Wednesday, March 4, 2009

SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS, by Ellen Kennedy

Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs
Because I feel that book reviews should focus on the book being reviewed, I'm going to try not to write very much about Muumuu House (the publishing company behind this book) or Tao Lin (the founder of Muumuu House). Having said that, I must admit that writing about SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS without focusing on Muumuu House or Tao Lin seems like a daunting task for two reasons: first of all, the significance of this book being Muumuu House's first release outweighs, in my opinion, the significance of the book itself; and secondly, the writing that appears in SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS often feels thoroughly colonized by, or blatantly derivative of, Tao Lin's own style.

If you're wondering who Tao Lin is, I encourage you to go to his blog and read some of what appears there. For the purpose of this review, all you really need to know is that I--the person writing this review--consider Tao Lin a significant author because I think he's developed an original voice that has the capacity to "speak" for a population (that population being Gen Y hipsters). Muumuu House's significance, in my own biased mind, reflects Tao Lin's significance because he's running it and because it could possibly become a sort of venue for a vanguard group in a new literary movement, a movement comprised of Gen Y hipsters who write about social-awkwardness and loneliness in a plain-spoken, nearly autistic tone that further emphasizes their themes of social-awkwardness and loneliness. Unfortunately, in the case of SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS, it's hard to tell if Ellen Kennedy really has a voice of her own to add to that group, or if she's just a 2nd rate Tao Lin.

Probably the best way to further flesh out the above ideas, and also to get started on an actual review of the book itself, is to give you a sample of Kennedy's writing. Here's a paragraph from the first piece in the book, titled "Eoody Mobby":

Woody Allen lies down on the bed. Ned Vizzini lies down next to Woody Allen. Woody Allen's room has white walls. There aren't any posters or pictures hung on the wall. Woody Allen kisses Ned Vizzini's mouth. Ned Vizzini pushes his tongue into Woody Allen's mouth and licks Woody Allen's tongue. Ned Vizzini licks Woody Allen's teeth. Woody Allen pushes his hand against Ned Vizzini's crotch. Ned Vizzini does the same. Ned Vizzini unbuttons Woody Allen's dress while Woody Allen touches Ned Vizzini's face and looks at his eyes and his nose. Ned Vizzini takes off Woody Allen's underwear with his foot and then takes off his pants. Woody Allen unbuttons Ned Vizzini's shirt and touches his chest. Ned Vizzini has sex with Woody Allen. They make noises but are quieter than most couples Woody Allen thinks. Woody Allen is sometimes louder than Ned Vizzini.


Immediately obvious is Kennedy's conspicuous inclusion of cult-status celebrities (Tao Lin does the same in his works; his forthcoming novel, for example, is titled RICHARD YATES). In this instance the celebrities are represented only by name--the characters in the piece are not intended to be Woody Allen and Ned Vizzini; the names are used only as pseudonyms. In the last piece in the book Kennedy writes about Norm Macdonald, and the celebrity himself serves as the actual character. In both cases the use of celebrity names adds an element of absurdity (why would Woody Allen be wearing a blue dress, kissing Ned Vizzini's mouth?). This element of absurdity is also cultivated in other ways: random desires (like Ned Vizzini's desire for a "small yellow apple" later in the story), bizarre thoughts (like Woody Allen's feeling of being "safe like a walnut" that a "squirrel buries [...] but not too deep in the soil so the possibility of escaping to avoid being buried alive is still there."), and out-of-the-blue occurrences (like a bear headbutting the author's window in the poem "I Want to Write a Poem With You"--and doesn't Tao Lin feature out-of-the-blue bears in some of his own works, like EEEEE EEE EEEE?).

Also apparent in the above passage is the awkward, nearly autistic (in its impaired emotional comprehension) tone Kennedy employs, which is in itself reminiscent of Tao Lin. And Kennedy uses a lot of Tao Lin techniques to provoke that awkward tone. She almost never uses pronouns, instead repeatedly referring to characters by their full names (Woody Allen, Ned Vizzini--rarely "him" or "her" or even just "Woody"). She diverts the readers attention away from what most people would focus on (as above, when she sets up the sex scene between Woody Allen and Ned Vizzini, and then detours into a sentence describing Woody's blank walls when what we're expecting is a focus on the characters' actions). She describes things in a plain-spoken way that feels especially incongruent with generally emotional moments (such as sex-scenes) and emotional states (especially loneliness and depression--she uses Tao Lin terms like "neutral facial expression" for that sort of stuff). She also describes things so literally that what we think is familiar (a kiss) feels foreign ("Ned Vizzini licks Woody Allen's teeth.")

It's true that this awkward tone works well in its illumination of isolated, socially-awkward individuals. Kennedy introduces us to people who are more apt to stand in each others' rooms and stare at things than engage in conversation, people for whom even intimate moments of connection with others (like sex) feel strange and uncomfortable, people who are more likely to think about shallowly buried walnuts than to tell each other how they feel. She does a good job of actualizing that mindset. But the flipside of her intimacy with this "lack of human intimacy" is a shallowness of characterization. The only personality that approaches roundness is that isolated, socially awkward individual that serves as the protagonist in every story. When another character is given any mind-time, they come across as nearly identical to that protagonist. Any distinctions in lesser characters are shallow and limited--a cranky mother, a less-socially-awkward friend. Not exactly a rich palette.

The same tones that come across in the three prose pieces in the book are also apparent in the poetry, but where the prose has elements of plot, the poetry concerns itself more with craft. Kennedy's poetry isn't much like the lyrical, sound-oriented poetry I've reviewed recently (like HALF LIFE OF MEMORY, by Lizz Huerta)--it's closer to the other end of the spectrum, and a lot of the sentences in the poems would probably feel pretty at home in prose (no conspicuous meters, rhythms, alliteration or other sound play to make them harder to blend in to a story). But it's distinct from her fiction because of its use of line breaks, its greater variety of sentence types, and (perhaps most importantly) its occasional moments in which the socially-awkward, emotionally autistic tone (which feels so Tao Lin-like) gives way to another voice.

Those first two distinctions (line breaks and sentence types) are well illustrated in Kennedy's poem "I Want to Write a Poem With You". Here's the first half:

I cried three times today

One time I was with a group of people and one of the people was so quiet and sad that when I went home I cried in bed

I tapped my fingers on my pillow and pretended that a stampede of wild hamsters was coming to destroy everything I own

A bear headbutted my window and its head broke through and I went in the kitchen and got antiseptic and went to the bear with the antiseptic and the bear bit my hand and I went back to my bed and stared at the bear

I used my bloody hand to draw a picture of a salmon on my sheets to attract the bear but my tears ruined the picture and the lines ran together and then the bear lost interest and walked away and then my cry elevated to a more sob-like heaving


The first sentence is a simple, short, declarative sentence that stands on its own line. Each sentence from there on also exists as a separate stanza, and each stanza grows in length and pace and pressure, using "and" to tie together more and more clauses. By the end the pace runs along with an effect reminiscent of a breathless child telling some sort of story, and then it comes to an abrupt stop, jamming two sentences together on one line. It's a fun little trick.

In other poems Kennedy uses line breaks in other ways, sometimes stretching one sentence out over several lines. You can see it here in the first half of her poem "Poem":

I'm violently stuffing
the void in my life
with cute toys
from fifty-cent machines


The shorter lines create an emphasis on the accented syllables (I'm VI-lently STUFF-ing/the VOID in my LIFE) which adds a ponderous weight and violence to the words, which lends an emotional quality to the poem that makes it stand out from a lot of the rest of the book. Instead of the declarative, unpassionate tone (which sounds so much like Tao Lin) that Kennedy uses to talk ironically about depression and hopelessness, this poem actually feels angry and hopeless. There are a few other poems in the book which also take on this distinctly emotional voice (though the emotions aren't usually as fierce as what we see here--"How to Hold a Person" feels more wistful; another piece, also titled "Poem," touches on vulnerability as it relates to body images, and it really does feel vulnerable), and these are the poems that interested me most in the book. I'm not sure if this more emotionally poignant perspective comes from a time before she encountered, and was so influenced by, Tao Lin, or if these poems are the result of her developing craft, her exploration of new terrain that can be more uniquely her own. My hope is, of course, that the latter is the case.

5 comments:

kyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kyle said...

i feel so aroused after reading that part about ned vizzini and woody allen

Craig Snyder said...

Very thoughtful review with some good points, Marcos.

"that population being Gen Y hipsters" is a gross overgeneralization and of course, wildly inaccurate. Please don't use that phrase again.

Notes on Kyle: Kyle is not yet fully "self-actualized".

Notes on Today's morning bike ride:: winds: gusting to 45 mph. Temperature: 18 degrees. Wind Chill: -10 degrees. Bike: Un-brand mountain bike with faulty gearing. Distance: 1 - 1.5 miles. Location: Big Rapids, MI.

Marcos said...

Craig,

It's pretty much impossible to speak of something as broad as a generation without generalizing, and yet there can be value in doing so. Literary criticism has a long history of "generational" discussion--from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation, etcetera, reviewers and critics have looked at the work of groups of writers in hopes of determining something about the generation they belonged to, and the times they lived in. I can respect your opinion that my use of the term "Gen Y Hipsters" is "an overgeneralization" and "wildly innaccurate," but your request that I no longer use the phrase strikes me as overbearing and ridiculous. If you want to tell me what I can and can't say, here's my response: Go Fuck Yourself.

Craig Snyder said...

Your response is more amusing than I had hoped for.

Agree with all your comments.

I think I would have been 'more okay' with your over-generalization in a much more detailed and exhaustive review which contained more examples and footnotes.

Yes! Yes! Fuck Me!

But seriously: while I agree there was a Beat Generation, I don't think 'Gen-Y hipsters' actually exist, at least not in sufficient numbers.

I could be so so wrong about this.

I have a 10% sense of 'detached irony' about this response.