I'm obviously biased here, because I'm one of the Barrelhouse editors, but here's what I'll say: from the day we started publishing books, the editorsI'm obviously biased here, because I'm one of the Barrelhouse editors, but here's what I'll say: from the day we started publishing books, the editors were in strong agreement that when Sarah Sweeney had a book available, we wanted to be the ones to publish it.
This essay collection is funny, weird, smart, and a little scary. It's the kind of voice I love in an essay: accessible, but complex and layered, with great self-awareness. If there's any justice in publishing, everyone will be reading and talking about this book soon. ...more
A long time ago, I wrote a detailed review on this book for a site that doesn't seem to exist anymore. So I'm reposting here:
One of the hardest thingA long time ago, I wrote a detailed review on this book for a site that doesn't seem to exist anymore. So I'm reposting here:
One of the hardest things to do these days is to convince people that what they’re seeing and consuming is actually a real and true thing. Plastic surgery, photoshop, autotune, genetically modified foods, easy access to video editing software, and news organizations that don’t even pretend to report the facts anymore have all fostered a culture in which authenticity is a prized commodity but is almost impossible to claim. Every new technology first promises a chance to better know one another (and ourselves), and then people find ways to use it to obfuscate. Social media gives you the opportunity to present a carefully constructed version of yourself to the world, to only share the photos of you in the perfect lighting, the ones where you look thin and healthy and self-actualized. You edit yourself to look more real. It’s all a show, and everyone knows it. So one of the central paradoxes of 21st century American life is that while we’re claiming to be so much more connected than ever before, we’re further alienated than ever. We’re too jaded to celebrate something until we’ve watched fifteen instant replays. We need to see documentation to prove the President is from the same country as us, and then we need to see documentation to prove the documents are real. These two threads – authenticity and the changing role of technology—overlap and become obsessions for the narrator of Ron Currie Junior’s novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. Before you even get to the first sentence—which promises “everything I’m about to tell you is capital-T True”— the book’s mission is made clear. The cover claims it is “a true story” but on the title page the word “true” is asterisked and footnoted. The footnote, four paragraphs long, details Currie’s uneasiness with the term “a true story” and tries to explain how this commonly accepted phrase is more complicated than it sounds, noting: “I’d even venture to suggest that your life, or at least the narrative you have of it in your head, is ‘based on real events,’ rather than objectively true.” It’s an interesting, if oddly defensive, strategy to begin a book by challenging the readers’ notions of reality before they’ve even read the full title. Next, we get a full page of explanation from Currie about his discomfort with using epigraphs because it feels too much like “high-lit posturing” to quote someone like Seneca, for example, when he hasn’t read Seneca, and so “the whole enterprise sort of stinks.” He also takes a moment to beat himself up over the “juvenile metafictional stunt” that he is nonetheless in the process of pulling, which means he is actually briefly engaged in meta-metafiction, until then he does conclude with an epigraph from the movie Rocky, which choice is begging to be read as self-consciously non-literary, an attempt to distance himself from what he views as intellectual vanity. All of this preliminary stuff may strike you as some light postmodern gimmickry, distracting gamesmanship, and the truth is, if I were reading this review right now, I would have already written off the book as being a little too in love with itself, too much like Dave Eggers at his worst, the kind of writing that is clever but for which I admit I have little patience. The text itself opens with ten uneasy pages marked by hemming and hawing about the nature of truth and other gear-spinning that seems like it’s trying too hard to establish a unique voice rather than tell a story. But here’s the thing: Currie quickly dispenses with the games and once the story gets itself rolling, it is anything but gimmicky, quickly settling into an intense, testosterone-fueled depiction of a youngish man in the depths of an existential crisis. Aside from the preliminary materials, this novel is a pretty traditional linear 1st person narrative about a dangerously self-absorbed man who is drinking himself to death because he can’t have the woman he loves. The narrator is named Ron Currie Jr. and he’s a writer, which, yes, is an invitation to draw comparisons between author and narrator, and it’s impossible to tell where one’s personality begins and the other ends. But I don’t particularly care whether any of the narrator’s characteristics are shared with the author, because his primary job is to be an engine to drive the narrative. The voice alternates between fierce machismo and unabashed vulnerability; Ron is essentially an open wound, ugly and festering and daring you not to look away, even as he falls apart. The reason for his crack-up is simple: he’s in love with Emma, always has been, and Emma doesn’t want to be with him. Emma’s failed marriage still trails her, “like a rusty muffler dragging behind a car” and she needs time alone to sort her self out. He has a book to write—a follow-up to his middling debut novel—and so he decides the best course of action is to exile himself until Emma chooses to come to him. He flies to a Caribbean island, rents a small house, and hits the self-destruct button. Ron’s life in the Caribbean is hardly glamorous. It’s one cheap drunk after another. It’s bar fights and nights spent on the floor of a windowless prison that even the cockroaches are trying to escape. It’s a group of malevolent caballeros itching to pound him into the dirt as revenge for having injured one of their friends. It’s loneliness and dead space and general misery. Ron is bruised and filthy for most of this time; one gets the sense that he smells terribly. He’s living a grittier version of the familiar Hemingway fantasy: a writer who drinks and fucks and fights except with actual consequences that we see and feel viscerally and relentlessly. At some point, a college girl on spring break decides to shack up with Ron, and he treats her with cruel indifference, dragging her down into his alcoholic stupor. He condescends to her and loses patience with her efforts to cater to him and hates her for not being Emma. When Emma calls to say she’s going to visit, he kicks the girl out without regret. Ron would be a difficult person to tolerate over the course of a novel if not for the fact that his worst acts are frequently buffered by unflinchingly honest introspection and an acknowledgment of his own culpability. In discussing an emotional distance he felt the first time he dated Emma, he says, “But might that distance also be my fault, in part? Did I lie by omission to avoid her displeasure? Did I censor and groom myself out of desperation to have her, and did she intuit that the me I presented was an ill-fitting flesh suit, a character from one of my books who defied the laws of both his own nature and nature at large?” A book that wants to investigate issues of authenticity, by necessity, has to have a voice that seems deeply self-aware, and so it serves the book well to allow us to see every ugly detail of Ron’s consciousness. Late in the book, when his life is beginning to turn around, he laments—in a way that seems a mixture of profundity and teenage myopia—that he can’t be sad anymore, says he would give everything up to feel that sadness again, because it feels more real to him to endure the world unhappily than to be blithely content. Ron’s desperation to feel genuine emotions is often at the root of his problematic behaviors. Nearly everything he does, at least for the first two-thirds of the book, can be read as an attempt to achieve authenticity through the physical: fighting, drinking, sex. The love story with Emma is preoccupied with violent, consensual sex, beginning with the scene when Ron demands that Emma punch him in the face while she climaxes. Later, he writes: “With Emma and me our problems started, or at least were made most manifest, in the bedroom. We punched and clawed at each other, fought like animals… I took beatings from her that rivaled anything the caballeros did to me. The sheets were almost always spotted with blood… Neither of us seemed to know why we did it. We couldn’t stop hurting each other, and we couldn’t leave one another alone.” Sex with other women is limited in its utility and intimacy for Ron because they’re not free to express themselves as clearly and primally as he and Emma are. Every time the world becomes too much for him to manage, Ron indulges in his other obsession: The Singularity , which he describes as “the moment when a computer (or more likely, computers, plural)… wakes up, becomes self-aware, gains consciousness.” He has convinced himself that someday, sooner than later, the machines will rise up and assert themselves as the superior race. Confident that The Singularity will not resemble sci-fi horror stories like I, Robot, he believes the machines will be benevolent rulers who will simplify our lives, streamline our relationships, eliminate all the messy emotional baggage from the world. The machines will render humans useless, but will still be “indulgent toward us, as a gifted child toward a beloved, enfeebled grandfather.” He anticipates The Singularity like a Pentecostal does the apocalypse, because although it may lead to the end of humanity as we know it, it will be a salvation from this world with all its uncertainty, dishonesty, and anxiety. The humans may fuse with the machines, but they may also simply “die by increments, as does anything that finds itself completely bereft of purpose. We will die slowly, of shame.” This vision perfectly illustrates the tone of cautious pessimism that permeates this book: the circumstances are bleak, but they’re described with a wry smile and the offer of a slim hope that someday, when the machines take over, they’ll fix everything for us and let us get back to the business of trying to get by. Not much of true consequence happens while Ron is in the Caribbean, so for all the pleasures of the voice, the narrative does occasionally meander. The book is reinvigorated first when Emma arrives in the Caribbean and then again when she leaves him, to which Ron responds by driving his Jeep off a pier. The suicide doesn’t take; he washes up on a shore somewhere, but is presumed dead. Authorities searching his island home find a novel manuscript, and through a long chain of good fortune, his story goes viral and his book is soon the biggest literary phenomenon since Harry Potter. But he doesn’t know any of it. Because he chooses to stay dead and goes into hiding in a lonely outpost on the Sinai Peninsula, working simple jobs and forsaking his past. The voice here changes, loses much of its energy and the verve that drove the book to this point. It makes sense that as Ron finds some measure of inner peace, his life will slow down and be less violent, less wild, but the gritty, bone-on-bone action of his Caribbean exile helped to counterbalance the book’s frequent abstractions and digressions. Four years later, he finds out that he’s famous. Even in the remotest desert, one cannot outrun celebrity or the internet. And so he reclaims his life. As one might expect, his return enrages those who have fallen in love with the legend of his lovelorn suicide, and so, even though his book was marketed as a novel and even though he had nothing to do with any of it, he finds himself under attack for having defrauded readers. Essentially, he’s playing the role of James Frey, whose fall from grace is best described by David Shields in Reality Hunger: “In the aftermath of the Million Little Pieces outrage, Random House reached a tentative settlement with readers who felt defrauded by Frey. To receive a refund, hoodwinked customers had to mail in a piece of the book… Also, readers had to sign a sworn statement confirming that they had bought the book with the belief that it was a real memoir or, in other words, that they felt bad having accidentally read a novel.” Author and narrator seem to merge at this point, as Ron is called upon to defend his choices and the nature of art itself, questioning this societal desire to have stories be true in some pedantic, fact-checking way as opposed to adhering to an emotional truth. Currie’s argument for the sanctity and value of capital-T Truth is a popular one among literary types these days, but not in the culture at large, as any fiction writer has learned when talking to strangers who “only read real stories.” We live in a culture that claims to value authenticity but that works constantly to subvert it, to redefine it in confusing ways. Scripted reality TV shows, wildly popular yet more artificial than the wildest fictions, perhaps illustrate this duality better than any other medium. The insistence of referring to them as “reality shows” despite all evidence to the contrary is an insult to the nature of reality itself. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is ultimately a compelling reflection on an issue of increasing importance: how does one distinguish between fact and fiction, and is there even a need to distinguish anymore? In a time when something is only as real as we want it to be, how does one establish something fundamental like authenticity? ...more
I wrote a detailed review of this book a while back for a site that seems to no longer exist, so I'm reposting below:
This is a story about a brotherI wrote a detailed review of this book a while back for a site that seems to no longer exist, so I'm reposting below:
This is a story about a brother and sister. This phrase acts as a refrain throughout Let The Dark Flower Blossom, Norah Labiner’s densely layered, self-reflexive novel that is about much more than just a brother and sister. The siblings are complex and troubled and each is in a state of personal crisis, but the most compelling thread is the book’s investigation of stories themselves: how they work, why we need them, and what it means to have your story stolen. Although the characters seem unaware of the existence of modern technology—they exclusively use typewriters, for example, and communicate via letter and postcard—they all confront, on a smaller-scale, questions that are central to the digital age, specifically those about how to shape our public identities and who owns our personal information. In an era in which we have been reduced by algorithms and search engines to accumulations of metadata, we face a cultural crisis in which every bit of our personal information can be appropriated by third and fourth and fifth parties and used to shape a narrative of ourselves that may be factually true, but doesn’t feel true. In the same way, Labiner’s characters are grappling with their own flawed memories and others’ apparent theft of those memories. The novel continually circles back to tell and retell a handful of pivotal stories from their lives, from a variety of perspectives, both clarifying and complicating the story with each retelling. Labiner demands a lot of her reader, challenges you to reassess your sense of self and to revisit your most important stories, asking the whole time: is this memory true? Does it matter? * * * Plot: It’s straightforward and not. Suspenseful and tense, it’s a sort of noirish mystery, a sort of modern morality tale. Eloise and Sheldon Schell are twins, orphaned as seventeen, and then roommates in a small college in Iowa, where they meet Roman Stone, a Bret Easton Ellis type who is on the verge of becoming The Next Big Thing in literature. Roman embodies all the worst aspects of the Great White Male Novelist: he is gluttonous, pretentious, shallow, and cruel. He is also extraordinarily talented, so he enjoys the great privilege of extraordinarily talented and charismatic white men everywhere: rather than condemning his boorish behavior, people celebrate it as central to his genius. Eloise becomes his part-time lover, and Sheldon his sidekick. They spend a few years bouncing between from one party scene to another. Roman gorges himself on drugs and booze and women. Eloise eventually marries another man and gives birth to a daughter named Susu (who, the narrator notes, “has a very silly name”). Sheldon marries an artist who dies an untimely death, leaving him a massive inheritance from her family’s fortune. He uses the money to buy a cabin on a remote island and becomes a recluse. Many years later, Roman Stone is killed—stabbed through the heart by an unknown assailant. The book opens with the news of his death, and we learn that everyone in his life had a motive to have killed him. By the time of Roman’s death, Sheldon is acting as a caretaker for Dr. Lemon, an elderly widower and Sheldon’s only friend on the island. Eloise’s second marriage, to an amoral defense attorney, is falling apart, and her own daughter has run away, in touch only via irregular postcards. The murder is the catalyst: the occasion for each of the principals to engage in reflection on their overlapping pasts, during which there was a murder (or two), a suicide (or two), an arson, broken marriages, drug abuse, and enough secrets to make all of these people strangers to one another. * * * Eloise has a husband named Louis who she doesn’t seem to love, and it’s easy to see why. A high-profile defense attorney, his most recent success was a not-guilty (“there has to be another word,” Eloise says) for a serial rapist and murderer. At a meeting of the Mnemosyne Society (an organization described as, “dwellers in the field of memory”), Louis brags about having won the case even though he knew his client was guilty and all the facts were aligned against him. How did he do it? By changing the story. He called one of the victims to the stand—she’d been raped and left for dead, but had miraculously survived—and questioned her in such a way that she didn’t even believe her own story anymore: “He made her doubt herself. Made her doubt more than her memory. Made her doubt her own broken bones. Her own blood.” For Louis, there is no moral conflict; there is just the philosophical exercise of studying and manipulating memory. When Eloise tries to tell him a simple story about her youth—five years old, her mother baking an apple pie, singing the song American Pie with Sheldon—he pulls at every thread (American Pie wasn’t released until she was twelve, it may have been an apple cake instead of a pie, etc.) until she’s not sure any of the story even occurred. She tires of the conversation, but he keeps pushing: “He said that it wasn’t the reality of the memory that was important, it was the fact that her mind wanted to have this image—this idea—within its archives.” Which underscores one of the key themes of the novel: the fallibility of memory, our proclivity toward turning unrelated experiences into a narrative, shaping them into a version of events that is almost right, but not quite (Sheldon: “This is how memory works: pearls that by virtue of string and proximity become a necklace”). Every character is haunted by events from their past, running up against the limits of their own memories. Can they believe the images in their mind, or have they invented a new story using the raw materials of the true, factual story? And does it even matter whether their memories are accurate? Who gets to determine which version is most valid? Eloise thinks these questions are “how the gods will make you mad… they will make you doubt your own reliability as a witness to your life.” * * * More plot: the twins rarely interact and spend most of the book isolated, performing minimal action in the present. They sometimes drink and sometimes eat. They engage in somewhat regrettable sex. Eloise throws a ball to her dog. Sheldon watches Dr. Lemon die. They reflect and they tell stories. Little about their current circumstances changes from start to finish; the point isn’t that they’re going to do something remarkable; all of the suspense derives from the interrogation of their pasts, the gradual reveal of new information, the moments when they have to confront long-buried truths. When Louis leaves town to meet with the Mnemosyne Society, Eloise is visited by her ex-husband, Zig. They talk about their daughter and their fights and their divorce and they very rarely broach the subject of the future. Sheldon, meanwhile, is visited by Benjamin Salt, hailed by the literary establishment a prodigy, the successor to Roman Stone. Salt is crippled by writer’s block while trying to draft his second novel and is convinced Sheldon holds the cure. Sheldon himself is a curiosity of the literary community; the onetime associate of Roman Stone and now-recluse who has been perfecting a novel manuscript for so long that it has taken on the mystique of an urban legend. After tracking him down in his in his island home, Salt makes several demands: he wants to see the manuscript, he wants to know everything about Roman, and he wants the typewriter on which Roman wrote his first novel. * * * There’s a clear pleasure we take in repeating our stories, for different audiences, for the same audiences at different times. Think about Thanksgiving dinner, the way so many people rely on retellings of the family canon to make these gatherings manageable. At the bar, we call upon friends to repeat stories we’ve heard a dozen times, as if shouting out requests at a concert. Even unremarkable stories get repeated—the time I was stuck at the airport overnight due to thunderstorms, the time I got a speeding ticket even though I was only going five over the limit, the uncomfortable conversation I had with the woman at the laundromat. There is a currency to these stories, maybe in part because they fill uncomfortable silences, but also because of our insatiable, primitive desire for narrative. There is no rational reason a child would need to hear his father read Green Eggs and Ham to him every night for two years, but the longing is pathological, the fervor is religious, the incantations as familiar as prayer. Someone like Louis discounts the value of stories— they are a means to an end, but they have no intrinsic value. But the others in here understand: stories need to be told, again and again, and they have the power to save, to ruin, to change lives. Governments have fallen, laws enforced wars fought due to the reinterpretation and recontextualization of endlessly repeated religious narratives. As Sheldon says, “If you don’t believe a story can kill you—you haven’t heard the right story.” The novel’s preoccupation with mythology—references to the Classics abound—is revealing; stories millennia old still guide us, still illuminate and influence our decisions. Without repetition, it’s possible a story doesn’t really become a story, it just stays in the realm of anecdotes, and so one needs to keep it fresh through many retellings. Over the course of a harrowing ten pages near the end of the novel, Sheldon tries and tries again to finally tell his story in a straightforward way. “I’ll start again,” he says, and begins in a new place, or reveals a new detail. “I’ll start again,” he says, and changes the facts. Even when he finally settles on a version of the story that seems right, he doesn’t seem satisfied, and we get another version, this time from Eloise. Stories remain incomplete, no matter how many times we return to them and refine them. We can go through a hundred drafts, but there are always things to change, always new meanings to derive. Dr. Lemon, on his deathbed, his memory failing, demands every night that Sheldon tell him the story of the worst thing he’s ever done, forgets the details by morning. Every night for weeks, Sheldon sits at his bedside confessing, in an effort to comfort his dying friend but also to save himself. * * * A quick note about the prose. Much of the book is formatted like this. And as you might guess. This approach could get tedious in the wrong hands. But. While sometimes the prose can be distracting. It largely serves the fractured nature. Of the narrative. And. As several references to Hills Like White Elephants demonstrate. Labiner’s writing shows a strong stylistic influence from Hemingway. In her reliance. On deceptively simple prose. To convey complex concepts. Inviting the reader to exert energy on ideas. Rather than untangling convoluted language. * * * “I never knew a rich kid who wasn’t a thief,” Sheldon says. Roman steals: packs of gum, booze, wives, stories. Writers have always stolen—it’s an occupational hazard of acquaintanceship with a writer that at some point some part of you will turn up in a short story, a poem, a novel, even if you don’t recognize that part of you after it’s been processed through another narrative. Sheldon knows this, but still has spent years nursing a grudge at Roman for having stolen his story. “I knew that the world was his,” Sheldon says: “To do with as he wanted. And my story— Was no longer mine. It was his. And he could change it. As he willed. And as he wanted. It was his.” Sheldon’s despair is rooted in his awareness that he has lost control over a story that is central to his own identity. He has written his own manuscript, but hasn’t let anyone read it, because he wants to choose how and when the story is shared. Why, he wonders, can’t he be “the author of his own silence” if that’s what he wants? Well, for one thing, because Eloise has these stories too. And Roman already published his versions of them. And because Benjamin Salt tries to steal the manuscript. Salt’s female companion, Inj (also Roman’s former au pair), asks Sheldon why he finally got down to writing the story for himself. “It’s my story… who else would tell it?” he says. She responds: “Now who’s being stupid?” * * * In the most compelling extended scene of the book, Roman’s widow comes into possession of the handwritten manuscript of his latest novel. Grief-stricken, she sits at the typewriter and determines to type out the whole book for him. Almost immediately, she begins editing the book as she goes. It makes for a remarkable image, the widow at the typewriter, trying to perfect her deceased husband, to reshape him and to save him through revision and redrafting. “And though she vowed, with a transcriptionist’s honest, to be true to the original—she had to make some changes, didn’t she? She had a responsibility to fix, to mend and to amend, to correct him, to repair his faults and flaws. His spelling errors, his stream of consciousness ramblings, his words blotted into obscurity with jam or coffee or was it blood?” * * * Some questions: Who owns your stories? Is it you? Your friends? Facebook? Google? Ad agencies (or is that redundant)? The NSA? Let’s posit here that much of the outrage about privacy violations in social media has little to do with most people having anything criminal to hide, and much more to do with the feeling of violation because our most personal possession—the one thing, besides our bodies, that we wanted to believe is exclusively ours—now belongs to someone else who we can’t trust. While it’s true that one can avoid the whole morass by opting out of social media and smartphones and credit cards and online retailers and all the trappings of the digital age, the people who actually commit to opting out are a small minority. We have collectively decided it’s okay to carry GPS tracking devices on our person at all times, to click “allow” when Google or some other company we barely know requests permission to access our location, our contacts, our personal information. We use Facebook to write love letters to advertisers. We turn our memories into data and send them to the cloud. Every time we log in, we broadcast the person we think we are and the person we aspire to be. Through photos and status updates and search engines and online shopping, we share our values and memories with the world and invite it to reshare those values and memories in its own way. The personal becomes public. We sacrifice ownership of the narrative of our lives This is a helpless feeling, the notion that thousands of strangers have access to your stories and can manipulate them to serve their own needs. We take the facts of our lives and carefully curate them into an online identity, which is not quite the same as our real identity, and then someone else takes those facts and that distorted vision of ourselves to create a new version of us that they want to sell back to us. This is 21st century life and is it too trite for me to use a rusty metaphor like a reference to Pandora’s Box? Because I am using it and you can’t stop me. * * * This is the story of a brother and sister whose father taught them once that the first rule of storytelling is: be true. This is the story of a brother and sister who grew up and learned that this simple rule is much more difficult to follow than they’d ever imagined. ...more