The organization of this book is nebulous, there are two major story lines which are formed by numerous connected shorts: sociopaths and animals. There are a number of short stories inserted which may or may not be related to the greater story lines. Potentially your call. The erotic is in every nook and cranny then spread blanket like over the whole. Here it is the worthless drug while love is a distant memory, if that. Life and work: a chronic ache, some nagging beast with its bilious claws dug in. Chiem's world is real. Hyperreal. The colors ring through the pages, even a glance at the angles and edges will mar your eyes. There is humor but it is a blown leaf.
Sociopaths, the first series of stories, is simple in its conception yet complex in its acrobatics. The events revolve around two characters in a relationship, plus three others which act as catalysts of action. The action here is portrayed bluntly; there is little suspense in the plot. It is the feelings, movements, relationships and various ideas however which carry the story. The subtleties and small motions of the character are able to betray deep pasts, cogitations et c. The characters flesh out a little more than just simple abstractions yet exist in a half world of personality. As such we are left to determine the motives of some of their actions; Chiem never lets us know them deeply. This might be a flaw in another writer but Chiem effectively uses this to form a sort of mystery in them. The characters are in certain ways vary familiar and yet unhuman. They could be us even, or perhaps twisted shadows of ourselves. As with the people around us we often think we know them, have their traits pinned, yet come to find that circumstances will push them to extreme actions and unthinkable reactions. Notable in Chiem's writing is the ambiguity which serves to write much of the story off the page. He throws us bits and pieces which we may use to determine for ourselves whole other stories which lie behind the one in the book. Sociopaths is also notable for a number of winding extended sentences and while a few are clumsy, others are deftly pulled off.
A second series of stories titled Animal is even bleaker than Sociopaths. We find the boxer River and his girlfriend Sam entwined in a relationship with Mary. Time is a manipulated variable here, Chiem slowing it down or speeding it up at his will. Often River and Sam will be engaged in a low stakes, every day activity then for no apparent reason break into hysterical fighting. Again Chiem provides us with only the barest of clues as to the history of these three but it is evidently fraught with drama. Writing this way, writing the spaces between the letters, illustrating the events that precede or follow the action as Chiem does here is a tricky endeavor. If executed well the reader is left with a lofty and magical story which engages the imagination long after the book has been closed. This is extremely difficult however and if done without the required grace it can be confusing. Chiem seems to utilize the method in both of these stories and is very close to nailing it. Both Sociopaths and Animals are enjoyable stories but the "writing off the page" doesn't always connect. I do hope however that this is a method which Chiem continues to employ as he seems to have a good grasp of it and could certainly make it shine in future writing.
Chiem's shorter, less traditional stories are his strong suit. He nails it in his gripping second person account of a car accident How to Survive a Car Accident. Baby is Going to Die Tonight portrays a nameless ageless dreamy love, the missing details causing us to beg for more. Cutty depicts a relationship at the heart of which is an unequal power struggle. Told partially in texts these poetic missives often communicate more than the characters are able to convey verbally. They offer a beautiful release, the last one holds a key which turns the story after it is read. Planet B Boy holds some of my favorite lines in the book. This story describes a masterful b boy practicing and competing. It heavily references a movie which I haven't seen and I suspect that understanding the movie would illuminate certain part of the story. Regardless there are two lines here which demonstrate perfectly Chiems sparkling, head cocking ability for description:
"He says: I am going to see what's happening. He says, I can dance so symmetrically for so long it feels like nihilism. I can make my body a catastrophe"
"He has danced every day for the past few years with a signature presence. All the muscles in his arms glow in open tension"He takes the ordinary and presents it to us in a new way which feel strange yet strangely fits, bends our synapses into new configurations, opens up rooms which are illuminated in a benthic light.
While there are a number of themes touched upon in YPP the recurring meditation is young love which is seen from every facet: the ache of desire, the ease of long term, the burn of long distance, the rut of forgetting. Good, bad, ambivalent, apathetic. It is all here. Many of Chiem's character have different surfaces but similar cores. We see different angles of love from roughly the same subject. Thus YPP is something of a monograph, a comprehensive study of the subject. His view is dark, and in the world we live in one could hardly find fault with this. But he conveys the darkness beautifully, and with heart. This is a book in which you will find lines which will stymie you for hours, weeks, until one day, in the midst of personal tragedy it will click, it's meaning suddenly revealed. This will be a book that you find more beautiful every time you read it, that you will keep beside your bed in order to open in the middle of the night to read, at random, one line.
YPP's page on Scrambler books
Richard Chiem's blog
A picture of a kitten