Saturday, May 1, 2021

Book Review: The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

 

Fred Daniels is an average black man with a job and a wife about to give birth. One day, as he's leaving the home of the people he works for with his pay, the cops snatch him off the street accusing him of murdering the people next door. Despite his protests, they eventually torture him into signing a confession. However, he manages to slip out of their custody and hide in the sewers. In the underground, he finds ways to observe the city above and the guilt that all the people possess.

Outside of time and space, he looked down upon the earth and saw that each fleeting day was a day of dying, that men died slowly with each passing moment as much as they did in war, that human grief and sorrow were utterly insufficient to this vast, dreary spectacle.

Richard Wright wrote this novel right after Native Son. However, it was rejected by his publisher who found the scenes of Fred's torture by police too unbearable to read and the less realist atmosphere making for a poor follow up to Native Son. While a truncated version was published as a short story, this is the first time that the full-length novel as been published.

The depiction of police brutality is as timely as ever. It wasn't unusual, before a lot of modern technology, for police to simply grab someone they could pin a crime on, preferably a black man, and beat a confession out of them. Fred Daniels finds himself caught up in this practice. The scenes of torture are pretty heavy, but don't feel gratuitous. In order to cope with the emotional and physical stress, Fred Daniels depersonalizes and remains that way throughout the book. This is especially relevant when he descends into the sewers.

In the underground, he finds ways to listen in on other people's conversations and the things they do when they think nobody is looking. At one point, he comes upon a choir in a black church. While Fred himself had been in the choir at his church, observing the ritual from completely outside the experience makes it seem to him to be absurd and humiliating. Likewise, when he later breaks into a real estate company and steals the money from the safe, he realizes he has no use for the money underground and uses it as wallpaper in the cave he uses as his room.

Included with the novel is the essay “Memories of My Grandmother.” In it, Richard Wright expounds on the inspirations for the book. He points specifically to his grandmother's religiousness as the main inspiration. As with Fred when he enters the underground, he felt that his grandmother had a sense of living in the world without being of it. This is something that Christianity, especially the stringent brand his grandmother followed, often teaches. With Fred, however, he doesn't come to see a higher power as a hope, rather he sees the connection between his situation and the others and believes he can bring truths that will free everyone when he returns above ground. His inability to articulate these “truths” prove to be his undoing.

Richard Wright considered this his most inspired work and it's hard to disagree with him. The book reads like a waking nightmare with its atmosphere and prose. It examines and indicts the justice system of America and digs deep into the nature of “Otherness” all while telling an engaging and fast-paced story. Even if you haven't read any of Wright's other books, I highly recommend picking this one up.

Buy The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright here. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Book Review: The Exploding Book by Mike Russell

 

 

Not long after you, the reader, are pulled into the library of the town of Gladeville, it explodes. This leaves the librarian dead and all books, except for the Dark Book, destroyed. As you, the reader, explore the town, you discover that the town is trapped within a giant box. Many of the inhabitants find they have no concept of things like sex, death, or the existence of any other towns. 

The gold temple is both inside you and inside this book but this book is not written in blood and your veins are not running with ink. 

The Exploding Book reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. It examines the nature of literature and language through a number of metafiction elements and a fantasy-tinged story. The book is told in second-person, however "you" are essentially given an omniscient viewpoint by being a traveling spirit inside the book. 

The various characters of Gladeville often find themselves in a state of confusion, having no language for common things. For example, at one point the chief of police and a reporter find themselves driven nearly mad with lust, but don't understand the concept of "sex." Animal instinct leads them to copulating anyway. This results in the police chief getting pregnant and not understand why, because she also has no concept of "pregnancy" or its connection to sex. 

The duck-rabbit optical illusion is a reoccurring motif. It first appears as a hole in the walls surrounding Gladeville and later as an actual creature. The duck-rabbit illusion is often used as an example of the difference between perception and interpretation. The people of Gladeville start religions based on saying the hole is for certain a duck or for certain a rabbit, and the two bitterly clash. In his examination of perception, Russell looks at the difference between genuine curiosity and adherence to dogma. 

While the book is heavy on ideas, it also tells a surreal, but mostly straightforward story. The various residents of Gladeville find themselves embarking on their own quests to discover the nature of their reality, prompted by the mystery of why the library has been destroyed. The characters have different arcs all based on trying to sort out the confusion they've found themselves in.

My one complaint about the book, is that it often feels dragged out. There are scenes that go on a bit too long and belabor the point. This is especially true of the ending which does wrap up the story nicely, but involves a lot of repetition that isn't really necessary. 

In spite of that, The Exploding Book is still an enjoyable surreal fantasy with a lot of interesting perspectives on language, perception, identity, and literature. I believe this is worth picking up, especially if you've enjoyed Russell's short work in the past.

Buy The Exploding Book by Mike Russell here.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Now on Godless.com

You can now find me on the new horror and extreme fiction website Godless.com. My short story, The Tomato Garden, is now an exclusive on that site. Head over and pick it up if you haven't yet.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Brief Thoughts 30

 A God of Flies Among Them by Philip LoPresti

Jessop Thorn returns to his childhood home to confront his past. His family had mysteriously disappeared one by one, and now he wants closure. As he explores his old home and town, the secrets of his bloodline begin to come out. 

This novella is a Southern Gothic with elements of horror and mystery. Like LoPresti's other work, it's heavily atmospheric and character driven. Jessop is stalked by ghosts, both literal and figurative, as he explores his old town. While he does meet some of his old friends, there's a pervasive sense of loneliness and alienation his journey. He wants to make connections with others, but his upbringing leaves him unable to. 

LoPresti's prose vividly depicts the eerie and the grotesque circumstances of Jessop's old town. The story ends with little resolution, but in a book like this that's to be expected. For someone like Jessop, there are no resolutions. 

I highly recommend this book. It's creepy, heavy, and beautifully written. Pick up LoPresti's other work while you're at it. 

Buy A God of Flies Among Them by Philip LoPresti here.

Hello, Old Friend by Elizabeth Bedlam

Eve is a successful writer who suffers from severe anxiety. It's gotten so bad she can barely talk on the phone, go to the grocery store, or even visit with her therapist. One day, a fellow patient introduces her to the self-help program of Dr. Gish. They're a simple set of DVDs with the doctor giving her instructions, but they work wonders for her. However, she soon finds there's a heavy price to the program. 

I have a lot of praise for the imagery that Bedlam conjures in this novella. She comes up with some horrible, vivid ways to demonstrate the pain and the breakdown that Eve goes through in the story. Especially with the segments with Dr. Gish. I could hear the voice of the doctor in my head; a deep, calming voice that at the same time is vaguely ominous. 

That said, there were things that kept me from liking it as much as I wanted to. The biggest problem is that ending is predictable and, after all the build-up, reads like a shuffling off the stage. There's also a tendency of the prose to suddenly switch the omnipotent 3rd person from on Eve to another character for only a paragraph or so, which feels very awkward and pointless for characters who are only around for that long. 

I also felt that the story rushed a bit too much from the program making Eve feel like a healthy, functional person to having her become obsessed and going completely crazy. It would have benefited from being a little longer in the middle. 

Despite my problems with the book, I enjoyed it overall and I finished the novella in one sitting. I think this is worth reading and I'll be picking more of Bedlam's works. 

Buy Hello, Old Friend by Elizabeth Bedlam here.

Four Circles by Meg McCarville  

This book is a memoir by sex worker, model, performance artist, and madwoman Meg McCarville recounts her life in four cities; Chicago, Oakland, Miami, and New Orleans. She recounts the usually awful people she met, her sexual encounters, her living conditions, and the various diseases (of every stripe) that she comes in contact with. 

The book is a mixture of disgusting, hilarious, and emotionally taxing. In the first section, McCarville describes her hatred of anal and oral sex, even having made a zine with a male friend who also hated giving oral sex. This is despite the fact that she's certain neither of them have actually sucked a dick or licked a cunt. This part is immediately followed by a heart-wrenching recounting of a traumatic miscarriage. 

The section in Oakland is almost entirely a stream-of-consciousness rant against the people she lived with in the city. In the section in Miami, she confirms that the "Florida Man" memes are true, comparing the poorest parts of the city to World War Z with meth zombie. In her time in New Orleans, she's robbed by vicious crackheads and gets involved in a series of trainwreck relationships, one of which is with a human statue. 

It was a little hard to believe the book is less than a hundred pages after finishing it. She packs so much into it and paints such vivid, horrible pictures, you can feel the dirt, grime, and smell the horrible stenches of sex, shit, and rot. 

This, as you can probably guess, is not a book for people with weak stomachs. However, it's a damn great work and, if you can handle a constant barrage of disgusting and awful things, I highly recommend it. 

Buy Four Circles by Meg McCarville here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Book Review: On Neutral Zones by Daniel Falatko

 


The unnamed narrator of On Neutral Zones is at the end of his rope. His big house in the suburbs is getting too expensive, his marriage with his wife is on its last legs, and he's becoming increasingly alienated from his daughter as she's gone off to college. Finally no longer able to stand either his wife or the crushingly empty space in his home, he leaves to start living in the pod hotels of New York City.

Pains wracked his ribcage and his eyeballs felt dry and sandy in their sockets. He sat up in the subterranean darkness. 2200 square feet in the house above him. At least 2000 of those square feet unused and out of his control.”

The idea of “pod living” was something I had often heard about before Covid-19 hit and made the idea of living in very close proximity to others seem profoundly undesirable. Even before that, many derided the idea. Falatko even makes references to 4Chan memes which mocked the idea as being indicative to how modern city life is debasing. However, the narrator of this novella finds them comforting. He enjoys having his living situation pared down to the bare minimum and not having to be tied down to one location. The useless number of belongings and empty space in his suburban home had started to induce panic attacks in him.

The novella does not, however, necessarily frame pod living as a desirable solution to suburban expectations. The narrator still has to overcome the space that has developed between him and his daughter. He also finds the community of fellow pod dwellers to be mostly online and lacking. Not to mention his divorce from his wife for just up and leaving her threatens to become very ugly. Towards the end of the story, he also starts sensing that something is going to completely wreck pod living as a viable option altogether. I'm not sure if this was completed before or after Covid-19 hit the United States full force, but it was certainly correct there.

I couldn't help but compare this novella with Falatko's first book Condominium. In that story, a couple moves into a million dollar condo and finds themselves alienated from the community. That novel was very unsatisfying for me. On Neutral Zones, to me, is a much better examination of the angst and pressures felt by the upwardly mobile. The narrator's wife is very bitter, believing strongly in the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality to an unhealthy degree. One criticism I have of this novella is that it doesn't explore that side very well. She ends up disappearing from the narrative close to the end with no real resolution.

In fact, my biggest problem with the novella is that it undergoes a pretty massive tonal shift. While the narrator struggles with how pod living may not be a viable long term solution, he encounters a private investigator and gets roped in plot involving militant hippies. It feels very out of step with everything that came before and ends up resulting in some difficult reflection that would be required by the narrator being dodged.

Overall, On Neutral Zones is an interesting meditation on modern urban life that takes some unusual turns that don't all work. I would recommend Falatko's second novel, Travels and Travails of Small Minds, over this one. If that one leaves you wanting more of Falatko's work, however, this is worth picking up. 

Buy On Neutral Zones by Daniel Falatko here. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

New Review at Rain Taxi

 

 

Over at the Minneapolis-based literary magazine Rain Taxi, I have a review of the re-release of the Palahniuk edited anthology Burnt Tongues

Read it here.

Friday, January 15, 2021