transgressive

Pleasuring the Collective Unconscious: A review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You

I’ll start with a confession: This review has come along sluggishly. Time I’ve set aside for writing has instead been frittered away on mindless online gaming. It’s an affliction we’ll call Beautiful Youwritus interruptus, and it’s likely to become an epidemic worse than any zombie apocalypse.

(Speaking of, my current addiction is The Last Stand: Dead Zone, and before I completed this sentence I had to stop to check on the construction status of a barricade.)

This isn’t anything new, really. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that if a rat could stimulate its brain’s pleasure center by pressing a bar, it would do so furiously until it passed out from exhaustion and, in many cases, died for lack of food and water. Mind you, the rats had access to food and water, but they couldn’t keep their paws off that pleasure bar.

This should sound familiar to any gamer who has missed a meal in order to level up.

It’s sick and wrong. I know this, but I need someone to hold up a mirror to face this absurdity directly.

This is why I love Chuck Palahniuk, whose new book, Beautiful You, is his best in a few years.

Fittingly, it concerns arousal addiction, and serves an electric shock to our collective conscience (or perhaps unconscious would be the better term).

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club, and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her newfound fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that farfetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

Beautiful You put me in mind of Rancid’s “Born Frustrated,” which asked, “Is this human freedom, hedonistic excess? Junky consumerism, mass production, toxic sickness?”

It’s why Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was set inside a shopping mall—can you truly be sure there aren’t a few zombies among you inside the IKEA? Ever been to a restaurant where a group of supposed acquaintances are each focused on their own smartphone or tablet?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction.

We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

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Review: The Penguin Book of Witches

The Penguin Book of Witches

Katherine Howe, editor

It’s fitting that Penguin is releasing its annotated Book of Witches in time for Halloween—and not just because of the seasonal correlation of Wicca and the feast of Samhain. The history of the witch is long and complicated. The difficulty of distilling thousands of years of witchery into a single volume is perhaps best illustrated by considering the variety of Halloween Penguin Book of Witchescostumes celebrating the witch.

A cursory search of costume shops gives you such options as sexy witch, crone witch, neon witch or glitter/sparkle/glamor witch. Would you like a traditional black dress with a broom, or something made of lace? You could be a witch from Oz or Salem, Sabrina or American Horror Story.

And would you like a cat with that? Or perhaps a toad or flying monkey?

Oh, you can even dress up your dog as a witch, if you feel like it. Whatever. You go do you.

Point is, the witch is not a singular entity: it’s a character that has assumed many forms in film, folklore and the imagination, be it funny or frightening, sexy or silly, from the East Coast (good) or the West (wicked). In her introduction, author and academic Katherine Howe gives as good a definition as I’ve ever read:

“Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group” [xii].

Indeed, the bookshelf of my youth was loaded with books on the topic: fiction anthologies devoted to the witch; sensational Satanic Panic potboilers; historical and sociological treatises; feminist takes; and cumbersome source material such as the Malleus Malificarum and The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.

I wish this book would have been around back then. Howe does a great job of sampling the primary sources to create a palatable, yet thorough history. She begins with references to witchcraft in the Bible and guides us, inevitably, to Massachusetts Bay.

The meat of The Penguin Book of Witches are the trial transcripts and testimonies from that dark period of 1692-93. While the prose doesn’t exactly leap off the page here, the importance of these documents, and the clarity of Howe’s introductions, is worth enduring a bit of the old English.

That the Salem Witch Trials remain a relevant cultural reference more than 300 years later speaks to their importance. It remains one of our country’s greatest shames, and its memory serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and a warning about how low we may sink.

Sadly, no matter how much humanity progresses, the same dark drive that fueled the colonial witch craze still smolders within us. The 20th century alone gave America two Red Scares, internment camps, the West Memphis Three, the Satanic Panic, the War on Drugs and all manner of smaller scale oppression, discrimination and fear-mongering.

The post-9/11 world has given us Guantanamo Bay, George Zimmerman and a Red State/Blue State schism.

Fittingly, Howe offers a word of caution as she segues into the closing section, “After Salem”: “While no witch trial in North America—or Europe, for that matter—would ever again approach the magnitude and fatality of the Salem episode, witch belief did not disappear. It merely changed form” [193].

This line, for me, is the ultimate takeaway from this book. Witches, as portrayed by Halloween costumes, are creatures of the imagination, folklore and literature. But by any name, the women who were burned, stoned and hanged were victims—not of demonic possession or supernatural forces, but of the all-too-human folly of superstition, prejudice and mob mentality.

The same goes for all victims of a witch craze. The importance of studying the witchhunts of the past is that they are difficult to recognize while they are happening. They occur under the insidious guise of patriotism, decency and traditional values. The label “witchhunt” is only applied in the aftermath.

By reading the transcripts of the trials and examinations, and the post-Salem mea culpas, we can hopefully prevent or at least minimize oppression in our time and in the ages to come.

Howe’s collection is a great place to start.

A Darker Shade of Summer (Fiction)

A round-up of ghost stories, thrillers and dystopian anthologies to darken you summer. (Come back tomorrow for our nonfiction edition.)

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

(Released June 28)

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

In “The Last Train,” a modest theater-goer arrives late to the station, but by good fortune, his train is waiting for him. Once aboard, he realizes his destination is somewhere other than home. Likewise, a young factory apprentice stumbles upon a shop-floor oddity in “The Cleaner”—and realizes that what he first thought to be a hoax or a hazing is in fact a haunting.

Perhaps the stand-out tale of this collection is “The Heinkel,” a WWII yarn about a young boy fascinated with a downed German plane.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills (such as my dad’s coworker losing an arm in the blast furnace) and the spooky kind (my grandfather’s otherworldly encounters at the Westinghouse plant).

When it was my turn to work the factories, I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories. (His first book, Tales from the Toolbox, recounts his industrial experiences.)

My one critique is that there’s not a lot of mystery to these stories. Characters who believe they are having ghostly encounters truly are, and the nature and cause of the hauntings are typically self-evident. But that’s OK. These stories work not through terror or misdirection, but by tapping into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Ominous Realities is the finest indie collection I’ve read in a while. These dystopian tales chill and unsettle, balancing skill, imagination and smarts.

Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Last year, I read Meikle’s novel The Hole, and thought it was enjoyable but flawed. Here, Meikle is in control from the creepy opener in the lab to the grim finale. HPL would love this tale of science gone wrong.

Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

An excellent collection from a hot new publisher. Also be sure to check out their Dark Visions II anthology.

Coming Soon

Mean Streak

Sandra BrownMean Streak

(Release date: Aug. 19)

Mean Streak has all the makings of a classic Sandra Brown thriller: abduction, deception, moral complexity and a revelatory rabbit-hole twist. In her new novel, Dr. Emory Charbonneau disappears, and her husband is the primary suspect. Part crime novel, Mean Streak is also a survival narrative, as Emory awakes in the hands of a violent captor who may be hiding his true identity. I haven’t read this yet, but it sounds reminiscent of Standoff, which was one of her best works.

 

The Black RoadThe Black Road

Tania Carver

(Release date: Aug. 15)

While the plot may be a little, well, plausibility challenged, advance press offers Mo Hayder levels of gore and depravity (aka horrific awesomeness). Following a mysterious explosion, criminologist Marina Esposito’s husband is in a coma and her young daughter is missing. The abductor forces  Marina to complete a series of depraved tasks in the course of three days or her daughter dies. So, yeah, it may be plot-challenged, but if you’re looking to spice up your summer with some gore, The Black Road just may be a detour worth taking.

Review: Justice, Inc.

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Dale Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to killjustice-inc-cover off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. Albert Camus wrote: “Man is mortal. That may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice!”

He would love this book.

In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

This is the type of justice that runs through this collection. The settings are typically dystopian and of our own making. It is human nature to barricade the doors or erect walls to repel that which threatens us, only to realize that we have constructed our own prison cell.

Just ask Poe’s Prospero, whose harlequin fortress was child’s play for the Red Death.

Justice, Inc., published by the formidable Monkey Puzzle Press, manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

The opening story, “Welcome to Omni-Mart,” is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” updated for the big-box generation. Leonard was adopted by Omni-Mart as a child and now, at forty-two, lives, works and philosophizes within its walls, deathly afraid of The Outside.

It’s a synthetic, corporate dystopia that is, sadly, all too familiar.

“Life After Men” is a sardonic take on dysfunctional relationships and how we, inevitably, are drawn to, and driven by, the things that destroy us. Oh, and did I mention this plays out against the backdrop of some wild, gender-specific apocalypse?

This segues into the darkly comic (and karmic) “The Girlfriend™” in which the protagonist, Derrick, blurs the line between physical and factitious love. For Bridges, the femme fatale has been replaced by the sentient sex robot. (Of all the dystopias in all the dystopian universe, she had to walk into mine.)

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Obligatory disclaimer: Bridges is a friend and former coworker. We worked (and suffered) together at the Boulder Weekly newspaper, where he succeeded me as arts and entertainment editor. We also worked together on Transgress magazine, where three of these stories originally appeared.

I can attest to the quality of the man, his writing and his conviction.

I can also warn you, from first-hand knowledge, that Bridges may very well be the madman Nietzsche wrote about—and the bringer of the end times.

Be warned that there is a fifth steed of the apocalypse, and its name is Justice—and Bridges is lashing the whip, breathing fire and coming for us all.

Last-Minute Literature

The tick-tock of the holiday shopping season is winding down (or perhaps gearing up with desperation). If you’re still needing a last-minute book for the literati in your life, these blurbs should help differentiate the Red Ryder BB gun from the lumps of coal.

Diary of Edward the Hamster (1990-1990)

Miriam and Ezra Elia

I didn’t think anyone anthropomorphized animals more than me until I read this diary,Hamster translated from the notes left behind by Edward the Hamster. Much like the Marquis de Sade, who wrote extensively while in prison and only achieved literary fame posthumously, this artifact of Edward’s incarceration is certain to elicit pathos in readers.

It’s clear that Edward has studied the likes of Heidegger and Sartre. His reflections are wrought with defiance, despair and existential angst. He searches for meaning within his cage. There is food, water, a wheel.

“Is there nothing else!” he cries.

Filled with wit and wisdom, this graphic novel is a black comic tribute to a beloved hamster—the most existential beast within the animal kingdom. The drawings are cute, the entries are funny, but sprinkled throughout the book are philosophical nuggets like, “Why write? Life is a cage of empty words,” and “Is this cage of my own making?”

Along the way, we follow Edward through failed escapes, domestic discord and bliss and a final, bloody insurrection. This is a quick and playful read, with clever artwork, and will bring a smile to the philosopher in your life.

The Never List

Koethi Zan

There is a bitter synchronicity to Koethi Zan’s debut novel, The Never List. Concerning the-never-listthe lives of three women held captive in a madman’s basement, The Never List hit shelves 10 days before Ariel Castro pled guilty to holding three women hostage in his Cleveland basement.

I’m reminded of the Alice Cooper tale of his first trip to England. According to legend, a woman died during the flight, and it fueled his notoriety when he emerged on UK soil trailing a cadaver. Serendipity may not be the polite word, but by dictionary definition…

So, I read this book in July and loved it. The writing is solid and the narrative compelling, and I intended to review it at that time. Unfortunately, it got lost in the barrage of new releases.

There is a news hook, though, as the book is being adapted for television, and will be written by transgressive author A.M. Homes, which should make for wonderfully disturbing television.

The First Thanksgiving

Nathaniel Philbrick

This short work, a reworking of a chapter from Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of ThanksgivingCourage, Community, and War, is a great introduction to anyone interested in historical nonfiction who may be daunted by Philbrick’s longer works. There aren’t enough superlatives for Philbrick’s writing, and this appetizer will make any reader want to read the Mayflower, or any of his works, in full.

It’s the history of a holiday that we still celebrate, yet holds little connection to its origin. Here, we get the story we never learned in elementary school—such as the high mortality rates of the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is now a spectacle of consumption and consumerism. Yet of the roughly 150 passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower, only half survived that first winter. Suffice to say, reading about the hardships of the settlers at the time of the first Thanksgiving will shame anyone who dares complain about Black Friday checkout lines.

God is Disappointed in You

By Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler

Some jokes never get old, as evidenced in this irreverent abridging of The Bible. The god_is_disappointed_in_you_cover_lghumor is sharp, varying from silly to satirical, and the illustrations add to the humor. While it is funny, there is also an earnestness within the narrative, as Russell attempts to condense the entire text to its core concepts.

Ambitious idea, and one not to be taken too seriously, but I dispute the author’s claims of accuracy. For example, which version of The Bible? If biblical scholars have been unable to agree on the official canon, I won’t expect it to be decoded in a humor book.

But taken for what it is, God is Disappointed in You is good, clean fun, filled with soul-lightening humor. If the publisher is smart, they’re already compiling a 365-frame calendar version to market over the holidays.

If so, sign me up.

Doomed

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck, we love you. Please remember that. Lullaby is one of the most amazing booksdoomed-us_0 I’ve ever read, and I even found a way to work it into my master’s thesis. Choke is cutting social satire of the first order, Fight Club one of the greatest films ever made. Survivor is brilliant in plot, character and execution, and don’t get me started on the thrill-ride that is Haunted.

But I do have a few pet peeves that pop up in Doomed, the sequel to Damned.

First, I don’t have much patience for fiction written in the voice of a child. No matter the skill of the writer, an adult giving voice to a child always comes across as inauthentic and, in the worst cases, foolish. Also, exactly what are we to learn from a child narrator? It certainly won’t shock or disturb any hardened reader of horror or transgressive fiction.

Second, humor in horror is an iffy proposition. When it works, it’s organic, or the comedy is more disturbing than the tragedy (for example, many of the stories in Haunted). Better incidental humor than intentional. Doomed reads more like a Christopher Moore novel (albeit an extremely dark and cynical one).

I’m a fan of Moore’s, but his brand of humor is expected. When I read Palahniuk, I look forward to that nausea that lingers and ultimately consumes me, which I’ve found absent in Doomed.

Review, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

On DissentNot many books from Cambridge University Press make it to the summer reading list, but On Dissent: Its Meaning in America is one of the better ways to revolt against the light-hearted beach-readers out there. Hell, it’s patriotic. America was born in dissent, and we celebrate it still. With fireworks—even illegal ones (though from now on I argue that M-80s are not outlaws, but rather the tools of dissent).

But why is dissent so much of our DNA? What does it even mean to dissent? These were the questions nagging at Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, two esteemed political scholars who were surprised to find that there was no true analysis of the concept of dissent.

That’s what they set out to create with this short, thought-provoking work.

For the most part, Collins and Skover accomplish their goal. The tone is philosophical in nature, and the authors begin by attempting to define dissent and identify its practitioners. Sure, anyone can point to the examples of Thoreau, King and Paine, but the authors take on trickier issues, such as how clear the line is (or isn’t) between civil disobedience and criminality. What role does violence play in dissent, or does an action cease to be dissent once it becomes violent?

Collins and Skover do a great job, and scholarly service, by identifying the fundamental traits of dissent, such as its being goal-oriented and indicative of a power dynamic. They buttress their definition by exploring hypotheticals and philosophical dilemmas (is a hired protester a dissenter?), and they do it all with an accessible writing style that will appeal to non-academic readers who might not otherwise seek out this book.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and the biggest issue I have is with the authors’ overreliance on expert commentary, such as that of Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The quotations are often redundant and unnecessary. The collective intellect of Collins and Skover is authoritative enough, and I recommend skimming through the offset commentary.

But there’s nothing else I would skim over in this book—particularly the epilogue. Here, the authors move away from definitions and thought experiments and present their own take on dissent—that contrary to rebellion, dissent is a vital and cohesive component of a democracy:

“Consent and dissent are two sides of the same coin. Without dissent, consent is meaningless; without consent, dissent loses much of its animating purpose” (152).

On Dissent is a quick and wonderful read. It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It will remind you that though we may disagree, the freedom to disagree and express opposing viewpoints is what makes us strong.

Saki and Edward Gorey: The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories

In a wet-dream coupling worthy of GothicMatch.com, New York Review Books Classics has reissued a collection of Saki short stories illustrated by Edward Gorey.gorey

This twisted ballet of Edwardian sensibilities is darkly hilarious, and Gorey breathes new life into Saki’s drawing-room nightmares. Saki’s black humor shines in the dark delicacies “Sredni Vashtar,” “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” and “The Open Window.”

Like Saki, Gorey had a love of macabre humor, particularly set in the dramatic Victorian and Edwardian periods. His drawings incarnate the grim, merciless caricature of the English elite.

My favorite is the story “Tobermory,” which concerns the titular cat who discomfits house-party guests when he acquires the ability to speak. Gorey, a devout cat lover, must have enjoyed drawing this twisted tale. As a cat lover myself, I think Saki captured the spirit of how a cat would talk, if he could. He tells the ugly truth about the superficiality of the aristocrats, and he has little use for small talk: “It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.”

This makes him a threat to the partiers because he is the only one willing to scratch (if you’ll pardon the pun) beneath the surface and capable of exposing their dirty laundry and has no vested interest in status to keep him quiet.

So, of course, they set out to kill him.

When Mr. Appin, who taught Tobermory to speak, protests, the others suggest he experiment with less-independent animals “who are under proper control.”

The rich, absurdly disastrous ending both lampoons the artifice of the elite and the dangers one faces when speaking truth to power.