To say that Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is an inventive work of fiction is like calling the ocean a tad salty.
Damien Lincoln Ober's debuTo say that Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is an inventive work of fiction is like calling the ocean a tad salty.
Damien Lincoln Ober's debut novel, published by Equus Press, takes the shape of a series of 56 vignettes about every single one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, at the moment of his death.
That in and of itself would be an impressive level of literary gimmickry for a work of historical fiction. However, the last words of the men who for all intents and purposes invented America is just the beginning.
It seems that a swift and terrible plague known as "The Death" is sweeping through the colonies and killing two out of every three people. Though no one knows for certain how the disease is spreading, the doctors racing from signer to signer to stop the devastation suspect the Internet is to blame. Yes, that Internet.
"When panicked reports started circulating that The Death was being spread by the Internet, Americans everywhere rushed out of the Cloud never to return."
In Ober's America, John Morton is the man responsible for uploading the Articles of Confederation, tapping them out on his laptop minutes before The Death gets him, but not before updating his status. This "epigraph" from Thomas Jefferson indicates the tone of the novel:
"th@ all r cre8d =; th@ they r endowed by their cre8or with certn inalienable rights; th@ among these r life, librty and the purst of happiness."
The easiest way to pigeonhole Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is to call it a work of counterfactual fiction—a story that takes the facts as we know them (the names of the signers) and mixes up a few things (Internet plague). In other words, Ober has written a "What if?" story for the ages.
Yes, people still ride on horseback and sail on sailing ships in this version of America, but, like us, they never leave home without their smart phones, and Ober offers all kinds of clever commentary regarding the way we live now.
Consider Caesar Rodney's sister who cannot imagine love without the Internet and is willing to risk The Death for a chance at romance the moment after her brother expires. "And she presses the laptop's power button and waits. Swears, then, that she can feel something unraveling in the air. As if the layers of this and a separate, untapped reality have started to mix. She flexes her fingers over the keys, watches the screen come to life."
Usually, speculative tales of this nature change one of two things (What if Hitler escaped Nazi Germany in a U-boat?) and explore the permutations, but Ober keeps introducing new wrinkles.
For instance, when the Internet is abandoned, a new Internet (called "Newnet") is created. This gives rise to a social-media platform called "Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America," which is subsequently shortened to "Franklin's Dream" and then simply "The Dream." The Dream becomes so popular that many Americans spend all their time there, altogether abandoning the real. Thanks to online gaming, this is something a portion of the population already does, and as more and more of our lives migrate online (TV, music, work), a not insignificant portion of our lives is spent looking at screens.
For all of the technological advances Ober's given his patriots, they still spend a lot of time waiting for uploads, battling ad bots and being harassed by search drones—a mixture of old-world inconveniences and the specter of threats to come. Take this "conversation" Thomas Stone has with a search drone:
"Stone's never seen a search drone sneak in the last word. But this one does. 'Next time you come, I won't be here anymore. Humans don't have access to something, does it still exist?" And then the search drone is gone, dissipated into code. Fucking old Internet."
Ober has much more than snarky search drones up his sleeve. As the last of the signers expire, the doctors expose a global conspiracy that would throw all of human history into the trash heap and should make some readers very nervous about a potential Ebola pandemic.
Ober's mix of heady ideas and gorgeous prose make this a uniquely compelling debut. Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is nothing less than an alternate history of the birth of the United States that hints at our coming demise. ...more
This book isn't for everyone. It's subject is raw and the language is exuberant to the point of deliriousness. Every sentence goes right to the edge.This book isn't for everyone. It's subject is raw and the language is exuberant to the point of deliriousness. Every sentence goes right to the edge. Sometimes it slips over the top. Sometimes it doesn't quite make it, but damn if D Foy isn't going for it. It's like a postmodern mash-up of Hamsun, Tarantino and Kerouac. The dialog is deliberately overwrought. Its excesses are excessive, but Made to Break really got its hooks into me and didn't let go to the last page. What else do you want out of a book? ...more
The Shimmering Go-Between, the debut novel by Lee Klein, published by Atticus Books, takes its title from a quote by Vladimir Nabokov: "Between the woThe Shimmering Go-Between, the debut novel by Lee Klein, published by Atticus Books, takes its title from a quote by Vladimir Nabokov: "Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale, there is a shimmering go-between..." That's a telling quote, for it alerts the reader to the possibility that we are on the threshold of something fantastic.
The story begins with Dolores, a precocious young girl who becomes pregnant while still in high school. There's just one problem: "She hadn't been penetrated. No one knew what to say. She swore she hadn't been with anyone. Hadn't even been near anyone. Had never even seen a real live penis."
Dolores' story is regarded with the usual skepticism from her parents and family physician, but it keeps happening. Somehow Dolores seems to be conceiving without the assistance of a sperm donor. In other words, she can fertilize her own eggs.
Traumatized by these experiences, Dolores avoids contact with boys until she enrolls in college. After a night of sex with Max, a fellow student with political ambitions, something really strange happens. His beard fills with nits that grow into "squirmy half-grains of buttered risotto" and turn into a "mini-Amazonian clan" of little women that stop growing when they reach a height of three centimeters.
This bizarre development sets the stage for the rest of the book, which focuses on a love triangle between Dolores, Max and another bearded fellow: Dolores' co-worker Wilson, who possesses a disturbing secret that nests nicely with the theme of self-fertilization.
Set during "the time the internet came into the lives of ordinary citizens," Klein's characters inhabit a bland, featureless landscape that has all the charm of a set from the TV show Friends. Even the author's excellent black-and-white illustrations seem stuck in time—such is their desire to give the reader a glimpse into the world the author has created.
But in the weeds lurks another world, a world within Wilson that looks a bit like Colonial Williamsburg and is populated by—well, it's complicated. Suffice to say that these two storylines—the world within Wilson and the world without—intersect in dramatic fashion.
Klein's mastery over these two narratives makes The Shimmering Go-Between a shocking and delightful debut that will beguile you at every turn....more
Every May, I try to read as many short-story collections as I can to celebrate short-story month. This year I only read one, but it was remarkable.
BacEvery May, I try to read as many short-story collections as I can to celebrate short-story month. This year I only read one, but it was remarkable.
Backswing by Aaron Burch, published by Queen's Ferry Press, gathers a collection of stories about young American men who are mostly white, suburban and college-educated. We meet these men on the cusp of a transition: moving to a new school, taking the next step in a relationship, buying a house. Whether it's junior high or a mortgage, "the next big thing" looms like a great wall over which the characters cannot see and whose vastness inhibits their desire to overcome.
"It seems too real, too soon, we said, like we should keep looking just to be sure despite all the research we'd already done."
That scene comes from "Night Terrors," in which a young couple come to terms with their reluctance to make an offer on a house because of a strange omen: When the Realtor showed them the property, they found a dead bird outside the back door.
Although many of the stories seem fairly straightforward, there's a discomfiting strangeness that's both deep and dark. Burch is particularly adroit at rendering these scenes so that they don't seem strange to their protagonists, and the dislocation can be dizzying.
The story "Fire in the Sky" is an arresting example. The set-up is right out of a buddy comedy: A group of friends gathers for a bachelor party the night before the groom's wedding. The protagonist decides to return for the wedding in his hometown by car. He intends to drive cross-country and take in all that America has to offer, but that's not what happens:
"Once I got on the road though, my plans to see the country fell away. I couldn't help it, barely felt in control of my car at all. The driving felt good, the road pulling me forward, not wanting to let go. I stopped only for food and gas and then, by the time it was too late and dark to continue, a cheap motel room."
Propelled by forces he can't explain, he rushes across the country to find his friends more or less unchanged. Dressed in their wedding-day tuxedos, they kick off the bachelor-party festivities by setting off a small arsenal of fireworks, a tradition from their more rambunctious days.
"Try two mortars, twisting their wicks together. Two mortars and two packages of bottle rockets. One mortar and three packages, four, five, as many as can be crammed in, the just-right number of sticks to fit the exact diameter of the mortar tube."
You don't need an advanced degree in literature to see that this isn't going to end well. I don't want to give anything away, but suffice to say, this isn't an Adam Sandler movie.
After a trip to the hospital, the protagonist leaves with the other wedding guest who has also moved away. They end up at a bar and order a pitcher of beer, and instead of talking about the terrible thing that has happened, they tell old stories about other nights, other hijinks, as if to reassure themselves that everything will be OK even though they both know that nothing will ever be the same.
The story's ending resonates on so many levels. "Fire in the Sky" speaks to the lack of connection the protagonist feels about a place that is home in name only. He yearns for such a place yet runs from the obligations of being part of a community, the responsibilities of connectedness.
As themes go, "you can't go home again" is neither groundbreaking nor new, but Burch is on to something here. His protagonist is educated, self-aware and has good intentions, but I think his reluctance to accept the larger issues that attend the accident says something about our society's inability to deal with the aftermath of tragedy.
We like to think of ourselves as problem-solvers, as being good in a crisis, but I don't think that's true anymore. In fact, we have repeatedly shown that we are incapable of addressing problems that other societies have successfully solved. Instead of directly dealing with issues that have created an epidemic of violence, we declare that they are "too real, too soon" and commit to further study and additional research.
With Backswing, Burch reminds us that things can always get darker for those who flee from the real. ...more
Antonia Crane opens her new sex-worker memoir, Spent, from Barnacle Books, with one of the least glamorous, non-erotic sex scenes I've read in recentAntonia Crane opens her new sex-worker memoir, Spent, from Barnacle Books, with one of the least glamorous, non-erotic sex scenes I've read in recent memory.
Recruited as a sensual-massage therapist by her friend Kara, Crane finds herself in a compromising situation. The allure of easy money has brought her to the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills on Christmas Day for a four-hand massage. The client, a widower with a skin condition who is "covered in tiny scabs," predictably wants sex and is willing to double the fee. Are they interested?
With a quick glance from Kara, Crane bolts to the bathroom for condoms, and then they go to work: "I looked into Kara's blank blue eyes and our tongues met in circles around the latex condom. I tasted the sour plastic of new tires, party balloons, and hospital gloves."
What's remarkable about the scene isn't its lack of eroticism; it's how quickly Crane slides down sex work's slippery slope. All it takes is a glance from Kara for her to go from happy-ending masseuse to prostitute—an ugly word that comes into play only when the police get involved—and I don't think I'm giving much away by revealing that Crane eventually gets booked on pandering charges. Johns generally prefer the term "escort services," burying the word "sex" in the language of commerce that reduces the escorts to "service providers," a class of women defined by the needs of the men they serve.
Crane is having none of that. She embraces the term "sex worker," for it defines the work, and it's often hard work that she performs. When you need your car repaired, you go to a mechanic, not an automotive-services provider. For Crane, stripping, lap dancing, performing in peep shows, screwing on camera or providing sexual services of any kind is sex work. This attentiveness to language makes Spent an intoxicating read.
Crane's memoir is divided into five sections that explore the various ways a beautiful, intelligent girl from a middle-class family in Humboldt, California, can end up a professional sex worker: Bulimia and body-image issues as a young girl. Divorce and reckless drug use during her teenage years. Relationships scarred by drug addiction and sexual trauma. And years of sober stripping that lead to forays into other kinds of employment before being lured back to easy money and transactions that keep getting darker and darker.
Crane is too savvy a writer to suggest there's a causal relationship between her damaged past and reckless decisions. She owns her choices. Spent is neither an explanation nor a mask. Crane is unstintingly frank and often very funny: "She handed me her curly brown wig that smelled like it had been held captive in a bucket of Downy fabric softener since 1985."
While the setting and circumstances are often somewhere between tawdry and lurid, the writing is sharply focused: "A tranny in a wheelchair was bumming change out front while smoking a Pall Mall. 'Nice wig,' she said. I dropped a couple of quarters in her Styrofoam cup. She glared at me. 'You idiot. That's my coffee.'"
Crane doesn't deliver a blow-by-blow account of every phase of her life, sordid or otherwise. For instance, we don't learn about how she came by her elaborate tattoos and are likewise spared the quotidian details of her relationships—romantic or not. In between stripping gigs, she finishes school and gets an MFA. The relationship that frames the narrative is the one she has with her mother and her mother's bile duct cancer, which ultimately proves terminal.
The scenes immediately before her mother's demise, when "[t]he room shrunk with the heat of our bodies waiting for death," are the most harrowing. Because she's always broke, Crane has to hustle for plane fare to visit her dying mother. At the hospital, she's appalled by the poor treatment her mother's receiving and can't escape reminders of the strip club where she works. "The hospital looked shabby and unkempt, and this pissed me off to no end. Her room smelled like Pleasures: bleach and air freshener." As her mother nears the end, Crane makes a shocking decision that left me stunned.
If you're looking for cheap thrills or redemption by reconciliation, you won't find it in Spent; what you will encounter is the brave, bold voice of a writer who refuses to let the emptiness of her past get in the way of living life to the fullest....more
In the tradition of Letters to Wendy's, poet Lauren Ireland composed a series of short letters to Lil' Wayne while he was in incarcerated in 2010. RazIn the tradition of Letters to Wendy's, poet Lauren Ireland composed a series of short letters to Lil' Wayne while he was in incarcerated in 2010. Razor sharp and funny as hell, Ireland's aphoristic missives are barbed with surprises: "Spirit animals are bullshit but I have one—it's a big huge knife."
There's no way to be objective here. To paraphrase The Ramones: "I'm friends with the publisher, I'm friends with the dopes." The dopes being the writThere's no way to be objective here. To paraphrase The Ramones: "I'm friends with the publisher, I'm friends with the dopes." The dopes being the writers, of course, but I'm dope #1 since I have a story (and artwork) in the premier anthology/themed annual of literary horror that is Black Candies. Since I am acquainted with so many of the writers, I'll tout one of my favorites by a writer I don't know: a story called "Fanny in Development" by Adrian Van Young. It's an excerpt from a yet-to-be-published novel called Shadows in Summerland. The writing is dark, elegant and deeply mysterious, and if it's anything like the rest of the book, won't be unpublished for long. ...more
I finished The Yearning Feed about a week about I'm still thinking about The Xoco Letters, the middle section of the book that combines newspaper clipI finished The Yearning Feed about a week about I'm still thinking about The Xoco Letters, the middle section of the book that combines newspaper clippings, bits of epistolary prose, snippets of repeated verse and Yelp reviews to expose the many ways one culture imposes its dominance on another. I consider myself a somewhat sophisticated reader in that I like work that falls between realism and experimentation (not too mild, not too wild), and I understand that hybrid forms create intersections that aren't accessible in a "straight" narrative. I get that. As someone who is married to a second generation Mexican-American with family on both sides of the border and who lives in a border city, I've witnessed the tension that arises when the political becomes personal. I get that, too. But it's one thing to "get" what an author is doing and quite another to feel it, and this section really knocked me over. The use of repetition, the casual racism (not to mention the grotesque sense of entitlement) of the Yelp reviews, the recurring image of desert travelers who have died of thirst, make this a powerful reading experience. Lopez is a poet we can all learn from. ...more
Such a strange feeling to read a book that inhabits a geography with which I am intimate but presents a world that is strange to the point of being alSuch a strange feeling to read a book that inhabits a geography with which I am intimate but presents a world that is strange to the point of being almost alien. Waclawiak takes the received images of a specific type of immigrant experience and transmutes them into a universal feelings of longing and nostalgia, a dangerous cocktail of emotions for people stuck between places. ...more
Amalgamation of sci-fi car club disasters, Japanese monster-noir, cowpokey non sequiturs and Dadaist comics. Beautiful layout, but like a bowl of tentAmalgamation of sci-fi car club disasters, Japanese monster-noir, cowpokey non sequiturs and Dadaist comics. Beautiful layout, but like a bowl of tentacle soup: unforgettable yet not particularly satisfying....more