional purposes, Grayson no longer felt as if Tao’s arrests were anything he needed to keep quiet.