Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, edited by Davis Schneiderman

I really have mixed feelings on this one. Any anthology is inevitably going to be uneven (even if it's just due to subjective taste), especially when the category is as broad as "experimental" writing. So it is with The &Now Awards 2.

Just a couple disclaimers. I haven't read the first &Now Awards and this was sent to me as a review copy (thanks Lori!).

So let's start off with what I didn't like. One was pretty much all of the concrete poems in the book. Some, like Jack Collum's work, were okay. But the rest were just flat out uninteresting to me. Most of the ones in this book especially are more about art made from letters than poems with unusual typography. None even really worth a second glance.

Then there are the pieces in the work that were frankly just boring. For example, Joe Atkin's "BOXXY FOAR 4DD1@!!!!1!!" is nothing more than a transcript of a vlog by the internet celebrity Boxxy. The reasons behind the piece don't make it any better. Yes, I think we were all aware that Boxxy's appeal came from the fact that she was cute and energetic than from having anything of substance to say. We didn't need this pointless experiment to show how vapid internet culture can be.

Another is example is Gretchen E. Henderson's "Prelude from On Marvellous Things Heard". I can't really name anything immediately "wrong" with it. It just does nothing for me.

Henderson's piece also falls into the categories of pieces I simply didn't "get". Pieces like that one, the contribution of a group of writers called the Black Took Collective, and works based on math and computer programming like Nick Montfort's Letterformed Terrain? Just over my head. Were I less charitable reader, I'd be inclined to label them as academic masturbation.

Okay, I've bashed this book enough. Time to talk about the stuff I liked.

My favorite pieces in this book were Brian Evenson's two contributions. "Windeye" is a short but straight forward horror tale about two children discovering a mysterious window on the outside of their house that doesn't seem to be anywhere inside. "A History of the Human Voice" is a humorous story in which a scientist discovers the connection between the human voice and bees.
Indeed, as recently as the 1860s, certain elite circles on the continent are said to have augmented their speech with bees. 
Another favorite of mine was Roxane Gay's "I'm Going to Cook Our Dinner in My Easy Bake Oven and You're Going to Like It". This funny yet romantic piece is a breath of fresh air in an anthology which has too many writers that take themselves too seriously.
That's right. I'm going to cook dinner for us in my Easy Bake Oven. It's going to be delicious and fucking romantic. You're going to eat my Easy Bake Oven dinner and you're going to say it's the most amazing thing you've ever put in your mouth other than, perhaps, me.
A piece that surprised me in it's effectiveness was Kate Durdin's "Anna Nicole Show". Like Atkin's piece, this is also a transcript of a video. Specifically, the Anna Nicole Smith "clown" video. Each of the people in the video has their parts broken into their own page, removing the context of the exchange. This forces the reader to imagine the exchange on their own. The effect makes a disturbing video seem all the more disturbing.
MECHANICAL BABY: Mama. Mama. Waaah. Waaah. Waaah. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama
Chilling.

The flash fiction pieces by some of the more recognizable names in the book (Alissa Nutting, Amelia Gray) also work very well. Jennifer Karmin's aaaaaaaaaaalice is a fascinating libretto/score that I would love to see performed. The sample chapter of Elizabeth Gentry's forthcoming Housebound has me wanting to read the rest. JA Tyler's "The Gone Children They Said Tell Us a Story" is a sharp series of mini-fables. 

Given what I liked and didn't like about this book, I guess I'm more of a traditionalist than I thought. 

Overall, while I didn't like this collection as much as I thought I would the good stuff is still good enough to give this a recommendation. Just beware, you will come across work in this book you will not like. Even if you're the most adventurous reader out there.  

Buy The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: eyeballs growing all over me ...again by Tony Rauch

The experience of reading the stories in Rauch's eyeballs growing all over me ...again is a lot like watching a "lighter" episode of The Twilight Zone. That's not to say they're all fluff. The stories play with a lot of science fiction tropes. Robots, time travel, things shrinking or growing by various means, and so forth are some of the fixations throughout the book. But almost all of them make an attempt at using these tropes to examine the human condition. Throughout these stories, there is a sense of longing, alienation, and being overwhelmed by the weight of the world.

For example, in "send krupac through the portal", the titular Krupac finds himself dumped by the woman he's in love with. When he can't win her back and he can't get over her, he turns to extreme means. With the help of some friends at a local science lab, he plans to send himself into an alternate dimension where he can still be with her.
I try everything in the book, and for the most part Margo puts up with it politely, telling me that maybe in another time, another place, we were meant to be together, but she just doesn’t feel it in the here and now. Not now. She just needs time, she says. Maybe in a little while. Maybe in the future. Maybe.
A sad story that combines both a child-like sense of wonder reminiscent of early science fiction works and the feelings of longing and heartache that are unfortunately far more familiar to many people.

Rauch seems to enjoy having children as his protagonists. Some stories, like "the sandbox", read almost like whimsical bedtime stories. Though not the strongest story in the collection, this isn't a bad thing. Rauch isn't afraid to put the children through some profound pain as well, such as in "the procedure". A young boy is woken up and informed by his mother that his sister had to be rushed to the hospital. They bring her home, and the boy discovers that she's had her head replaced with a goat's head. This seems to have robbed the girl of most of her humanity.
He leans in and tries to see into one of those little black garble eyes, but there is nothing behind them. There is nothing there at all. He only finds his dim little reflection floating as if lost in there, as if some tiny little someone is trapped way deep down inside there, trapped and struggling to get out.
Like many other Bizarro writers, Rauch is not without a sense of humor. "giant chicken menacing me from above" is exactly what the title says it is. A man finds himself being stalked by a giant chicken, never finding out where and when it came from or what it wants with him. He soon comes to believe the chicken is a manifestation of all his fears and anxiety. 
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, about all the missed opportunities adding up, about being afraid to act, unable or unwilling to move forward, about hiding in my own life, about hiding it all away, about creeping low in the shadows. I’ve been thinking of stepping from the safety of the shadows of doubt and indecision, into the enlightenment of action and response. But instead of drawing me out of the shadows, all that thought and consternation only seems to bring a giant chicken, fierce and mean.
Rauch also has a knack for coming up with some very short but excellent dream-like vignettes such as "the run", where a man is woken up by tiny stampeding elephants in his house. Another example is "welcome home", a second-person story wherein "you" meet some interesting people while out on a camping trip.

There are, however, some stories which felt pointless and meandering. "activate the mathias (when in doubt)" is a story about a man with device that can slow down time. It's so heavy on technobabble explanations that it drowned out the point the story was trying make. While most of the stories benefit from their brevity, "little giants (behind the barn)" just seems to end far too soon. A boy meets a very tiny man who makes him all sorts of promises. Then it just ends  It reads like the first chapter of an unfinished novel.

eyeballs growing all over me ...again is overall a pretty good collection of short stories and flash fiction. It would be one I would especially recommend to science fiction fans or to people who want to read a lighter kind of Bizarro fiction.

Buy eyeballs growing all over me ...again here.