“Stolen said this was a city of storytellers. That The City itself was a collection of stories and tales told and retold and retold. That The City was built on these tales just as it was built on concrete and steel, and sometimes these stories shifted like geological plates, shifted and rubbed, and the earth trembled, and The City, in kind, trembled. Without these tales, The City would just be a city, but this city folded itself within the other folds of stories and tales, and all the residents of this city were storytellers and soothsayers chanting nonsensical incantations, letting smoke drift from their mouths as they twirled and twisted, tight around their own worlds, the world around them into knots of “nots” and other words, so one never knew what to believe or not believe here” [pg 94:].
Bliss Inc. opens on Nel Lowry’s transition from a small town in Ohio to The City, a stateless metropolitan collective that beacons to outsiders in the way any romanticized city might, stretching its magnetic characteristics into a dystopian commentary tinged with magical non-realities. Those familiar with the allure of Jose Saramago’s The Center from his novel, The Cave will immediately recognize The City’s irrational hold, as will any real-world citizen susceptible to the world’s intimidating cities, from Chicago to New York, London to Dublin. Bliss Inc. succeeds in allowing us to identify that irrational draw and perhaps better appreciate our own suburban and small town lives.
Bliss Inc. is structured around the physical fluidity of The City. This is a place where buildings are “built so closely together that only several inches lay between them” (pg 23), and apartments contained “not one straight vertical wall,” and “didn’t look so much built or constructed as beaten into shape, a solid block of matter chipped away haphazardly to clear enough space” (pg 24). Citizens, perhaps because of their co-misery, are exceedingly friendly. Via a series of vignettes toward the middle of the book, we learn that living arrangements are a strangely haphazard affair. Nel nomadically moves from living in a perpetually flooded basement with a woman whose furniture is stationed on floating rafts, to a man whose face constantly morphs and changes, through twelve other situations before settling (and even then, not for long). These environments are depicted as a not-too-cloaked form of magical realist commentary on the absurdity of fighting to live in The City—any city—considering the inherent struggles.
Nel’s motivation for following The City’s call is a job promise at a mega-corporation called Bliss Inc. The company exists as a micro-kindred to its surrounding strangeness, though “micro” may be misleading, as Bliss Inc. represents the idealized conglomerate, even being cited as the birth of contemporary capitalism. Nel’s primary motivation is securing a coveted “Lifetime Employment” position within Bliss Inc., and with this chase comes Bliss Inc.’s driving plot.
Bliss Inc. beautifully teases the reader with resolution, from the opening description of arrival to the final page, and even then the reader is left with encouragement in lieu of conclusion. But it is because of this encouragement that Bliss Inc. should be on every reader’s bookshelf. Upon finishing, I knew I would forever look at cities, and my own suburban life, differently. Bliss Inc. is a truly phenomenal book, and I am comfortable with saying that it will easily make my top books of 2010 list, perhaps my top books of all time list....more
The first page of Mark SaFranko’s Hating Olivia mentions the narrator’s possible suici(this review originally appeared at Outsider Writers Collective)
The first page of Mark SaFranko’s Hating Olivia mentions the narrator’s possible suicidal tendencies, which immediately associates this novel with so much self-indulgent, faux gutter dreck that has come before. So, considering that Hating Olivia not only dodges those preconceptions, but instills its susceptible characters with a well-crafted sense of empathy makes overcoming that initial hump all the more impressive.
Hating Olivia presents a situation we’ve read many times before, that of the struggling writer eschewing traditional employment on the romantic ideal that he will sustain himself (mentally more than financially) by way of his prose. Sharing Max Zajack’s dream is his live-in, on-off girlfriend Olivia Aphrodite, who he lovely calls Livy. It becomes quickly apparent that the couple is more in love with the idea of writing than the act. Months pass without a single scribbled sentence, and ultimately the couple resort to what they consider the worst of all outcomes: they get jobs.
Perhaps best appreciated by a writer rather than the casual reader, SaFranko’s story propels along with Zajack’s various writerly phases, from the finding of his voice (page 20) to the unexpected epiphany (pg 129), throughout, mentioning (re: paying homage to) writers who have come before him:
“So like Bukowski entering the U.S Postal service, or Melville at the customs house, or Kafka and his nameless insurance company, I reported like an automaton to the front desk, to be inducted into the ranks of corporate America” (pg 76).
Of particular note is the way SaFranko periodically embodies Henry Miller, particularly his Tropic of Cancer:
“I’d had a few women in my life, but I was to learn something new about sex from Olivia Aphrodite (her true middle name). We were to take the plunge together into the subsoil of raw concupiscence, from which both ecstasy and madness spring, and forgo the dusty, worthless upper strata of passionless habit and duty that most humans know. I would come to live for fucking Livy. For the first time I knew what it was to truly bang a woman, to ram like a batter, to bury my body, obliterate my self, in the mysterious folds of a cunt. Like a devoted master of the Kama Sutra, I discovered the rude pleasure of enjoying the female in an infinite number of contortions, to forge onward when there was no juice left, to bludgeon myself into insensibility from the sheer act of fornication. We would finish our sessions in a state of complete and utter exhaustion, in a delirium, really, oblivious altogether to the outside world” (pgs 25-26).
Hating Olivia wavers constantly on the verge of falling to a juvenile tale of romantic idealism and angst against the Corporate Machine, but SaFranko navigates those cliffs beautifully, always artfully rescuing and re-establishing the book to its deeper, emotional heart. I know a book is good when I’ve reached the end to realize that I’ve written hardly any notes. Hating Olivia escaped with barely a half page....more