Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Book Review: Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister

In the year 2034, Dr. Diana Scorsi has developed a powerful AI called Symmetra, which causes all who experience it to believe that it's god. She soon finds herself kidnapped by Ravelton Parley, founder the of the incredibly successful Righteous Burger fast food chain who wants the technology for his own purposes. With Symmetra at the center of a potential international incident with various nations fighting for the technology, government agents Tuck Squires and Ken Clarion set out to rescue Dr. Scorsi before it's too late.

Whether families or neighbors or armies, the reasons people kept fighting were so often mysterious, so far beyond the realms of ethics or reason, that they might easily seem like the province of otherworldly powers.”

Pax Americana is a satirical sci-fi spy thriller in the vein of Pynchon and Vonnegut. There are numerous absurdities within the world, such as an extended run of Republicans in the White House leading to a ideology known as Christian Consumerism taking hold in America. This results in Christian-theme products and businesses, such as the Righteous Burger, taking over the mainstream. The anti-hero of the book, Tuck Squires, is the opposite of a suave, smooth-talking secret agent. He's a prudish WASP from a rich family who failed upwards into his position. Through most of the book, he's carried by Ken Clarion, a grizzled veteran of the field.

In spite of the many humorous elements, Baumeister plays the spy plot mostly straight. It's full of intrigue, action, backstabbing, and lots of things blowing up. He balances these elements well, creating an entertaining read without losing the satirical looks at religion, American hegemony, and capitalism. This would make for a great film.

The book is incredibly evocative of the Bush administration era. Within the world of Pax Americana, the Iraq invasion was successful and resulted in a series of Republican presidents up until 2034. American hegemony is all but assured (hence the title), but is beginning to unravel due to a failed invasion of Syria. The development of Symmetra is causing even more problems, with every country desperately wanting the technology that would completely upend everyone's understanding of religion.

Religion is often the center of mockery in this novel. Both the anti-hero Tuck Squires and the villain Ravelton Parley are self-righteous Christians who are obsessed with loyalty to American and capitalism, and use both to justify morally questionable things. One scene that stands out in particular is when Parley is pretending to be a Muslim while speaking with an associate from an Islamic theocracy and the result is both a mockery of the Othering of Islam by Americans and of the religion itself. Symmetra itself is essentially a brainwashing program that is able to convince all who interact with it that it's a sort of machine god, which gives the people fighting over it various theological motivations to get a hold of it.

Pax Americana is a funny and entertaining read with a lot to say about the place of religion in society today. It can be enjoyed both for its plot and action as well as it themes. I highly recommend this and I look forward to reading what Baumeister puts out in the future. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Book Review: Lonely Men Club by Mike Kleine

Created a cipher and sent it to the Vallejo Times Herald. Zodiac = 18, SFPD: 0. Wrote a poem about Delaware. Mailed it to Dave Toschi. Received a bill for $337.41. It was from the government. It had been a long day. Wrote my thoughts concerninggeodisc philosophies in a little book. I feel better when the sky is white.”

To say that Lonely Men Club has a plot is a bit of a stretch. To call it a character study is more accurate, but it looks at the character in the strangest way possible. That's not even just because the character is a time-traveling Zodiac Killer with magic powers who prays, writes, and travels in between committing murders and assaults and taunting the press and police. If I had to describe this book to someone, I'd say it's like a mix between American Psycho and House of Leaves.

Kleine wrote this book, which is over 700 pages and 100,000 words, in five days with the help of various computer programs, making the text partially procedurally generated. As radically different as this is from his other work, even the very experimental Arafat Mountain, there are still a lot of recognizable themes that Kleine comes back to. Travel, pop culture, and empty consumerism drowning out higher truths all run through the book.

I read this book from the beginning of it to the end. That seems like it should go without saying, but as Kleine points out in the introduction and the publisher points out in the afterword, this is not really a book to be read that way. The publisher even states it's the kind of book you never finish reading.

There's a lot of repetition in the book. I had to pace myself reading it to keep from getting annoyed by it, which I think was the right move. It's not so repetitive it kept me from coming back, though. Every few pages there will be something unexpected like a page blank but for a period or text over other text, making it unreadable. It's like the Zodiac Killer's time-traveling and powers are destroying the book itself.

The book has several places where words aren't spaced, creating strange neologisms such as “destroyedomlette” and “fuckedprayer.” Most of the prose is mundane and staccato, with the occasional burst of a strange question or a poetic phrase. Tying into the Zodiac Killer mythos, he's often praying for power and slaves in the afterlife. Despite the fact he aspires for such things, all that he can do with the power he already possesses is kill people, taunt the cops, and wander aimlessly. The book does throw curve balls at ssome points, in a book that is a curve ball itself, that does end up making very close reading of the text rewarding, despite the fact it the way its written encourages skimming.

Lonely Men Club is a radical book, even by the standards of experimental fiction. A lot of people will be very quickly turned off by it. However, Kleine has created an unquestionably unique book and a piece of text that works as piece of visual art as well. As of writing this, the publisher has this available for free as an e-book on their website. However, I very much encourage anyone interested in this to get the physical book as it loses something without being an object one can hold and flip through. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Unrepublished: 10 A Boot Stomping 20 A Human Face 30 Goto 10 by Jess Gulbranson

The Unrepublished is a look at books which are out of print and not available new, even as e-books. What lurks in the depths of these forgotten books?

Eric is a relatively normal music-loving hipster. He works a day job in a record shop, he eats pizza almost everyday, and his only major quirk is that he hates computers. However, he soon discovers that he has an unusual talent and finds himself roped into a conspiracy that results in a fight for human freedom, and for reality itself.

Could you break your brain by thinking too much about the wrong things? I suppose so.”

Generally, when I take a look at books, I try to keep my reviewer hat, which is my penis, separate from my writer hat. The problem is, my writer hat is also my penis, so this tends to cause a big overlap. I couldn't help but notice there were a lot of theme overlaps with my own first novel, The Story of the Y. The main character is a record collection hipster, there are a lot of ghosts and magic, there's a hatred and fear of authority running throughout, and there's a lot of cosmic mystery. I bought this eight years ago, but never got around to reading it until this year. I can't help but feel like if I had read this right after I first bought it, I would have either never written The Story of the Y or it would have been a much better novel. Either way, it's clear that Gulbranson and I are functioning on a very similar wavelength.

The title is both a reference to the famous quote from 1984, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human faceforever,” and to the computer language BASIC. It's not immediately obvious what relevance it has, the story seems to just be about a hipster who discovers he has psychic powers. However, when Gulbranson drops the title in the book, it's certainly earned and doesn't feel forced or cheesy at all.

One of my favorite parts of this book is its sense of humor. I've laughed at few books harder. The funniest chapter is when Eric comes home to his apartment to find that someone has broken in. Nothing has been taken, but someone took a shit on his kitchen floor. After cleaning up, he asks his landlord about it who says he saw someone lurking around the building who resembled “that person in the videos smashing the pumpkins.” When Eric asks if he means Gallagher, the landlord clarifies that he meant music videos. Eric takes this to mean either Billy Corrigan or someone who resembles him is responsible.

It isn't a big surprise to learn that original manuscript for this book was written for the Three Day Novel contest, though it wasn't the winner for that year. It moves along at a very fast pace and one could easily read this in a day or so. I've heard this book considered bizarro, as it was published through Legumeman Books. It could easily be filed under Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy, or Horror without seeming out of place in the least, so bizarro seems as good a classification if any. It has a unique voice written in a manner that feels as natural as the way it mixes genre conventions.

This is an excellent book and it's a shame that it's not only, but that used copies are so difficult to find. The cheapest I could find were copies that are at least $50. Not only that, but Gulbranson hasn't written anything since this book, though he does have scattered stories in anthologies and wrote two other novels before this that are even harder to find. If you can find this book in a used book store, I highly recommend picking this up and I hope this will find a reprinting eventually.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Now Available on Bookshop

For people who want to minimize Amazon use during their worker strike, I've created a Bookshop storefront. All of my books in paperback are available on the website. You'll be directing support away from Amazon and to independent book stores by buying there. I also have some copies available directly from me if you want to get some autographed. E-mail me for details.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Elaine - Now Available

Elaine is now available from Atlatl Press. You can buy the paperback here, or the Kindle version here.

I'll have signed copies available directly from myself within the coming weeks. For those of you in the Des Moines area, I'll be selling copies at the Des Moines Book Festival on March 28 from 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Top Ten Reads of 2019

I'll be elaborating on these choices in a podcast in the coming weeks. Until then, here's the top ten best books I read in 2019. 

10. My Birth and Other Regrets by Ben Fitts

9. Grow Up by Ben Brooks

8. God of the Razor by Joe R. Lansdale

7. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

6. Writings of the Vienna Actionists, edited by Malcom Green

5. Star by Yukio Mishima

4. Apparitions of the Living by John Trefry

3. Neon Dies at Dawn by Andersen Prunty

2. Stupid Baby by New Juche

1. Unamerica by Cody Goodfellow and Girl Like a Bomb by Autumn Christian (tie)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Elaine Pre-order and A Giveaway

Elaine is now available for pre-order on Kindle.

Buy it here.

If you pre-order it before New Year's, I'll send you a free Kindle copy of any of my other books. Just e-mail me with proof of purchase.