Friday, May 31, 2013

Sailor's Holiday

by Barry Gifford

one sweaty afternoon in ensenada, jim thompson met flannery o'connor. the mutual attraction was immediate; they quickly retired to a local flophouse to bang it out. nine months later, a child was born: barry gifford. young barry inherited many of his parents' traits: from his prickly mom - a love of southern conversation and southern grotesquerie; from his laconic dad - a deep interest in how trashy, often deeply amoral sorts can get themselves involved with some heavy business. but the boy was also his own man, and instead of espousing the moralism of his mama or the nihilism of his daddy, he found his own path: to vividly illustrate the lives of low-lifes... but to stop just short of turning them into toxic aliens. give them healthy, sex-positive attitudes; give them amusingly quirky conversational tics! maybe even give them a happy ending. the world is scary and deadly - but it can be fun too!

the novel is a continuation of the adventures of Sailor and Lula, perhaps most famous as the protagonists of david lynch's bizarre extravaganza Wild at Heart. Sailor's Holiday is actually a collection of four interrelated novellas. despite how strong the violence and sadism can occasionally get, they are all rather lightweight and charming. they also introduce one of my new favorite characters, Sailor and Lula's sweet, fearless son - Pace Ripley. he's great. his character is central in two of the stories, once at around age 10 and then at age 15. this kid is a marvel under pressure, despite being involved in some sordid doings and being kidnapped two times by two different psychos. he keeps both his wits and his deadpan sensibility about him at all times. when we last hear of him, he is leading himalayan treks in nepal. despite his penchant for underage smoking and drinking, this is a son i'd be delighted to have.

"59° and Raining": the further adventures of scary-hot Perdita Durango and her new boyfriend Romeo Delarosa, as they embark on a bloody adventure full of kidnapping, ritual sacrifice, and placenta smuggling. this is the basis of the horrific film Dance with the Devil.

"Sailor's Holiday": Lula is busy raising little Pace and trying to find herself. Sailor finally gets out of jail. poor Pace gets kidnapped. hi-jinks ensue.

"Sultans of Africa": Pace starts hanging out with the sketchy Rattler twins. Sailor is finding his job at a gator repellent factory to be a mite challenging. Lula gets slightly involved in the revivalism of Reverend Goodin Plenty. poor Pace gets kidnapped again.

"Consuelo's Kiss": Sailor and Lula take a road trip to celebrate Sailor's 50th birthday. in a parallel plot, intrepid jailbait Consuelo Whynot takes a road trip to visit her mystic lover Venus. rumination and bloodshed follow.

it is almost unimportant to give details of the novellas themselves. the main thing about gifford's writing is that it is digressive. have you ever seen the truffaut film Shoot The Piano Player? in the beginning, the protagonist comes across a nice fellow who proceeds to tell his interesting but totally random story of love lost. random guy disappears and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie. well, the same thing goes for this novel. there are plots and central characters, sure, but on every page we mainly read the stories, gossip, tidbits, facts, and effluvia of other characters, their lives and the way those lives ended. Sailor's Holiday is completely digressive in its storytelling. although the writing style is stripped-down, it is not tightly paced by any means. the best way i can describe the experience is to say that it is like sitting on a porch drinking beers on a hot day with old friends or interesting new acquaintances, shooting the shit and telling stories about all the crazy people we've known and the crazy stories we've heard, tales full of gallows humor, caricature, sex, blood, death, marriage, family, life. a pleasant way to spend an afternoon!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Carnivorous Lamb

by Agustin Gomez-Arcos

The Carnivorous Lambthis bizarre novel is for advanced readers only. apparently The Carnivorous Lamb is an extended metaphor for life in Spain under Franco as well as a scathing indictment of both fascism and catholicism. makes sense. but the critiques and political commentary didn't seem metaphorical or ambiguous to me - the various analyses of religion and government are right there on every page. they are interwoven with all of the romantic, overheated, pervy details of an incestuous brotherly relationship unfolding over time. it's almost like Fassbinder in his Querelle phase (or maybe earlier - his Lola phase?) decided to sit down and write a novel. it is sickening and fascinating and really smart, all at once. the often langorous, decadent perspective of the narrator only helps to make the journey all the more disturbing. Story of the Queer Eye! indeed.

The Carnivorous Lamb
the characterizations are severely limited by the metaphor; the narrative is rambling; the politics are less-than-subtle; the relentlessly pithy commentary is at times unbearable; there is often a kind of staginess to the dialogue (perhaps due to the translation). but those weaknesses seem so thin when looking at the beauty of much of the language, the deadpan irony of the observations, the sheer aggressiveness of the various political points being made... and just the uniqueness of the entire effort overall. it is a pointed, aggravatingly stylized, swooningly pornographic, highly intelligent, vindictive little literary conceit.

i suppose this novel is, inevitably, considered to be a member of the genre Queer Fiction; it has as much in common with the many often lightweight examples of that genre as the works of Burroughs.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Twyborn Affair

by Patrick White

The Twyborn Affairi picked this up in a hostel donation shelf in amsterdam; it was missing both the back and front covers and the author was unknown to me. i knew nothing about it except that it was something to pass the time reading while high, as my traveling partner slowly regained her health. i think it was the best circumstances in which to read the book; its mysteries and dreamlike meanderings completely free from descriptive and contextual blurb, all explication left entirely to my own impressions. something about the sometimes languorous, sometimes precise writing style and the lingering sense of mysterious motivations barely expressed by the characters was so reminscent of the polite dutch people around me, in their city full of strangeness and charm. reading the movement of the protagonist through periods as an australian jackaroo, a brothel's madame, a soldier in world war 2 france, a transvestite... it felt at first like trying to figure out the narrative of a dream, until slowly, with no great defining moment, everything made perfect and tragic sense. it was a move from a description of a dream into the dream itself. by the end of the novel i felt as if i had looked through the author's eyes and thought the author's thoughts.

The Twyborn Affair (Vintage Classics)in the end, what is the meaning? well, as with all great books, there are many avenues to finding meaning and many sorts of meanings on display, many "points" that can be found and many that are being made, consciously and perhaps otherwise. identity and its potential fluidity. self-affirmation. class and social conventions. masculine & feminine archetypes. an ode to landscapes, both country and city. bourgeoisie vs. bohemia. the peace that some find in war, the war that exists during peace. lots of things. if i had to chose one of the above, i'd say the first: Identity. what is it, anyway?

The Twyborn Affairnow a warning: this is dense, dizzying, poetic prose. challenging. think Peake, Pynchon, Paul Scott, etc... he's quite different from those authors but they all share an occasional sort of impenetrability in the writing. well, at least superficially impenetrable - the opposite of a quick and shallow read. wonderful stuff, gorgeous and memorable prose, but not for everyone i suppose.

according to australians i met during the trip, apparently Patrick White's novels are required reading back home, but the kind that few australians ever actually get around to reading. a strange fate for the only australian nobel prize winner for literature! to be known yet unknown - so much like the protagonist of his fascinating novel.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Horse Crazy

by Gary Indiana

Horse CrazyGary Indiana is a wise and well-respected art critic. a photo of him will show a man who looks really gnomish, wizened well beyond his years, an almost malnourished version of Truman Capote. he is not even remotely a traditionally handsome guy. i say this not to be critical or demeaning; my point is that this is a man who has experienced difference his entire life - so i hoped his perspective would be informed by perhaps something of an outsider mentality. and this lack - combined with the knowledge that he is presumably an intelligent and discerning art critic - is exactly why the rote, annoying Horse Crazy was such a disappointment. Indiana tackles a story and a theme that is so familiar that it becomes inescapably dull and predictable and trite. it is like every other gay or non-gay novel in which an older guy chases after the skirts of some pretty young thing who ends up being a femme or homme fatale, a moral black hole. the eternal - and eternally predictable - pursuit of physical perfection. this is especially aggravating when considering who the author is and what he has probably experienced in his life - physical appearance does create 'outsider status', particularly in Gay World. so why did he play into this paradigm instead of reacting against it or even subverting it? was he aiming for marketable blandness and the standardized depiction of beauty in order to achieve... well, what exactly did he mean to achieve?

the writing is not at all bad. quite dry, quite sardonic. it is, unfortunately, the underlying ideas that are mediocre. there does not appear to be an awareness that a cliche is being trotted out, repeated in yet another book, per usual.

anyway, the novel itself. it is about a photographer obsessed with a manipulative waiter (and a former heroin addict - thus the lame title). the waiter is, of course, oh such a handsome errant prince with such a great, junkie-chic body. the photographer is, of course, all too easily strung along and taken advantage of. YAWN. the only reason this rises above 1-star material is that i had a lot of amusement when our protagonist reacts to finding his love-of-a-lifetime selling whatnot on a nyc sidewalk. his dawning realization that he is obsessed with someone who is not just a hustler, but also sort of a tacky bozo... priceless! suddenly he finds him to be not-so-cute. ha, ha - joke's on you, bougie sucker!

Indiana went on to deliver a postmodern trilogy based on famous modern crimes (among them, andrew cunanan's murder of versace and the menendez brothers' parental slayfest). i wonder if they are more interesting.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Flesh Fables

by Aaron Travis

hard to believe that these stories were published in various erotic magazines in the 80s. they push boundaries that i didn't even realize existed. at this point i don't even know what i'm going to say about this collection. except that i will probably have nightmares tonight about vindictive sex torture, transformative (literally) sex torture, gray area but basically good-time quasi-sex torture that still made me feel like i needed to shower off a creepy feeling of wrongness; exploited and abused teens & adults, delicate coming of age reminiscences; Michel Foucault, Ancient Rome, Clive Barker, Louisiana, John Preston; buried self-loathing made sexy (i suppose) in a handsome trucker, anti-americanism paving the way to the torture and sexual destruction of an american abroad - many, many years before Hostel & Turistas; blue light is terrifying, kudzu is terrifying, southern cops are terrifying, the Turks are terrifying; a game of cards; piss, semen, and big dicks; public humiliation in diners, the leather world, secret polaroids and disturbing paperbacks, a road trip, a trip to Italy, a mind-trip; things that are hot, things that are intellectually fascinating, things that are so appalling that they sorta make me die inside a little bit. oh and a headless torso that is watching itself as it is sexually wrung out and then literally de-sexed (not castrated: de-sexed). the writing is way beyond what i expected. highly intelligent. atmospheric. Dennis Cooper minus the wimpy blankness & collegiate postmodernism. De Sade & Bret Easton Ellis & Jim Thompson & Poppy Brite all got together and had a baby named The Flesh Fables. acclaimed historical author Steven Saylor writing pseudonymously as villainous pornographer Aaron Travis. surprisingly serious and seriously sadistic, with a few uncomfortably light touches to close out all the tortuous intensity. extremely challenging, in a good way... but also in a way that made me feel sick to my stomach and sorta hollow, sorta mentally & emotionally & morally cored out. Travis mines the unconscious like oil drillers rape the land - sometimes with a lot more subtlety but always with an ample amount of crude brutality. should erotic fiction have the cumulative effect of making you feel like a bad person? this collection, summed up in a word: memorable!
The Flesh Fables
but oh, this cover, ugh:

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Buddha of Suburbia

by Hanif Kureisha

The Buddha of Suburbiai read this one because of my fondness for the movie My Beautiful Laundrette, which was written by this author. that movie was so generous, its characters so busy, its perspective so uncomplaining about unruly complicated messy awkward life. the book has that same feeling. i have a (too) organized mind and i feel vaguely envious of how Kureishi must see the world, taking in all of the confusion and seeing it as natural, organic, sometimes awful but mainly kinda beautiful. that generosity of spirit is the best thing about this delightful but sometimes rather minor note novel. it is crammed with life. even in suburbia!

the protagonist is casually bi. so am i. this is maybe the only other time i've read of such a protagonist in contemporary literary fiction (the other being The Mysteries of Pittsburgh). beyond sexuality, Karim tries to be open-minded and even-handed; he often fails utterly and holds things against people that he knows he shouldn't. Karim is also a very internal person, yet is surrounded by outgoing people and is part of a dynamic whirl of events, socializing, coming-and-going, people changing, etc. he is a part of different groups while being apart from those groups as well. it was a nice experience to read all about a character who showed me a way of looking at myself.

Esikaupunkien buddhaبوذا الضواحيi should also mention that Karim is a Class A Jerkoff. he makes poor decisions. he is a condescending know-it-all who talks on and on and on. he's such an asshole at times and was quite hard to deal with. at those points it was even harder realizing that i still saw myself in him. ah well. the best character is actually his friend Jamilla ('Jammie') who has a rather adorably pathetic fiance and is a smart, sensible, rather mean-spirited, tough-minded, down-to-earth lady that i would like to marry.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Rules of Attraction

by Bret Easton Ellis

The Rules of AttractionEllis is one of those authors that seems to grow in stature as time marches on. i see him on so many Favorite Author lists and i just have to roll my eyes a bit. personally, he'll always be the author i laughed at on a regular basis: hilariously pretentious and embarrassingly convinced that pretension equals depth. American Psycho? sorry, the film version was a better portrait of capitalist consumerism and had the intelligence to re-route the author's misogyny so that it existed solely within the central psycho. Less Than Zero? well, it's very hard for me to muster any empathy for spoiled brats who are unhappy with their oversexed, well-fed lives - and who have the lack of tact to complain about their emptiness. gosh i guess this turned out to be a review of 3 books!

but The Rules of Attraction is something different, something special. its playfulness with narrative and perspective is actually rather brilliant. i'm not sure i've read another novel where fully one-third of the narrative was a jerk-off fabrication by one of the characters (one who isn't a psychotic serial killer, that is). perhaps prior to Rules, Ellis somehow exorcised all that repulsive self-pity that inundanted Zero and then replaced it with malevolent wit. and better yet, he puts his usual snarkiness in the mouths of characters who - although soulless - still genuinely face more life challenges than his prior student portraits.

most surprising of all, the nearly-marginal story of the suicide: bitterly ironic, entirely moving, and wonderfully written. and hey, there's even a teensy little light at the end of the tunnel that didn't feel forced. good job, Ellis. i never thought i'd say that phrase!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Boy's Own Story

by Edmund White

A Boy's Own Story Edmund White portrays his younger life in a narcotic and poetic style. not exactly the most flattering self-portrait... the protagonist's travails are emotionally affecting yet he remains creepily distanced from the events and people in his own life - in particular from his equally creepy, distant, self-absorbed father. the apple does not fall far from the tree, i suppose. overall, the language is some of the most beautiful, in my experience, of all of gay fiction - rivaling even Giovanni's Room. the prose is sometimes so gorgeous it becomes hypnotic. the man certainly knows how to write!

A Boy's Own Storythe episodic nature of the book - in some ways disguised by the circular narrative - is rich with at times dreamy, other times cruelly crystal clear recountings of key moments in this boy's life. i was so impressed by this one that i've forced a couple friends (straight ones) to give it a go. unfortunately, they both found the narrator to be, well... "poisonous" would be an accurate word, although i'm sure stronger, angrier words were used. i suppose i can see that. but the narrator is a character of depth, full of wry introspection and canny circumspection. he lives in a marvelously layered and mysterious world, one where he often turns out to be more predator than prey. the whole thing flows together in a way that is impressively cohesive and memorable. a very individualistic achievement in the Gay Coming of Age subgenre.

plus i've never read a more sinister depiction of a blowjob in my life!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Silently and Very Fast

by Catherynne Valente
Silently and Very Fast
hello gorgeous! i am amazed. such a tender story of an AI trying to grow up, such luminous prose, glowing pearls of prose, layers of myth and fable and parable and dreams and dreaming and dreamscapes and science like magic. a tale retold in so many ways, characters like archetypes but real, so real! a child trying to grow up. parents who are brothers and sisters and lovers and children. such yearning! such emotion! such simple emotions, and such complexity. such brilliant clarity. an author perfectly in control of her talent. a weaving, a tapestry, an ancient story and a bright shiny new one. how many ways can a story be told and still feel fresh? Valente seems to know all the ways. and all the words, and all the metaphors, and all the things my own robot mind wishes it could say, to put into words, to make sense of things like life and death and growing up and wanting to be more, so much more, but not knowing what that more really is, can be, could have been, can still be. a tender and wistful dream of a story. it won the Hugo for Best Novella. well-deserved. a good recipe will taste rich and evocative of certain places, but will also be simple. it will focus on showcasing the ingredients. it will all come together in a beautiful kind of simplicity. i like to take my time with such a meal, but it's hard. so delicious! it looks so good and it is good for you too. Silently and Very Fast is an enriching and nourishing experience. warmth and kindness and sadness and a terrible wonderful ambiguity; the sweet breath of life and a darker taste of the unknown. all the important things. beautiful, beautiful! the story makes me want to have AI children of my own. i sigh, a longing sigh but i'm not sure what i'm longing for. see what you do to me? i can barely make my words make sense. i can't even get my sentences right, my metaphors straight. oh it doesn't matter, you are in me now.


plus you can read it for free here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Book of Lost Things

by John Connolly

Fugue state, formally Dissociative Fugue... usually involves unplanned travel or wandering, and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity. Fugues are usually precipitated by a stressful episode.
The Book of Lost Thingsin world war 2-era england, young David loses his mother after a lingering illness and begins to experience strange dissociative episodes, often involving the sounds of books whispering to him and usually ending with him falling into unconsciousness. soon enough, his father finds a new wife named Rose - a nurse at his mother's hospice - and David finds himself with a stepmother and an infant half-brother. David is deeply unhappy with this development. after the new family moves out of london to Rose's country home in order to escape german bombers, David realizes a shadowy, crooked figure has sinister designs on him and his brother. one night, after a particularly bad argument with his folks, David hears his mother's voice calling him. following that voice, he crawls into a hole within a sunken garden - just as a german bomber also falls from the sky and crashes into that garden. he emerges into a sinister fantasyland. his quest: Find and Rescue His Mother. his nemesis: The Crooked Man.
John Connolly is best known as a respected writer of an excellent detective series. his strengths have been widely reported: gorgeously dark and lush descriptive skills, a sensitive portrayal of private eye Charlie Parker - an unusually tormented protagonist (tragic even for a genre noted for its sad, sad heroes), and a unsettling ability to mix the prosaic with the supernatural to startling effect. in this book, Connolly takes each of those gifts and streamlines them in a way that is appropriate for the reader of young adult or even children's literature - although this novel is very clearly an Adult Fairy Tale. the result is pleasingly distinctive. there are many scenes that are striking in their psychosocial nuance, their foreboding atmosphere, their ability to evoke that wonderfully shivery feeling of fearful anticipation. my favorite passage happens early on: David's daunting entry into the strange fantasy world... an eerie vignette that is a model of careful, suspenseful writing, featuring unearthly quiet, child-like flowers, a a taciturn Woodsman, the smoking remains of the german bomber, bleeding trees, a house in the woods with a Giger-like exterior, and a gathering of evil wolfish beings.
Dionysian imitatio, a literary method of imitation conceived as the practice of emulating, adaptating, reworking and enriching a source text by an earlier author.
 Book of Lost Things is a book of mythopoeic templates - revisited, revised, regurgitated, remixed, and reimagined. we have an entire company of Big Bad Wolves, reconfigured as ambitious wolf-men, born of a grotesquely slutty Little Red Hood and sprung from the nightmares of a juvenile king... a perhaps not-so-Wicked Stepmother... a malevolent and terrifying Sleeping Beauty... Childe Roland, transformed as a brave gay soldier in search of his long-lost lover... trolls and harpies and a savage, hungry Beast... a young girl's spirit in a glass jar... and our villain, a gleeful child-thief, a striker of dark bargains, a Rumpelstiltskin, an old old devil: The Crooked Man.

the use of revisionism is, sadly, not always successful. a comic interlude with the socialist Seven Dwarves and an obese, monstrous Snow White is depressingly unfunny and a little desperate (at least to this reader). and a long part near the end, depicting various torture chambers and examples of The Crooked Man's terrible villainy seems to be merely an excuse for Connolly to indulge himself with a gloatingly vicious array of sadistic tableau. both sequences were eye-rolling and sigh-inducing.

but those are aberrations; despite them, Connolly more than succeeds in creating delightful and intriguing reinterprations of figures from fairy and folk tale. even better, David's character is a slow-burning but dynamic one, changing in bits and starts from boy to man with each new encounter. he is a realistically flawed protagonist as well as a brave and endearing little hero.

Memento mori, a Latin phrase translated as "Remember your mortality", "Remember you must die" or "Remember you will die"... it names a genre of artistic work which varies widely, but which all share the same purpose: to remind people of their own mortality.

the novel's extended endings were a brilliant surprise. to avoid spoilers, i'll just say that i was entirely taken aback by the meaning of The Book of Lost Things itself. and - even more memorably, more intensely - the closing pages' no-nonsense illustration of the potential and/or inherent tragedy of human life in general... and the idea of that tragedy - no matter how intimate - somehow not really being that tragic at all - just simply a part of the greater cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

i hate to end a review with a tv show reference... but if you have ever seen the last 10 minutes or so of Six Feet Under's final episode - a wondrously sad, wistful, yet somehow uplifting experience - you will know exactly what i mean. the ending of this rather fantastic book is equally moving.