CCLaP Journal Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
01 | February 2013
The Year in Books 2012 George Saunders: The CCLaP Interview Field Report: Harmontown in Chicago New fiction by Ben Tanzer New reviews of: Joshua Mohr Elizabeth Crane Batman: The New 52 and a dozen more Photo features by: Katherine Hodges Paul Lask & Anna Bolm Francesca Marie >
96 PAG ES NO ADS 1
CON TEN TS
4 | The Year in Books 2012
Our look back at our 50 favorite reads last year
64 | George Saunders: The CCLaP Interview A long talk with the celebrated author, plus a critical overlook at his entire career
36 | Fiction: “How It Works,” by Ben Tanzer
Exclusive new fiction from the popular Chicago author, and the official start of “The New York Stories, Vol. 3”
90 | Field Report: Harmontown in Chicago
Photos and thoughts from the recent Chicago stop of Dan Harmon’s dark, hilarious podcast
Book and Movie Reviews
22 | New 52 Batman: The City of Owls, by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo 35 | On Being Human: The Man Who Fell to Earth 41 | We Only Know So Much, by Elizabeth Crane 42 | Fight Song, by Joshua Mohr 63 | The King of Pain, by Seth Kaufman 89 | Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle 95 | Lucretia and the Kroons, by Victor LaValle
23 | Francesca Marie 43 | Katherine Hodges, ‘deadmalls’ 75 | Paul Lask and Anna Bolm, ‘Dogs of Chile’
THE CCLAP JOURNAL
is published monthly by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, a mix of material already featured at the website and exclusive new material for the magazine. A free online version is offered of this magazine at Issuu.com, and subscriptions sold through the Amazon Kindle Store and iTunes Newsstand. We are always happy to receive review requests, submissions, photographer suggestions; send all to email@example.com. This compilation, Copyright 2013, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Released under a Creative Commons license; some rights reserved. Rights revert back to individual authors upon publication.
EDI TOR IAL
I’ve had it mentioned to me many times over the years that the CCLaP blog seems to put out as much original content every month as a traditional magazine; so when it came time this year to finally expand our editorial staff, and to find a way to pay these people, it just made sense to try gathering up our blog content into a literal magazine format, for sale at Amazon and iTunes, along with a free PDF at our website, an online version at Issuu.com, and a print-on-demand paper version at MagCloud. com. Ultimately almost all of this material can be found for free at cclapcenter.com, parceled out slowly each weekday over the course of a month; but it’s my hope that enough people will like this more traditional layout, and be big enough supporters of the center, to subscribe to the magazine version and help us keep these talented writers paid. (And speaking of which, we’re looking for writers! Drop me a line at cclapcenter@gmail. com for more.) This is a great mix of material we’ve gotten to put together for issue #1, and you can expect more of the same in the future, an intriguing blend of long-form interviews, long critical essays, photo reports from local events, and a ton of book reviews every month. Thanks for being a regular reader. —Jason Pettus
ALL JOURNAL OPTIONS Download free PDF: cclapcenter.com/journal
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CENTER DOINGS As of press time, CCLaP was just putting its finishing touches on its first original book of the year, a Peace Corps memoir and collection of personal essays about eating disorders called História, História by Philadelphia author Eleanor Stanford. Starting March 11th, visit [cclapcenter. com/historia] and see for yourself why Pulitzer nominee Marya Hornbacher says that Stanford “captures experience with the precision of a poet and the broad vision of a novelist.” And there were two new additions to our rare book collection in the last month as well: firstly, a set of American first editions of Stieg Larsson’s insanely popular “Millennium” crime novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et al); and then also the infamous 1959 Grove Press edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, the very first book in this subversive publisher’s history to be successfully defended against obscenity charges, leading the way for Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer two years later. More about both can be found at [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
The Year in B 4
Every year CCLaP reviews around 150 books at our website, and every year we highlight 50 of them again during the holidays, essentially our “favorite” reads of the year as determined by a variety of different specialized categories. 2012 saw the release of a plethora of great books, so we’re happy to present this overview of the best of them, starting on the next page.
The Year in Books: Best of the Best Of the 150 books CCLaP reviewed in 2012, exactly eleven of them received a score of 9.3 or above; while these are not necessarily the absolutely best books of the year, depending on what your particular tastes are, they are the ones that come most recommended to a general audience.
The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye. A couple of years ago, Lyndsay Faye’s clever “Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack The Ripper” novel Dust and Shadow was the recipient of a CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award, and only missed the legitimate best-of list because of it only appealing to a niche audience; but that’s certainly not the case with her explosive follow-up, a steampunk-like proto-detective tale that has pushed her into national prominence for the first time in her career. Essentially the exact same premise as the popular TV show Copper, only better written (and incidentally published an entire year before the television show made its debut, hmmmm), it’s basically Faye’s take on a modern crime thriller franchise, only with our main character being the first detective in the entire history of New York, back in the mid1800s when the very idea of “police departments” were first being invented. As such, then, although grounded in reality, Faye really delves into steampunk territory in this engaging, wildly inventive book; and that’s basically what gave it its crossover appeal, a hit this year not only among the usual Scott Turow crowd but also science-fiction fans and of course Victoriana buffs. The first of what will hopefully be a long series (and please, Lyndsay, don’t let these slip off the cliff of diminishing returns like so many crime thriller franchises do), this might possibly be the most enjoyable genre piece you will read this year.
India Calling, by Anand Giridharadas. Like many Americans, I’ve been purposely trying to learn more and more in recent years about Mesopotamia, Persia and Arabia (i.e. what we call the “Middle East”), the Indian subcontinent and more; but as I’ve mentioned before, many of the books I’ve been checking out are just not what I’m looking for, either too academic in nature or too fluffy, or sometimes concentrating on the past too much and sometime concentrating too much on the future. So it’s a delight to come across a book like India Calling, which gets the balance so right; an American-born Indian journalist who got the New York Times to pay for him to move there for the first time, his reports are both hip and intelligent, concentrating on unique and creative subjects, taking both the traditions of that culture in mind and the yearnings of its youngest artists and entrepreneurs. If you’re going to read only one book about what average life in 21st-century India is probably like these days, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one.
Leaving Mundania, by Lizzie Stark. And speaking of creative and delightful journalism, this was another highlight of the year -- a George-Plimpton-style guide to Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games, which the author wrote by actually joining a campaign and playing it for an entire year. As such, then, this is personal journalism at its best, a style I know some purists detest but that I like quite a lot when done right; scholarly in its research, yet engaging as we see the sociological ways this “Dungeons & Dragons come to life” weekend hobby affects Stark’s life and personality, with a lot of keen insights into why this particular activity is so good at providing socialization skills to those who otherwise find it hard or even impossible to socialize. A great guide to both a specific subculture and culture in general.
The Nervous System, by Nathan Larson. A sequel to The Dewey Decimal System that I read at the same time, these sci-fi noirs from indie-rocker Larson (and put out by our pals at Akashic Books) posit a wonderful “soft apocalypse” premise at their core; namely, after an unending string of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, 90 percent of the former population of Manhattan has voluntarily left that city, turning the island into a semi-anarchic DMZ watched over by the military but mostly ruled by a series of ethnic gangs. Like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, then, Larson uses straightforward crime stories in both novels as a way to explore all the dark little corners of this speculative milieu, centered around a former soldier with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a huge black hole in his memory, who is attempting to re-order all the books in the New York Public Library if just all these warring factions would leave him the hell alone. Both smart and exciting, these continue Akashic’s impressive tradition of publishing well-done noirs set in unusual situations.
Office Girl, by Joe Meno. Is there a more interesting writer currently working in Chicago than Joe Meno? Oh, wait, I know the answer to that -- NO, NO THERE ISN’T. But instead of expanding the scope of his vision with his newest novel, Meno surprisingly went smaller and more inwards, turning in a story about an intense but fleeting two-week romance between a couple of art-school dropouts during the infamous Chicago Blizzard of 1999. And it was very smart for Meno to do this, too; for as one of a growing amount of contemporary writers known for their grandiose weirdness, this is a nice reminder of how good he is with simple character development as well. A lot of critics lambasted the book precisely for this, but I found it an intimate, quiet treat, and am convinced that you will too if you go into it with the right attitude.
The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco. Hooray for Umberto Eco! The rare author who can thrill even the fussiest, most academic heavy reader, he also takes on some mighty strange subjects for his fastidiously researched historical novels; this latest, for example, is supposedly a history of the infamous anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but in fact is actually a delightfully dark romp through nearly the entire history of mid-19th-century Europe. As such, then, you can think of this as an intellectual nerd’s Forrest Gump, with Eco taking our fictional main character and placing him on the edges of a whole series of real events, from the Italian independence movement to France’s Dreyfus Affair and more; and in the meanwhile, he also takes a sophisticated and nuanced look at all the conspiracies that are associated with these times, both real and imagined, and shows how widespread hatred of Jews came about mostly because it was simply the one group of people that all Europeans could agree to despise, when they weren’t busy despising each other. A dense read but a rewarding one, this comes especially recommended to those who find all the other books on this list too simplistic.
The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch. Granted, my score here partly reflects my personal interest on the subject; but this look at all the latest medical developments regarding what we know about the brains of middleagers is one of the best “NPR-worthy” nonfiction titles I read in 2012, impeccably researched yet populist in its writing style. And it’s full of surprises, too, which is the main reason to read it, packed with new scientific understandings in just the last few years that haven’t yet filtered down to the textbook level; for example, that our bodies actually do create new brain cells all the way until we die, that we can literally train our synapses to connect in certain ways like we physically train our muscles (and that such “exercise” might actually help stave off Alzheimer’s), that there are literal new parts of our brain that turn on around the age of forty that make us naturally calmer and wiser about the world, and all kinds of other fascinating insights. A great read for all my fellow middle-agers who are wondering why they seem to perceive the world anymore in such a different way than even ten or twenty years ago.
The Snow Whale, by John Minichillo. Unfortunately, a lot of the “indie hipster lit” I read in 2012 turned out to be only subpar, which is why so little of it made these end-of-year lists; but this was easily one of the best of them all, which saves itself by being so smart, funny and inventive. The story of a milquetoast suburban white guy, who takes one of those home DNA tests one day and realizes he’s one-third Inuit, then learns that he’s allowed by law to participate in a literal canoe-andspear whale hunt with the tribe once a year, like TC Boyle this novel gets a lot of its pleasure by taking simultaneous close looks at two very different environments that are slowly coming crashing together; not just our clueless narrator’s struggles to be taken seriously in his middle-class hometown, but also a look at the small, poor Alaskan village where the modern Inuits live, and the various ways that the villagers react to this man’s ludicrous and most likely suicidal request to come up and join them on that year’s hunt. If you’re a fan of McSweeney’s, you’ll love this bitter little charmer as well, and especially with the surprising and rewarding ending that is difficult to guess beforehand.
This Bright River, by Patrick Somerville. This latest by the popular local author just squeaked in under the deadline last year; and I’m glad it did, because this is Somerville firing on all cylinders for the first time in his career, and the results are often stunning. The story starts in comfortable Franzen territory -- grown slacker son of a dysfunctional family is asked to travel to the rural Wisconsin town where he grew up, in order to clean up a deceased uncle’s house and get it ready for sale -- and indeed, the entire first two-thirds of this quickly-paced novel is a fine example of typical American indie lit. But it’s in the surprise-filled last third where things really start picking up, turning quickly into a legitimate genre thriller and also a meditation on Evil With A Capital E and what causes it; and that takes what otherwise would’ve been a well-done but unremarkable Gen-X story and makes it a rarer and much more moving experience. There’s a whole stable of amazing Chicago writers right now (but see Thursday’s list for more on this); and this book vaults Somerville up near the top of that list, a breakthrough national bestseller (aided profoundly by an infamously botched review in the New York Times) that is well worth your time. Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, by Justin Wolff. Nothing exactly groundbreaking, this is instead just an extremely well-done new biography of a figure who needed such a new biography, a man both falsely trumpeted and falsely maligned based on the whims of any particular age but whose real life contained a complex series of highs and lows. And that’s what makes this book so interesting, is that it’s not just a bio of Benton himself but a look at the entire war in the early 20th century over what the “national flavor” of the American arts was to be -- either the shiny sharp conceptual parlor games of “Modernism” or the stylized representational work and celebration of rural craft known as “Regionalism,” two schools of thought that were directly at odds with each other. Benton was one of the foremost artists of the latter school, which in the Social Realist, Great Depression 1930s quickly made him the most famous artist in the United States, and the often envied commission recipient of many high-profile public mural projects; but after World War Two when Modernism permanently came into prominence, artists like Benton were largely shrugged off as passe pre-war dinosaurs with nothing interesting left to say, exacerbated in Benton’s case by his argumentative nature, his habit of biting the hands that fed him, and an ugly streak of racism and homophobia picked up late in life. A once towering figure in the global arts who became nearly forgotten even while still alive, his story is also the story of the entire 20th century, and this no-holds-barred 21st-century bio brings the kind of complicated look to his life that this complicated man deserves. Zone One, by Colson Whitehead. This is the single only book I gave a perfect 10 to last year; and that’s because it really is perfect for what the author was trying to achieve, a genre tale from a celebrated academe that works equally well as an American-Downfall metaphor and as a straightahead zombie thriller. Set not during the typical zombie apocalypse itself but rather ten years later, when clean-up from the disaster is finally hitting high gear, Whitehead clearly means for this to be a take on the Obamian-Age clean-up of the Bush atrocities of the early 2000s; and as such, he has a plethora of smart observations to make, on topics as varied as race, domestic punishment, and how much we now take the corporatization of everyday life for granted anymore. But it’s in the exciting third act of this novel, when things all start going wrong again, that this story turns from great to phenomenal; for as the devastation ramps up despite everyone’s best plans, Whitehead’s real message seems to be that no amount of fist bumps and “Yes We Can” bumper stickers can change the fact that WE ARE ALL F-CKED, and that we have no one but ourselves to blame for it. A devastating indictment of the naivety of liberal optimism, all the more powerful for being written by a liberal optimist, this sneakily political tale is sure to keep giving you deep chills long after you’re done reading it.
The Year in Books: Worth a Second Look Because of CCLaP’s unique scoring system, a book isn’t allowed to score in the nines no matter how good it is unless it appeals to a general audience; so that leaves a lot of the most satisfying reads of the year off yesterday’s “Best of the Best” list, simply because they appeal only to a niche crowd, but will appeal intensely to them. Below, a list of nine great examples from last year, listed as always in alphabetical order. Black Crow White Lie, by Candi Sary. First reviewed only a few weeks ago, this is the incredibly charming latest from the always impressive Casperian Books, a slowly-paced and character-heavy sleeper hit about a rapidly burning-out New Age alcoholic who bums around the seedier sections of southern California, and the precocious child she is raising on her own. Told from the child’s perspective, it’s admittedly an emotionally manipulative story, the main reason some people won’t like it; but it does its manipulation well and not very schmaltzy, a quick read that will have you strongly rooting for its complex, deeply sympathetic hero.
The Dead Witness, edited by Frederic Chaubin. Sure, we’ve all read Sherlock Holmes; but did you know that at the time those were being written, there were literally hundreds of other popular detective series being written on a weekly basis? In fact, there have been many good compilations recently regarding a lot of these second-tier authors; but The Dead Witness aims to go even further in, publishing a number of stories for literally the first time in 150 years specifically to show that the industry in general was actually much larger and more varied than popular lore now has it. We think of the genre as mostly dominated by old white men in England; but as this astutely curated anthology shows, there was lots of detective fiction at the time coming out of the British colonies and dominions, and that much of it was being written by women, one of the main reasons to pick up this compilation versus others.
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne. Meant as a sweeping Graham-Greene-like look at the complex realities of expats in exotic locales, but with just a little too many problems to make it to our “Best of the Best” list, this is nonetheless a very well-written and affecting book, and I find my mind returning to it on a regular basis long after actually finishing it. It’s the story of a world-weary British upperclass couple, who are traveling to Morocco to visit some acquaintances -- and not just any acquaintances, but insanely super-rich acquaintances, who bought an entire dilapidated village in north Africa and turned it into a luxury 30-cabin private estate, where once a year they invite all their jet-setting friends around the world to come in for an entire week of limitless drugs, bisexual orgies, and all the other decadence of the Western “I’m A Monster” ‘00s. But on a drunken drive from the airport to the compound, the British couple hit a local teen on the side of the road; and thus starts a three-day adventure that is illuminating and unexpected, if a little rough around the edges.
Gay Dwarves of America, by Anne Fleming. It’s not a good year unless one of the books by our pals at Canada’s Pedlar Press makes our best-of lists! And this year it’s this, a story collection by Anne Fleming whose main mark of distinction is that it’s edgy and experimental, but comes to this place by first taking mainstream story ideas and then weirding them up. There are just a couple of clunkers in there, which is what kept it off the “Best of the Best” list; but the best stories suck you in even while impressing you with their literary acumen, the kind of high-quality manuscript that small presses excel at getting out.
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, by Mark Dery. After a fully established career that has seen this cultishly loved essayist slowly building a following, 2012 seemed to finally be the big breakout year for Mark Dery, with this dark yet erudite collection being one of the big buzzes among lit hipsters all last year. Granted, it’s not quite as groundbreaking as some of its breathless praise warrants, which is what kept it off the “Best of the Best” list -- although always smart and subversive, it ultimately isn’t anything different than what’s being said by Warren Ellis, Bruce Sterling, the staff of Boing Boing, etc -- but if you’re not familiar with any of these other people, it’s an absolute imperative that you pick this up as soon as you can, a writer destined to be as important to future hackers and Sub-Geniuses as William Gibson and Mondo 2000 was to my own youth.
Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton. I’ve only recently become aware of this contemporary public intellectual, and have been reading through both his old work and new over the last six months; this is his latest, an incredibly smart and thought-provoking look at how the secular benefits of religion can be separated from the faith and applied in a humanist way to atheists’ lives. As such, then, this book was trashed by a lot of critics, who called it everything from trite to obvious to unworkable; but I gotta say, I had a much more positive experience with it than they did, and saw it as a highly practical updating of the beliefs of 1950s Existentialists like Albert Camus, with lots of real-world advice on how to incorporate these things into your everyday life. A populist deep thinker but a highly intelligent one, don’t let his mainstream media appearances trick you into assuming this is pop psychology.
The Restoration Game, by Ken MacLeod. I didn’t have a chance to read as much science-fiction in 2012 as I usually do; but this was one of my favorites, an unexpectedly complex day-after-tomorrow tale that builds some wonderfully speculative details onto highly original “ripped from the headlines” issues. Largely set in the fictional “Krassnia,” located roughly where the Crimean War was fought in eastern Europe, it’s the tale of an immigrant computer programmer now living in Scotland, who’s been contracted to build an MMO virtual-reality game that may or may not be a gift from the CIA to the revolutionaries in Krassnia, as a safe place online to plot their actions, and which may or may not be being done by the CIA because of a magical secret buried in a local mountain that the Nazis actually tried going after in World War Two, which may or may not be accidentally revealed in the programmer’s mother’s old out-of-date Lord of the Rings-inspired ‘60s guide to Krassnian mythology, which the programmer used to create the main map of the virtual-reality game. IS YOUR MIND BLOWN YET? That gets you to page ten! HOW ABOUT NOW?
Spurious, by Lars Iyer. Hey, so speaking of obscure ‘50s philosophers with curiously mainstream followings, this “sequel” to Dogma by the contemporary British philosopher is obviously influenced with much love by classic absurdist Samuel Beckett; for this is barely a three-act story at all, but rather a series of ridiculous conversations between the author’s doppleganger and a fellow philosopher who’s much more popular, quickly taking side turns every few pages to delve into all kinds of issues of pure thought and wacky humor. Inexplicably popular for how challenging it actually is (“I thought I’d be the only person in the world to love this book,” starts hundreds of glowing reviews at Goodreads.com), this will be the densest yet most delightful read that you’ve taken on in quite some time.
Watch the Doors As They Close, by Karen Lillis. For the sake of disclosure, let me confess that author Karen Lillis has participated in past CCLaP virtual book tours, in her role as another popular litblogger and book reviewer online; but even with the bias, I have to say that her latest as a creative writer was simply one of my favorites of the year, which almost earned a Guilty Pleasure Award because its premise is just so stereotypically the kind of stuff I usually find intolerable. Mostly a deep character study that uses just the slightest of actual plot, it’s essentially a sophisticated look at one of those moocher hipster-douchebag failed artist types that young girls are always seeming to fall for; and not only that, but a lot of it takes place along Paris’s West Bank in modern times, when the only “artists” left are entitled Americans seeking a bohemia that hasn’t existed there in half a century. But despite all this, I found the book a real page-turning delight, because Lillis has such an earnest and beautiful voice, one of the only academes out there writing specifically academic literature who I really adore; and if you have a similarly low tolerance for such work, this is a great title to be the proverbial “one book of this type this year to read, if you read only one book of this type this year.”
The Year in Books: Karl Wolff ’s Picks CCLaP was happy to be joined this year by Karl Wolff; but since Karl didn’t have nearly the time to write reviews of every single book he read last year, for this best-of list I’ve asked him instead to merely share with us his ten favorite reads of 2012 regardless of whether a review got written. Here’s his report below.
Best International Thriller Tom Clancy Didn’t Write: Flat Spin, by David Freed. The first book in the new Cordell Logan mystery series published by the Permanent Press. The story follows Cordell Logan, a veteran of Alpha (think an uber-secret version of Delta Force), who is a failed Buddhist and part-time flight instructor. Drawn into investigating the murder of his ex-wife’s husband, he discovers a world of intrigue in his placid LA community, including oil deals in Central Asia and corporate malfeasance.
Best Investigative Journalism: The Cage, by Gordon Weiss. Weiss, a former UN aid worker, gives a harrowing account of the Sri Lankan government’s final military crackdown of the Tamil Tigers. In this investigation of Obama’s first foreign policy disaster, he unravels the torturous relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils and explains the function and failings of international aid organizations. He likens the United Nations to a global Parent Teacher Association, with its cliques, infighting, and bureaucratic paralysis.
Best Novel That Didn’t Win a Pulitzer Because No Novel Won the Pulitzer This Year Because the Pulitzer Novel-Selection Process is Broken: Make It Stay, by Joan Frank. A tightly written nuanced tale about two couples living in north California wine country, experiencing the ups and downs of middle age and heartbreak. This summary sounds a bit twee, but the novel pulls no punches with an unreliable narrator and personal devastation wrought by wrong-headed presumptions.
Best Novel for Misanthropic Comedy: The Redemption of George Baxter Henry, by Conor Bowman. Want to read about an adulterous American lawyer who takes his shrill wife, backstabbing mother-in-law, crackpot daughter, and junkie son to the French Riviera to patch things up? Imagine Clark Griswold with the mouth of Bill Hicks who views humanity through his cold dark heart. Not for everyone, but a quick funny read for those who enjoy the black comedy of Louis-Ferdinand Celine or Thomas Bernhard.
Best Novel About Bureaucracy: The Investigation, by Philippe Claudel. A series of suicides occur in a small town. An investigator is sent to puzzle out the dilemma. Part Ionesco, part Doctor Who nightmare, part bureucratic purgatory a la Terry Gilliamâ€™s Brazil. For those who enjoy the Apatow-esque comedy of discomfort, look no further.
Best History: The Long Night, by Steve Wick. Wick, a journalist writing history, tells the story of CBS correspondent William L. Shirer, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer was also a journalist who wrote history. Wick tells of Shirerâ€™s danger and frustration covering events in the CBS Berlin news desk. This is history that reads like a political thriller and makes explicit the value of journalism as historical witness.
Best Biography: The Passage to Power, by Robert Caro. Robert Caro’s penultimate volume of his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson follows LBJ’s ascent from Speaker of the Senate to his first term as President. Along the way, we see LBJ clash with the Kennedys and then, following the assassination of JFK, pass the greatest civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. He did so with a combination of intelligence, insider knowledge of the US Congress, and the sheer brute force of his personality. If the Occupy movement wants to get anything done in real legislative terms, they should start by reading this book.
Best Epic Fantasy Novel: The White-Luck Warrior, by R. Scott Bakker. Technically published in April 2011, I’m grandfathering it into the list. This is epic fantasy at its best, at once verbally opulent, politically brutal, and narratively complex. The second book of Bakker’s second trilogy has an empire facing internal disintegration, a war against an inhuman foe that is quickly annihilating the greatest army ever assembled, and enough political intrigue to rival The Godfather, Part II.
Best Fiction of the Year: Building Stories, by Chris Ware. It is hard to write about Chris Ware’s latest without throwing out pummeling the reader with superlatives. A boardgame-sized contains 14 interrelated stories that can be read in any order. The stories come in a variety of formats, in everything from tiny strips to magazines and pamphlets to a mock-Little Golden Book. Formally daring and heartbreaking without lapsing into crass sentimentality, Ware shows that Chicago is on the forefront of narrative innovation and technical virtuosity.
The Year in Books: Highlights of Friends and Locals For ethical reasons, CCLaP does not give scores to books written or published by our personal friends, which makes them ineligible for the rest of these end-of-year best-of lists; but there was just such an amazing explosion in fantastic books here this year that I wanted to dedicate an entire special day this week just to them. This is not nearly a complete list of all the books put out by friends of ours in 2012, but it’s a good sampler that shows just how exciting it is to be involved in the Chicago literary arts these days.
American Gangbang: A Love Story, by Sam Benjamin. When I first knew Sam Benjamin a decade ago, he was the owner of the funny and sexy alt-porn production company Jewish Cheerleaders, and was picking up occasional camera work in the traditional porn industry to make ends meet; but by a decade later, he found himself now embroiled full-time in this most cash-flush yet most disturbing of professions, including now living in one of the Los Angeles mansions owned by his employers specifically so they could shoot new titles there on a 24/7 basis. His titillating yet heartbreaking new memoir basically details what happened in those ensuing years, a mesmerizing story of decreased expectations and failed Postmodernist dreams that will intensely appeal to anyone who was a fan of Nerve.com or Suicide Girls at the turn of the century, and wonders how things in the alt-porn industry could’ve gone so wrong so fast.
Chicago Stories, by Michael Czyzniejewski and May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks. Of the literally dozens of small and basement presses in Chicago these days pumping out work, easily my favorite is Victor David Giron’s Curbside Splendor, for a number of factors -- because they pick such smart writers and manuscripts, because they put out such great looking books, and especially because they seem to have their behind-the-scenes stuff so under control, which has let them accomplish things that no other small press in Chicago is managing right now to do, like get their books featured in such national venues as PBS and the Huffington Post. They put out a bunch of books in 2012, but these were two of my favorites, both of them story collections with unusual bents and superhigh quality, by two mid-level writers who both desperately deserved this shot in the arm to their careers. You literally cannot go wrong with any of Curbside’s books, so I encourage you to become a fan soon.
Code for Failure, by Ryan W. Bradley. Oregonian Ryan Bradley is the owner of the small press Artistically Declined (although more on that in a minute); but he’s also a creative writer himself, and I have to say one of my most surprisingly enjoyable reads last year was his latest, a deceptively complex mini-story collection about his time as a gas pumper in his early twenties, out of school but not yet a writer, lost in a mental wilderness like so many of us are at that age, and subjected to the SamShepard redneck shenanigans going on around him. A simple book that becomes deeper as you continue, I wish all story collections packed this much of a punch.
The Damnation of Memory, by Mark R. Brand. A number of CCLaP’s authors were quite busy in 2012 when they weren’t dealing with us; take Mark R. Brand, for example, whose latest science-fiction novel finally came out through our friends at Silverthought after a long delay. A gritty post-apocalyptic tale, this sees Mark continuing to evolve and mature as a writer, which fans will be able to see even more of later this year when CCLaP publishes his brand-new story collection Long Live Us.
We Only Know So Much, by Elizabeth Crane. She lives in Texas now, but longtime Chicagoan Elizabeth Crane continues to crank out her trademark funny and revealing looks at the small events of big people (or is that the big events of small people?). Her latest, a highly enjoyable Franzen-like dysfunctional-family story, turned in 2012 into the biggest book now of her career, and I’m happy to say that we’re going to have a fuller write-up of it here at the blog in just another week or two.
Lucky Man: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Ben Tanzer. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business continued his phenomenal working schedule in 2012; and among his other projects, he was lucky enough to have had Ryan Bradley at Artistically Declined Press do a major re-release of his first-ever novel, originally put out by a basement press that is now defunct and with the title having gone out of print long ago. And I’m extremely happy that this happened, because I still consider this the best book so far of Ben’s career, a bleakly dark “S.E. Hinton on crack” coming-ofage tale with a kind of gravitas that is often missing from his newer, more popular but certainly more light-hearted romantic comedies.
Snowball’s Chance: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by John Reed. One of the biggest personal highlights of 2012 for me was the chance to become better friends with New York author and Brooklyn Rail editor John Reed, a writer I’m convinced will one day become part of the 21st-century historical canon and who has just had such a fascinating life in general away from his writing. (If you ever get the chance, ask him about his youthful days in the ‘80s running around from one art gallery to the next in lower Manhattan, essentially acting as a “cool hunter” for upper-class collectors looking for work they could quickly flip for a profit.) I’m going to be doing a critical overview of his entire career later this spring, but in the meanwhile he also had a tenth-anniversary reprint out in 2012, for this Animal-Farm-inspired what-if tale put out for the second time by the amazing Melville House.
Solace in So Many Words, by Ellen Wade Beals. So who’s the most tireless worker currently in the world of basement presses? Well, a good candidate would be onewoman machine Ellen Wade Beals, whose impressive anthology about seeking peace in troubled times seemed to show up at every book show and art fair in the entire Midwest last year. A great collection that deserves all the attention it’s gotten, that wouldn’t be nearly as much as it is if not for the unwavering belief Beals has displayed for it, and it’s this kind of blood, sweat and tears that precisely shows what’s so exciting about the world of underground literature, and why you will never see such dedication merely from a series of salaried employees at a major press.
Tip of the Iceberg, by Laura Szumowski. I’m proud to say that writer and visual artist Laura Szumowski has a long history with CCLaP -- she not only illustrated Ben Tanzer’s The New York Stories and did the front cover of Kevin Haworth’s Famous Drownings in Literary History, but designed our “angry girl” logo that’s now been distributed via hipster sticker in the thousands to the general public. But Laura runs her own basement press as well, which among other things publishes funny yet informative guides to female health issues; and the latest in this line is a newly updated guide to that most special of “lady buttons” out there (er, the clitoris, I’m talking about the clitoris), a frank but highly enjoyable volume that speaks plainly about a topic that many people find difficult to speak plainly about.
The Year in Books: The CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards For six years now we have been proudly giving out the CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award here on the last day of our “Year in Books” roundup; these are books that for various reasons I shouldn’t have loved nearly as much as I ended up doing, far from a best-of list but great choices for when you’re in a certain particular mood, listed as always in alphabetical order.
Attic Clowns, by Jeremy C. Shipp. It’s not a good year unless alt-horror author Jeremy C. Shipp wins a Guilty Pleasure Award; and last year saw him in fine form, turning in a long-gestating story collection all about various situations in which evil clowns are found in attics. Why this guy isn’t a superstar in the literary world is beyond me; but I can safely say that he’s the best genre writer currently working in the United States who you’ve never heard of.
Broken Piano for President, by Patrick Wensink. Just like in previous years, I ended up reading a lot of so-called “bizarro” fiction in 2012, although not really by choice but rather that all those bizarro authors know me through the social network Goodreads.com and all send me their books; and one of my favorites is by this Louisville resident but popular Chicago regular, a ridiculously out-there adult fairytale about militarized fast-food chains and messiah-like crusty old country singers. Of course, it didn’t hurt that by receiving “The Most Polite Cease And Desist Letter in History” from Jack Daniels over the book’s former cover (seen at left), Wensink became an international meme sensation for a couple of weeks last summer; ah, if only all of us basement presses could receive such attention!
Cocoa Almond Darling, by Jeffra Hays. She has no web presence to speak of, has released little information about herself publicly, and has a habit of self-publishing 500-page human-interest novels about elderly black women reminiscing about their saucy youths; but damned if I didn’t really love this latest by the mysterious Jeffra Hays anyway, essentially a Tyler Perry story if Tyler Perry wasn’t such an unwatchable hack.
The Cranes Dance, by Meg Howrey. The book’s got some serious structural problems, and by all rights shouldn’t really be on any best-of list; but I found this story of teenage ballet dancers out on their own for the first time in their lives to be just really engaging in an earnest, magical way. Of course, it helped that I was reading this at the same time that CCLaP was doing its big tour of New York last summer, where I was spending a lot of time bumming around the exact tony midtown Manhattan locations where most of this novel takes place.
Enormity, by W.G. Marshall. Although far from an original idea -- random humans get blown up into gargantuan proportions through a science experiment gone wrong, then proceed to wreak havoc -- what saves this delightfully disgusting book is Marshall’s focus on what exactly a thousand-foot-tall human would be medically like, including nauseating details about dandruff piles the size of houses, and exhaled breath that can literally knock jet fighters out of the sky. Hugely entertaining in a gross, gross, gross way.
The Great Lenore, by J.M. Tohline. Although they often fail in execution, I always appreciate an author who thinks grandly and takes big chances; and this was one of the more conceptually ambitious books I read in 2012, an attempt to combine The Great Gatsby and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” into a Franzen-like contemporary novel about rich spoiled Gen-Xers and the dark secrets they hide. It’s not necessarily a great book, but is certainly the sign of a great author, who is just one random manuscript away from a true masterpiece.
A Lost Argument, by Therese Doucet. I disliked literally the entire second half of this lightly fictionalized memoir; but I found its first half just so incredibly charming and titillating that I can’t help but to include it in this Guilty Pleasure list. The story of a Philosophy-majoring Mormon who goes off to Brigham Young University for her freshman year, then does some pickup work at her local community college the following summer, where she meets a sexy bad-boy atheist who makes her question every assumption she’s had about life, Doucet has the ability to really hit the sweet spot of yearning and angst that so marks the lives of most college freshmen, a strange and wondrous time when a person is not quite an adult yet no longer a child.
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner. When I first moved to Chicago and got involved with the lit scene in the 1990s, the exquisite nonsense artist Mark Leyner was one of our gods; and after some years recently of flailing about with his career, I’m extremely glad to see him back in fine form with this brand-new novel. Essentially another of the bizarro authors mentioned above, his streamof-consciousness tales are not for everyone, but is just the ticket for fans of, say, Monty Python and Warren Ellis, and have always wondered what kind of unholy baby would emerge from a union of the two.
Under the Harrow, by Mark Dunn. A contemporary post-apocalyptic thriller written exactly like a thousand-page Charles Dickens novel, this fact neatly encapsulates both its good and bad points: for while this story of a Victorian town that slowly learns “The Village” style that they’ve been kept deliberately anachronistic and hidden for a hundred years from the rest of the world at large, as a bizarre experiment by the Cold-War-era US military that just never got shut down, is freaking incredible at points in its details and style, its attempt at Dickensian book length does the taut plot a disservice, which is why it’s a Guilty Pleasure and not on any of our legitimate best-of lists this week. If you’re already a fan of this stuff, though, this is an absolute must-read that you don’t want to miss. CJ
BOOK REVIEW New 52 Batman: The City of Owls By Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo DC Comics
So what led me recently to reading a monthly superhero comic book again for literally the first time in decades? Two simultaneous events, really: first, I mentioned here recently how I’ve decided to read all 300 issues of DC Vertigo’s legendary Hellblazer that got made before its “cancellation,” although it’s not really being cancelled but rather just “rebooted,” that in fact the entire shared DC Universe recently got completely set back to zero by the company, both in an attempt to simplify their titles’ byzantine continuance problems and in an attempt to drum up a little publicity, which has also had me wondering lately what some of these post-reboot “New 52” titles are actually like; and right at the same time, I heard a fascinating and entertaining interview with one of these New 52 authors, Batman’s Scott Snyder, on Kevin Smith’s surprisingly riveting “Fatman on Batman” podcast, which got me really curious to specifically read the Batman stories that have come out since the reboot. And so I picked up the two graphic novels comprising the first 12-issue story arc, The Court of Owls and The City of Owls, which were…well, pretty much exactly what I was expecting -- good for what they are, but ultimately designed to primarily appeal to teenage boys, exactly as superhero comics have done since they were invented. So as such, then, most adult readers will find this grand conspiracy story (in which it’s revealed that a secret society has actually ruled Gotham since its beginning, right under the nose of Batman without him ever having a clue, which takes him most of these twelve issues to process) to pack as much punch as a welldone YA novel, but not really enough to satisfy most grown-ups. And I have to confess, that’s kind of refreshing, in the same kind of way it’s been recently as well to realize that my friend’s nine-year-old sons are obsessed with Star Wars: The Clone Wars in a way that my middle-aged brain will never understand; that after several decades where adults’ and children’s artistic choices were unhealthily mingled into this giant communal man-child pop-culture stew, it’s nice to see things starting to go back to the way they’ve always been before Generation X, where we as a culture clearly understand that stories about laser guns and masked crime fighters are supposed to appeal primarily to teenagers and younger. I’m not saying a grown-up can’t guiltily enjoy a superhero story now and again, just that I’m glad to check in with these monthly comics for the first time in a long time and see that they’re back to being primarily geared towards the “whizz-bang-crash” crowd; and that combined with the flabbergasting increase in quality, regarding both production and drawing style, makes these New 52 Batmans a real winner for parents who want to pick up something smart and lively for their preteen sons, on par with the rebooted Doctor Who in terms of both intelligence and legitimate scares but undeniably made with kids in mind. Out of 10: 8.5, or 9.5 for teenage boys CJ
Location: South Florida What I shoot has to do with what I feel and the feelings of those around me. I like to capture the honesty of raw emotions. A sense of intimacy and nostalgia are often key components in my work.
Do you shoot on film or digitally? Why? I shoot film. Shooting digitally just doesnâ€™t feel right; I do not like the instant gratification or the resulting image. The quality of the finished photo and the craftsmanship that come with shooting film is what I love.
Your friends are often sh positions in your work. What d being the subjec
Most of them have in a way that they are commonly the su A few have mentioned that the that I have captured them in it has helped them feel comfor
hown in vulnerable do they think about cts of your photos?
embraced the fact ubjects in my work. ey even appreciate that state because rtable in their skin.
Many of the places where you shoot look almost post-apocalyptic in nature. Do you specifically go and try to find such places for your photos? I am definitely drawn to places that have that feel, though I wouldnâ€™t say I go out and look for them.
ON BEING HUMAN
Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth stars David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton as an alien, Rip Torn as Dr. Nathan Bryce, a lusty college professor, and Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, a simple, sweet-hearted girl who works as a maid in a hotel in New Mexico. Bowie runs a giant conglomerate called World Enterprises Corporation, but his actual mission is to bring back water to his arid homeworld of Anthea. What follows is a strange meandering story equal parts science fiction parable and art film. Panned by critics on its release in 1976, the film is a challenge to process and digest. It doesn’t easily lend itself to pat interpretations or spoonfeeding the audience an easily digestible moral. As Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie plays the part of a disillusioned corporate executive. He hides out in a New Mexico hotel, cramming his room with TVs, and falls in love with Mary-Lou. On the surface, it seems like something from the Victorian Romance playbook. But it seems like Dickens shot through with Howard Hughes (who died the same year this film came out). Newton eventually leaves New Mexico and holes up in a lakeside cottage, inviting along Dr. Bryce to assist him in developing an energy source to bring him back to Anthea. Roeg intersperses the drama on Earth with brief scenes of Anthea, a desert wasteland save for a monorail vehicle that runs on solar power. We get oblique glimpses of Newton’s humanoid alien kin. There are other scenes where alien figures jump through the air, their bodies colliding with water in acts both erotic and symbolic. Roeg style of filmmaking is poetic and allusive, at the same time propelling the narrative forward with an almost lackadaisical pace. In the end, Newton spends too much time on Earth. Technology, booze, and women have corrupted his soul, making him forget his mission. As characters around him age and die, he remains young looking. He falls prey to the corruptions and temptations that all mankind suffers. What does it mean to be human for Thomas Jerome Newton? In the film, he disguises himself as a human, only to be discovered by Mary-Lou. His entirely hairless alien form has reptilian eyes and comes as a shock. In the film’s final section, Newton is captured by a rival company and given a battery of medical tests. It mirrors Newton’s acquisitive nature when he ran World Enterprises Corporation. He sought to capitalize on new technologies. But he falls victim to the scientific impulse in the end, x-rayed and prodded. The scientific desire to know, understand, measure, and weigh puts Newton through a series of personal degradations. Following this sequence, Newton eventually breaks out of his prison, discovering it has been long abandoned. This is the last essay for “On Being Human,” but I will 1976, Nicholas Roeg explore three more pop cultural products when the book is released. It has been a fun project and the cumulative effect of the essays I Essay by Karl Wolff hope has added new dimensions to the way we look at our collective humanity. One hopes that we as a species can have sensible discussions about how to improve our sorry lot on this spinning ball of mud, fixing what needs to be fixed and nurturing the inventive spirit so we can someday visit distant stars, instead of contenting ourselves with bullet-ridden corpses on schoolyards and repressive legislation that befits the narrow, ignorant, hateful purview of a scabrous psychotic few. So, how will humanity fare?
The Man Who Fell to Earth
See all of Karl Wolff’s “On Being Human” essays at [cclapcenter.com/karlwolff]. Paper book version coming March 2013. CJ
How It W
Photo: James Benzschawel | flickr.com/jkbenwhatever Used under the terms of his Creative Commons license
There is no Claire. It’s true that she doesn’t always come home. It’s also true that I stopped worrying about that a while ago. Still this is different. There’s a storm coming and what if she can’t get home, but wants to? Then what? “Storm’s coming,” Claire said. “So,” I said. “So, they say it will be the Storm of the Century,” she said. “And,” I said, knowing she wanted to leave and would find any excuse she could to do so. “We may need stuff, food, or cigarettes, alcohol,” she said. “We have tequila,” I said. “It’s not enough,” she said. And I suppose that’s the rub. Nothing is enough anymore, not me certainly. “Go ahead,” I said, grabbing her shoulders and staring into her dead eyes. “What?” she said. “Everything is fucked,” I said. “That’s the storm talking,” she said, “end of the world shit. Let it go.” So I do. I let it go, and then I let her go. But she never quite came back.
I stop thinking about Claire. Instead, when the rain starts I close my windows and roll my car into the garage. As the thunder begins to crack, then sizzle, and the air turns green, I put my feet up on the ottoman and I open the shades to better enjoy the view. While the tree branches sway, bend, then splinter, and the skies begin to swirl and twist, I open the bottle of tequila. I pour a shot, and keep pouring, as the house begins to shake and threatens to become unmoored from the foundation I poured with my father so long ago. After things go black I shift to drinking straight from the bottle, the golden liquid splashing onto my beard, chest, and lap. I see the crunchy worm swimming towards me with every burning gulp and I decide that with so little to care about, it’s a gift to have anything to look forward to. The rain continues its rat-tat-tat assault on my windows and roof, and as the worm slides, then lands on my tongue, I pause, savoring the moment and embracing the possibility that this just may be the end of the world. After that I bite the worm. My father once told me that stealing another man’s woman was the most pussy thing a man could do. It was like murdering him. That never stopped my father though. Nor did it stop me. Of course I never did listen to him. Something I find myself thinking about the night Claire and I are drinking at Thirsty’s and we run into Mark. We didn’t expect to see Mark, but to expect something is to think about it, and we hadn’t thought about him in a long time. He was no more sober than I remembered him, but something seemed different. Age is funny like that, though. Things no longer make sense in the same way. It’s like with an Etcha-Sketch. One minute that which you so carefully created is right there in front of you, and then it gets shaken, and suddenly it’s gone, just like that. After another pitcher, though, I realize what’s different. It’s not him, he’s the same. It’s us. We’ve changed, we stopped caring, and in no longer caring we are no longer better than Mark, though maybe we never were. He had loved Claire and she had run to me, his former friend, and I welcomed her, with open arms, and no consideration of what was right. But now here we were together again, just like that, the years washed away, a collection of sadness and regret massed into a small insular ball of drink and pain. “I’ve missed you,” Mark suddenly says. He’s not talking to me.
I am lying on the floor in my house, the rain still pounding, the chair broken, and askew. My forehead is covered in dry blood. I could tell you this is unusual, but that would be a lie. All that’s unusual is the storm and how it will not stop its relentless march across our town. I walk into the bathroom and I wash my face, clean my wound, and bandage it. There are any number of thoughts a man might have at a time like this, but I am most struck by the fact that I am out of alcohol, and that I need to get some more if this storm refuses to abate. I walk outside, the rain unceasing, the world around me ravaged and furious, a tangled mess of downed power lines and fallen trees. I head to my car, turn it on, and pause to clear my head before heading down the hill to Robby’s Liquors. I work my way down the hill, weaving between the branches and abandoned cars, and I’m amazed by just how little my lights are cutting through a darkness that is so opaque as if to be solid, or whole. But then the darkness breaks, there is light, and with the light I see what the storm has wrought. The water has surged over the banks of the Susquehanna River and buried the South Side in its entirety. MacArthur School is underwater, swollen books floating out of the library windows like pulpy oyster crackers. The cross out front of St. Johns Church is still there too, but just barely, as it rocks to and fro, and threatens to wrench loose at any moment.
Claire and I always talked about us as something that would last until the end of the time. “When did it stop?” Claire said. “When did what stop?” I ask, head pounding, shielding my eyes from the morning light. “Us, that feeling we had, that we were all we needed to be happy, that we would be one until the world stopped spinning,” she said dreamily. “People get older,” I said, “kids leave, things fade with time, and you run out of stuff to talk about. It’s normal. What’s not normal is being with one person, how could it be?” “Are you saying you want to be with someone else?” Claire said. “Do you want to see other people?” “No,” I said cupping her beautiful face, “I’m fine. I was just trying to answer your question.” “I wasn’t looking for an answer,” Claire said sadly. Claire and I always talked about us as something that would last until the end of time. But if this storm marks the end of something, what’s the point of keeping anything going? There is no point, and so here we are. I continue driving to Robby’s and here, closer to the river, everything is completely underwater, and everything is closed. Almost everything. Not Robby’s, never Robby’s. Even with the rain, the flooding, and the fact that no one with half a brain is even outside, there’s Robby’s son Robby Jr., just as he is every day, sitting on a milk crate, and holding onto his baseball bat as he guards their parking lot against anyone who might park there without making a purchase. I park my car and slog through the water towards Robby Jr. The rain is streaming down my face, mixing with the dried blood under the bandage and pooling on my upper lip, the slight tang of copper biting my tongue. “Hey,” Robby Jr. says. “Hey,” I say looking down at him and realizing for the first time that I am barefoot. “Take what you want,” he says, “and leave your money on the counter. My dad went home and we’re using the honor system today.” I don’t ask him why guarding the parking lot is more important to him than guarding the store. I know why; it’s what he knows, and doing anything else but what you know as the world around you warps and melts is too hard to try and grasp. I take a bottle of tequila and some gin. I also grab some Old Grandad. And two six-packs of Yuengling in case the storm never actually stops. I leave my money on the counter. As I walk by Robby Jr. he taps me on the back with the bat. “Hey,” he says, “you might want to go by Mark’s. I know that you know, that he’s right off of the riverbank down there, and while I don’t suspect you care much about his welfare, I imagine you still care about Claire’s.” When I left Thirsty’s that night, Claire didn’t come with me.
She left with Mark and though she came home eventually she kept going back to him. I understood, and it was fine, full circle and all that, but now she hasn’t come back at all, and there’s this. Fuck. I load the alcohol into the car and drive to Mark’s house. There are no lights on, but there never are. I walk into the living room which is flooded, as small waves push their way through the front door and out the back again. The smell is rank, and while the rain doesn’t help, it’s the half-eaten food and dog waste that appears to be the main culprit. I pick my way up the stairs, past the piles of dirty clothes, empty bottles, and abandoned appliances, and they sway and shift with each step. The whole house is dying. In the bedroom I see them lying on Mark’s bed. Both are lightly snoring and halfdressed, the sheets covered in dried vomit. I wrap Claire in a blanket, and I lift her onto my shoulders fireman style, where she bends and morphs, all skin and bones and as light as a child. I pick my way down the sagging stairs and out to my car where I lay her across the back seat. She’s unmoving and just as decayed as what’s left of our town. I turn back to stare at the house and I wonder how long it will be before it collapses onto itself and floats away. Because that’s how it happens at the end of the world; we disintegrate, we drift, and at some point we are replaced. Claire moves in the back seat and mumbles Mark’s name. I look at her and think that this isn’t how we planned it, but nothing ever does go as planned, that’s not how it works. With that I head back into the house to get Mark as well. We will face the end of the world together. It only seems fitting. CJ
“How It Works” is the debut piece of Ben Tanzer’s third collection of stories all set in the same small upstate New York town, after the previous CCLaP titles Repetition Patterns (2008) and So Different Now (2011). To download a free compilation of both these books, including 30 illustrations by Chicago artist Laura Szumowski, please visit bit.ly/nysbook or scan the QR code to the right.
Former Chicagoan Elizabeth Crane is just a little too good a personal friend for me to claim I could do an “objective” review of her newest book, last year’s We Only Know So Much; but I wanted to get a mention of it up here anyway because I enjoyed it so much, another solid winner in what’s always a delightful career. A contemporary human-interest dramedy firmly in the Franzen dysfunctional-family vein, the story is with more eccentric weirdos than a Wes Anderson film -- the Elizabeth Crane peopled wife having an affair with a guy who then dies, the husband obsessed Harper Perennial with getting Alzheimer’s, the vapid daughter, the nerdy son, the senile grandfather and the pissy 98-year-old great-grandmother -- and Crane builds an interesting, event-filled plot for all of them to go through, the kind of entertaining and charming novel that sleeper low-budget Hollywood hits get adapted from. Given that Crane is mostly known at this point for her short stories, I love seeing her expand here into full novel territory, and this quiet yet sophisticated tale is sure to strike a chord with fans of Jennifer Egan and the like.
We Only Know So Much By
Out of 10: N/A CJ
BOOK REVIEW I was a big fan of Joshua Mohr’s debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, back when I read it in 2010; and after another novel in 2011 that I missed, Damascus, I just had a chance to read his brandnew one, Fight Song by the now Counterpoint-owned Soft Skull Press, which I not only liked just as much but found a lot more entertaining. A Jonathan-Franzen-style comedy about the foibles of a dysfunctional family, for most of this book we are following the misadventures of our hapless hero Bob Coffen, a meek and overweight videogame developer who is dealing with a whole series of quirky situations -- a wife training to break the world record in water-treading, a female bodybuilder and fast-food attendant who also runs a “drive-thru speaker-sex” business on the side, a janitor who’s also a guitarist for a French KISS cover band, and a New Age marriage counselor who’s also a professional magician, among others. And in fact, Mohr’s By Joshua Mohr solid and mature handling of what could’ve been a a spiral down into Soft Skull Press / Counterpoint B-movie mayhem reminded me many times of another book that got this balance really right, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys; for like that novel, Mohr has a good grasp over believable and complex characters, but nicely spices it up with a considerable amount of absurdism and even sometimes outright slapstick. A book that will be a little too silly for some, it’ll be perfect for existing fans of literary writers who do smart comedy right, from Tom Perrotta to Jane Smiley to John Irving, and is the novel that finally starts vaulting the talented Mohr up into the same ranks of all the people just mentioned. Strongly recommended.
Out of 10: 9.4
Katherine Hodges deadmalls
Location: Chicago and all over the Midwest Iâ€™ve carried a camera in Chicago virtually every day Iâ€™ve lived here (since moving from Iowa in 1995), had some classes in film photography, went digital in the midlate 2000s, joined Flickr in 2007, and am still doing everything with point-and-shoot cameras. My main interest is the built environment, especially abandoned buildings (inside and out), retail, and transit.
Tell us how these photos of dead malls came about in the first place. Where are the locations of some of the places weâ€™re seeing? I first happened to shoot malls because I was obsessed with documenting specific chains (like Borders) that often were located in malls, then I started participating in the Picture Black Friday annual photography project in 2010. It just kind of spiraled from there and I visit any malls I can get to (often by bus, train, and/or bicycle; a challenge since malls are oriented towards cars). Ones shown here range from a small 1950s-era shopping center in Gary, Indiana, to the infamous late-2000s, still not fully occupied, Block 37 development in Chicagoâ€™s Loop, to the more typical 1960s-70s large suburban mall.
So many abandoned, dark hallways in these places. Is safety ever an issue? How often do you feel like a character from a post-apocalyptic thriller? Itâ€™s undeniably eerie to be in a dead mall with empty storefronts and few people around. Malls that are attractive and sunny, like Crestwood (MO) and Charlestowne (IL), are creepy in one way, and ones with dark hallways, like Euclid Square (OH, mostly just churches now) and Crossroads (NE, with a closed second level), are unsettling in another. Dead malls usually seem to have very little security around, but I actually prefer that so Iâ€™m less likely to be hassled for taking photos (this has only happened once in all my mall photography, however, in the parking lot of River Oaks, south suburban Chicago).
I was so surprised to see how many of these 75-percent-abandoned malls still go to a lot of trouble to decorate for Christmas, even when it’s these sad little displays the management company can barely afford. Why do you think this is? And is this part of why so many malls are having so many problems these days, because they’re run by old-fashioned people who think that bringing in Santa once a year is enough to save their business? This is what’s made me want to read books on shopping malls and whatever industry magazines and websites I can find; I just don’t know, other than that they feel the need to keep up appearances. Whether a small holiday display (usually without anyone playing Santa Claus) is more or less depressing than nothing is hard to say.
What kinds of places are still open for business in these dead malls? Are the elderly still showing up in the mornings for their mallwalks? Mall walking is still a useful function of these malls. Dead malls try to adapt to a changing clientele and will have a number of independent stores and downmarket versions of major mall chains (though a few chains like Bath & Body Works seem to hang on). The amazing variety of functions for malls is one of the best parts of visiting and photographing them—I’ve seen a library branch, firefighting museum, politician’s office, tourism bureaus, teen centers, and many churches. I’ve also been surprised at how many independent bookstores, new and used, are in malls now (dead ones and successful ones).
The saddest photos of all to me were of the giant but utterly empty food courts. Is this because food courts were such an integral and unique part of the entire mall as entity, back in the ‘80s during their height, and were also our main social gathering places when teens ourselves back then? Do you ever think about these things when walking through the cavernous spaces yourself?
I have fond memories of hanging out at my small hometown mall (North Grand in Ames, Iowa), although we weren’t even big enough for a food court. Some of these spaces are still attractive and it’s a shame they don’t have ways to draw crowds.
The King of Pain by Seth Kaufman, Editorial Director of TVGuide.com, has been called a ‘reality TV novel,’ but it is more than that. The novel begins with reality TV executive producer Rick Salter, after a night of drunken carousing, pinned to the floor by his massive home entertainment system. Between blackouts from the pain, he reads a book given to him by Amanda, his former associate producer on The King of Pain reality TV show. The book, called The History of Prisons, is written by someone named Seth Kaufman. What follows is Salter trying to escape his predicament, alternating with the fictional Kaufman’s book on prisons. The result is both a biting satire of Hollywood showbiz, in the spirit of Get Shorty and Sunset Boulevard, and a metafictional romp across genres. The book follows Rick Salter’s meteoric rise from Hollywood obscurity to critical acclaim to the lowbrow schadenfreude of reality TV. Rick’s reality TV show, The King of Pain, follows contestants enduring different kinds of torture (sleep deprivation, branding, etc.). This makes Salter a controversial figure. The night before his accident, he had a verbal fracas on Larry King’s TV show. Salter’s reality TV show underscores America’s morally ambiguous stance on torture and cruelty. Salter just had the marketing genius to bring the atrocities of Gitmo to Middle America’s TV screens, trading dubious confessions from alleged terrorists for contestants battling each other for a cash prize. Salter puts Robert Anton Wilson’s adage to use, “’Reality’ is what you get away with.” (It goes without saying that “reality TV” shows are some of the most contrived and overtly manipulative in the entire medium.) Amidst Salter’s biographical asides and his retelling the ups and downs of The King of Pain’s TV season, we read several stories in The History of Prisons. Besides enjoying the variety of stories, we, like Salter, have to puzzle out why his former associate producer would give him this book. We become Rick Salter when reading the stories. (Insert Keanu Reeve’s saying, “Whoa ...” a la The Matrix.) The stories themselves run the gamut of genres, all with a common motif of prisons. “The Stocks” tells the story of a prison guard in an Idi Amin-style African dictatorship. “The Daiquiri Case” is a classic whodunit set at Gitmo. (Good if you like NCIS, JAG, and other military procedurals.) “Longman” is a short political fable. The real stand-out story is “The Gizless Days of Thomas Binder.” Binder, the young protagonist, has been accused of a crime with his punishment being rendered “gizless.” He is cut off from all digital entertainments and has to attend group therapy. What follows is a wonderful meditation on reading books, specifically those on paper. He finds a long-abandoned used bookstore and all manner of wonderment follows. While these science fiction tropes have been By Seth Kaufman alive since Fahrenheit 451, Kaufman breathes new life into them, Sukuma Books discussing things like micropayments, copyright, and pleasure. In the end, The King of Pain, with its trenchant satire, ‘inside Reviewed by Karl Wolff baseball’ critique of the Hollywood machine, and metafictional cleverness, is still a fun book to read. Salter delights as a foul-mouthed TV exec who seems ethically challenged at the best of times, constantly berated by his associate producers Amanda and Little Ricky. Then there’s the reality TV contestants, providing misanthropy and schadenfreude for the audience at home. It’s a book that wears its social critique lightly, but has a humane layer beneath Salter’s acidic tongue and the relentless dehumanizing element of the reality TV genre.
The King of Pain
Out of 10: 9.0 CJ
George Sau George Saunders is the most famous writer you’ve never heard of: perennial bestseller, recipient of both a Guggenheim fellowship and MacArthur “genius” grant, and a regular guest on The Daily Show and David Letterman, he nonetheless flies under the radar of many lit fans for not having yet published a full novel, instead concentrating on short stories, novellas and essays. His newest collection, Tenth of December, was just released in January, which brought Saunders to Chicago for the start of a major national tour; CCLaP’s executive director Jason Pettus had a chance to sit with him while he was here, at the popular Lincoln Park cafe The Bourgeois Pig, to talk for a half-hour about his career, the choices he makes as an artist, and why he is still hounded to this day for once being a fan of Ayn Rand in his youth.
THE CCLAP INTERVIEW
CCLaP: Let’s start with this, before anything else. I’ve been reading through all of your work over the last several weeks, and the first really big surprise to me was that, for lack of a better word, it’s very traditionally in the “bizarro” literature vein. Very odd, very weird stories. I read a lot of that kind of work, but most of the authors I know, they are struggling just to find little niche audiences. I wonder if you’ve ever given some thought as to why your work in particular has had such a huge, sort of general mainstream popularity to it. If you’ve ever given some thought to this subject before. George Saunders: I try not to. It’s terrifying. [Laughs] No, I really don’t know. I mean, my thought was always to try to write as truthfully as I could, try to get in as much of the real feeling of life as I could. And I got to a certain point where to do that honestly, it had to go a little weird. I think part of it was that I honestly wasn’t trying to make a gimmick or be weird; I was really just trying to steer towards what felt like urgent shit, you know. It wasn’t a point where I was like, “Can I be experimental?” It was, “Why is the stuff I’m writing right now not actually serving the truth? Why does it feel kind of false?” And the reason was, I was being kind of a knee-jerk realist. And a lot of the weird stuff – the class stuff, the money stuff, the really grab you by your balls stuff – to really get at it, it felt like you really had to go a little bit off the track. Now, why it caught on, I’m not sure. I’m guessing it’s the humor. Early on, a lot of what I heard was, “Oh, this is funny!” Not, “This is subversive,” but “this is funny.” It gets them looking left, and then you swerve right, and you can kind of get a two-for-one if you’re lucky. It can be funny and also be kind of a pill that explodes later. And in fact you come from this really interesting background, and this interesting way to come into a career of writing. We won’t go into too many details, but suffice to say, you originally came from a nonwriting background. Yeah, I grew up here on the southside. A lot of readers, a lot of smart people, a lot of politically engaged people, but I didn’t really know a lot of writers necessarily. And then I went into engineering and worked in Asian oil fields, and writing kind of came up from behind, from underneath. But meanwhile, there was a pretty good period of kind of intense living in the world, trying to make a living and so on. So in retrospect it was great. Do you follow along with any of the other writers who do the kind of work that you also do? Mark Leyner or Will Self or any of the more basement-press writers of that sort?
Will Self I like. Mark Leyner was a huge influence. When [my first book] came out, I was reading a lot of him and being blown away. But for me, it’s almost a lineage that cuts across time, so you can go back to Gogol, the original crazy visionary. I’ve never been the guy who’s read everything, but what I’ll do is get on a certain vein, and kind of work it. One writer will lead me to another then another. But also I’m really
crazy for Chekov and Carver and more traditional kinds of writers too. It seems sometimes that there’s a lot of writers and artists who make a binary early. Either you’re edgy or you’re traditional. Either you’re funny or you’re not. I’ve gotten into the habit of saying, “If you sense a binary, try to deny it.” God forbid that you enlist in one of the two camps. The moment you say, “I’m a realist,” you’ve given up on all these edgy things that might not exist, but would if you’d wander off a little into them. You got your professional start, sort of got up to speed, around the mid-’90s, late ‘90s. And this was also the point when you first started getting chances to publish in some bigger places like the New Yorker, and started getting assignments from places like GQ. I was wondering if you could tell us a little from the tech aspect, for all those other working writers out there, how that process started for you. Was it that your work got you noticed at these places, or were you just sending cold submissions out? It was actually the latter. I was working at an engineering company in Rochester and kind of cranking stuff out, and I had a little breakthrough; when I started being funny, basically. I started sending stuff out, and bang-bang, two pieces got accepted at small magazines, and I also got one of those “nice” rejections from the ON AYN RAND New Yorker, where they kind of said, “No, but...” And then I sent one more and got rejected, and then the third one got accepted, just over the transom, just literally sending it out in the mail. And then after that, almost immediately I got an agent, and they got me in with Harper. So in some ways, it was really a nice story, because I didn’t have any contacts – I just sent it, the way that you do. A guy named Dave McCormick, actually, who was an assistant, he noticed it and pulled it out of the slush pile and sent me that letter. So it was really this sweet way to do it. This was back when you put stuff into an envelope, and hired a horseman [laughter]. So yeah, then it was four or five years before the [first] book was done, but at least then I had an agent. The difference is, when you send it with an agent, it gets taken or rejected in just a week or two, as opposed to seven, eight, nine months or never. So that was an incredible lesson. And then at the end of that period – the New Yorker was ‘92, and the book came out in ‘96 – at that time I was still working at the [engineering] company, and did so for another six or seven months, and then got a teaching offer.
There are so many different individuals you can be over a life, so many different manifestations. I think it’s kind of funny, really, that someone who I now would despise changed my life for the better. It happens.
And one more question about your early years before we move on. We’ve been talking about this upcoming interview over at the Facebook group, and the one thing people brought up more than anything else was [in snotty voice], “Ask George Saunders about being an Objectivist in his youth!” People get really fixated on that about you, don’t they? Yeah, it was a pretty small aspect of my life that I exaggerated for fun, and then people picked up on it and it becomes a talking point. So many of us go through a sort of Ayn Rand phase in our twenties. I was curious to see so many people be so obsessed with your own.
Yeah, yeah. For me it was actually kind of complicated, because I had read Atlas Shrugged in high school. And as corny as it sounds, that book made me go to college. I hadn’t read a novel in a long time – since grade school, maybe – and I read that and, as flawed as it was, to me it was just amazing. There were these characters, and there were these settings, and people were moving around and talking to each other, and sometimes the book would just get in your head. I remember coming back from a ski trip to Wilmont, up in Wisconsin, in the back of a car reading and thinking, “Oh, I want to be John Galt!” Really just totally buying into it, because I wasn’t an experienced person. I hadn’t lived at all. And I had this really strong and really funny vision of myself in what I had pictured as a college sweater, maybe out of a Marx Brothers movie or something ON WINNING A MACARTHUR GRANT [laughter], and walking It’s weird to think that increased money would make you along the campus with some co-eds agreeing a more genereous writer, but it kind of did. I remember with me about Nietzsche silly things, like going into a store and not flinching or something. Just this really corny, easily quite as much when you paid for something. It’s weird deflated vision, but it how those things are actually pretty deep, especially for was enough to get me to apply to college. I think people who have been working all their lives and feeling at the time, what I liked those pressures. It was profound to be recused from that about it was that it was a novel, and to me it stuff a little bit. And also, the Lamborghini was super. hinted at this intellectual life that I had kind of dreamed about, that somewhere in New York or something there were these people sitting around smoking and talking about deep ideas. I just kind of wanted to be there. So it took me not very long [to get over Rand] – as soon as you read Hemingway and Faulkner, you’re kind of like, “Oh, okay” – and also when you add it up, there are big holes in her vision, that she’s a propagandist. A pretty good one, actually. And it wasn’t until recently that she was automatically equated with reactionary politics. So I wrote a humor piece about this for the New Yorker a couple of months ago. You can take these kinds of phenomena and divide them up. Ayn Rand as a person versus a writer, who knows? But definitely that book had an effect on me, and I’d be lying if I denied it. I don’t know. There are so many different individuals you can be over a life, so many different manifestations. I think it’s kind of funny, really, that someone who I now would despise changed my life for the better. It happens. So like we’re talking about, you quickly started picking up an audience for your work, and you’ve had a lot of really interesting highlights to your career now. One of those is that you won a MacArthur “genius” grant... I did? Oh my God! That’s wonderful! [Laughter] Congratulations, George. [Laughter] You’re the first person I’ve gotten to talk to who’s won one of these, and I was curious – so many of these people are so far into their careers already when they win it, and I think a lot of us assume that to them, [the MacArthur] is just another honor. But it’s such a Romantic kind of reward – it’s such a huge chunk of money to give to an artist where they say, “Here, do whatever you want with this” – I was curious, as someone who’s actually won one of these, what your reaction was to it. What was it like to get that call?
I was lucky in a way, because when I got the call, I was doing a reporting piece for GQ where I was driving the Mexican border, and I had literally been up for about a day straight. I was with those Minutemen guys, doing an all-nighter with them. So it’s one of those ecstatic
reporter things, where you can’t believe you’ve had such good luck to be able to do this crazy thing. We were out there all night armed – well, they were armed – kind of like a keg party without the beer, and I was thinking, “Oh, this is so much fun.” And I had given myself a little free pass to go to Marta, which is this pretty cool little town, and to stay in a nice hotel. So I had gotten in about three in the morning and there was an email from my wife, and is said basically, “Call me! Call me! Call me! Call me! Call me!” And the next email was from the MacArthur, saying, “Could you please contact us at your earliest convenience.” And it was too late to do anything, so I went to bed and had all these crazy dreams about a nun saying, “You think you won a MacArthur?” [Laughter] “You’re in for a take-down, mister!” Anyway, the point is that it was really incredible, but it didn’t sink in at the time, because there was still a lot of work to do on the trip. So then I got home and...it’s kind of difficult to talk about, but it’s just really gratifying, to be thought so well of. And also, our kid had just started college, and we hadn’t put much of anything away, so just...gratitude. And also, psychologically, just that feeling to have the financial bar raised, the ceiling raised, and to be able to stand up straighter. That had a weird effect on my work. I was standing a little more. I don’t know if it was that things got a little more expansive, or that I was a little more open to.... It’s weird to think that increased money would make you a more generous writer, but it kind of did. I remember silly things, like going into a store and not flinching quite as much when you paid for something. It’s weird how those things are actually pretty deep, especially for people who have been working all their lives and feeling those pressures. It was profound to be recused from that stuff a little bit. And also, the Lamborghini was super. [Laughter] Let’s talk about the new book, Tenth of December. It literally came out today. But let’s work up to it a little bit, by first saying that you’re mostly known as a short-story writer. You don’t have any full-length stories out besides the novella, right? Yeah, every novel I’ve started has kind of shrink-wrapped itself. [Laughter] So not yet. And I’ve been having this really sort of intense cram session with your work in the last couple of weeks, and I was very tickled as I was reading through it to think of the idea that you have built this little sort of “DC Universe” for yourself. This sort of shared universe where all your stories take place, but this very twisted, dark shared universe. Do you ever think that way yourself when you’re looking at your body of work? Do you think, “All these stories take place in this theoretical United States that I thought up, where there’s these shared rules from story to story?” No, I never do. The thing I mentioned earlier, where I had my first breakthrough, the breakthrough was: I’m aware that all of this is personal. For a long time I thought of writing as something you intended to do, and then did. The basic dynamic is, “I have an idea, so sit there and take it.” But I could never get anything done in that
mold. So the breakthrough was to kind of twist that around and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have any intentions. All my stories probably don’t hang together, so let me proceed beat by beat, sentence by sentence.” It means something to me internally. So what you do then is almost like biology, where you have this little sea crystal, and it grows outward, kind of organically. So a story will often work out that way. I take the smallest thing I can, and try not to create it with a bunch of conceptual or thematic ideas, and if they come up I try to kick them down. And then I let the story accrue sentence by sentence. With that method, if it’s working, you end up with something more than you expected. You didn’t really have a plan, and your subconscious, I would say, is manifesting through the prism of language, and it makes something that was unexpected. So then taking that same philosophy on a bigger structure – I could be starting a book, a story, I don’t know what it is. I’ll find out in seven years when I’m done. So that’s a little bit hard to talk about, but that’s the honest answer. The degree of intentionality in my writing is much less than I would’ve thought when I was a student. I thought you had to know it, have a worldview, be able to articulate it, and then you sat down and did it. But for me it’s totally flipped around the other way. The beauty of any kind of art, I guess, is that it’s a mysterious manifestation of you better than you usually are. That’s incredible. Well, I would recommend to anyone out there to read any of your short story collections. I feel like you’re a lot like John Cheever, that your stories are going to be their most powerful when looked at as one giant collection. But as long as we were here talking, I did want to talk about at least one of your stories [in detail]. And I thought we’d talk about one from the new book, which I thought, having read every single story you’ve ever published now, I think is the best one out of all of them. It’s called “Escape from Spiderhead.” I was wondering if you might give us a little rundown of the process that goes into writing a story like that. What you had in mind before you started, and whether you feel like you really nailed it. The reason I like it so much is that I feel like you do a really amazing job with that story of getting your point across without ever directly referring to the point that you’re trying to get across. Is it fair to say something like that about that story?
I like that reaction, yes. For me, building off the last answer, the seed of that story was just this notion I’ve had since a little kid that in some ways, human beings can be thought of as machines. You have the flu, you’re an asshole. The flu goes away and you win the lottery, suddenly you feel differently. So I’ve always had this kind of interesting thought that if you could mechanically alter the brain to affect the most primary things that we associate with selfhood – love, lust, affection, loyalty – number one, if you could, would you? And if you did, would you be a good guy or a bad guy? Just those kinds of thoughts. So I remember, the day I started that, I just said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this idea for a long time. I should do it.” And then a second vector that was playing in was that a lot of my stories, especially in the other books, are written in a kind of
deliberately minimal, downsized prose, that is not quite as articulate as I am – or as I could be – but I like it. I always think of it in terms of the Peanuts cartoons. Charles Schultz could probably draw a real dog, but he decided.... So at that time, I was kind of tired [of that], and I wanted to write something that was more expressive. A sort of popping of my capabilities, in terms of being articulate and being expressive. So I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that; but in that story, quite early on, came the idea of, “What if there’s this drug that makes people ascend from simple language to complex language?” And those two ideas together were like, “Ooh!” And I just remember one afternoon going, “Okay, let me write that transition, from a simple diction to a complicated one,” not even realizing what was going on. And then once that started, it became the main seed. “Okay, so somehow, this guy is in a place where he could be given and he would take that drug; and when he does, it does this, so just keep going.” And at some point your mind starts looking for another drug. I would still say that I didn’t have a big agenda for that story, in terms of thematics. Well, it’s sort of a semi-surprise ending, so I don’t want to mention what it is, but you didn’t have that ending in mind when you started? No, no. No way. And in fact, I think I was writing that story in a spring, and I got to the end of a version that I didn’t quite pull off, and I thought, “Nah, that’s not...” I spent the whole summer thinking it was a novel, and expanding on a version where he actually gets out of that facility, and it had a lot of pretty funny stuff; but then towards the end of the summer, and with a new semester coming up, I kind of panicked. I had 400 Listen to the extended audio version of this pages of stuff, and I knew interview, including additional questions by very well it loses its mojo on page 14, so then I thought, fellow Chicago podcaster Mark R. Brand: “Well, maybe that original visit bit.ly/InterviewSaunders or scan the QR ending was best.” And then code to your left. there was this one little trick I could do in the middle to make that [original] ending have more power. And I ended up using that one little image. At the time it was agonizing, but in retrospect it’s the thrill of the chase, to say, “I know you’re not done yet, and I know you should be done, and the world is passing me by, but I’m going to sit here and wait, young man...” [laughter] “...until you let your story yield.” The best parts of that story were the real fast, back-and-forth dialogue that was coming pretty quickly, and stayed pretty much as-is. But then sometimes it takes weeks of doing the wrong thing to get to another sort of pocket like that. Well, you’re off pretty soon to do a really big show at a rock club around the corner, so we’ve got to let you go. But I’ve got one more question before we send you on your way. When, George, WHEN are we going to get a big meaty 400-page novel out of you? [Laughter] That’s a good question. Did that come from my inner consciousness? [Laughter] I really don’t know. I would love to do it, and I have an urge to do it. But I discovered this quote last year, and it was pretty incredible. It was Flannery O’Connor, and I’ll get it wrong, but she said basically, “A man can choose what he writes, but he can’t choose what he makes live.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s really deep.” He can want to be this kind of writer, and you want to produce this kind of work; but your talent, such as it is, is running the show, and it will sit there like a spoiled kid until it gets what it wants. I’ve always felt that my stuff is like one of those wind-up toys, where you wind it up, put it on the ground, and it goes under the couch. That I understand, but 400 pages I don’t. Or not yet. Maybe someday. CJ
George Saunders: A Critical Overview
I had the pleasure of getting to talk with legendary author George Saunders for CCLaP’s podcast last week, a rare treat given how in demand he is on this latest tour even among the major media; but that meant I had to do some serious cramming in the few weeks leading up to our talk, in that (I guiltily confess) I only became aware of his existence a month ago, because of a passionate recommendation from my friend and Chicago science-fiction author Mark R. Brand, with Saunders’ new book, tour, and interview opportunity being merely a fortuitous coincidence. And that’s because the vast majority of Saunders’ output has been short stories, while regulars know that my own reading habits veer almost 100 percent to full novels, which means he’s simply and unfortunately been off my radar this whole time; but of course I’m happy to make room in my life for exquisite short-fiction writers once I learn about them (see for example my revelation after reading John Cheever for the first time a few years ago), which means that I tore through all seven books now of his career in just a few weeks recently, so I thought I’d get one large essay posted here about all of them at once, instead of doing a separate small review for each book.
And indeed, as I mentioned during the podcast as well, like Cheever I think Saunders’ work is going to be at its most powerful once his career is over, and all the stories collected into one giant volume that a person reads all at once, instead of debating the merits of one individual collection over another. And in fact this is something else I said in the podcast, that I find it fun to think of Saunders’ stories as essentially interchangeable tales in one big comicbook-style shared universe, albeit the most f-cked-up shared universe you’ll ever spend time in: a possibly post-apocalyptic America, although whether through slow erosion or one big doomsday event is hard to determine, where the only businesses that still thrive are outlandish theme parks designed for the amusement of the now “natural betters” of our new Mad Max society, and staffed by the permanent class of have-nots which now includes a large population of genetically modified freaks, a place where ghosts are real and magic exists and the new normal is extreme cruelty at all times for all other humans left in the wreckage of a crumbled United States. And so if you look at the four story collections that Saunders has now put out -- 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, 2000’s Pastoralia, 2006’s In Persuasion Nation and this year’s Tenth of December -- you’ll see that the vast majority of all these pieces fit at least somewhat into the general paradigm just described, although with others that are much more realistic in tone but still with the same unbelievable cruelty and darkness, many of them set among racially tense situations in eroding post-industrial cities. Yeah, sounds like a big barrel of laughs, right? And in fact this was the biggest surprise for me as well when first reading them, that Saunders is not just on the stranger side of the bizarro* subgenre, but is one of the most wristslashingly depressing authors you will ever find, yet this Guggenheim and MacArthur grant winner is regularly on the bestseller lists, has appeared on David Letterman and The Daily Show, gets published on a steady basis in such hugely mainstream magazines as The New Yorker and GQ, and is adored by literally millions of fans out there, many of whom would never open the cover of a book from Eraserhead Press to save their life. And that’s because Saunders never talks about these things specifically to be depressing, but rather as a way of highlighting how important simple humanity is to our lives, the simple act of being humane and optimistic about the world, which he does not by writing about the humane acts themselves but what a world without them would look like. And that’s a clever and admirable thing to do, because it means he sneaks in sideways to the points he wants to make, not beating us over the head but forcing us to really stop and think about what he’s truly trying to say, to examine why we get so upset when this fundamental humanity is missing from the stories we’re reading. Ultimately Saunders believes in celebrating life, in trying to be as helpful and open-minded to strangers as you can, in being as positive about the world at large as you can stand; but like the Existentialists of Mid-Century Modernism, he examines this subject by looking at worst-case scenarios, and by showing us what exactly we miss out of in life when this positivity and love is gone. *(For those who are new to CCLaP, “bizarro” is a hard-to-define term but one we reference here a lot; also sometimes known as “gonzo” fiction, sometimes as “The New Weird,” a lot of it comes from either the wackier or more prurient edges of such existing genres as science-fiction, horror and erotica, while some of it is more like Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs, a conceptual cloud of strangeness that has a huge cult following in the world of basement presses and genre conventions, as well as such literary social networks as Goodreads.com. If you want to think of famous examples, think of people like Kathy Acker, Mark Leyner, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, Blake Butler, China Mieville…and, uh, George Saunders!) Now, of course, in all honesty, there are also a few clunkers scattered here and there
in these collections as well, which is simply to be expected in a career that now spans twenty years; and when it comes to the small number of other books he’s put out besides story collections, I have to confess that I found those to be a much iffier proposition. For example, there’s the 2000 children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, cute enough but as inessential to an adult as any children’s book is; then there’s his one collection of nonfiction essays, 2007’s The Braindead Megaphone, an uneven compilation of random pieces which includes some real gems (one of the best being that GQ piece mentioned, where Saunders is sent GeorgePlimpton-style to Dubai, and instead of the usual decrying of the ultra-rich he is surprisingly charmed by all the vacationing middle-class families), but that has an equal amount of throwaway pieces done for highly specific commissions; and then there’s the only stand-alone fiction book of his career so far, the 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which I have to confess is the only thing of Saunders’ career that I actively disliked -- written in the middle of the Bush atrocities, it’s obviously an attempt to do an Animal Farm-style satire about those years, but is labored in its execution, too on the nose, and in general has too much of a “quirky for the sake of being quirky” vibe, the exact thing that can most quickly kill a piece of bizarro fiction. (But then again, we perhaps shouldn’t blame Saunders for this; as I’ve talked about many times here in the past, it seems that no indignant artist was able to write satirically about Bush in the middle of the Bush Years without producing an overly obvious ranting screed, whether that’s Saunders or George Clooney or Michael Moore or Robert Redford. No wonder no good books about Nazis came out until after World War Two; as we all learned in the early 2000s, it’s nearly impossible to actually live under a fascist regime and also be subtle and clever in your critique of it.) But those are all small quibbles, of course; Saunders’ bread and butter is in his short fiction, and I’m convinced that he will eventually be known as one of the best short-fiction authors in history, joining a surprisingly small list that includes such luminaries as Cheever, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, GK Chesterton and more. Plus, as a fan of edgy and strange work, I’m thrilled that a guy like Saunders is out there, serving as a gateway of sorts between mainstream society and an entire rabbithole of basement-press bizarro titles that’s just waiting for newly inspired fans to tumble down. If you’re going to pick up your first Saunders book soon, go ahead and pick up the newest, Tenth of December, because it’s just as good as all the others and particularly easy to find right now; but I also encourage you to dig deeper into this remarkable author’s career, and to see just how far he’ll pull you into the murky depths of ambiguous morality before coming bobbing back to the surface. It’s been a true treat to become a fan of his work this year, and I urge you to become one as well. Out of 10 (Tenth of December): 9.6 CJ
Paul Lask and Anna Bolm Dogs of Chile
75 PHOTOGRAPHER FEATURE
Location: Various cities throughout Chile Paul and I have been active artists in Chicago since 2000, him as a musician myself as a student of sculpture. I shoot with an old Canon DSLR. At this point we are both working in education, while Paul continues in music and fiction writing, and I in varying mediums.
Tell us a little about how this photo series came about in the first place. Frightened by convention, we fled for South America shortly after marrying. Not knowing the language left us to our own devices for companions, and our imaginations led us to the dogs. The dogs occupied our thoughts, our conversations often leading to what they were doing or who we saw that day. “Did you see Tenderfoot today?” I would ask Paul. “Yeah, I saw him by the panaderia earlier but Whale wasn’t with him, I wonder if they’re fighting.”
In general, are these dogs fr urban surroundings keep th there a feral touch to them?
Generally, the dogs are in go about a girl in Patagonia wh she was trying to pet. We d wild animals.
riendly or hostile? Do the hem domesticated, or is ?
ood spirits. We did hear ho was nearly bitten by a fox donâ€™t recommend petting
What does the local population think of these dogs? Weâ€™ve seen a wide range of reactions but for the most part we see indifference or love. Itâ€™s common to see food and water bowls set out for them, or even leftovers from restaurants, a doggie bag if you will. Could any of them be considered traditional pets? Not traditional. These dogs love their independence and show off to the fenced dogs, sending them into a barking frenzy. The love they receive from the community makes them feel more like public pets.
BOOK REVIEW I know a number of the people involved with this book, so it wouldn’t really be ethically right for me to purport to do an “objective” review of it; but I at least wanted to make a mention of it here at the blog, mostly because it finally came up to the top of my to-read list last week, after first entering way back in July. (July! Shame on me! I am so sorry to all you authors that it’s taking me so long to get through your books right now; but we’re about to start bringing on additional reviewers soon, so we’ll finally be getting that list whittled down to size before too long.) Anyway, this is an anthology of all-new work by some incredibly impressive writers, and edited by genre heroes Sam Weller and Mort Castle, all in honor of the recently passed Ray Bradbury, a Chicago-area native (for those who didn’t know) who had one of the most interesting and varied literary careers of the entire MidCentury Modernist era. And indeed, I think a big reason why it was so easy for Weller and Castle to attract the likes of such heavy hitters as Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Joe Meno, Bonnie Jo Campbell and a lot more is precisely because Bradbury had a career that was so hard to define, a man who dipped his influential toes into horror, science-fiction, crime, Young Adult, even hippie weirdness without ever being trapped in one or another, and I think it’s natural for writers to be inspired by this and want to occasionally do some Edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle Bradburian walking off the beaten path themselves. It’s such a fitting William Morrow / Harper Collins and loving tribute because it’s so smart and dense on its own, and Weller and Castle are to be commended for putting together one of the most entertaining compilations I’ve read in a while. It comes strongly recommended.
Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury
Out of 10: N/A CJ
n in Chicago
Photos from the recent local stop of Community creator Dan Harmonâ€™s dark, hilarious podcast, plus a few thoughts on why this is the greatest podcast in America youâ€™re not listening to 91
So have you heard yet about this sorta new podcast called Harmontown [harmontown.com]? It’s by Dan Harmon, the guy who infamously created and then got fired from the cultishly loved TV show “Community;” and that’s the big guilty confession I need to make and be done with right away, that I’ve never actually been much of a fan of “Community,” which I find okay but just a little too silly for my tastes, which with my new commitment in middle age to just be watching less television overall has meant that I’ve missed most of the episodes. But “Harmontown” is a very different thing than that, and something much more up my alley; it’s what Harmon calls his version of seeing a therapist, a daringly confessional and often blackly dark Spaulding-Grey-like dialogue he has on stage at a storefront theatre every week (literally the back room of a comicbook store in Los Angeles), riffing with a number of sidekicks like improv actor Jeff Davis (acting as Ed McMahon, DJ and time-keeper simultaneously), his girlfriend and fellow podcaster Erin McGathy, and an RPG “dungeonmaster” named Spencer who they literally
pulled randomly out of the audience one week, who they now play Dungeons & Dragons with on every single episode, which under a litany of guests from former Whose Line Is It Anyway alums turns into a hilarious long-form improv bit each time. Harmontown is ‘edgy’ in the best and most classic sense of the term, that you literally do not know what might happen from one moment to the next, with episodes that have sometimes devolved into all-out relationship fights between Harmon and McGathy on stage; and Harmon has the courage to talk about a lot more personal stuff than the usual “Hollywood” person, a self-diagnosed “semi-Aspergers” sufferer who more than once has talked at length about the full-sized “Real Doll” sex toy he bought in his youth, various things he’s stuck up his ass over the years, and the complicated relationship he has with both his family and the mainstream entertainment industry. And whoo boy, do they all drink a lot, an integral part of the show’s mythology and a refreshing change from all the twenty-something artists I know these days, who all seem to be responsible little married teetotalers; but Harmon is always very smart and very, very funny, having an innate sense of what makes a show like this entertaining to a live audience, and subtly always tweaking the details of how the show works. And so all these factors added together make for a perfect podcast, which is why a rapidly growing amount of people like myself have become obsessive fans of it over the last six months. So I was as excited as everyone else when the group announced earlier this year that they would be embarking on a national tour, and even taking Spencer along; and not only that, but that they’d be joined by some indie filmmakers putting together a documentary about it all; and not only that, but cutting the live recordings together while on the road, and literally releasing them 24 hours after each show throughout the tour, so that the podcast subscribers could follow along in almost real time, aided profoundly by a busy Tumblr account full of road photos and daily short videos. And so not even counting anything else, this alone is something the Harmontown team should be commended for, bringing this kind of tech-savvy idea to a “major” podcast and a mainstream audience in the same way that Louis C.K. brought the idea of direct-pay web sales to a mass audience; this is a huge commitment, as any artist who’s been on the road and has tried maintaining even a Facebook feed can tell you; and it has paid off for Harmontown in this profound way, in that you can’t help with this schedule but be an obsessive fan who excitedly anticipates each new episode, literally feeling sometimes like you’re a vicarious ghostly traveler with all these people as they cross the country twice by bus, a powerful aspect of podcasting that you can’t get with traditional broadcasts or “parked” media like YouTube, and that most podcasts don’t get to utilize because they simply don’t have the kinds of resources that Harmontown does (like sold-out shows in comedy clubs all around the nation, which gives them the kind of money to be able to hire a tech person to come with them, who’s there for no other reason to cut together episodes and post media). But it was while actually attending the Chicago show last night that the final piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place with me: because actually seeing Harmon perform makes you realize the almost childlike excited glee he has about being there, the optimism he simply has about life and all the potential chaos that can happen in that life, in a way you
don’t sense from just the audio of the podcast, or the sometimes bleak subject matter itself. Being there, and seeing the kind of trust and enthusiasm he has for the live audience, makes you realize how he’s able to pull off one of the most flabbergasting details about the podcast -- that they encourage random audience members to speak up whenever they want, often pull those audience members onto the stage, yet almost every time end up with a fascinating character who was well worth the time to speak with, which to my cynical ass is a miracle I can’t figure out how they get away with time and time again. But being at the show, you understand that Harmon and co. are creating a space where only these people feel the desire to speak up in the first place (well, for the most part), where the audience is packed with these kinds of people; in fact, here at the Chicago show, Harmon literally gave the floor to this incredible 16-year-old kid and “Harmon mini-me” fan who he had met before the show while hanging out in the lobby, there with his father so he could get in underage, who talked just like Harmon and even kind of looked like him, and this turned out to be one of the most charming things Harmon could’ve done, and what I thought was a real highlight of the entire national tour. It’s such a difficult combination to pull off, this earnestness yet cynicism about the world, which is the key to “Harmontown” being so unique and memorable; and it makes me understand better why “Community” fans love that show so passionately, and why the live audiences for this tour have mostly looked like rooms full of “Community” extras. Just like we currently look at people like Sid Caeser and Lucille Ball and consider them the people who “created all the rules” for the television that came after them, so too are we right this second watching the web’s Jackie Gleasons creating the rules for podcasts and YouTube channels that will still be guiding the medium 75 years from now; and “Harmontown” is absolutely one of these rule-defining shows, one of the first big-audience podcasts to both understand the kind of special content you can only present in this medium, and how to take advantage of the low-to-the-ground benefits from being a mobile little media team like this. I highly encourage you to become a fan soon, if you’ve never listened before. CJ
Victor LaValle’s Lucretia and the Kroons is a frustrating reading experience, because it’s full of great ideas that are mostly handled poorly, or at the least with poor material added to either side of the great idea, so that what could’ve been a tight little alt-horror tale instead became a rambling thing that made me frown a lot while going through it and say to myself, “Oh. Really? That’s the direction you’re going with this? Ugh. Okay.” A literal Poor Black Child In The Ghetto story, our titular hero is a precociously holier-than-thou and Dickensian-put-upon little girl in a Queens housing development, where I guess supposedly there used to be a family of crackheads in the apartment upstairs? Who, like, all died grisly deaths and then became ghosts or something? Or are, hmm, I don’t know, like abducting human girls and taking them to this weird alt-history J-horror fantasyland version of New York City? Or maybe they’re some alien race who were only posing as crackheads to fool people in the real world? Or, uh, something? That’s a major problem with this ambitious but messy manuscript, that LaValle quickly seems to lose track of what he’s trying to say in the first place, bouncing from one random horror trope to the next like a pinball (and including Victor LaValle some pretty bad non-horror cliches as well, including The Best Friend Spiegel & Grau With Cancer, the Overworked Single Mother, the Older Brother With Complicated Family Relationship and more), none of it ever quite fitting together into a consistent internal mythology. It’s got some great mental images, and certainly LaValle’s to be commended for the grand scope of what he tries to pull off; but this is more of a miss than a hit in my opinion, an admirable but scattershot experiment that will hopefully lead to stronger and more mature work from this promising writer.
Lucretia and the Kroons By
Out of 10: 7.7 CJ
COMING SOON itunes: COMING SOON online: issuu.com/jasonpettus/cclapjournal01 paper: bit.ly/cclapjournal01print
The CCLaP Journal is the monthly magazine of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, gathering up the material that ran at our bl...
Published on Feb 19, 2013
The CCLaP Journal is the monthly magazine of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, gathering up the material that ran at our bl...