Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with it’s creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister comes out May 23rd from Tin House Books wherever books are sold.

 

 

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

“When death comes, it very often comes with eyes averted, and with interceding machinery.”

I don’t think anyone who has read this book would argue that there isn’t a fierce and creative intelligence at work here. Zak Smith’s memoir of working in the dual capital-a industries of Adult entertainment and Art scene in NY is pretty scathing, and as honest feeling as a memoir can hope to be. It also paints the alt-porn industry, as well as the greater Adult film industry, as pretty much exactly what you’ve always imagined them to be: complicated as hell. Things are never, not ever, black and white. Shades of grey abound.

Zak SmithI’ve read a few reviews of this book that spend most of their time talking about him specifically: He’s an asshole, or a misogynist, etc. All of which may or may not be true, I don’t really know enough to make that call, however, this isn’t a review of Zak as an individual, but of his book. I’m really not interested in an ad hominem angle. You have to separate the art from the individual. Look at George W. Bush for example, his paintings are just fucking adorable, and he’s literally a war criminal. Keep the individual separate from their art. It’s hard to do, but at worst it’s a good mental exercise, and at best it keeps you from being an asshole.

I always take memoirs with a grain of salt anyway, because seriously, you have to be completely bonkers to believe everything in them. Memory is mostly fiction. Just get together with some old friends or family and talk about the time you… or the other time when so-and-so… and see how often your versions of truth agree with each other’s.

“Give four art people a banana and they will say: It’s wonderfully yellow, it’s too yellow, it’s not yellow enough, I’m so glad it isn’t yellow, and then say it’s wonderfully squishy, it’s too squishy, it’s not squishy… and on and on until the banana gets so famous that they start getting paid to agree that the banana is yellow and good.”

Onto the actual content: This book is well written. There are some absolutely gorgeous sentences, metaphors, and sentiments presented, and I really want this guy to write some novels, because I would read them all. His published art project relating to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow aside, you can tell that Zak Smith’s literary influences swing heavily toward the postmodern side of things. I’m guessing that David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson were all influential in the intended direction for this book.

This is basically a three year slice-of-life character based story on those in the alt-porn industry in Los Angeles and New York from 06 – 08. Everyone’s names are kind of changed, and supposedly details have been altered and swapped around and shared to make it not so obvious who is who for those that are familiar with these real life people. If you’re like me, you’re not very familiar with porn stars, but there are a few stories in here that broke into the mainstream a little, that you’ll most likely recognize. If you are familiar with porn stars, you’ll have a good time trying to match these fake names with their “real” fake names.

Zak Smith DrawingIt seems like he really wanted to give another angle on the people involved in the porn business. Something different from what’s already out there. There is so much misinformation, bad information, and downright obfuscation on the subject, from a lot of different camps. Pornographers have been very unfairly pushed into categories of sluts, whores, and victims (the women), and misogynist abusers (the men). Well, if I have to point out just how sexist that demarcation is, then you probably should read this book, or maybe something more along the lines of The Woman That Never Evolved, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, or really just any Feminist writing (please just make sure it’s not Tumblr feminism, go for the legit stuff). Not to say that there aren’t abusers, or victims involved in the Porn industry, I’m sure there are, and probably a lot. But again, things are never black and white like that.

Between the memoir bits there are a few sections with scans of his artwork; mostly drawings and paintings. Personally, I really like his art, but completely understand why someone else wouldn’t. He spends some time contrasting the art world with the porn world, drawing similarities and differences among the two. He’s very aware that both industries are kind of bullshit. He also seems very aware of how incredibly lucky he is to be able to make a living from his artwork.

It has one of the best ever descriptions of how bizarre the middle-zeroes were, which I think was intended to read as a “look at how strange things were then in comparison to how much better they are now” vibe, but in hindsight it works very well as an illustration of the starting point for exactly when our current issues (Trump, “alt facts”, not agreeing on objective reality, etc) began and stem from. It’s pretty disheartening that things seem only to have gone downhill from there on:

“I’m not sure future generations, comfortable with all the names in their history books, will appreciate the degree to which, in the mid-zeroes, everything even remotely resembling public life in America felt like a crudely mounted shadow-puppet play smoke-screening some unspeakable underlying soul-death.”

Zak Smith drawingI love what this had to say about sexual abuse, and abuse of all kinds. There are a disproportionate amount of porn stars that have experienced some kind of abuse in their past. And if you’re like me, you have a hard time understanding why anyone who had been abused would want to be in the porn business, especially in some of the darker or more kinked corners of it that more closely resemble their abuse. But, it really makes a lot of sense when it’s all laid out. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Really, anyone who chooses a life on the fringes or edges of what’s considered mainstream or normal society is utterly fascinating to me. There are all kinds of people, and just because the majority of people behave in one way doesn’t necessarily mean that way is right, and all others are wrong. Again with the black and white reference.

“Things that are supposed to make ordinary people happy or sad are molehills in the shadow of a morbid, thousand-mile-high monument to suffering and shame at the center of the city of the brain.
“The abused person then not only wants to not be abused–but she also wants to try to set up experiences of pleasure that equal or exceed the mental and emotional peak of pain that, otherwise, will be the highest and clearest peak in the history of her feelings.
“So she goes to the place the heavy bad thing came from–the sex place–and tries to see if there is a heavy good thing there, too. Because nothing else has that weight. You can’t erase pain from life, but you can get enough pleasure that life seems worth living anyway.”

I know quite a lot of people who are sexual assault survivors, probably more than I realize. It’s a widespread problem, and the victim blaming platitudes that I hear constantly from politicians and religious leaders infuriate me to no end. It appears that this double standard also pisses Zak off, and I can appreciate that. There are some sections in here talking specifically about the ways that politicians (esp. those on the right), and religious leaders have perpetuated and exacerbated the cycle of abuse through their rhetoric and actions. It’s very satisfying to hear someone lay it out so clearly.

In conclusion, a lot of this book is pretty vulgar, but then again it is about pornography and those in the industry. I think it’s important to talk about these things in our society rather than just push them off to the side and pretend they don’t exist. They exist. These people exist. And yes, they are people. I think the whole point of this book is to maybe force people to acknowledge this world that he’s familiar with. It’s real and we should talk about it.

 

 

Relief Map, by Rosalie Knecht

Relief Map, by Rosalie Knecht

This was a such a great story, with a cast of characters that I swear I grew up with. It brought back a lot of memories of the shadier aspects of being a teenager in a tiny town, and how much can change for you in one summer when you’re young and haven’t really done anything terrible yet.

The characters were mostly teenagers, but I wouldn’t call this YA fiction. It’s more of a coming-of-age story set within a powder keg of a small town, featuring universal human themes.

Rosalie KnechtThe prose was clear and descriptive, which really brought the story to life. The style here is reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and his favorite location of Holt Colorado in some ways. Although, it’s entirely separated from that geographic location. The main idea being that this city and these characters are of that same rich, multi-layered caliber.

I have to admit that Tin House has quickly become one of my favorite publishers. They tend to publish these very human stories that you don’t usually find from the big 5. Everything they publish feels like it’s been personally curated for me, and their cover design in consistently on-point.

The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott

 

 

Julia Elliott

Julia Elliott

Synopsis:

Meet the South’s newest antihero: Romie Futch. Down on his luck and pining for his ex-wife, the fortysomething taxidermist spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet, then passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he becomes a research subject at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, where “scientists” download humanities disciplines into his brain. Suddenly, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs are speaking in hifalutin SAT words and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. With his new and improved brain, Romie hopes to reclaim his marriage, revolutionize his life, and revive his artistic aspirations. While tracking down specimens for elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he learns of “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog with supernatural traits that has been terrorizing the locals. As his Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging the beast brings him closer and closer to this lab-spawned monster, Romie gets pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists.
Part surreal satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a strange New South where technology can change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape. In Romie Futch, Julia Elliott has created an unwitting and ill-equipped protagonist who nevertheless will win your heart.

 

A glorious postmodern southern gothic tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

The New and Improved Romie FutchJulia Elliot’s impressive prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

It’s a smidge of Flowers for Algernon, a little bit of Moby-Dick, and possibly even some Max Barry thrown in, and the whole thing is romantic and realistic while simultaneously bringing the fantastical to life.

P.S. Have a dictionary handy, and you may want to brush up on your Baudrillard, postmodernist theory, and various mythologies.