Sometimes, a quick read highlights the enduring poignancy of a book's message; sometimes it's a matter of a novel being meant as a one-sitting escape into a world that goes far beyond the distance between two covers. And sometimes a book is mercifully quick, not because it's a chore to read but because, like pulling off a practically-grafted-to-your-arm Band-aid, it hurts less just to get it over with so the reader and the tortured characters can all move on as painlessly and as quickly as possible.
Such is the case with Matthew Revert's Basal Ganglia, an ostensibly odd novella that is, at its core, a meditation on the fine line that separates the contended familiarity of marital habits from brewing hostility. Its main (and only, really) characters are Rollo and Ingrid, who began as teenage lovers and are now both consumed with and isolated by the underground pillow-and-blanket fort that Rollo had built to mirror the structure of the human brain and has been indefatigably maintaining for years. With no connection to the outside world, all external conflict has been removed; what unites them in purpose has removed any common enemies that would strengthen their roles as teammates, leaving them to foster alternately resentment and indifference between them. Ingrid soon declares that she wants a child but is reluctant to expose another life to their strange, secluded world, asking that Rollo play his part in the creation of a new life by gathering materials intended for repairing the fort so she can use them to knit their baby.
What ensues is a cautionary tale about all-consuming love: Rollo and Ingrid have reduced the entirety of their world to nothing more than the two of them and the fort, losing sight of themselves as one whole comprising two parts that possess histories and individual identities. The arrival of the baby--a thing that Ingrid protects with such a fiercely believable maternal instinct that I'd find myself worrying about the newborn's safety at certain points--brings their long-suppressed issues screaming to the surface, turning their knitted offspring into a nonliving but tangible thing that becomes the embodiment of the couple's living but intangible hostilities. Both Rollo and Ingrid fear the other will inflict some harm on the baby and damn near tear down their decades-old fort in her efforts to keep the baby from him and his need to know that the baby really exists, as the (still totally inanimate) baby quickly supplants the fort as the ultimate manifestation of their union, only to just as swiftly become the physical representation of the psychological war that has finally erupted between the couple.
One of the things that struck me most immediately about this novella is the gender roles that Rollo and Ingrid assume, not just in terms of their level playing field and strength, but also how they each assume traits of the other's gender to their benefit. Allowing the child to be the tipping point for both characters makes for some of the most overtly effective shattering of gender-dictated stereotypes I've seen in a while, which I think can be attributed to three things: Rollo and Ingrid's individual perspectives receiving equal attention; getting to see how the arrival of a child affects the father just as much as the mother on an individual basis as well as within the confines of a relationship that has shifted focus as it has expanded to include a third; and that both characters possess qualities and characteristics that are presumed to exist almost exclusively within the realm of the other's gender (some examples: Rollo has experienced the joy of creation by way of the fort both he and Ingrid tend to with almost parental obsession and Rollo, unlike Ingrid, begins lactating by the end of the book; Ingrid sprouted a beard before the novella began and assumes the masculine role of the protector in terms of their child). Such atypically balanced and implicitly empathetic regard for gender makes the emotional turmoil of wanting, having and raising children--all of which come with the knee-jerk fear of overwhelming responsibility bitterly feuding with the emotional satisfaction of being charged with the care and protection of a totally dependant being, all wrapped up in a life-changing event--rife with the potential to wreak havoc on man and woman alike.
The yarn Revert spins could be just another take on the familiar tale of a relationship on the rocks and that ill-advised, last-ditch efforts to "fix" years of unacknowledged damage with a baby, but its ability to refashion an ordinary situation into something extraordinary with its offbeat elements (a pillow fort and a knitted child, mainly) keeps things refreshingly focused. There is no fear of childhood scars bringing itself to the forefront because the child in question is made of the same materials as the fort--a fort that is its builder's very own return to the womb (if I knew more about psychology, I'd have something clever to say about the yawning chasm between the part of the body the fort actually represents and that upon which its design is based). Rollo has spent so much time and effort making sure his fort keeps the outside out that he has neglected life inside the fort and is in no way emotionally prepared for a child, either the care it needs or the issues it will inevitably drudge up. The fort is rich in symbolic purpose, demonstrating how two people can work toward a common goal in isolation, underscoring the dangers of living for one obsessive purpose and detailing what happens when a life becomes all purpose and no pleasure.
Basal Ganglia is devastating, fascinating, brutally honest and cautiously hopeful. But most of all, it offers insight and imagination in equal measures, offering both a new take on an old story and compelling characters who breathe oceans of sympathetic humanity into what often err on the side of black-and-white arguments. ...more
I keep trying to write a review for this book, which had a coworker asking me if I was okay because of the noises I apparently made whenever I stifledI keep trying to write a review for this book, which had a coworker asking me if I was okay because of the noises I apparently made whenever I stifled the unprofessional guffaws trying to erupt from my face while I was reading it (fuck yeah, bookworming on the company nickel), but it keeps coming out as shitty parodies of "Bohemian Rhapsody." And both pieces deserve better than shoddy manglings.
Sometimes a book so thoroughly defies its reader's expectations, is such a departure from more conventional fare and is still utterly enjoyable that it's a difficult entity to write about. Sometimes it takes a person three months to find the words to describe such a uniquely entertaining read when a few paragraphs of casually punctuated chuckles would be the most appropriate reaction. And sometimes, you just have to exclaim that a book was a damn good way to spend an hour or so and not give three flying figs that many, many people would disagree. Because those sounding alarms of dissent probably did not give this odd little book the chance it deserves.
Mastodon Farm, much in the tradition of American Psycho and The Stranger before it, demands to be read as an allegory almost from its first word. Otherwise, it's no easy task trying to impose much sense on its page-long lists, restlessly leaping gambols both across state lines and from celebrity crib to celebrity crib, name- and brand-dropping like there's an endorsement deal on the line, and endless parade of circuitous conversations.
A novella told in the second person, Mastodon Farm follows you with a stalker-like attention to details as you deal with broken African masks at James Franco's house (yes, really), measure the passage of time in songs listened to and movies watched, drive to Dean Cain's apartment only to stare at his bookshelves, lie to your parents about your imaginary relationships and just wish for things to return to normal.
And what is this normalcy for which you're striving, exactly? Good question. Because you seem to be taking your celebrity-populated, party-hopping, crashed-your-Ferrari-so-you'll-just-buy-a-Bentley-rather-than-wait-for-the-shop-to-fix-it existence in admirably nonchalant (though some might say suspiciously numb) stride. Scenes and chapters flicker by as if someone is impatiently flipping through the hundreds of channels comprising the made-for-TV movie of your life. One minute you're hopping on the company jet and heading to Libson; the next, you're casually doing drugs with Kirsten Dunst and talking about living on the moon before she gets up to make chili for you and James Franco (to whom you seem rather close, as he will later accompany you to, among other things, your grandmother's funeral--your grandmother's death, of course, will occupy not even two pages of your attention and warrant absolutely no further mention).
The adage about what's discussed among simple minds (people), average minds (events) and great minds (ideas) is turned on its head here, thanks to the aforementioned metaphorical approach to this fidgety, quirky book. Because the things mostly addressed herein are people more famous than you--wealthy as you apparently are--and the things they either consume for pleasure or create for a living, a superficial read would reduce Mastodon Farm (which derives its name, presumably, from that of a nonexistent apocalyptic film rather than the similarly titled Cake song) to a roll-call of digestible entertainments rather than appreciate it for what it symbolizes.
Applying a dollop of whatever cynicism the reader can bring to the experience of Mastodon Farm greatly adds to the enjoyment one can derive from it--not for the mean-spirited sake of belittling the topics at hand but rather to scratch through the story’s opaquely artificial sheen of mindless, disposable superficiality coating to arrive at its true intent. We live in a time of easy digestion, fleeting obsessions and diminishing attention while clinging to the life raft of escapism, and this novella highlights the maddening vapidity of it all by training a hyper-focused eye on something for a few pages before bouncing to something entirely new and offering it the same intense scrutiny of even the minutest details, over and over again. In a time where irony’s self-congratulatory mockery has become an easy default, it is a relief to witness Mastodon Farm’s more subtle (if not mildly schizophrenic) approach to social commentary via deceptive sincerity: It does not exist to poke fun at but rather to raise awareness that we are losing sight of what really matters with a dangerous haste.
Mastodon Farm is not for everyone but those who give it a chance will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. You may walk away with a slight concussion and a temporary onset of low-grade anxiety, but such admission fees are a small price to pay for taking an eye-opening ride with this distinctly thought-provoking beast....more
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book an(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
If you're looking for a breezy, feel-good tale, The Man Who Watched the World End is probably not for you, nor will it be your kind of novel if you prefer endings that are neatly packaged with bright, optimistic bows that herald the joys awaiting a story's characters beyond the last page; however, if you like your fiction to be character-driven and insightful even as it teeters on the brink of society's obsolescence, then Chris Dietzel has written the book for you.
The novel begins as humanity's reign is ending. The children comprising mankind's final generation are alive only in the biological sense. They grow older but are human marionettes: silent, immobile, helpless to care for themselves, kept alive by the loving kin or kindhearted strangers upon whom they are wholly dependent. Decades later, these Blocks (so named "because it was as if their condition obstructed them from the world") and their siblings are the last proof of man's existence, reduced to pockets of senior citizens cohabiting in group settlements (though, if our narrator is indicative of the outliers, a handful are watching their and society's clocks run down in the familiar imprisonment of crumbling homes in derelict neighborhoods) as nature reclaims all that the elderly remnants of a once thriving species no longer have the youthful vigor to defend.
We see very little of this, as the reader's glimpse into the quieting world is a three-month period captured within one lonely old man's lovingly, diligently maintained diary. It is through the eyes of this man -- who, along with his Block brother, is the last human occupant of the otherwise abandoned and symbolically named neighborhood of Camelot -- that the audience bears witness to the conclusion of our earthly chapter. Since the world is ending not with a bang, not even with a whimper but a slow exhalation, there really isn't a whole lot to see other than one man's daily ritual of tending to the brother for whom his love becomes increasingly unyielding, hoping for a southward ride from a passing convoy on its way to one of the communal-living sites, and watching the local flora and fauna take back what man has only temporarily claimed. But this is not a story of man vs. nature, man vs. self or even man vs. improbable odds: It is, simply, an account of one man's life that turns flashbacks into a supporting cast and exposition into thoughtful narration.
The elderly gentleman tasked with narrating the end of society as he witnesses it carries the story almost entirely on his own: his brother is in a waking coma, his last remaining neighbors fled right before the novel's beginning, and the animals surrounding his house are more interested in his future carcass than his breathing companionship -- including the wild dogs and feral cats born of domestic pets so many litters ago. All he has are his memories, which are equally parts familiar and tinged with a foreign sorrow, as he was among the last wave of normally functioning children and grew up knowing that most babies born after him, like his brother, would never be shaken from their unresponsive silences.
As he reveals more of his past self and present worries, he paints a picture of a bygone era that is just recognizable enough to be eerie: His memories are just like any of ours, composites of his internal and external memories with a few of his parents' own that have stuck with him over the years, but interspersed with the sense that doors previously unknown to mankind were suddenly slamming shut forever as he and the rapidly diminishing number of "normal" children became the last to tackle the once-joyous milestones of growing up.
It is in showcasing such memories that Dietzel's attention to detail may shine the brightest, as the far-reaching impact of a species poignantly aware that it has no future was something he obviously (and successfully) considered from all sides. From baby items suddenly becoming a defunct business to the government finally summoning the foresight to ensure the last hiccup of humanity will at least be provided for in what should have been its grandchild-rich golden years, the international ripple effect of newborns lacking discernible brain functions is terrifying in both its implications and the ways in which Dietzel summarily dismantled familiar infrastructure. The secondhand glimpses of a world that has seen the last Hollywood film, the final World Series, the disbanding of governments, the emotional ramifications of tracking the youngest "normal" person, and the annihilation of the hope that keeps us moving forward are hard to watch even as past events, but Dietzel writes so matter-of-factly and compellingly that each memory becomes the ultimate example of how our very human curiosity forces us to ogle unfolding tragedy.
There are a few weak spots in what is an otherwise impressive debut novel. The greengrocer's apostrophe -- my sworn enemy -- popped in to say hullo a few times ("Dalmatians and Rottweiler's united"; "if the Johnson's just now decided...") and there were a few homophone issues, like "feint breaths," "slightly older then myself" and "faired better," that drove me a little batty. Less frequent were simple editing issues, such as "the last four decades years" and "He couldn't help but be letdown." Aside from a comparatively few lapses in mechanics, the biggest problem I had with the story itself was the government's Survival Bill, which "provided the last generation of functioning adults with resources to take care of themselves and their Block relatives." As a reader, it sometimes seemed like an easy way to sidestep the survival issues a vulnerable society would face in a more brutally overt end-world scenario; as a writer, though, I understood that tacking on the additional responsibility of a people left to fend for themselves without food, electricity and a reliable internet connection in increasingly hostile terrain would only detract from story Dietzel wanted to tell.
But for every one pitfall, The Man Who Watched the World End had a dozen more successes. It shows an incredible awareness of the human condition, of how loneliness and constant reminders of our fading presence in a world we once lorded over can affect everything from a single man to an entire desperate, dying species. The metaphors were resoundingly spot-on: I couldn't help but read the Block phenomenon as a cautionary tale foretelling the long-term dangers of what happens when children of Helicopter Parents grow up without any idea of how to function outside their protective bubbles, and having the narrator reside in Camelot -- a name nearly synonymous with so much promise and so much lost -- was a subtle yet effective touch.
The Man Who Watched the World End is a tribute to humanity's prodigious knack for optimistic denial and its inability to believe that its end is not only possible but also inevitable. It is fraught with hopefulness and helplessness, a celebration of how the past and present can be powerful motivators in the absence of a future, and a touching example of how the strength of family in all its incarnations can often be enough to keep an individual going against the harshest of odds....more
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book an(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
Hunker down, friends and goobers, and let us explore this tale of hero-worship, espionage, and warring fast-food franchises built on the sturdy foundation that is good ol' American greed and gluttony.
If you only know of Patrick Wensink's Broken Piano for President for its legal kerfuffle with Jack Daniel's (which the internet universally reports as involving the nicest cease-and-desist letter ever -- and you know how hard it is for anyone on the internet to agree on anything), then you are doing yourself a great disservice and ought to remedy such an unfortunate truth by getting lost in this light-bizarro joy ride. If nothing else, you may find that your problems pale in comparison to those faced by some of these characters.
Like any satisfying slab of bizarro-flavored fare, Broken Piano for President features an antihero who would be an unlikable loser if he weren't such a sympathetic everyman whose dilemmas -- the guilt of unexorcized childhood demons, an unsuccessful love life, a job that he thoroughly despises -- are relatable to anyone old enough to know that a blackout-drunk dependency on alcohol is the only way to deal with such staggering hopelessness. That is, until you wake up in a strange but totally awesome car one morning with no recollection of how you got there, whose car you've purloined, or who the corpselike lady in the passenger seat with the gaping head wound is and whether or not you're responsible for such a gory morning greeting.
Such is the life of and our introduction to Deshler Dean (presumably named for the author's town of origin). And things don't necessarily get any better for our self-brutalized protagonist, nor does he acquire any immediate clarity regarding either this or any of his multitudinous memory lapses brought on by drunken stupors. What he does gain, however, is an avalanche of opportunity for flexing his liar muscles by way of his alcoholic's amnesia and his improvised double- (and triple-) agent status for two fast-food giants (Winters Olde-Tyme Hamburgers and the subtly named Bust-a-Gut Hamburgers) who are locked in a game of perpetual one-upmanship with absolutely no conscience about offing the competition's (or their own) employees and clogging their consumers' arteries in pursuit of the almighty dollar. While Deshler stumbles through his jobs as an inebriated wunderkind of sorts who dreams up shamefully, sadistically delicious foodstuffs for his employers' menus that he never remembers once the hammer of sobriety thwacks him between the eyes, it is that same dollar-beer haze that allows him to write word-salad songs and serve as a frontman for his true love: his Butthole Surfers-inspired, art-house nightmare of a band, Lothario Speedwagon.
It is satire that deserves its comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore, for sure. The dirty underbelly of the two fictitious hamburger heavy-hitters grows worryingly less and less outlandish as the violence escalates and the calorie counts of Deshler's brainchildren reach meteoric heights. It takes no mental gymnastics to imagine real-life corporations planting spies in the corporate offices of their biggest competitors to ensure that they come out on top for just one fiscal quarter, as it's also no surprise that one of the chain's founders has been iconified and deified at the hands of the American public. The dangers of greed, blind consumerism, scare-tactic TV news, and sacrificing job satisfaction for job security are all on parade as the story catapults to its frenzied climax.
While bizarro is definitely not for everyone, this is hovering more on the Regular Guy Thrown into Extraordinary Circumstances with Some Violence on the Side spectrum of the genre rather than its Batshit! Insanity! at Every! Corner! counterpoint, which might make it a little more palatable for someone looking to introduce themselves to what can be a scary little literary niche that often requires a more willing suspension of disbelief that some readers may be comfortable extending. Broken Piano does, however, weigh in at a veritable novel-sized length, making it the first non-novella bizarro I've had the pleasure of reading. And it does, for the most part, successfully carry a plot (aided by dozens of subplots, lists, asides, montages and lessons in fictional histories) for its substantial duration. There are a few lags where characters wax a little too self-indulgent, where the story seems to meander, where the violence seems a little gratuitous in its detail but, hey, sometimes life errs on that side, too. Besides, I've seen examples of the genre commit far more literarily heinous crimes.
Bizarro is at its most successful when there's something significant to be found for those who are willing to dig below the violent, exaggerated-for-shock-factor surface that gives it its charm. Broken Piano is fueled by enough cautionary tales (never sacrifice corporate comfort for the art one was meant to create, even if it means being a valet for a little longer), life lessons (how the best-laid plans can be blown asunder by life's pesky unpredictabilities, like falling in love) and allegories (there are far more options than the two public favorites -- which I couldn't help but compare to the stranglehold of America's two-party system, even though there was nary a cue pointing me in that direction within these pages) to lend thematic support to its off-the-wall goings-on. It is an entertaining romp through some sick shit for those who just want to be told a story and a modern-day morality play of sorts for those who aren't satisfied with simply taking a novel at face value. ...more
Seriously, I can't put a star rating on this kind of madness.
So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an aSeriously, I can't put a star rating on this kind of madness.
So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an altruistic but thoroughly nerdy goal. Only where Fanboys was about sneaking onto Skywalker Ranch so a terminally ill pal could watch the The Phantom Menace before dying, Shatnerquest begins with plans to rescue William Shatner from the apocalypse and is punctuated by the group's ongoing struggle to survive in the face of celestially wrought terrors and the heedless violence that a few bands of survivors always seem to embrace in every end-times scenario.
Which is to say that this tale's pit stop in Riverside, IA (the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, obviously), still ends in chaos -- but of a much more dire, violent and cannibalistic sort.
The only other work of Jeff Burk's I've read is Cripple Wolf, which means I'm not terribly familiar with this story's more notorious predecessor, Shatnerquake. But I have seen an awful lot of Star Trek at this point, as well as plenty of cult classics and other mainstays of geekery: The gleeful mash-up of allusions to "Magic: The Gathering" tournaments, Star Wars, Back to the Future, comic stores, Kevin Smith flicks, the road trip as a movie genre, gamer culture, zombies, Daleks and tribbles were more than enough to delight my inner nerd.
Alas, much like Cripple Wolf, Burk's newest offering could have benefited from just one more round of careful editing. I can't turn my proofreading powers off even for lighter fare, so things like "in between" being rendered as one word, "Twitter" being capitalized inconsistently, "wares" being replaced by its homonym and at least one instance of an erroneous "and" supplanting "an" just pulled me out of the story and made me remember that I was reading this at work while wearing my Bitchy Grammarian hat.
But I know I'm a snob about certain things, just like I know that this is simply good, bizarro fun that shouldn't be taken too seriously, given the gratuitous bloodshed and things like a dude slicing his way out of horror-movie monster's belly. For all my hang-ups over flaws in the mechanics, the little bit of exposure that I've had to Burk's older stuff makes me feel pretty confident in saying that his writing seems to be on a steady upward trajectory: The action flows well, the narrative is mighty tight and even the excessive bits are comedic rather than tedious.
I find that the bizarro genre is at its best when there's some heart at the.... well, heart of the story, and Shatnerquest has it, surprisingly, in spades. Each of the main characters gets a chapter of back story (yes, even William Shatner, which explains how he turns into a rampaging giant stomping the ever-loving piss out of LaLa Land -- and you're goddamn right that Squishy the pleasantly plump cat's origins actually reduced me to tears) and the road-trip-story standards of friendship, a blossoming romance and the redemptive journey are all undercurrents driving and elements softening the more overtly wacky and downright savage elements of the plot.
And Shatnerquest does society a great service by answering the age-old question of who would win in the battle between Klingons and steampunks. Also: It's got zombie Borg. Motherfucking zombie Borg, guys....more