Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Map of Fog


I just got the copies of my zine Map of Fog back from the printer. I'm selling them for $2 each, shipping included. If you've got a zine or a chapbook and you send me a copy of it, I'll send you a copy of Map of Fog in trade.

Map of Fog is an attempt to show San Francisco from my perspective. It's got five non-fiction stories in it. One story is about a suicide's corpse I had to cover up while I worked at a fancy hotel in the Financial District. Another story describes a man going into a seizure on the subway, and the reactions of the people around him. There's an article about a few sites in my neighborhood, the Sunset--generally one of the most ignored and overlooked parts of the city. There's an interview with a friend of mine who got stabbed three times, which put him in the emergency room with a collapsed lung, a sliced eye, and nerve damage in his leg. And there's the written result of me eating a half-eighth of psychedelic mushrooms and then sitting down at a computer to type about the experience.

Here's an excerpt from the suicide story:

It takes about fifteen seconds to get from the back of the ballroom to the front of the hotel, if you’re in a hurry. I must have had a hundred different thoughts during those fifteen seconds: what would the body look like?; would there be blood?; would I faint or throw up?; would we have enough equipment to be of use?; should I take advantage of the option Ron had granted me, so long ago, to refuse to be a part of the whole operation? While my mind raced, my body seemed to be shifting somehow, too. My heartbeat grew to fill my ears with heavy pulsing, so that all the sounds around me came piercing through a wash of dull noise. I could feel the wind against my face, as if the air had thickened and I was physically pushing my way through it. The world around me seemed to slow a little. I felt almost like I was walking under water.

The zine has 24 pages, 18 pictures, and more than 10,000 words. It'll probably give you about an hour's worth of reading time, depending on how fast you absorb text.

If you want a copy, you can order one by clicking the Paypal button below (PayPal charge is $3).





Saturday, November 1, 2008

YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE, by Sam Pink



I ordered a copy of YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE from the Jaguar Uprising Press back in July. Months went by, and I never heard anything about it or about the five bucks I paid for it through paypal. Then, after a period of self-imposed internet abstinence, I went to Sam Pink's blog and read that he'd printed up a limited number of copies of the chapbook on his own, and was mailing them free to anybody who'd email him their address. I emailed him my address, but I wasn't sure if I'd emailed in time to get a copy. Then I read on Bradley Sand's blog that TTB had posted a warning about ordering from the Jaguar Press Website. I went to TTB's blog and saw the post, which also recommended emailing him directly about Sam Pink's chapbook. So I emailed TTB. I still hadn't heard back from Sam Pink, and I figured he'd already sent out all of his copies and wouldn't have a copy to send to me. I asked TTB to send me a copy.

And then, on Halloween, I got two packages in the mail. One was from TTB, and the other (post-marked a week earlier) had no return address. My first thought was that the anonymous package held more hate mail from Fred Woodworth--maybe he was sending me another burned-out lightbulb or something--but when I tore it open, I found a copy of YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE inside. After months of doubting whether I'd ever get my hands on a single copy of YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE, I suddenly had two copies. I was excited.

Essentially, both versions are the same. The Jaguar Uprising Press version shows more human-effort in its construction--the cover is a glued-together construction-paper flag, and the binding is hand-stitched--but the Sam Pink copy is on higher quality paper, printed instead of photo-copied, and looks generally cleaner. I also noticed a few typos in the Jaguar Uprising version that had been corrected by the time Sam Pink printed his own.

Probably nobody really cares all that much about that stuff, though, anyways, so I'll limit the rest of this post to a review of the text--which is almost exactly the same in both versions.

DISCLAIMER: If you're the type of person who thinks that analytical reviews of literature somehow lessen the pleasure of reading, you might want to stop reading this review now. Also remember that this review merely reflects my own interpretations, and I don't really know shit about anything.

For anyone familiar with Sam Pink's blog, YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE is more of the same, but better. It's better because it feels more cohesive, more polished, more focused. The edge apparent in the writing on the blog is sharpened, honed like a razor.

For those not familiar with Sam Pink, this chapbook is an excellent introduction. Sam runs through the gamut of emotional tones common in his work, and explores a lot of his favorite themes. His writing, to me, feels like masterful satire. I say that because his writing seems inherently confrontational--it attacks things we hold in reverence--but it's generally handled in a light-hearted way, more of a "poking of fun" than a "scathing condemnation".

Oftentimes the attack incorporates juvenile humor, especially humor of the "toilet" variety:

Today I went out to a restaurant and got some coffee.
A girl walked by and went to the bathroom.
I could hear her peeing.
It turned me on and I felt weird about it--weird because I hardly knew her.
And getting turned on by someone urinating is a special thing--something that should be reserved for marriage.


And also, a lot of the time, the writing focuses on violent subject matter:

The next time we have sex I am going to rub my facial hair into your neck and chest until red lines form and then I'll connect the lines so they make a pretty picture and remember that I am only going to be alive for another thirty-fifty years and in the meantime I will change everything into something that retains the marks of my intervention.

In most cases, Sam hones in on something our culture considers sacred (in both of the above cases, I see the sacred object as "romantic intimacy"), and skewers it. What makes this skewering entertaining, is the generally affable (and if not always "affable", then rarely darker than "neutral") tone it's delivered in. We don't get the sense that the narrator is malicious, despite the often macabre actions he describes. We get the sense that the narrator is a nice guy, somehow, even when he is describing violent action. In the latter example above, we'd probably feel less attachment to the narrator if he used more aggressive language: The next time we FUCK I'm going to GRIND my STUBBLE into your neck and chest until red WELTS form...

But just when we're tempted to dismiss Sam's narrator as a nice, if somewhat troubled, guy, we get glimpses of a deeper, less dismissable pathos:

Sometimes I have to go to the bathroom or a private place when I am public so I can clench both of my fists and grind my teeth and kneel down and press my face against the ground until the energy goes away.

And that element of earnest pathos keeps the stakes higher in this world. It is the yin that balances the yang of Sam's humorous satire.

Speaking of yin yang, YUM YUM often drifts into a philisophical tone that reads like something from a taoist poetry book:

Wherever I stand the world feels my weight.
The world pushes back.
Wherever I stand the world holds its breath.
Because my hand is around its windpipe.
I am meditating on the idea of a cleaved earth.


But he balances that deep tone with silly absurdities:

Some people are such assholes that saying, "Look, again, I'm sorry I cut off my thumb and glued it to your baby's head because I thought you'd like him better as a unicorn" means nothing to them.

Hopefully my gratuitous inclusion of quotes is also helping you get an idea of the format of the book. This is no narrative, there is no plot. It's closer to an amalgamation of thoughts, and the writing reflects that by stripping down its delivery, leaving out excessive prose. Because of that stripped-down nature, YUM YUM feels very dense with ideas. I've read the book three times now, and I still find new gems each time I pick it up and flip to a random page. In fact, I think the nature of this chapbook encourages a more "dip in and out" approach--if you sit down and read it straight through you'll probably finish it in half an hour, but you won't be able to absorb a quarter of its brilliance. I wonder if the sparse print on each page is Sam's attempt to deal with this possibility--lessen the "words on the page" ratio to make people slow down, to increase the frequency of the pauses for page-flipping that the reader must take. When I first saw YUM YUM I thought it was just an example of un-economic layout (I'm a total cheapskate myself, and I'm about to publish a zine with an average word-to-page ratio of 400 to 1, while YUM YUM is probably closer to 100 to 1), but after spending time with the book, I'm beginning to realize that the openness of the text might be an example of form-following-function.

In the end, all of this analysis is peripheral to the point of the book for me, anyway. YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE is worth reading because it's compelling and disturbing and fun. If you're interested in getting a copy, try following the links at the start of this post, to TTB or Sam Pink's blog. Maybe they've got a few spares lying around. If you like it as much as I did, you might find yourself thinking about it and trying to understand why it works so well, which is what I've been doing for the bulk of this review. Chances are you'll be able to come up with better answers than me, but before you think you've got it all figured out, keep in mind these words from Sam Pink himself:

The message is always the same.
I am not trying to solve anything or help in any way.
The message is always the same.

JAR OF FOOLS, by Jason Lutes


Before reading Jason Lutes's Jar of Fools, I'd always thought of magicians as showy, desperate nerds... like Criss Angel. This book put magicians in a new light for me, a light shared by con men, cafe workers, and other down-and-outs, which is actually a pretty big step up in my mind. The principal magician-type dude in this story is Ernie, aka the Amazing Ernesto. He's a depressed alcoholic trying to cope with a broken heart--the heartbreaker being his ex-girlfriend Esther, a disgruntled, depressed cafe barrista. Ernie's also plenty messed up by what happened to his older brother, an escape artist who drowned during his last attempt (which is, depending on how you look at it, either a failed escape, or the most final and successful escape possible). Al Flosso, or Flosso the Magnificent (he's a magician too), serves as Ernie's main friend, but only when he manages to remember who Ernie is. The rest of the time Flosso dwells in geriatric senility; usually forgetfulness, but sometimes vivid memories that temporarily supplant reality. A homeless confidence man and his daughter round out the rest of the cast.

Jason Lutes says his work has been most influenced by European and French comics, and that's apparent on every page of Jar of Fools--this book is a lot closer to Tintin and Snowy than Batman and Robin. That means, among other things, you get more panels per page, and a generally slower pacing, than what you'd find in the typical superhero piece. And that's a good thing for this type of story. It gives little incidences the chance to sink in, to reach greater emotional depths than they would otherwise be able to reach. In conversations the reader gets to watch as a character hears something, thinks about it, and then responds; this opens up the idea that the characters are cognizant, capable of thought, aware of and affected by the world around them. On the bottom half of page 52, for example, you get seven panels, only three of which include dialogue. The other panels, the one's lacking words, provide dead-air, space that reveals the sense of disconnectedness provoked by what has been said.

The artwork itself, a meticulous blend of cartoon simplicity and surprising realism, is also more in line with European comics. The settings are lavishly detailed and very real looking when shown, but that's probably less than half the time (if an average page has 10 panels, maybe four will include background). The rest of the panels focus on the characters, which are often drawn in pretty simple terms, especially in the beginning of the comic. During moments of stress or high emotion, a character's face receives extra attention--frown lines, tendons standing out in the neck, bags under the eyes, etc.--which heighten the drama for the reader. Another technique used to this effect is the inclusion of character shading--in most panels a character's face shows no shadows whatsoever, but in especially poignant moments the shadow-work is elaborate. Usually this works pretty well, but sometimes it feels a little heavy-handed (page 40 panel 4, for example).

Despite the similarities with European comics, much of what Lutes draws is marked by novel little details that seem like they've been pulled straight from the real world: the way rainwater slides down the outside of a window (page 13 panel 10), the way light coming through a rain-wet window paints the figure of a person inside (page 30 panel 6), the way thick glasses refract and distort the image of the eyes behind them, the way creases run across the bulby end of a nose when the nose is wiped (page 139 panel 6). The art is chock full of these visual authenticities, which make the world Lutes draws a richer place. It shows that he's a talented observant, as well as a talented artist.

Despite Lutes's skill at translating visual aspects of the real world to his page, each page also reflects the artist's hand--you are very aware, throughout the book, that every image was drawn by a human being. Again and again Lutes chooses to draw multiple panels in which one character remains static, and you can see how the image inadvertently changes in tiny little ways despite the fact that the person is intended to be perceived as constant. Pass through at a normal reading pace and you might not note it, but if you pause and look, it reveals the meticulous dedication the artist had for his subject.

The plot differs from traditional American comics, too; if anything, it's bohemian. These are characters who are defined by their inability to succeed in conventional society--they are united by the fact that they can't successfully conform. That can be tricky to portray without resorting to, or stumbling up against, cliche, but Lutes does a good job of sidestepping the stereotypes. Each character feels fully fleshed out, actualized. Their responses to the world around them are consistent, and reveal a lot about who they are as individuals. Of course, Lutes doesn't pick the most varied group of people to work with--they're all white, they're all members of the underclass, they're all depressed or vulnerable in some way. The two who stand out most from these unifying characteristics are Al Flosso and Claire, the con man's kid. But even these two are largely defined by the same thing: their longing for lost relationships.

In the end, the solidity Lutes gives to his characters stands as both the greatest strength, and the most notable weakness, of the work. The characters compel us to follow them, to watch them, and to be interested in them; they drive the story. But the story is split amongst so many solid characters that Lutes feels compelled to wrangle closure for all of them in the final pages, and he doesn't manage to do it. The way he twists the plot to accommodate the entire cast feels contrived, and a bit disappointing when compared to the quality of the rest of the work.