Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger

I had actually bought NVSQVAM (nowhere) before The Talkative Corpse was released without knowing much about Ann Sterzinger. I'm pretty sure I had read her blog or an interview with her before I bought it. I never got around to reading it. Even as much as I enjoyed The Talkative Corpse, it took me until last week to actually pick up NVSQVAM.

Lester Reichartsen isn't happy with how his life turned out. When he was young, he was the lead singer of the punk band The Incognito Mosquitos. After he was fired by his band mates, he decided to go back to school to study Classical Letters. Unfortunately, he ended up knocking up his girlfriend Evelyn and got talked into marrying her. Now he has a kid he never wanted, a wife he doesn't love anymore, a job he hates as a teacher at a university in a southern Illinois town he hates and he's working on a dissertation he can barely bring himself to give a shit about.
The problem with getting a doctorate in classical letters, he thought, was not that it was useless. It was that anybody smart enough to actually do it wouldn't spend that much effort on anything but their own creations. Why couldn't he have studied something modern and easy? Then he could have something himself, too.
To make matters worse, his kid Martin is a boy genius. Most parents would be proud of this, but to Lester it's nothing but a reminder of how much of a failure he is. The fact that Martin is a smug, annoying little shit doesn't help either.

Toward the beginning, Lester decides to try to seek therapy at his university's health center. It doesn't go well. At all. This part made me laugh out loud and cringe at the same. It reminded me of my own disastrous attempts of talking to a female therapist who was unable to help me. Like Lester, it came from my own inability to really articulate my problems and a lack of qualification from her for my specific problems. Lester finds out one way that it could be even worse. If you couldn't think about much other than how much you wanted to fuck the therapist.
It occurred to him that she wasn't talking very much. Shouldn't shrinks have some answers instead of just sitting there asking questions and looking lickable? He could feel sweat stains growing on the nice purple shrink chair beneath his male behind. He tried to make a joke to himself about thanking his lucky stars that she didn't have a couch, but it only made him want to scream.
A good portion of the first half of the novel follows Lester, Evelyn and Martin as they visit their extended families for Christmas. Lester absolutely hates his working class father and Evelyn isn't exactly fond of her rich parents either. Both of the visits are ridiculous and hilarious. The contrast between the two precedes the same vein that's mined in the The Talkative Corpse. Idiots exist at every class level. Being working class does not make you good or noble, and being rich does not make you smart or worthy of praise. Ann slings her barbs at every level of society.

Lester's dealings with the bullshit of academia remind me why I decided to stop after undergraduate work, besides the financial burden. Lester manages to finish his dissertation and takes another look at it before he sends it off.
The file finally came on screen and Lester stared at it like a caveman. It seemed to have been written in no known language. He’d been over every phoneme of it thousands of times, and even the English words had no meaning for him anymore; the Latin looked like the transcript of a dispute between squirrels.
I studied Psychology in college. Which is why I now work in insurance. I recall one class on brain chemistry that really took its toll on me. I would study for the tests and feel like I understood the material. Then when I actually took them, I would have the same reaction as Lester. The tests may as well have been written in Latin for all I understood on them. I still have no idea how I managed to bullshit my way through that class.

NVSQVAM is very funny. Lester's antics and Ann's witty metaphors had me laughing out loud several times. Part of the humor comes from footnotes where Ann gives sarcastic explanations of things like the Muppets, Wal-Mart and various music trivia. Such as this explanation of who G.G. Allin is.
Musician of a sort, mostly recalled for pooping on stage.
Or this footnote on Kenny G.
Musician whose success in the 1980s proved conclusively the nonexistence of God.
As funny as this novel is, Lester is not exactly who you would call "likable." He's self-pitying, whiny and often mean-spirited. The way he treats his family is flat out awful. The fact he resents them so much and usually treats them like dirt, however, makes the moments he actually bonds with them seem all the more genuine and sweet.
"Goddamnit, Martin, I will hunt you down and SHOOT YOU if you turn out to be like me! Do you understand?"
These moments also make Lester's fall to rock bottom even more tragic. Much of it is his own fault, but that didn't keep his downward spiral from being one of the saddest things I've read in a long time. I'm avoiding spoilers here, but the ending of this book will punch you in the balls. Even if you're a woman or a eunuch.
Unless you believe in God there's nothing but hell. But there IS nothing but hell, so how can you believe in God?
NVSQVAM (nowhere) is a very funny and a tragic novel of not just the horror of living in the early 21st century, but of being alive at all. Lester Reichartsen is an excruciatingly human character whose life makes you laugh to keep from crying at how awful and pathetic it is. Between this and The Talkative Corpse, I'm convinced Ann Sterzinger is one of the most underrated writers working today. The attention she receives is far too sparse for someone who can write this well. I highly recommend this novel and I'll be picking up her debut, Girl Detectives, very soon.

Buy NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger here.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Brief Thoughts 5

It's been some time since I've done this.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

In the past, I would have said that Watchmen is my favorite western comic (my favorite manga being Osamu Tezuka's Ode to Kirihito). After reading Asterios Polyp, I don't that's true anymore.

The story concerns an architect named Asterios Polyp who has won awards for his designs, but never had any of them built. We first meet him at the lowest point in his life. His apartment building burns down during a lighting storm, he grabs some of his possessions and heads out of New York. We learn about his past and about his relationship with his ex-wife, a sculptor.

This comic is amazing. The art is excellent, the story is great, the balance between drama and humor is spot on and all of the characters are fascinating. It's one of the best examples of what comics as a medium are capable of.

The only complaint I have about it is the ending. I won't spoil it, but it reminded me of Douglas Copeland's Eleanor Rigby in a bad way. I see what Mazzecchhelli was going for, but it just felt way too contrived and out of left field.

Despite the ending, I still highly recommend it.

Buy Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli here.

Tough Guys Don't Dance by Norman Mailer

I enjoyed Mailer's debut The Naked and the Dead, so I gave this book a try. A noir crime novel seems like a perfect fit for someone like Mailer.

Tim Madden, a writer with a drinking problem, wakes up from a drunken blackout to find he has a new tattoo, blood in his car and woman's severed head in his marijuana garden. He sets out to figure out what happened during his blackout.

Plot wise, the novel is a run of the mill detective novel. Mailer doesn't do much with the tropes or cliches of the genre. That said, for what it is it's entertaining.

What makes this different from other detective novels is that instead of hard boiled prose, Mailer's style is much more affected. Instead of focusing on the plot, Madden often goes on tagents about his past and philosophical monologues about love, masculinity and sexuality.

This a mixed bag. Detective novels tend benefit from being tightly plotted and from their straightforward prose. Mailer doesn't quite pull off this style of writing with this genre. There are some tangents that are ridiculous. Madden's monologue about the phallic symbolism of a lighthouse comes to mind.

Despite that, most of the tangents are actually either funny or interesting to read. My favorite is probably a jab that Mailer takes at a John Updike passage that describes a vagina in the most awful purple prose. Madden praises the passage and proceeds to attempt to write something similar that ends up sounding crude and mean-spirited.

The views on sexuality are not exactly politically correct, but I found them interesting enough that it got me wanting to read Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex.

As far as novels go, this isn't bad. I would recommend The Naked and the Dead over this one though.

Buy Tough Guys Don't Dance by Norman Mailer here.

Duluth by Gore Vidal

The first book from Gore Vidal that I read was Lincoln. It's not a bad book at all, but I probably would have liked it more if I was a civil war buff. Still, it was interesting to read such an unromanticized portrait of a man that is considered by most to be a secular saint. I liked it enough that I picked up Duluth, mostly because Vidal himself considered it one of his best.

This book was more up my alley. It's a goofy and surreal satire of pretty much everything in American society.

The book takes place in a fictional version of Duluth, Minnesota that contains a desert, mountains, a beach and a swamp. There are several plots running through the book, most dealing with the politics of the city. Several of the plots are pastiches of science fiction, police procedural and Harlequin style romance.

Some of Vidal's satire doesn't really work. His mockery of daytime television is a little too obvious and on the nose.

That said, much of the books is very funny and entertaining. He engages in a type of postmodernism that makes for a bizarre but accessible world. My favorite part of the book is probably the antics of the sadistic police woman Darlene Ecks.

While Lincoln seems to get more praise, I would recommend Duluth over it.

Buy Duluth by Gore Vidal here.