Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review of "Crunk Juice" by Steve Roggenbuck

(This book can be read in its entirety on Roggenbuck's website linked below)      

           Either you get Roggenbuck or you don't. It's that simple. There is no rationalizing either position, one could go on for hours debating his pastiche style, whether what he writes is or isn't poetry, but really all talk approaches irrelevance. Some have tried to tear him apart but in perfect style these rips are appropriated by Roggenbuck and  are the blurbs on the back of the book. While heavily influenced by a slew of writers most notably Whitman (in content) and Burroughs (in method)  Roggenbuck's work is completely, umcompromisingly and naively unique. The work evolves over a handful of chapters which are given seemingly arbitrary titles.
       The first four sections are (or at least written as if) taken  from facebook posts, tweets or other brief e-missives. Individual lines are almost always misspelled and four or five lines are combined to form  "poems" which as a whole become ambiguous, funny, bizarre meditations and the lines in juxtaposition develop new meaning: surreal, touching, and sometimes sublime. "Justin Beiber" and "Dads" are frequent subjects and after a great amount of repetition seems to transcend their common signifiiers and take on a certain (almost religious) symbolic meaning. The final chapter is more uniformly (or obviously) Roggenbuck's writing and I'm glad he saved these poems for last as they are leagues beyond the others. Part Andrew W.K.-self-help-posi-core-mantras part daydream love poems these are the genius heart of Roggenbuck's writing and what I think all the haters should get to see first. Roggenbucks final poems are so heartfelt, and touch so deep that it's impossible to say that he isn't at least doing "something". I'm a big fan of his videos and I can't help but hear his measured voice reading these poems in my head as I read them. He really wants to reach out to people with his work which is evidenced by his individually hand addressing the packages which he sends his merch out in, and while his fan base (almost a cult of personality...almost) may be offputting to some, for those of us for which his work reverberates there is no one visible doing what he is doing today.
       Roggenbuck relies heavily on social media to spread and support his work, his current main project is I'm still deciding how I fell about the Lin, Roggenbuck et al. twitter lit scene. In theory it is pretty lame: hipster minimalism can only take you so far in the literary world I'm sure. But it's always around the 14th time Lins tell me about how he went to whole foods or Roggenbuck mention Justin Beiber that these guys open up and drop a bomb out of nowhere that makes 99% of all other literature past and present fade into the background.
        Will anyone be reading Roggenbuck 10 years, 5 year, even 6 months from now? Part of me hopes so: he has captured the Zeitgeist perfectly and have innovated to a certain extent. I can't help but be skeptical though: most of Roggenbuck's poems are on off affairs, they have little reread value and while they do explore some interesting themes and are able to elicit strong feeling they come off as gimmicky and that may put off future readers. Here's hoping Roggenbuck is on the rise.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fragments and a Poem


          those tedious energies you spend on pleasure, your distractions a boredom and endless series of gradated expansions. Faultlessly continue to unsurprise in advances, repetitive destruction and elaborations. Moving forward step by step, and the steps so offset there are circles incised in the dust

Fragment #2

        When I walked through the courtyard I could feel the energy flowing out of a hundred buzzing dorm rooms, the fridaynightenergy palpable in the spring air. Later that night we held each other for what seemed like hours, she was my guide: all knowing , protecting and leading. How could I not help feeling in love? Our bodies felt enmeshed and I associated it with her and not those little blue lies.
            He finally understand it then, months later (a year?) That one night was the tipping point, the miscommunication that spirals up and out then  collapsed under its own flimsy framework. When reminiscing it all seems clean like a historical timeline; he's sure he gets it all now. Calmed after those months of agony his rational sense steps in again, and yet some powerful urge causes him to give her desperate offerings. Thinking back it seems to him he's always felt this way, and yet he can tell. It's all over and long gone and he can't help but feel numb now . Numb and ashamed at the ridiculous harm a mistake makes.

Fragment #3

         Around the door stop holly leaves thick with red berries were tied abundantly .
         -A simple precaution,  he said in passing as we swept through, smiling. The feeling of the holly as I passed through was unmistakeable like a steady gaze and hand pushing me though as though a sacred duty.  twine and other accoutrement hanging from the low ceiling jostled each other without moving for the little space available inside. Dozens of matchsticks rained down before us from the ceiling. An omen perhaps though neither of us mentioned it. On the fire a small crucible was simmering and he stooped and placed an ember on a nearby thurible which sent up a thin stream of sweet smoke. I peered into the warming vessel and attracted by the complex scent stooped next to him,
         -What's in there?
         -Tarmony and Stickle, one's an herb I gather from a high mountain plain, the other sap from a swamp shrub. Keeps the place...clean

Fragment #4

the pure land raiders marauding soldiers of good fortune and ideals, spreaders of perfection and unceasing rightness     by hook and by crook through coercion and force they work    white robed minions of the purest of lands


                 Steely eyed farmer
                           she is a
            girl of immense proportions
          riding up and down the street
          the only person i've ever seen
           hunched over a speeding frame
                       and she's gone
                   the light's changed

Fragment #5

    It was possible that we had all missed it, in our intent watching it passed us by with the rest of the world. Cleverly disguised as a minor armed conflict or backward revolution. Perhaps the clarion call was encoded in the lyrics of a rock song or the lines of a popular movie. Whatever the actuality it became evident one day that the moment we had all been waiting, preparing, yearning for had slipped past us with a dull roar.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review of "Last Exit to Brooklyn"

          Reviewing Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn is sort of like reviewing the Clash's eponymous first album: both are landmarks in artistic development and have been reviewed to death, and while each is incredibly influential they have been eclipsed by later, more popular works: for example everyone knows Requiem for a Dream (if only through the movie) and London calling. Yet each early work provides a more raw, honest vision from the artists. So i'll try not to talk about Selby's extensive use of New York vernacular, and how edgy Selby is or the gritty realism blah blah blah.
         For those who have never heard of him Hubert Selby Jr. wrote in his free time while working various jobs and nursing a pretty strong dedication to opiates. He grew up in New York and wrote in the 60's until his death in in the last decade. Selby is not generally considered a beat writer and considering his subject matter and era provides an interesting counterpoint to the movement. Where the beats were self-centered and hip Selby was observant and square (consider he wrote much of this while staying at home partially invalided and caring for his young daughter...). The beats were often upperclass and well (read: over) educated, Selby was working class and educated in the military. I am coming to think of Selby as Beat writing for grownups.
       While the characters of Last Exit to Brooklyn are violent, crass, sexual, hell anything and everything Transgressive Selby's view is uniquely sensitive to his subjects and environment. It becomes apparent early on in the novel that Selby writes about ultraviolent diner rats, marathon drug users and teenage prostitutes not out of a voyeuristic urge or some from a point of superiority but because he has evidently spent long periods of time around these people and wants to display his view to the world. Some characters lean towards two-dimensionality but I think Selby can be forgiven as he is trying to get across the essence of  these subcultures and personalities. Selby gives a considerable amount of thoughtful attention to the lives and plights of homosexuals, transvestites and housewives which considering the novel came out in 1964 puts him  quite ahead of his time. Straight men are almost universally portrayed as slovenly, violent, drunk and lecherous and one has to wonder if this is stereotype or simply the way things were .
       The novel itself is composed of six stories of varying length that sometimes connect through a handful of characters and a shady diner. The events occur over an undefined time span. Some characters we only see once, others reoccur and are fleshed out to a certain degree. The fourth story "Tralala" centers around the life of a girl named Tralala who we witness grow from a crafty abandoned teenager to an alcoholic prostitute hardened by her years on the street moving from drunken lay to dingy flophouse. In spite of the fact we get to spend so much time with Tralala Selby keeps us at a distance from her. Her motives are unfathomable, her feelings unknown. Is she driven solely by survival or is there something deeper to her? Selby presents the story of Tralala not as a warning tale but as a lesson, a background story for all the times one is on the streets and comes across a stumbling, haggard scarred person and wonders how someone can get to such a depraved state. Selby seems to say that it isn't very hard ("could happen to you...") and in certain ways is a natural progression, or even forced by society.
       The final story "Coda" is the only section of the work which stands apart and does not include appearances by the familiar characters and could easily function as a unified entity. "Coda" is sort of a shortened version of "Ulysses" which plays out in the cramped rooms, grounds and streets of a poor, crime ridden New York housing project. The story jumps between a number of families: one Italian and always yelling, another black with many children and an absurdly vain and detached father, a widowed  woman, and a group of disgusting and rude house wives. We see each group at different points in the day over a period of 24 hours and a few times characters overlap or intersect yet stay worlds apart. There is a group of young children, which function in their nameless neglected state en masse as a single character, which roams the projects reeking destruction and fighting amongst themselves. The reckless violence of the children is contrasted with the childish scab picking and gossiping of the housewives. Selby presents the poverty and crowding of the projects as a force of inversion which turns the children into violent criminals and the housewives into worthless juveniles. The only member of the projects we can find sympathy for is the widow Ada who led a good hard working life yet is stuck in this lonely hellhole by misfortune, death and poverty. She is the target of the worst of the housewives vitriol for the simple reason that the children running past remind her of her loved son and cause her to smile.
        While maybe not the most shocking book you will read if you have ever enjoyed a work by Pahlaniuk, Bukowski, one that has made you cringe or unearthed to you the true depravity of humanity you owe it to yourself to read this book. It is our nation's true history told from a neutral first person perspective and shows that transgressive fiction is inherently American as we don't have to make this stuff up, it happens on our streets on a daily basis. Selby's style is fairly subdued transgressive realism but what he writes is truthful, thought-provoking and early transgressive fiction of the highest order.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: The Blind Owl

         It's a shame really. I had decided not to write a review of Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl before reading it twice but I just don't think it's going to happen. Not, and I really want to emphasize this, because it is a bad novel but more due to the fact that reading this book is quite a mental ordeal. It is a short book and the writing is not difficult but getting through it is best done either in one sitting or over the course of months by simply opening the book to a random page and reading for as long as you can bear then leaving the book to meditate.  As a bit of background Hedayat was from Iranian aristocracy and worked in the beginning of the century in mostly the realist vein (I haven't read any other works by him) and turned to political satire and commentary before committing suicide in Paris in 1951. The Blind Owl has been banned outright for at least the last decade in Iran and seems to have been a taboo novel for even longer. The novel itself is a lesson in repetition, madness, paranoia and angst. If it were a paining i imagine it might look like Bosch had redone "Nude Descending a staircase No.2": hellish, confusing, and inescapable. I repeatedly wondered if Lynch had read this as a number of themes from his movies are present in the novel: especially the unexplained alterego shifting of "Lost Highway" and the "hypertextual" repetition of "Inland Empire".
         While not outright transsgressive there is something "wrong" about the work: it preaches a sort of sedition against reality. Some authors may play with our notion of reality or meaning but Hedayat rips it to shreds and gives us no toehold from which to form a logical representation of the world he creates. A semilinear narrative exists in the work but it really wouldn't do justice to go through point by point. Rather there are a series of images, objects, sounds, feelings and tastes which are visited again and again by the protagonist(s). The importance of these experiences (if there is any) is never really explained and we are left grasping and wondring forced to make our own (most certainly wrong) conclusions. We get to witness these events from various viewpoints: first person, third person, viewed with fear or with detachment. Who ever is telling us about the scenes, for example an old man's grating laughter, seems obsessed with them, driven mad by them, surrounded by them. The unexplained obsessions in the book bring to mind Basara's "Chinese Letter" though I think Hedayat pulls off the theme with more virtuosity and skill. The narrator(s) are able to be alternately loving and hateful while all the time maintaining emotional neutrality or numbness. One describes his obsession with his wife whom he repeatedly calls "the bitch" who we later learn is a merciless cuckold. There is "the girl" who draws the narrator in with her beauty and gives the him a reason to live. Later when she enters his home we learn he may have killed her. Maybe.
             Central to the novel is an inability to determine one's own actions and past.The narrator may remember undertaking an action, but all evidence points to the contrary. Is this an example of an unreliable narrator or is Hedayat asking us to question the mechanisms of memory or of self concept?  Hedayat has created a lacuna in reality which conveniently sits inside a novel it is a work that reveals itself slowly over time, a dark forest which may hold uncomfortable truths to which we are pulled back incessantly.