Review: Scary People by Kyle Muntz

February 23, 2016 at 6:33 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing) (, , , , , )

Everyone is turning into scary people. That’s the first thing you need to know. It’s hard to say exactly what else you need to know about Scary People, at least as far as the plot goes. If you ask me what it’s about, I’ll tell you that it’s about a guy hanging out with his friends, and the changes they go through over the short time we get to witness. So sure, let’s call it a bizarro coming-of-age novel, only the protagonist’s best friend Mathew keeps dying. But that’s normal, right? Sometimes your best friend chokes to death on his own vomit, or is hit by a falling anvil. He’ll be fine. Before you know it, he’s up and about, ready to fight the Lord of Darkness. And sometimes your on-again off-again crush is a fiftieth level barbarian with a violent streak for raping pirates and befriending ancient samurai. And sometimes aliens give presents to children to prepare for the day they invade to steal them all, because they’re probably pedophiles. And sometimes mobs mistake you for evil people and chase you down. But then sometimes, you just kind of hang out and drink eggnog in your friend’s basement. That’s how it goes.

Scary People is an absolute blast to read through, in case you can’t already tell from the above. There’s cartoon-like comedy and harrowing tragedy sprinkled in equal measure throughout. What separates it out from both “typical college kids hanging out” alt lit and alternately from weird and crazy “shock and awe” style bizarro is the clarity and precision with which Muntz crafts his language in this delight of a novel. Separated into short, almost poetic paragraphs and thematically relevant sections through smart use of white space, Scary People reads fast and propulsively, the prose simple but beautifully intricate in its structure. There’s a heady dose of experimentation when it comes to the style as well as form, with classic tropes twisted into shards of weirdness and fun surprises.

Muntz also shows he’s not afraid to get meta-fictional. An example: One prominent character is actually referred as the deus ex machina, however when the hand of God is needed to make things right, the classic trope of a character asking for a miracle is cleverly subverted when the quick fix is no longer available. There’s also a beautiful moment where the characters wonder if perhaps all their misfortune is because they are fictional characters in a book, but come to no conclusions. Ultimately, this is the magic of Scary People: the readers and the characters may know they are fictional, but that doesn’t make their problems any less real, or them less empathetic. When faced with a series of existential nightmares and bizarre happenings, all you can do is wish for better things and keep moving forward. Especially when the world around you is increasingly filled with scary people.

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Review: The Laughter of Strangers by Michael Seidlinger

May 13, 2014 at 8:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

This book is so much more than a boxing novel. In some ways, it’s more than a “novel” regardless of genre. While the narrative our hapless protagonist “Sugar” Willem Floures spins does indeed involve his boxing career, it’s the methodology of the telling that truly makes The Laughter of Strangers glow with a unique and unsettling light.

The first half of the book is fairly straightforward, as we enter Sugar’s mind as he prepares for a major title fight. Author Michael Seidlinger brilliantly cracks the walls of his protagonist’s mind and allows us to see things from the inside. It’s a first person telling, but disjointed, fragmented; a novel written the way people think more than the way they talk. In this way, the prose itself reads like poetry, and is an absolute delight. The chapters in which fights occur are particularly well stylized, as bits of text stand out from the rest like individual jabs, hooks and uppercuts.

Halfway through the book however, there is an abrupt shift after a major event occurs in the life of Willem Floures. Most of the time, when a reader encounters an unreliable narrator, it’s due to some combination of tall-tale syndrome, guilt in the telling or nefarious plans, however in this case, it’s a painful symptom of a lifetime of being literally beaten to death. Is this what brain damage reads like? What’s real, what’s hallucination, what’s past, what’s future; there’s nothing clear from here on out, and we’re forced to confront a strange and beautiful mind that is fraying as we read. An absolutely fascinating and heartbreaking book. Seidlinger has somehow pulled off a novel that reads like a well-executed fight, with bobs and weaves followed by powerful, masterful blows.

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Review: Her Fingers by Tamara Romero

October 5, 2013 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

According to ancient Yimlan tradition, you need to say your three names at the beginning of an encounter with someone who has saved, or is going to, save your life. With this simple piece of imagined folklore as its base, Tamara Romero weaves an intricate and fragile tale that mixes witches and technology, druidism and drug addiction, bionics and magic in Her Fingers. The book is peppered throughout with little aphorisms like this, bits and pieces of legend from the world of the story. Romero uses the three-names idea to brilliantly set up some wonderfully revealing twists and strangle beautiful storytelling.

Chapters alternate between two protagonists: Volatile, a mysterious man hiding in an isolated cabin in the woods with his robotic doll Shades, and Misadora, a young witch who finds herself drug-addled, persecuted by the government, and trying to understand the nature of her scared ring and the tree-bound women who call to her in her lucid moments. As the story progresses, identities are fleshed out and surprises abound, both for the individual characters and for their relationships to one another. This is something that Romero does magnificently, writing relationships that feel vibrant and ever-shifting, dreamlike and engaging.

The lovingly crafted relationships are the most engaging thing about Her Fingers. The plot is enjoyable, and follows a well-crafted arc with few diversions from the main storyline, however it is those moments where we see characters interact that truly shine. Without ruining anything, there is a moment toward the end of the book in which we get to see a flashback through the eyes of Misadora where we are witness to the moment she lost a very important ring. We are led along without knowing the origin of this loss for most of the book, and then suddenly everything is revealed. It’s not the reveal of the “how” though, so much as the “whom.” We are shown wanton cruelty, beautiful kindness and everything in between in these simple interactions, and what’s better, this all becomes yet another setup for more puzzled solved only a few pages later. Her Fingers is a very short book, but there is a ton of magic packed between the pages.

Her Fingers was written in Spanish, initially, and translated by the author for its publication in English. Some of the sentences seem to hold odd word choices or construction, possibly due to the translation process. That said, however, the poesy of the language and the specificity with which Romero chose each word rings with a melody that is unlike most other debut books. The concepts are spelled out with carefully chosen language that just sings. Consider the way the prostitution of witches is described, an ugly concept made beautiful by prose: “And many a man would pay extra to lay with a witch, watching her colored hair become wild, since at night a witch has not only a naked body, but a naked condition. In those chambers converged heaven and hell, ecstasy and darkness.” A magical, tragic and personal tale of the strange and wonderful worth picking up for anyone who likes their genre tropes mixed, blended, and served with a side of mist and fog.

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Review: The Driver’s Guide to Hitting Pedestrians

December 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing) (, , , )

I first discovered Andersen Prunty a few years ago at a convention where I picked up a copy of his novel Zerostrata. I was blown away by his prose style, his handling of the material, but most of all by his sublime understanding of dream logic. I became an immediate fan.

In this wonderful collection, The Driver’s Guide to Hitting Pedestrians, Prunty’s surreal narratives weave in and out of logic without ever feeling forced. That’s the gift Prunty provides us: His dream logic doesn’t ever feel random or weird just for the sake of spontaneity. No matter what happens, it feels deliberate, carefully constructed, and beautifully expressed.

The Driver’s Guide to Hitting Pedestrians features Prunty’s musings on “the twenty-three most painful things in life” including such diverse topics as “relationships,” “fate” and “pants.” Once I started reading, I devoured these stories. There wasn’t a single story among the bunch that I felt didn’t belong here, though I’d like to highlight a few of my favorites without spoiling any of the surprises:

The titular story leads the charge, and is a wonderful exercise in world building. It takes the author mere sentences to lay out a whole sociopathic society for us, the detail dripping from the wheel wells of the drivers who run down pedestrians. Great characters, a fun story and a wondrous dystopian vision.

The Balloon Man’s Secret is easily one of the best short stories I’ve read in the past year. Poignant, amusing and written in a stylized way that establishes a time and place that seem familiar yet uniquely distinct. The character of the balloon man, and the people he meets, are absolutely wonderful, and the story wraps up so perfectly.

Prunty hands out an excellent dose of body horror in Teething, as short and pointed as it is unsettling. The ending, once again, was piercing and perfect.

But these are only the smallest handful of the goodies that await in this collection. Andersen Prunty’s shortest stories have a fascinating way of showing us the finer points of a character with great brevity. The Ohio Grass Monster,  for example, reveals the inner workings of a troubled boy by simply showing us how he relates to his hobbies and his friends. What bubbles under the surface, Prunty leaves us to decide. Similarly, in stories like The Champion of Needham Avenue and Where I Go To Die, the prose is simple and alluring, even though the situations themselves are dreamlike and bizarre. The stories leave the reader with a sense of understanding and familiarity even though the place and people are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. This is how Prunty’s dream logic operates, and it’s an amazing thing to behold. (I should also mention that The Champion of Needham Avenue might have the best opening line of any story, ever).

I highly recommend this stunning collection to anyone interested in short stories, especially those who enjoy lucid dreaming. The Driver’s Guide to Hitting Pedestrians is like a lucid dream in which just after you’ve gotten control, everything changes and shifts, and you don’t trust the characters standing next to you even if they look like someone you know. They might just be something painful in disguise.

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