Tag Archives: fall 2006

STICKY | IN BED WITH DAVID AND JONATHAN

STICKY
Dale Lazarov and Steve MacIsaac
Bruno Gmünder ($19.95)

IN BED WITH DAVID AND JONATHAN
Tom Bouden
Bruno Gmünder ($22.95)

by Jay Besemer

I knew I was in love when I saw his Ape Sex T-shirt. Well, maybe not love, exactly, but I knew I wanted him. Him and his boyfriend and the protagonists of all the stories included in the first volume of the collected gay erotic comic Sticky. For newcomers to the hot, sweet, well-hung world of Sticky, this volume is a great eye-opener. For readers already familiar with the comic, the release of this fine hardcover collection is even more of a good thing—a surprise bonus, like being awoken with breakfast in bed after a long night's frolic.

These stories—lovingly scripted sans dialogue (or inhibition) by Dale Lazarov, with strong, honest, and heartfelt artwork by Steve MacIsaac—are raunchy, beautiful, tender, and fun. From the subtle tributes to classic indie comics (Miracleman, Love and Rockets) to "cameos" by postmodern pop-culture icons (Jerry Springer, Xena and Gabrielle), this is smart-people's porn. The creators of Sticky are not ashamed to come out of the geek closet, or to mix juicy smut with penetrating intellect. We discerning one-handed readers are lucky; it's not every day we're given knuckle-biting intensity and expert storytelling between the same covers.

Wordless storytelling ought to be more commonplace in comics, because of the much-vaunted (and ironically, much-written-about) capacity of images to convey narrative. Especially in these areas of life in which words often fail—the bedroom surely being one—comic writing frequently ignores the true potential of the sequential image. Yet the stories in Sticky are definitely cinematic: a shot of two partygoers getting it on, seen from below, evokes a pounding, rhythm-heavy soundtrack. The visual hallmarks of film (porn and mainstream) are present in these tales, even down to the use of flashback, jump cuts, lighting themes, symbolic props, and set-dressing. The scene framing encourages the viewer to empathize with the characters, and the result is that we're right there in the bedroom with them. Without words to distract us (after all, what can there really be between "oh" and "God!"?) Sticky transmits a pure erotic charge.

It is also one of the most fully human sex-comics I've ever read, because it explodes the lies ignorant people tell: gay sex is disposable and impersonal; pleasure and caring are opposites; hotness is dangerous; humor is unerotic. Even if Lazarov and MacIsaac did not set out to make a political statement, Sticky is political because it refuses to deny that joyous sex is good for people, and that it's people—whole people, not throbbing, engorged body parts—that have sex. In an increasingly repressive society, acknowledging the truth that people fuck may just be one of the most radical political statements anyone can make.

Tom Bouden might agree. "Why do you always draw so many sex scenes?" asks the editor character at the beginning of Bouden's In Bed with David and Jonathan. "I only draw sex so that it's functional," Bouden's döppelganger replies. Functional, to him, means arousing. The gag works, but there's a serious core to the interchange between the characters of author and editor: their conversation highlights the problem of shame. Even in the 21st century, within the legendarily liberated confines of the European continent (Bouden is Belgian), sex is seen as disreputable. To choose to work with sexually explicit material is to risk displeasing someone, at the very least. We may well ask what inspires such cowardice, especially when the sex portrayed is loving, lighthearted, consensual, and shared between obvious adults. Is it because, as the fictional editor here implies, sex on its own supposedly isn't political enough? Do we really think sex has no point other than the orgasm or the wish-fulfillment fantasy that may surround it?

The autobiographical introduction to this superb volume of smutty stories poses these questions rather subtly, by way of setting up the context for the Bouden character's new endeavor—the very book we're holding. In Bed with David and Jonathan is metafiction; like Sticky, these are stories within stories. We can forgive Bouden's self-inclusion because it is not intrusive. And, yes, it's functional. Bouden-as-character responds to an online ad for a "third man," placed by two committed partners interested in a threesome, and as an anniversary gift, gives the pair a copy of In Bed with David and Jonathan. They read it together—and so do we, as if we too were there, lying on the living room floor beside them. As with Sticky, the line between voyeur and participant is very thin.

For porn fans who like relationship dynamics thrown in, Bouden's sensitivity and empathy will not disappoint. For those who want close-ups of penetration, cum shots and ecstatic faces, In Bed with David and Jonathan also satisfies. Again like Sticky, the title story is free of dialogue; the only piece of text in it is David's name and telephone number. Frankly, it's a relief to have a minimum of "let's state the obvious" and absurd onomatopoeic constructions distracting us from the lovely erotic visuals. There are certainly many nice things to look at in Bouden's drawing, which is strongly evocative of the beloved Tintin books.

In Bed with David and Jonathan is a forthright, affectionate, funny look at what five men do in bed (more or less) together. The sex, though rather "vanilla," is certainly functional by Bouden's standards. Vanilla or not, though, this is sex between people. They feel, they vacuum, they get sick, they eat breakfast. There's nothing mechanical or detached about these characters and their fucking. The questions raised in the introduction are not explicitly answered in the stories—but perhaps we readers are meant to answer them for ourselves.

Click here to purchase Sticky at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase In Bed with David and Jonathan at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

LOST GIRLS

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Top Shelf Productions ($75)

by Eric Lorberer

Sequential visual narrative is an amazing art form, and it's quite possible that we are witnessing its golden age. Take for example the justly renowned work of British writer Alan Moore. His Swamp Thing re-invented horror comics, and his Watchmen remains the apotheosis of the superhero genre; V for Vendetta is a razor-sharp political fable, Promethea an intricate Kabbalah- and Tarot-fueled fantasia, From Hell a deliciously deliberate historico-mythic investigation. Even his somewhat lighter fare—the Superman pastiche Supreme, the police procedural Top 10, the pulpy mélange of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—is exquisitely written, blending the childlike guilelessness we historically associate with comics with the adult aims of literature. But what separates Moore from just any gifted storyteller are a healthy respect for paraliterary texts and traditions—he raids them with the instinctive foresight and diligence of a squirrel burying nuts—and his ability to bring multiple strands of narrative and imagery into harmonic resonance, which makes his graphic novels as fugue-like as they are novelistic.

Moore's latest achievement, and a mighty achievement it is, is Lost Girls, which tackles perhaps the most slippery of the paraliterary genres, pornography. Clearly inspired by the verbose and often almost surreal excesses of Victorian erotica, Moore takes pains to show a panoply of bedroom activity—there are dripping pudenda, engorged members, and salacious activities at which they are put to use, all lovingly rendered by Melinda Gebbie (more on this later). Yet Lost Girls does more than titillate: it's a multi-layered tale of how real world innocence gets eroded as only Alan Moore would pen it, examining the complex psyches of its three titular protagonists through the lens of sexuality and throwing themes of family, war, and love into the mix.

Given Moore's penchant for revisiting the icons of fiction, the title characters aren't just any old lost girls, but ones whose art of losing we'll remember well from their legendary adventures: There's Alice, of Wonderland fame; Dottie, or "Dorothy Gale, from Kansas"; and Wendy from Peter Pan. We meet these three, now grown women, as they meet each other, on the eve of World War I. All guests of the Hotel Himmelgarten in Austria, they become libidinous Scheherezades, regaling each other with tales of their sexual awakenings and proclivities while indulging in more. Moore excels at imagining erotic corollaries for the standard fictional adventures of this trio, and leisurely unspools them for us—Dorothy's twister, for example, is depicted as her first whirlwind-like bout with masturbation, and her encounters with the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man get rewritten as well, but not simply as gratuitous porn versions of the story we already know—instead, they deepen the portrait of Moore's Dorothy as a person, a grown woman whose background, family, and desires have all brought her to this moment. It's likewise for Wendy, the youth surrounded by boys who wouldn't grow up who flees into a loveless marriage of quietude, and Alice, indoctrinated into a surreally fetishistic lifestyle by unconventional (and often manipulative) adults.

The fact that up until now we only knew these women as children is indeed one of the great risks of the book—both politically and artistically. Turning these pages, it's not hard to imagine that conservatives who lack an understanding of how the imagination works will have a field day with the portrayals of incest and pedophilia Lost Girls necessarily undertakes—ignoring the hotelier's wise observation, as he reads a dirty-book-within-the-book, that its actors "are fictions, as old as the page they appear on, no less, no more." (One might even wish on Moore an obscenity trial à la Lady Chatterley's Lover or Lolita; like those books, his is undoubtedly a work of literature, and it would win.) On the other side of the divide, the richly textured correspondences between Moore's grown versions of Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy and their originating children's stories firmly cement the book as a literary tour de force but often preempt its pornographic charge—one feels impelled to use one's hand to take notes rather than gratify other desires. In other words, some readers will find this book too smutty, and others not smutty enough. But this isn't exactly a complaint—rather, it's further evidence that an extremely talented writer has written an extremely unique piece of work.

Adding to this complex dynamic is the visual aspect, of course. Throughout his career, Moore has been blessed with superb artists to realize his visions: Eddie Campbell's black and white artwork on From Hell, for instance, makes the story seem like both documentary and dream at once, while J. H. Williams III's formalist psychedelia realizes the heady goals of Promethea to perfection. So it is here: Gebbie draws on traditions including children's book illustration, Pre-Raphaelite art, and the naughty "Tijuana Bibles" to create the world of Lost Girls. Her designs are nicely varied, conveying the personal quirks of each erotic anecdote and living up to Moore's demanding structural intricacies, as in entire chapters seen straight-on in a mirror; she also presents the standard tropes of porn without a shred of coyness, and accentuates their playful variety (and realistic body-types) over only-so-many-positions boredom; and her use of color is especially sumptuous, adding to the cross-genre flavor that the publisher's equally sumptuous packaging suggests: carved into three hardcover volumes and elegantly slip-cased in a box of royal hue, Lost Girls begs the question as to whether it needs to be hidden from one's children and houseguests or displayed prominently on the coffee-table along with other prized art books.

Perhaps this is the goal to which all erotica aspires. Or perhaps not: the thing about the erotic, why it is infinitely maddening, is that it is infinitely unknowable. To paraphrase Wittgenstein on pain, I can imagine your orgasm, but I can't feel it for you. Neither of course can Alan Moore, but what he has done is offered you a story about it. Measure this truly graphic novel's success not in how hard or how wet you get while you read it, but in how "found," how self-aware, you, like Dorothy, Wendy, and Alice, feel by its end. If it's done its job as literature, and I think it has, you'll feel your whole being and not just your sex organs enlarged.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

TRANSGENDER RIGHTS

Edited by Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter
University of Minnesota Press ($19.95)

by Matthew Cheney

Here we have what many anthologies aspire to be and the best achieve: a book that houses a lively, informative array of ideas, opinions, suggestions, arguments, and purposes. Here we also have what more anthologies should seek to be: a book of political and social importance that seldom simplifies the groups it portrays or the world it seeks to influence, making it a valuable volume not merely for the people most immediately affected by the issues raised, but also for anyone with a commitment to social justice.

It is to the credit of the editors of Transgender Rights that a reader who looks through even a few of the essays in the book is likely to step away with a sense that the two words in the title each have problems and possibilities huddled within them. There is unity within the discussion, though, a unity founded on the fact that transgender people face numerous obstacles in a world where they are misunderstood, harassed, denied basic recognition and services, and, more frequently than is reported by the nightly news, attacked, beaten, killed.

Many of the essays in Transgender Rights mix a sad and angry acknowledgment of the difficulties facing transgender people with an optimism born from experiencing real, though incomplete, progress over the past decade. The word "transgender" did not enter general usage until the 1990s, but many of the essays herein imply that though it is, at times, a contested term, it is nonetheless one that has been useful at moving concepts of gender variance away from the monopoly previously held by medical discourse. Unlike most of the terms that had been used previously, "transgender" is a label invented by the people it attempts to describe. It is an open term, one capable of containing numerous types of people and an array of definitions, an umbrella that is also a scaffold.

The fifteen essays in Transgender Rights are arranged in three sections—"Law," "History," and "Politics"—and they have been carefully arranged: read in order, the essays frequently pick up where the previous left off, or offer a different perspective or opinion. Definitions and tactics are what cause the most disagreement and passion, but the essays are most vivid when they present specific lives in specific circumstances—a divorced transsexual woman denied visits to her children for two years after her surgery; a transgender student expelled from high school with no explanation, who becomes homeless, incapable of accessing welfare services, and, for lack of any other way to pay for hormone therapy, works as a prostitute; Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman tortured and killed by four men; Tyra Hunter, a transgender woman hit by a car and, while still possibly conscious, denied help by an E.M.T. who, according to witnesses, "stood laughing and telling jokes" with other technicians about the "it" who lay dying in front of him. The essays are sometimes abstract, sometimes academic, but rarely stray so far from the reality of everyday life that anyone could forget that the ideas discussed are ones with implications and consequences for real people in real situations. Richard Juang, in a wide-ranging essay with powerful ideas in every paragraph, writes, "Trans persons are systematically misrepresented both within the mass media and within the criminal justice system. We are regarded as persons whose identities are not simply 'deviant' but actively deceptive and criminal." This misrepresentation has allowed courts to repeatedly treat victims as if they brought their crimes upon themselves, and it is particularly disturbing to read, in numerous essays, of cases where judges and juries were so blinded by prejudice that they favored and excused thugs and murderers who attacked transgender people. Often, transgender people are denied human rights because they are not perceived as human. (In an afterword to the book, Kendall Thomas speculates that perhaps trans people should embrace their "nonhuman" status, but his argument is muddled, vague, and unproductive.)

Some of the essays address the often-uncertain relationship of transgender rights to gay rights, with multiple authors pointing out that though transgender people have been central to every struggle for gay liberation, they have also faced prejudice and misunderstanding from within the gay community. Dean Spade links frustration regarding how the gay community responds to transgender issues with a blindness to other issues, particularly issues of class: "The most well-funded organizations in the lesbian and gay movement do not provide direct legal services to low-income people, but instead focus their resources on high-profile impact litigation cases and policy efforts. Most of these efforts have traditionally focused on concerns central to the lives of nonpoor lesbian and gay people and have ignored the most pressing issues in the lives of poor people, people of color, and transgender people."

Many of the writers here seem to have a sense, though, that the transgender movement (if we can speak of a single movement) offers a possibility of creating links to other liberatory struggles, and thus of creating a new and unifying momentum that demonstrates where and how oppressions overlap, putting more strength into challenges to those oppressions. The cumulative effect of these essays is to prove that protecting and extending transgender rights is the responsibility of us all—whatever our experience, and however we express what we sense to be our self.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

ESSENTIAL MUIR: A Selection of John Muir's Best Writings

Edited with an introduction by Fred D. White
Heyday Books ($11.95)

by Spencer Dew

John Muir's childhood reads like legend. When, for instance, his eccentrically fundamentalist father, angry that young John was sneaking a few minutes of candle-lit reading each night after the rest of the family went to bed, told him he could get up as early as he wanted, Muir began rising at 1 a.m. Remarkably industrious, working full days on the farm (and under his father's whip), Muir was somehow still able to scrounge scraps of time from which to make a variety of inventions: "waterwheels, curious door locks and latches, thermometers, hygrometers, pyrometers, clocks, a barometer, an automatic contrivance for feeding the horses at any required hour, a lamplighter and fire-lighter..." The list goes on. In college, Muir's room, full of experiments and prototype gizmos, "was regarded as a sort of show place by the professors, who oftentimes brought visitors to it on Saturdays and holidays." He admits that he "should have stayed longer" in school, but he "wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring, Godful beauty."

This is the Muir most of us have some passing acquaintance with—the naturalist, or, more to the point, the writer awestruck by nature. This selection is a useful sampler of a much larger oeuvre, and the pieces are well chosen. There is a list of sources from which they come, but this contains only publication dates, so to know what year Muir took a certain trip or wrote a given piece requires external legwork. Moreover, the introduction is intended for Muir disciples, rather than for those unfamiliar with his work. The book's largest failing is that it lacks any commentary to help the reader understand his notion of "Godful beauty" so central to Muir's thought. The editor's few words on religion are confusing rather than helpful—a loss for readers who could use some guidance on Muir's tangled relation to faith.

Born into a time of shifting religious fads and fervors, Muir grew into a man who carried with him always, in his sparse knapsack, a copy of Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and the poems of Robert Burns. As a child, debating with his father on whether God intended us to be vegetarians, he argued against the idea, citing the story of Elijah, fed by ravens. Surely he was brought flesh, not "vegetables or graham bread?" As a man, he became a bard of religious sensibility. "The darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love," he tells us. Reflecting on nightfall across a glacier, Muir writes, "Long, blue, spiky shadows crept out across the snowfields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountaintop, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God."

Muir is awfully good on glaciers, their blue fissures, their swirling rills. This text includes not only part of his classic cross-glacier adventure with his dog, but also several other selections with lengthy and rewarding descriptions, including an anthropomorphized account of the process by which a glacier dies. Other well-known Muir writings are also represented, like his account of riding out a storm clinging to the boughs of a flailing tree. He relays the experience of the storm, but his musings on the larger phenomena and design of nature allow him his best moments of poetry. "Winds," he writes, "are advertisements of all they touch." Elsewhere he expands on this, a sort of mystical unification via the senses, part Proust, part Buddha:

Today I reached the sea. While I was yet many miles back in the palmy woods, I caught the scent of the salt sea breeze which, although I had so many years lived far from sea breezes, suddenly conjured up Dunbar, its rocky coast, winds and waves; and my whole childhood, which seemed to have utterly vanished in the New World, was now restored amid the Florida woods by that one breath from the sea. Forgotten were the palms and magnolias and the thousand flowers that enclosed me. I could see only dulse and tangle, long-winged gulls, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and the old castle, schools, churches, and long country rambles in search of birds' nests. I do not wonder that the weary camels coming from the scorching African deserts should be able to scent the Nile.

At its best, the writing is very good: sharp-leaved swamp plants of Florida are "vegetable cats" and in the antebellum South "the seal of war is on all things," the very roads "wander as if lost." Ignore the introduction, and take the pieces free of any framing, as products of a particularly inspired pen. Should you want more Muir, there is much available. But one benefit of this slim volume—as Muir would surely point out—is that it slips nicely into a knapsack pocket.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME: Prophecy and the American Voice


Greil Marcus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($25)

by Michael Lindgren

This diffuse, frustrating, and occasionally brilliant book continues in the vein of cultural criticism that Greil Marcus has made his own over the last thirty years. Starting in 1975 with the now-classic Mystery Train, Marcus has spent his entire career working variations on one fairly simple idea: that the story of American culture, its central truths, are communicated in diverse, sometimes public, sometimes private ways. By finding common ground in the voices that speak from the margins of art and society, he hopes to uncover truths that are inaccessible to the mainstream.

The Shape of Things to Come brings the same strategy to a different set of voices. Marcus's themes tend to resist compression, but the organizing principle here is the delineation of a peculiarly and identifiably American voice that speaks in the Puritan tradition of prophecy—not as a prediction of future events, but as an apocalyptic expression of the sometimes contradictory promises the nation has made to itself. With the freedom that comes with these promises ("life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness") also comes a sense of terror and dislocation as they are broken; these promises and their betrayals comprise a chain, a narrative that Marcus traces through an idiosyncratic mix of high and low cultures and media. Late in the book, near the end of the chapter on David Thomas of Cleveland avant-punk band Pere Ubu, Marcus gives a succinct description of his credo:

Movies, records, concerts, novels, poems, paintings, can seem to vibrate with an energy repressed but not stolen by time . . . you begin to create a personal culture of maps and talismans, locks and keys, within the greater culture of which you are a part...when you approach the greater culture with a personal culture, you do so with the knowledge that the greater culture can never satisfy you.

The texts in which Marcus chooses to locate the "personal culture" germane to this particular narrative are the Puritan pastor John Winthrop's sermons, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, Philip Roth's mid-1990s novels, David Lynch's films, Thomas's music, and Allen Ginsberg's long poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra." It is quite a list, defiant in its heterogeneity; such sources seemingly have little in common, and indeed Marcus has mixed success in tying them together.

The book starts out promisingly, with the comparison between Winthrop, Lincoln, and King, who share the Puritan idea of America as a "city on a hill." Through close reading of Winthrop's sermons, Marcus shows that the city on a hill was a utopian ideal, a challenge and test from God, not a blanket endorsement. The same idea manifests itself in Lincoln's speeches, which viewed the horror of the Civil War in radically eschatological terms, with failure or success equally in the balance. King picks up on the theme, not least by force of the rolling Biblical cadences of his peroration, emphasizing how deeply short of the covenant American society has fallen. The chapter is a brilliant piece of synthesis and a radical reclaiming of the image of a "city on the hill," hijacked by Ronald Reagan and his conservative successors as a symbol of untrammeled American exceptionalism—a fundamental misreading of a covenant that could be, and has been, repeatedly broken, with grim consequences. This section of the book is nearly as fine as anything Marcus has written, and is worth the book's price and the reader's time alone. Unfortunately, he drops this particular thread when he moves on, and never really picks it up again.

The examination of the stubborn, haunted characters of Roth's novels I Married a Communist and American Pastoral and the surreal, violent landscape of Lynch's Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me is the heart of the book, yet it is here that the reasoning becomes chaotic, somehow both repetitive and difficult to follow. Marcus faces here a very basic and probably unconquerable problem. Since he can't assume that every reader of this book has read all of Philip Roth and seen all of Twin Peaks and loves Pere Ubu, he is forced to expend a lot of his energy—and the reader's patience—in exposition and recapitulation. Reading a blow-by-blow encapsulation of a book or film that one has not read or seen, even from a critic as articulate and expressive as Marcus, is rarely engaging. At bottom, it is a conundrum of intention and of audience: if this were an academic work—Marcus is a professor of American Studies at Berkeley—then his audience would be familiar with his sources, but in a commercial publication intended for broad readership the sources are too obscure to be common pop-culture property. Thus does he try to split the difference, ending up with the worst of both worlds.

The long rehashes are not the only drawbacks, either. Marcus tends to repeat himself, suggesting that parts of the book were stitched into place after the fact; much of the Philip Roth material, for example, had originally appeared in nascent form earlier this year in The New York Review of Books. In addition, Marcus is fond of overreaching hyperbole: is a shot he remembers of Chris Isaak as an FBI man in Lynch's Fire Walk with Me really "one of the most complete and uncanny images of America ever produced"? Is it accurate to say of an early Pere Ubu single that "there were holes in the music and there was room in the sound: it made its own gravity, and it pulled you in"? Such grandiosity has the effect of dulling the passages where he reaches more legitimately for profundity.

Reading The Shape of Things to Come, one comes to understand that Marcus's intellectual existence--his whole life, one imagines—consists of mentally absorbing and cataloguing an ongoing set of impressions from a wide variety of sources, from Melville and Lincoln to forgotten rock 'n roll songs and bad B movies, and then searching out the themes that unite them. His method, then, is essentially inductive—trusting that the diverse cultural artifacts that compel his interest will yield a telling pattern—rather than deductive—applying a set of presumably objective standards to a finite work at hand. Marcus's writing is thus a poetic act of self-expression, not an evaluative or analytical one, and its effectiveness rests on whether one finds his intuitive selections fruitful, and whether one perceives that he has successfully united these extremely disparate elements into a coherent narrative. If your sensibility is not in tune with his, if your personal barometer registers a different stratus of cultural atmospherics, then you're probably not going to be willing to follow him very far along the path of The Shape of Things to Come.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

SEX, BLOOD AND ROCK 'N' ROLL

Kimberly Warner-Cohen
Ig Publishing, $13.95

by Tim W. Brown

The (anti-)heroine of Sex, Blood and Rock 'n' Roll, Cassie Chambers, is a normal young woman, at least by New York's East Village standards. She works at a clothing store on St. Mark's Place and lives with a boyfriend whose band plays regularly at clubs like CBGB and Continental. Although bothered that she isn't living up to her potential, she tolerates her menial job and enjoys a reasonably carefree life.

Cassie, however, is increasingly haunted by dreams of seducing and murdering men in imaginatively gory ways. Brief flashbacks suggest that her being molested as a young girl is responsible. Interestingly, Cassie isn't particularly disturbed by these dreams; in fact, they turn her on, and in one scene she lambastes her boyfriend for waking her up in the middle of a good one.

Seeking better pay but having misgivings, Cassie takes a job as a dominatrix for an elite agency. She quickly learns the—excuse the pun—ropes, perfecting her technique on a steady stream of clients. A former professional dominatrix herself, the author reveals a world that is clinical, seedy, and desperate all at once. This section of the novel proves fascinating to someone uninitiated in the for-pay S&M scene, and accounts for the finest writing in the book.

Trouble begins when Cassie's dream life and work life converge. She is attacked by a client, suffers a miscarriage, undergoes a lengthy rehabilitation, and goes back to work swearing revenge on the male sex. She feels nothing but contempt—scarily real, not playacted—for her clients, her boyfriend, and men in general:

All these men, these scumfucks . . . they want nothing more than to hurt the women who love them. Not that women are any better—suckers for not seeing what's in front of them, for being so fucking weak that they let these assholes in. I, on the other hand, was put on this earth for a higher purpose. S&M's just a stepping-stone.

The titillating subject matter of Sex, Blood and Rock 'n' Roll drives this novel more than its literary accomplishment. Interesting things are written about in affectless prose that conveys a too-cool-for-words sensibility. The author needs to slow down, take a breath, and fill in the emotional details available in the material. Greater attention paid to Cassie's earlier life would go far to explain satisfactorily her metamorphosis from Mistress to Monster.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

PASSION

Brane Mozetič
Translated by Tamara Soban
Talisman House ($14.95)

by Robert Murray Davis

The cover photo of Passion, featuring boots, chains, and belt buckles, indicates clearly that Brane Mozetic is not writing about the kind of sanitized homosexuals like those on TV's "Will and Grace," virginal as housewives in a 1950s sitcom. Perhaps that is why an anonymous caller to one of Mozetic's characters says "We hate it how you keep writing and shooting your mouth off about gays. . . . We just want to be left alone."

In fact, the traditional sense of "gay" hardly applies to any of the characters in the collection's 35 short pieces. The title is more accurate, although the recurring narrator's major passions are rage at his lack of options; fear of and desire for death (AIDS, violence), often simultaneously; savage indignation at the pretense or whining of those he encounters; and sadistic or masochistic glee at pain inflicted or endured.

The longest of the sketches covers only six pages, most only four. The narrator begins with a sense of his own desiccation, unable to feel or remember or to join in a parody of Communion since it's "as if I did not belong there." He rages at straights who "don't have to mind the looks, they don't live in constant terror of where the sperm will squirt, the drop of blood fall, or how deep they can sink their teeth into skin."

He is no kinder to the "flashy nonentity" in "Disco" who seems "the right victim" in whom he can find "a showdown" in order "to cleanse myself, to gather new strength." As his victim climaxes, he wonders "Is that what death is like? When you hurt bad enough to go crazy. . . . Was I giving him this kind of death, was it already inside him?" And in "The Reader" he meets a young man excited by his sadistic story who wants to be in a book; he has sex with him, strangles him, and returns home "to write, in order to fulfill the boy's expectations completely." But most encounters infuriate him because of "this absolute impossibility of finding in a guy a person capable of feeling for another."

As the collection progresses, however, the narrator's obsession with the "you" to whom most of the stories are addressed becomes more central to the stories and to his consciousness. After another violent encounter, he realizes of his lovers "that the sum total amounted to zero, to some sort of void, a state of no value at all." Here the narrator begins to reveal his longing, even tenderness, and in the lower depths of an orgiastic disco scene, says "I wished I could be with you, and that they would leave me alone. That you'd be with me, forever." In "You," the final story, blood and sperm mingle as the narrator imagines pulling the lover's knife to his own throat.

Mozetic's fictional world is harsh and disquieting, but his simultaneous refusal to sentimentalize and his willingness to reveal genuine, if seemingly unattainable, desire are more valuable than sunnier depictions of gay life.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

ZED

Elizabeth McClung
Arsenal Pulp Press ($17.95)

by Rod Smith

Twenty bucks says that Elizabeth's McClung's hellishly engaging first novel never makes it to film—at least not intact—which is sad. Zed not only merits cinematic interpretation, it demands it. Set in "the Tower," a rickety, 22-story apartment building more or less abandoned by the city it once occupied, the book opens with a typical day in the life of its titular protagonist: a fully emancipated (read: "urban feral") 12-year-old girl who makes a living trading everything from candle stubs and broken toaster ovens to information, drugs, and cash among the building's residents: a fascinating assortment of eccentrics, deviants, criminals, wounded souls, vulnerable crackpots, and various combinations thereof, most of whom stay simply because they lack the means to go elsewhere.

For Zed, the Tower is the world, the deal everything, and she always keeps her part of the bargain—not that she's an angel, by any means. When Charles, the toddler son of one of the building's most successful welfare moms, begs silently for a piece of the cake Zed's eating, she ignores him. Afterward, the narrator observes: "Children at best confused her, but, more often, like this, sickened her. How could they stand to be so dependent? For Charles to hold out his hand with nothing to trade, it was beyond understanding." Worse still, she's in all kinds of cahoots with Luc, the preternaturally charming drug dealer and leader of thugs who rules the building with an iron fist and the kind of casual amorality that leads him not only to take bets on future suicides, but to make them more likely.

Still, Zed joins the Father—the Tower's would-be spiritual advisor—when he tries to prevent an angry mob whipped into a frenzy by Luc from lynching an innocent man for Charles's murder. After a couple more little kids are found dead, Zed's curiosity moves her to start looking for answers, leading her into a direct confrontation with her one-time mentor and his minions and eventual building-wide catastrophe. McClung milks the novel's extended climax for all it's worth, slipping into a real-time mode that allows for maximum evocation of ancient, all-consuming evil, rotting corpses, charred flesh, and smoke so acridly real, we can feel it filling Zed's lungs—and ours.

So what's to stop some intrepid director from giving the novel the cinematic treatment it so richly deserves? Well, remember what David Cronenberg said about Naked Lunch: a literal film version would cost a billion dollars and be banned in every country in the world. Zed wouldn't cost half as much, but would easily be twice as banned—if only for the nail gun scene and its aftermath. Plus, while it offers horrors galore and a futuristic flair, it is essentially literary fiction—rich, multi-layered, and bursting at the seams with metaphor. In the end, Zed seems no less than a modern-day incarnation of Maat—the ancient Egyptian goddess of justice (or balance, depending). Luc's avatar is a little more obvious from the get-go (consider the name). Mythic status notwithstanding, both characters—and a few others who survive—are far too compelling to release after a single novel, especially one that resists closure so ferociously, practically demanding a sequel—or two.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

PANDA DIARIES

Alex Kuo
University of Indianapolis Press ($16.95)

by Lucas Klein

Avant-garde poetry in English, since Ezra Pound, has been infatuated with China, incorporating its exoticisms, its ideograms, its philosophies, and its aesthetics into its explorations of new verse. And yet, much of this poetry relies on a knowledge of China somewhat less than expert; Pound never let ignorance stand in the way of poetic effect, and many avant-garde poets have been happy to follow his example.

Yet while the Anglophone avant-garde and China have made friends in poetry, few experimental novelists have been as willing to incorporate China into their writing. Perhaps fiction writers are afraid that dilettantism is more blatant when hundreds of pages worth of characters and plot are involved, so the list of English-language novels that focus on things Chinese doesn't extend much beyond Pearl Buck (hardly the vanguard) and Alvin Lu's The Hell Screens. In some ways this reticence toward China on the part of novelists in English has allowed experimental Chinese fiction—such as that written by Shi Zhicun, Wang Wen-hsing, Yu Hua, and Gao Xingjian—to find a few more worthy readers. Still, when a postmodernist novel in English appears born from a deep engagement with China, we take notice.

Alex Kuo is a Chinese-American who put in his time—in the late '80s and early '90s—living in China, and his Panda Diaries includes patches of brilliance. Kuo's eye for Chinese detail is keen, and he employs his observations toward quick, active writing: "In a country in which laundry detergents are sold by names from the animal kingdom—Panda, White Cat, Goldfish—and washing machines by flower names—Narcissus, Lotus, Daffodil—anything can and does happen." His magic-absurdist take on contemporary China is also buffered by his observations, such as when he describes a village plagued by yearly floods:

At one point in the village's history, there was talk of trapping the Floodwater Deity with a net made of every thread in the village and casting it across the river at the height of the flood . . . If they could only trap the Floodwater Deity, haul it out of the muddy water and let it dry in the air and sunlight for three consecutive days, then the floods would cease forever and never again devastate the village. But . . . not everyone was willing to sacrifice every piece of thread, rope, string, yarn, twine, animal hair, and lint for something that they were not so sure about. They knew they would at least eventually use that last piece of saved string, if only to tie some duck's legs together for the market.

More importantly, the conceit of Panda Diaries is Kuo's greatest flash of brilliance: a mail-delivering panda becomes the only friend to an honest and alienated government bureaucrat wrestling with his political past and his desire to reconnect with his family. Taken alone, a panda in fiction could be reminiscent of either Ron Carlson or Seth MacFarlane, but here Kuo sets the panda to indicate the necessity of environmentalism for China's political self-examination. The protagonist, Colonel Ge, opens up to Panda in chapters that alternate with flashbacks to Ge's Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square past, suggesting that Panda learns of Ge's history along with us. While Ge is no mere symbol for China (for that matter, neither is Panda), the suggestion is that for the country to move forward, it must open up both to its history and its animals.

And yet, for all this, Panda and Ge raise more questions than they can answer. What, really, is this Panda, anyway? How did he get to be a mail carrier? While the book opens and closes with documentary-style clippings of panda-trafficking around the world, this Panda is, despite his presumed girth, quite flat. Flatness is not necessarily a criticism—after all, in fiction where pandas talk and eat noodles, why adhere to writing-workshop codes of character development?—but the question is raised. If flatness is purposeful, then what is its purpose?

Questions crop up around the portrayal of Colonel Ge, too. In a recalled discussion with his wife, she intones:

"Papa and Mama have always busied themselves with their children's education, employment, residency, and only until recently, even their choice of marriage partner. Except that now with communism, the state has become the parents, the work unit has become the parents. The administrative organization of feudalism with its elaborate but clear assignment of authority and obedience has morphed into this modernized age, even co-opting the one-child-per-family policy that perhaps it had invented in the first place to take over that final stronghold of choice."

If the world of Kuo's fiction allows couples to speak to each other like this, then—talking pandas aside—what is the relationship of Kuo's fictive world to our real one? Are we supposed to accept their language as Chinese or as English, or as some kind of nether-world translationese? In what language was "morph" a word in the early '80s, when this dialogue takes place? When this debate yields their decision to separate, we find that while questions are not necessarily criticisms, this narrative has neither the breadth nor the depth to sustain suitable answers.

True honesty and sincerity is to be found within Panda Diaries, however. The rhetorical questions that parents must ask when separating are laid out with touching eloquence:

How do you tell a six-year-old that his parents who seem to love each other have decided to get a divorce? How do you tell a six-year-old that his parents who seem to love him have more important things to do in life than be with him? How do you tell your six-year-old that you're leaving him in order to shape your own political destiny?

Because of the energy and genius that motivates so much of this novel, as well as the glimpses of earned sympathy, the quickness with which the novel glides over the moments of dramatic tension is its greatest shortcoming. In under a hundred pages—plus an oddball alphabetic list called "The Animal Grammar," an exhaustive compendium of English phrases that refer to animals, as in "to LEECH / Change a LEOPARD's spots / LION's share"—this book tries to accommodate politics, history, family, and cross-species friendship. But for Panda Diaries to be a true novel of ideas, it would have to be larger, more expansive, both developing the characters and their interactions, and answering the questions—about character, language, and China—that it still leaves incomplete.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

POST BLING BLING

Eileen Tabios
Moria Books ($10)

by Garin Cycholl

We all live in a company town. That much seems clear. The question of how we inhabit that town is the question addressed by Eileen Tabios's Post Bling Bling, a pair of cross-genre works. Here, Tabios investigates marketing culture through found and shared language in tightly defined moments, a collection of e-mails by Filipino ŽmigrŽs over four days in May 2005 and a summer issue of Vanity Fair.

The magazine's advertisements comprise the found texts of the first work, "Post Bling Bling." Peeled from slick pages, the marketed identities proclaim themselves. In serious stride, Robert DeNiro embraces: "My Life: / My Card: / AMERICAN EXPRESS." At Vegas' Mandalay Bay, you're invited to "Be Yourself At Home / Topless / Wet / White." The metal and verbal technologies craft "the new" in the Lexus hybrid, "not just the debut of a new car, but of a new category." The travel professionals with Ritz Carlton remind us, "THE BEACH IS SERVED / on a silver platter." In the end, it is "Your Choice. Your Chase . . . Subject to Credit Approval." Of course, this play can be extended to the book's front cover, a photograph of a south Pacific beach shadowed by familiar trademarks. We can read this beach in every dimension of authorship as well; the beach itself is trademarked. But is this marking done by the marketers or the author (her name and the book's title as prominent as the well-known circles, ambiguous squares, and swoosh of corporate logo)? The beach seems deserted by all but the photographer. How "dead" is the author? Capitalism itself?

The play here is wonderful, though not surprising. The found texts of marketing culture are poetry's bubble gum (and sometime sustenance). In The Maximus Poems, Charles Olson underlined that the "best is soap":

And for the water-shed, the economics & poetics thereafter? . . .
The true troubadours
are CBS. Melopoeia
is for Cokes by Cokes out of
Pause

Olson and Tabios recognize the mythic substratum that exists beneath our imagination of this "stuff," whether it is constructed of fructose, image, phosphate, plastic, or language. The imaginative spaces of this melopoeic underworld define the terrain of the work's investigation for Tabios. What lends the familiarity of these visual and verbal images? Does the actor own the plastic or does the plastic own the actor? What self am I supposed to be now? Whose choice is it, again?

What Tabios inserts into these familiar questions is the element of time. In "Post Bling Bling," time is defined by the moment of the magazine's issue itself, Vanity Fair (July 2005). Beyond this though, the poet explores our imaginations of the timeliness of all this "manufactured stuff" in the book's second work, "A Long Distance Love." Here, she initiates an e-mail discussion among "Filipinos in cyberspace" on the subject of "balikbayan boxes," the containers of American products that they have hauled back to the Philippines on subsequent trips to see family and friends. Respondents provide lists of these items (over-the-counter medicines, used clothes and shoes, unpopped popcorn, toys, etc.), including specific brands in certain cases (Costco vitamins, Clairol hair dye, Ziploc bags, Sketchers, California wine, Spam, etc.). Tabios's intended project is a section of a "poetic autobiography based on shopping lists." What emerges, as a respondent prompts, is a reconsideration of "colonialism [as] a very easy label." Poetic devices in themselves, the lists complicate things. The boxes force language here to re-measure our sense of (de-? re-?) constructed borders, how these spaces dissolve or precipitate in the larger spaces of marketing culture. As one respondent, Leny Strobel, asks, "When does colonial discourse become a luxury? For whom?"

The form of the work here is interesting. The e-mails (collected within a given timeframe and ended "abruptly" with a series of pointed but unanswered questions) engage late capitalism with focus (their tightly defined spaces on the screen/page) and particularity (Ivory, Loreal, Nesquik, and Armour). What items are needed, appreciated, or quickly discarded? Which are regarded (particularly by the buyers) as essential or "magical?" Paper towels produced in the United States are preferred by one family member to those produced in the Philippines; used books or magazines seem to some to be a waste of the airlines' baggage weight limitations. By their sheer volume, the lists of things themselves maintain some mythical quality. In the imagination of one respondent:

there was one and only one thing i looked forward to when i opened those boxes: inhaling the escaping smell of america. it was what i looked forward to as a child. i even wanted to live in that box so i could smell it all day.

Tabios, in response, notes the remembrance of a woman who welcomed these gifts with the observation, "Oooooh. Soap even smells different from America."

These lists explore the realities of commodities as well as the magical qualities endowed by and within the common imagination. Understanding herself as a transcolonial poet, Tabios's work rethinks these qualities through the products' life in the time of late capitalism, their real and nostalgic values. For buyers, these nostalgic values are lent by temporal geographies (the past or home as a "simple place," the "exotic dimensions" of the faraway time or place). The imagination of needed or desired items invokes a sense in one respondent where "packing the boxes and seeing all the chocolate and makeup and bottles and bars of soap were so magical!" Another recalls, "i remember when we 'saved' many of these things in manila because of their value (monetary, colonial-stateside, etc.). we put some of them away like exhibits." How do we imagine others as we cross the very real borders defined by need and geography? Is it possible to escape marketing's influence on any such real or imagined journey? In the end, these speculations dissolve as the responses conclude, leaving the reader nostalgic for some sense of a completed (or consumed) narrative. What makes these things (this piece of art) magical? We are left with the blank page, a "P.S." reminder of the dislocations that ultimately define the world.

In Post Bling Bling, Tabios's work interrogates our imagination of the things made in this company town of a world by rethinking whatever it is we are pulling out of the box. Out of the page. Out of the numbers. Out of the ground.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

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