32. Women, by Chloe Caldwell

20 Nov

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“When Finn and I are drinking in dark bars, we forget we are in public, it’s as though we go underwater. When we finish kissing, she pulls away and looks around, saying, Woah, everything is still here.”

Every white-hot train-wreck passion deserves a book, at least in the eyes of the person experiencing it. These are moments of unbearable clarity, longing, sex, perfection—the sun coming through the curtains of a rented room, a particular person’s skin, the little things they said, the way one feels that one could not possibly feel more. And then so all that feeling overflows into writing. In Chloe Caldwell’s case it’s the story of her first female lover, an affair she had with a woman twice her age, who was also in a relationship, with whom she’s pushed off the emotional edge of the world with an intensity and desperation that clearly won’t end well. The book is an e-book published by Emily Books, Emily Gould’s awesome alt-lit project.

“I ask Finn if things are always this insane and dramatic between two women, and she says yes. She says it’s either like this, or monotonous and boring. As if there is no in-between.”

I liked this book. Caldwell has a directness and clarity in writing about herself that works really well, and the casual brushstrokes of her surroundings in a small, unnamed liberal city (I dunno, Portland?) are precise. The transgender best friend, the coffee shop, the bars and library and house-sitting for wealthier friends serve to let the reader in rather than locking us out, harder to do than it appears to be.

“We lay in bed together, stoned from the cookies. The bed was against a brick wall and I began to imagine we were alone in a different city together. Let’s pretend we’re in Paris or Brooklyn, I said.”

Caldwell is young; the story takes place in her early 20s, and she makes everything she doesn’t yet know or doesn’t yet understand one of the writing’s strengths:

“Sometimes I wonder what it is I could tell you about her for my job here to be done. I am looking for a shortcut–something  I could say that would effortlessly untangle the ball of yarn I am trying to untangle here on these pages. But that would be asking too much from you. It wasn’t you who loved her, or thought you loved her.”

She’s not sure, really, what the ball of yarn is about, and doesn’t end up with an answer. There’s a quote I now cannot find where she says, something like, Oh, meaning, I’m sick of it. I give up.

I usually find that to be a drawback in writing by young writers. Two other excellent books about mad passions I’ve read this year, Cris Mazza’s Something Wrong With Her, and Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, are both written by women experienced and self-aware enough to start finding answers to Why this person?  Why now? Caldwell isn’t there yet, but she knows how to tell a story based on what she’s got. At one point her therapist says about Finn, something like “you’ve got your hand an inch from your nose, she was never your friend,” which I thought was true. Respect to a girl who can write a good book with her hand in front of her face.

That hand, though blocked the view of the lover.

“I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.”

I wanted to fall in love with her, but I could barely see her. I had so many questions about her that went unanswered. Why was she so stuck in the relationship that she wouldn’t leave for Caldwell? (I suspected a child had been elided from the text, though Finn seemed to have a bit too much flexibility to party and sleep over for that). It’s implied that she’s stone-butch. How did she get there? How did Caldwell feel about it? How did Finn get to this point where she’s in her 40s and has fallen in love with a 20-year-old outside of her relationship? Does the affair leave both parties alienated and unknowable? Does sexual chemistry that intense need a particular brand of otherness and pain in order to thrive? I really enjoyed thinking about these things while reading, and didn’t feel the book needed to have the answers.

Another direction that the text goes, but only implicitly, is to raise the issue of how Caldwell’s own mothering is tied up in her sexual relationship with Finn. Almost the only details we get about Caldwell’s life outside of the affair concern her mother, with whom she’s very close and feels even closer to during the affair.

“Though I’ve always felt affectionate with my mom, I feel it more acutely now. Taking her hand under the table at bars. Noticing whether or not she touches me during the night while we sleep or rubs my back in the morning.”

It’s my theory that this is why the book has the generically wide but actually quite pointed title, Women. Heaven help us when we get together. It makes a good story though.

31. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

8 Nov

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Now, it’s funny that I remember The Remains of the Day from high school as the boringest-looking movie of all time. A butler goes on a driving trip of the English countryside to revisit a housekeeper he once loved, played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompsen. Actually, 25 years later it looks preeety good, and I think I remember my mom being very jazzed about it, but as a punk-rock teen, not so much.

Which now is even funnier because this is a dark, nasty tale with a brilliant experimental usage of voice and one of Ishiguro’s trademark sliding reveals, where the tale takes shape, deepens and gets more disturbing with each tightly crafted chapter. It’s the very furthest thing from a feel-good story about a butler in love, and is enjoyable only in the punk-rock way that there’s a wicked, awful thrill in some of the terrible things it says about humanity.

If I have a criticism, which I don’t, really, it’s that he misses an opportunity to make the female lead quite as complex as the male.

30. The Shimmering Go-Between, by Lee Klein

29 Oct


The dedication of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between, published this August by Atticus Press, is to “everyone who has ever suffered from disbelief,” which gives a hint that the book that will lope baldly through the unbelievable.

As in, the story starts with an immaculate conception by a 12-year-old, moves into a plot about gelatinous little people who appear in a man’s facial hair after he has sex, and then enters an afterlife where people live in a town inside the man with the gummy-bear beard, committing recreational suicide by hot-air-balloon.

It’s so inventive that it almost works—or is an interesting failure, at least.

Klein has a unique voice, a combination of surreal and twee that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read. He bestows strange adventures on ordinary young office workers, denizens of minor cities. He brilliantly inhabits a space between pretty and icky.  Here, for example, is our hero, Wilson Amon, eating one of the little ladies who appear in his beard:

“One of the larger women, her features more defined, was stunning, really beautiful. Before he realized what was happening, he had her on his fingertip, admiring her beneath a desk lamp. A gorgeous creature. A living pearl with womanly curves. There was something perfect about her size, her proportions: she was only hours old, a newborn, yet already looked like a woman, no larger than the digit on which she stood. He wondered what she’d taste like. He popped her in his mouth. Just by pressing his tongue to her, he savored a delicate milky flavor. Like white chocolate. Or a thin slice of mozzarella.”

With voice alone Klein is changing the rules. Once you have a person with a “delicate milky flavor” like “white chocolate” or “a thin slice mozzarella,” and you’re ok with that person getting eaten…. you have no earthly idea where you are. And there’s good tension is in wanting to know. I was ready to absorb book-logic, and not let my expectations on murder or cannibalism disturb the narrative.

That was especially true once The Internet entered the picture, in the third chapter, with a website called autofellator.com (run by Wilson, who can suck his own dick and does so on web-cam, strangely chastely). We moderns are used to spending time in the worlds of the unreal online. I was willing to link up Klein’s fantasia with virtual reality, and to read the “world” within Wilson where the dead people live as metaphor for the Internet. The mystery of the little women—something strange that propagates indirectly with sexual connection—felt fruitful.

There are many lovely turns of phrase—an ugly chandelier is “an eternally airborne octopus of ice;” the women long to “transform into a marble, and collapse into rose-smelling mist.” But The Shimmering Go-Between is poorly written. The problem with “anything can happen” is that nothing matters when it does, and when a writer takes those risks, he or she needs exceptional scruple in other areas to keep the reader interested. Klein simply can’t get away with a narration that’s tell-not-show, or with the endless explanation and re-explanation of the plot. It’s bad writing on the craft level. Here’s a typical piece of heavy-handed plot-summary-as-dialog that should be indicative of the problems:

“So you slept with one of those mysterious naked women and then melded consciousness with Wilson and assumed control of his body and then slept with a woman named Delores and then ate some tiny women and then returned here to swallow a goop-covered marble that had been the woman you’d slept with just a little while ago?” asked Rue. “Have I got that right?”

The reader does not have it right. With all the people living inside other people, possessing other people, and using more than one name for various characters, by the end of the book I’d forgotten or maybe never knew the identity of the first-person narrator. I think it’s the nameless goop-covered marble, from inside “Brad Pitt” from inside Wilson, but I’m not sure. Passages like the following do nothing to clear it up:

“Being in Rue, wasn’t nearly as wonderful as being in Wilson or even in Brad Pitt. A lot of it probably had to do with the fact that Rue was dead. Plus, this was also around the time she’d stopped tutoring Brad Pitt, and it was clear his carousing caused her some pain. … Plus, what also detracted from my experience within her was that each time I returned to her body she seemed to have lost some elasticity, and this, as she tried to reason her way through her chronically exacerbated brittleness—combined with envious tension—made Rue much less fun, in terms of controlling, than Wilson or Brad Pitt.”

The internal state being described, from “chronically exacerbated brittleness” to “envious tension” just makes no sense. the writing is chewy, the “plus”s add up ominously, and we have no idea who is describing their experience or why we care.

I stuck it through to the end hoping for an ah-ha moment that never came. The echos of characters longing for their own annihilation (women who want to be eaten, people who suck their own cocks, people who jump from balloons….) feel relevant, but the author doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

Klein’s wrap-up is a typically explain-y passage declaring that Wilson “felt like his capacity for affection had been caught up in his computer monitor, like a runaway puppy found frozen in a lake…. It became clear he needed to turn himself toward something outside the screen, someone beyond the confines of self.”

At that point I just woefully laughed at the cliché that we can turn away from the screen, and that good old hetero affection is the cure of over-mediation….  Like, this is an insight we can get from women’s magazines or New York Times editorials. Surely I didn’t read this whole book for this?



29. Unaccompanied Minors, by Alden Jones

16 Oct


This post originally ran on Vol.1 Brooklyn.

In the 1980s, I went to an East Coast boarding school that was made notorious by a gang-rape of a drunk girl by a group of boys, a few years before I attended. It happened in the dorms after lights-out, and dozens of kids who weren’t participants knew about it and did nothing, including an eventual friend of mine. He was 14, terrified, and hid under his bed. As a teenager I found this bit of lore noteworthy not because it was surprising but because it wasn’t. The rape and the silence seemed just like what would happen, given the school and the people around me. The surrounding adult hysteria felt distant and insincere.

Looking back, I can no longer summon that youthful brutality but I do remember it, and was startled to find it parsed and made meaningful in the excellent, excellent Unaccompanied Minors, a collection of short stories by Alden Jones. The book won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize, and was published in June 2014 by New American Press. It takes the young and the brutal—anorexic suburban girls, bad babysitters, gay boys paying for sex from boys slightly less fortunate, a drunk party-girl making fun of homeless people, and yes, a girl who sets her friend up to be maybe date-raped—observes them omnivorously and, with the lightest of touches, makes their dramas morally relevant.

(I suppose now would be a good time to say that Alden is a college friend of mine, and I’ve seen earlier versions of most of these stories, and remember the real-life events they’re loosely based on. Reading them as a collection has been a disconcerting experience, full of new insight.)

The opening piece, “Shelter,” starts like this: “We’re in a homeless shelter in Asheville, NC. We think it’s funny. How did all these people in some hellish hickish place like Asheville, NC, get homeless, that’s what we want to know. It’s so crowded we have to sleep on the floor.” The narrator is funny, but she’s also just a little bit of a sociopath. And then the next line dislocates her further: “I’m with this dyke Spike who I met in Ft Lauderdale, FL. She’s got an old white Toyota and a tent where we’ve been sleeping the past month.”

Who is this girl, who is adrift, yet able to carelessly despise people more adrift than she? She clearly doesn’t know. She’s on the road, rootless, uncertain of her sexuality (Spike’s the dyke, not her), following her urges. Wherever she’s from, it doesn’t matter. Where she’s going, she doesn’t care. In the end, she blows off thought in favor of beer, saying, “My brain’s all clear, way too clear for me to handle much less sleep, so I say Spikey, let’s hit the road, let’s drive all night until the 7-11 decides it’s Monday and we can get ourselves a six pack.”

Thoughtless, charming, seeking—she’s a surprisingly complex character (they all are), and as the first perspective in the book, she sets up many themes—self-knowledge and its lack, compassion and its lack, the lack of familial ties, sex as an agent of change.

The second story is about an abortion, that feature of the wealthy suburbs. In the third, “Thirty Seconds,” a little boy drowns in the country club pool, seen from the point of view of his babysitter. “The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me,” the narrator says. Her hours were over, she wasn’t technically in charge of the boy at the time, and overall, she thinks, “I handled it well.” She’s monstrous in her lack of compassion (or possibly denial), but she’s also almost a child herself. And through her eyes we glimpse the milieu that created her and endangered her charge—the distracted, wealthy parents, the unpleasant gender expectations, the bad marriages and venal concerns. This milieu’s children, as Jones wonderfully puts it elsewhere, are “orphaned by leisure and frivolity.”

“30 Seconds” is the only story where the lack of parenting is made overt, but I felt that the silence was deafening. Parents, family, nurture, inform every page by their absence. Either that, or the author’s point is that every kid has to, eventually, invent themselves without help.

Sex is a force that drives the inventing, perhaps because it drags even the self-absorbed into contact with other people, or at least into contact with themselves.  The narrator of “Freaks,”  says that sex “lifted you out of your skin at the same time it put you more solidly inside your body than you ever had been before.” She’s explaining the feeling to her best friend, who is casually described as a “rexie,” despite the life-threatening seriousness of her condition. In this story, the body-embracing girl lives and the body-denying girl dies, a chilling winnowing that nonetheless feels true.

This story also contained a detail that’s emblematic of just how granular and good Jones’s observations are. The anorexic best friend “would pull a stick of gum out of her pocket, place the stick of gum flat on her tongue, and play with the wrapper until it was a mess of little foil-and-paper balls.” Every shade of anorexia is contained in just lying the gum flat. She’s tasting it for as long as she can without chewing it. She’s delaying the moment of taking a bite. Realizing that made  a pool of sympathetic synthetic-sugar-spit puddle on my tongue. I remember those days, too.

The point-of-view matures through different narrators as the collection advances. The sexual power discovered by the narrator in “Freaks” is refined upon by the narrator of “Heathens.” Now she’s an English teacher in Costa Rica, trying to distinguish herself as less clueless and exploitative than the evangelical American teens who come through the town to proselytize. Somehow this leads her to set up one of the evangelicals—a girl in whom she sees herself—on a date that will possibly turn into a date-rape.

Here’s her reasoning (the story is voiced as a monologue from one girl to the other):

“Molly, if you want Jorge I hope, I hope you’ll take him. But it will be more likely that you won’t. He’ll have the condoms, and he has my blessing—but even without those things Jorge might feel he has a right to you. And I’m giving you a chance to take matters into your own hands; this is my gift to you. No one to hide behind, no one to give that cute pout to, Molly. Just you. Deciding what you want and taking it.”

This terrible idea has a kind of power to it—at least, a power I would have recognized as a teenager. I think the narrator is doing the wrong thing, but I appreciate the experimentation, the narrow margins, the raw electricity of the idea. This way, when a character finally makes a good decision, for a right reason (at the very end of the last story), it’s been hard-enough won.

Before the book ends, though, there’s a pivot from stories about primarily American characters to “Sin Alley,” about a gay boy fighting to win the affection of an allegedly straight rent boy, set in Costa Rica with an all Costa Rican–cast. (His victory, naturally, comes at an enormous price in child-blood.)  The story was bridged by “Heathens,” also set in Costa Rica, but still feels anomalous since we’ve made the cultural leap from American suburbs. Ultimately I thought the linkage of such disparate groups by sexuality and danger was one of the book’s most effective surprises.

Unaccompanied minors are created by all kinds of circumstance, but they have this much in common: They were formed by a deficiency of care, and don’t know the first thing about it, and if they’re very, very lucky, hopscotching along the signposts of sex and love, they might figure it out and make it out alive. The title for the last story is a good note to end on: “Flee.” You flee something life-threatening—childhood, in this case—into the future. It’s called growing up.




28. Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier

2 Oct


It’s a central tenet of war literature that the men who were there either can’t or won’t speak about it, which is I suppose why Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a WWI memoir recently re-released by the New York Review of Books imprint is so shocking. It stands alone among everything I’ve read about that war (which is quite a bit) in that the author describes it. He strips away that long-preserved mystery (for me) of what it was like to be there.  The descriptions are earthy, precise, and terrifying.

“Little by little we advanced into the active zone, the danger zone. It felt warmer and stuffier, like a place that was lived in; there was a powerful smell of human bodies, a mixture of fermentation and excrement and food that had gone bad. Men were snoring behind the embankments we brushed past, and glimmers of light marked the openings of the dugouts where they lay. We had to keep ducking to avoid the tangles of wires, traverses and plank bridges.”

Chevallier served in the trenches himself, but the book is nominally a novel, the story of a Jean Dartemont, a 19-year-old French student who was an enlisted man for all five years of war, a bright, sardonic intellectual who thinks the war is not “great or noble” from the outset, but goes anyway. He explains “I went against all my convictions, but still of my own free will—not to fight but out of curiosity: to see.”

Later, he describes what it was like to fight, (which he says boils down to running):

“I am lifted up, deaf, blinded by a cloud of smoke, pierced by a sharp smell. Something is clawing at me, tearing me. I must be shouting without hearing myself. A sudden shaft of clarity. ‘Your legs are blown off!’ For a start… My body leaps and runs. The explosion has set it off like some machine. Behind me, someone is shouting ‘faster!’ in a voice of pain and madness. Only then do I actually realize I am running.”

Most war books provide some gruesome detail, a corpse, an eyeball, an experience, a breaking-point. This one does too, plenty of them, but without the relief of such points being of especial significance. The breaking-point, if there is one, is the prolonged effect of fear and the cumulative degradation that war visits on the men who fight. Dartemont spends what feels like a month at the Chemin Des Dames. I’m not sure which battle, but almost half a million people died in one battle there. He describes cowering underground, what a man thinks, where he takes a shit, when he stops shitting. It’s one of the most awful true stories I’ve ever read. I can’t think of a more worthy re-release.

Ironically, the book was first published in 1930 and the publisher shortly thereafter voluntarily suspended sales because of the second World War. It was first translated into English in 2011. I’m happy to discover that Chevallier survived, married, had a child and wrote a lot of French bestsellers. He died in Cannes in 1965. The Internet says these are some photos of him:

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27. I Loved You More, Tom Spanbauer

2 Oct


This post was originally posted on HTML Giant.

I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer starts with a slow burn, like an acid trip, of which there are a few in the book:  There’s a preliminary period of seemingly aimless hanging out, and just when you start thinking nothing is going to happen, the room lights up, your heart lurches, and everything begins to glow.

Other writers have tried to quantify the transformation that occurs reading Spanbauer’s writing, the feeling of truth as opposed to artifice, the sense that now we’re really talking. The closest I can come is that it felt like letting air and light into a dark room. The book’s narrator, Ben Gruneberg says it much better, “When you get close to the vein that’s pulsing truth, when you open that vein, you can scrub your soul clean with the blood.”

Spanbauer is known for his truth-telling and open veins. He’s a gay writer and creative-writing teacher in Portland, Oregon, one of the gang of Portland writers of whom Cheryl Strayed and Chuck Palahniuk are the most famous, and Lidia Yuknavitch is the most beloved to me, personally. (Though, I don’t know if all these people are really a gang, or if that’s an outsider’s perception; I’m calling a Portland School, and assuming Spanbauer is a founder.) His Wikipedia entry says that he’s been living with HIV since the 90s, and his AIDS book, In the City of Shy Hunters is a literary classic.

This latest novel, I Loved You More, published by Hawthorne Press in April 2014, is also a gay coming-of-age story, a living-with-AIDS story, and a story about male friendship, which seems to be mostly autobiographical. In it, Spanbauer’s alter ego, Ben Gruneberg—like Spanbauer, a writer and writing teacher with the same basic points of biography—chronicles his lifelong friendship with a straight male writer, Hank Christian, and the explosive end of that relationship. A bit of Google-digging will reveal a possible candidate for the real-life model of Hank.

On one level, it’s not a particularly dramatic story—a love triangle! featuring three writers! in Portland! and a pot of kale!—and how it all ends is mostly revealed on the first page. Moreover friendship is usually a side-story, not a main event, and devoting a book to the demise of one feels odd. The first section takes place in New York in the late 80s, when Ben and Hank are young writers at Columbia, studying under a fictionalized version of Gordon Lish, and their hanging-out, and the importance Spanbauer imbued it with, took a while to seize hold of me. And then it did.

Part of the alienation and then the magic is Spanbauer’s prose style, which is beatnik-ish in an old-fashioned way, using slang and refrains, a lot of fucking this or fucking that, man. His sentences are unconventional and fragmentary: “That old litany in this strange new place, how it made my heart stop.” Or this description of a leather bar: “In front of us, three men deep. Beyond, the bar is dark. Smoky dark. A foggy night, an ocean of men, dark waves. They have a sound, the waves, here and there bursts of pirate laughter, then no laughter.”

It occurred to me to find this lazy, but later the style felt essential, as did the book’s emphasis on friendship. Ben’s story was one of overcoming everything—his crushing mother and sister, his homophobic father and small-conservative-town upbringing, his early marriage to a woman, his own shame for being gay, his later fear and shame over his HIV+ diagnosis—and thus insisting on everything. When your story is all-wrong, truth is only thing you’ve got, and it comes in its own language, at its own pace, possibly without conventional sentences or the commercial narrative arc insisted on by mainstream book publishing (imagine that!). Ben is a gay man who loves a straight man, and they’re just friends, and not even particularly enlightened friends, but the type who can each get sick (Ben with AIDS, Hank with cancer) and be too shamefaced to even call each other, just like men, for twelve years. Sometimes that’s what love looks like.

Here’s one of Spanbauer’s most searing passages: “Seven years married, spiritually dead is right there again, right in my face, ready to devour me again. No longer a line around me that says this is me, this is my space, and you have to acknowledge this space because it’s sacred and that line has to be there because it took my whole life to set up that line and without it I cannot exist.” [Emphasis mine]

This is a book about taking your whole life to be able to tell your own love story—not the one you are supposed to have, but the one that is yours—and then telling it as truthfully as possible.

After the passage quoted earlier about opening a vein and letting truth pour out, here’s what Ben says next, describing anal sex to Hank (who asked, but possibly didn’t really want to know), on a New York City street, one very early morning a long time ago:

“‘Suddenly,’ I say, ‘my ass sucks in his cock as if his cock is life and I’m a dying man. Fucked me like I’d never been fucked. A fist jammed through my burning ass, reaching up to my heart, holding on tight, cradling me like a baby. Everything is exploding. Merge. There’s no other word for the way I come.’ … Hank doesn’t blink. The way his black eyes look, I know something’s changed.”

It’s a beautiful example of choosing truth over fear—of a character saying the scariest and most raw thing he could. As a culture, we’re scared of sex, we’re scared of being ridiculed when we talk about sex, we’re scared of male penetration, especially a man desiring it (“my ass sucks in his cock” ), we’re scared of emotion attached to graphic representations of sex (“reaching up to my heart”), we’re scared of our infant-selves (accessed during sex!?!), we’re scared of merging, of admitting we felt merge-y, we’re terrified of judgement…. All of that, yet Ben speaks anyway.

Spanbauer is equally, painfully frank on living with HIV, and on sexuality and age. He goes digging for Ben’s worst fear and finds Catholic-boy horror-visions of a worst self twisting in hell—a vision that’s ultimately human, normal and reassuring. The cumulative effect is a bravery high, something that starts slow and becomes ecstatic.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite part, in a book where I had so many. A description of being depressed as having a “charcoaled soul.” Three people fighting and crying outside in the rain. Old people, old bodies, disease being treated with respect. A balding, purple-haired man with a glass eye and tumors getting the girl. This statement about AIDS:  “The way it eats at your brain, when you sit quiet you can actually hear the virus in your head.”

But if I had to pick it’s possibly a funny one, of Ben returning to the East Village in New York City, (the descriptions of New York throughout are superb), and finding so much of it gone and changed. He’s staggering around, remembering a city I remember too, looking with horror at the New York I now know.  He goes back to his favorite bar on the West Side Highway, and sees, “From out of the bones of the building that used to be the Spike, a strange new tower has risen up and out, shiny bright. Another spaceship that’s set its ass smack down on my history. Aliens from spaceships man.” And later, “Aliens man. Billionaire aliens.”

I walk around New York City now and think of Tom Spanbauer often, for his bravery and truthfulness. And then I laugh at the billionaire aliens.







26. Sugar Skull, Charles Burns

24 Sep

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The last volume in Charles Burns’s graphic novel trilogy that began with X-ed Outone of my favorite works of art of the past few years—ends here with a bzzzz and a whimper.

In it Doug, the Tintin-like protagonist chasing his girlfriend Sarah through alternative dimensions, is older, fatter, sober, and finally ready to grow up, at least a little. Burns neatly wraps up the stories and symbolism behind all the strange elements—the radioactive eggs, Sarah’s confinement in the hive, the depressed father watching TV in the basement of Doug’s childhood house, the man clinging to a log in a river of muck—and that was, for me, a problem.

The power of the earlier volumes relied on interrupting narrative. Doug slipped in and out of dream-states; elements changed dramatically between books one and two; some pages were populated with empty frames and clouds of smoke. In their looseness and weirdness, the books slipped into psychic spaces that realism just can’t. I’m befuddled that Burns chose to tie it all up in a bow in the end.

Sugar Skull mostly takes place in the real-world, with the parts in the hive-world offering obvious counterpoint to Doug’s real-world morality play. The wrap-up offers a legit premise—a young man is unwilling to grow up and becomes an asshole because of it. He’s the guy who, when you strip away the drama, is just stunted and eventually misses the boat on love and life. The guy whose pain is the only interesting thing about him. It feels real, but falls flat. Somehow Burns fails to animate the horror of that position. We’re still watching Doug freak out about girls and eggs, without the meta-data that this is now utterly boring and beside the point.

That’s another way of saying that somehow I feel punches were pulled. There’s a beautiful frame where we see the face of the child Doug abandoned, and the child’s face is both dazzled and sly, and we know that he will grow up to wreak suffering if not on Doug on others, and it will be Doug’s fault. This child is not the end of a story, he’s the beginning. The terrifying thing is not that he’s dead, like the tiny little baby skeleton on the cover suggests, but that he’s alive.

I am sad, because I adore Charles Burns and could live inside his lines forever.


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