Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki

Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki

I have to admit I was entirely unfamiliar with Jillian Tamaki going into this, but I love love love her illustration work here, and I want to thank Drawn & Quarterly for sending me a copy of this. I’m also a big fan of the way that the narration jumps around sometimes “documentary style” in these stories. Most of them are slice-of-life focused, kafkaesque, or modern fantasy, which are all genres I think graphic novels are particularly well-suited for. I’ve written about this previously in reviews of other comic/graphic stories, and it’s still rings true here.

Jillian TamakiEvery story collection is going to be a little uneven to some degree, but most of these stories are solid, with just a couple that didn’t quite land for me. The artwork is always something to behold, and the characters feel three-dimensional and genuine.

‘SexCoven’ is a definite standout; it alone makes this collection worth reading. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m around the same age as the author, but I feel like this story perfectly captures the late 90s / early 00s internet culture of niche communities and the ways that they almost universally disbanded in the mid 00s. I probably spent around 6 solid months on message boards dedicated to The Matrix when I was around 20 (please don’t judge me, I thought it was cool as fuck back then). A couple years later and all of those boards are just… gone.

It seems like almost every message board or little niche community has been replaced by a subreddit these days, and that brings a whole other subset of problems along with it. Instead of communities of likeminded internet individuals coming together over some obscure cultural element, we have a subset of the already monoculture-prone redditors coming together over some obscure element of culture. It’s a slice of a slice of what it once was, and way more confirmation-bias enabling. I really do feel like we’ve lost something.

I also particularly liked the story dealing with adultery/bedbug removal, and the one with the shrinking woman. There were so many cool things to read between the lines in all of these. I’ll definitely be checking her other work out.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but his short fiction has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 4 Hugos, John W. Campbell, Locus, and on and on. He’s greatly admired among authors and almost entirely unknown by most readers. I’ve heard him referenced as an inspiration by several authors that I enjoy reading. Specifically Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who collectively write the Expanse series under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey cite him as “the best SF writer”. I figured I should probably do myself a service and check this collection out.

After reading it, I have to agree that his writing is mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. A writer of ideas. Every single story is incredibly unique, tonally diverse and powerful in different ways. If the quality among these 8 stories wasn’t at such a consistently high level, I’d say that Chiang was merely a ghostwriting team, comprised of 8 different authors, all exceptionally talented, each with different interests, politics and prose styles. Every story genuinely feels like it could be penned by a different author. I’ve never come across a creative powerhouse like this guy. He impressed the hell out of me with every sentence.

Ted Chiang“My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”

Tower of Babylon: 5/5
Killer story. The Old Testament cosmology was especially fun to hear described–passing beyond the moon, sun and stars, etc. A telling of the construction and journey up the tower of Babylon, and what lies beyond the vault of heaven. Blew my mind right open. Seriously creative. I get why it won all kinds of awards.

Understand: 5/5
Again, with the unique approach to storytelling. While reading this one, I started realizing how some of these concepts have clearly influenced other stories. Most obviously, the movie Limitless and the Max Barry novel Lexicon. I particularly liked how the language and vocabulary of the story evolves as the protagonist’s intelligence and recall increases.

Division By Zero: 4/5
An examination of loss of belief, mental illness, suicide and math. What happens when everything you’ve worked for in your life, every kind of order that you’ve relied on, is suddenly incorrect?

Story of Your Life: 6/5
Stop what you’re doing now and read this. This is the absolute best short story I have ever read. Chiang’s grasp on the English language is deeply integrated into the story itself, causality, and omniscience. It’s insanely good. This was the basis for the Denis Villeneuve film Arrival.

Seventy-Two Letters: 3/5
Interesting concepts, but storywise it was a little boring. The power of language to shape action and perception. Reminded me a lot of early 50s Asimov. All conceptual, not much character development.

The Evolution of Human Science: 3/5
Interesting and extremely short little tale about a scientific understanding breaking down between regular humans and meta-humans. Conceptually cool, but too short to really be that interesting.

Hell is the Absence of God: 5/5
The moral of the story? God is a maniacal motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit about humans, and you should love him unconditionally. This one was a real brain twister. I loved it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: 5/5
Advertisers, elective localized brain damage, culture jamming, politics, coming of age, concepts of beauty, love, relationships. This was terrific and heavily subversive.

Body to Job, by Christopher Zeischegg

“There was a momentum in the way we worked, fucked, and saw ourselves consumed by the world.”

Body to Job begins with the disclaimer: “The following stories were written between 2010 and 2016, and closely resemble my memoirs. They are also works of fiction.” Since reading Reality Hunger last year, I’ve been increasingly interested in the shrinking difference between memoir and fiction. I see it as this: To work in the adult film industry is to exist partially within the shared cultural fantasies of the populace. When your life has, to some extent, revolved around the fulfillment of fantasies for others, I would imagine it seems only natural to tell your story in the form of fiction. But fiction often carries within it a seed of truth.

These are brutal stories, and very well written. They are often heartbreaking, and deal primarily with Christopher’s experience working in the adult film industry, and the difficulties involved with that work. They also occasionally dip into the surreal, which is a nice reminder that there’s a dose of fiction present.

What most struck me about this collection, is the way in which Zeischegg presents everything with little commentary. The stories are raw and straightforward. As the narrative unfolds, things happen that are quite intense, and it’s up to us to interpret these events. People approach pieces of art with bias and preconception. Zeischegg seems aware that the reader will bring their own commentary, so he keeps his sparse. I think it was a wonderful creative choice, and added to the occasionally disturbing content of these stories.

“You know how every urban, twenty-something community is made up of broke-ass DJs, models, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and writers? Add ‘porn star’ to that list. It’s become just as boring and pointless. And you’re always a stone’s throw away from someone unremarkable who will do the job for nothing.”

The book really starts to hit its stride when it begins dealing with the mundanity of the pornography business. The boring details, the ins and out of the creation of something made to entice and fulfill fantasies, were my favorite part of the book. It also deals heavily with the unique alienation and ostracization experienced by adult performers who work in both the “straight” and “gay” camps of pornography.

It’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.

Bang Crunch: Stories, by Neil Smith

A solid little collection of human stories. Clever themes, tight writing, and very vibrant three dimensional characters. Something to relate to in every story, with only one stinker in the bunch. Neil Smith is Canadian, so there was a little more french in it than I was prepared for. I should probably learn at least some basic French at some point. 3.5 stars averaged, rounded up because there are some killer ones in here.

Isolettes: 4/5
Sad, but very poetic and knowing. Love this guy’s writing.

Green Fluorescent Protein: 3/5
Coming of age, dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Being comfortable with yourself.

B9ers: 3/5
Clever and cute story about pushovers and correlation. One race based plot point fell flat for me near the end.

Bang Crunch: 5/5
Really reminded me of Ted Chiang’s writing. Good stuff.

Scrapbook: 3/5
Could’ve been terrific, but ultimately left me wanting something more from it. I’m not sure what, so that may just be my fault.

The Butterfly Box: 5/5
Damn, this was beautiful and real.

Funny Ha Ha or Funny Weird: 4/5
Alcoholism and dealing with loss. Excellent follow-up on a specific secondary character from Green Fluorescent Protein.

Extremities: 1/5
Just not a good story at all. It felt more like a creative writing exercise on weird POVs.

Jaybird: 5/5
Thespian life has always seemed for the crazies. I went back and forth between loving and hating this one as I read it, ultimately I settled on loving it. Revenge against a crazy industry, and life working better when you accept who you are and work with it instead of against it.

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

“…voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new.” is how FSG Originals describes the books they publish, and I would absolutely describe Samantha Hunt’s writing in this way. Her stories are brutal yet beautiful, magical but grounded, sincere, horrific, and essential. Her characters have such unique perspectives on their lives and the events surrounding them; a lot of the time these were perspectives that I’d never fully considered, but instantly empathized with once exposed to them.

Samantha HuntThese are stories I obviously needed to read. Stories about women and men of all walks of life passing through stages of the fantastic and the mundane, learning about themselves and the world(s) around them. While reading this book I was reminded of that old saying about how reading someone’s book is like having a conversation with them, or getting to know them a little better. With Hunt’s writing, it felt like getting to know several different women at the same time. It’s extraordinarily powerful stuff. Seeing things from these many new perspectives was fascinating for me.

There isn’t a bad story in the bunch, but the standouts for me were: The Story Of, All Hands, Love Machine, Wampum, & The Story Of Of. Her prose is tight and expressive. She manages to say so much in so few words, and her writing often dips into the magically realistic, with postmodern sensibilities.

I think it’s past due time for me to pick up her novels, and I’m kicking myself for not paying attention when friends were telling me that I should. Oh well, better late than never!

P.S. I need to sing a few praises for this cover as well. Book designers have really been outdoing themselves this year, and this one is no exception. This cover fully subverted my pattern recognition engine by using it against itself, that is until I plopped it down on my coffee table absentmindedly and accidentally saw it from a different angle as it lay there sideways, smirking at me. Clever clever.