Monthly Archives: October 2015

“Bad Sex” by Clancy Martin

It’s a literary conundrum for the modern era: how to write about boredom in a way that is not itself boring. In his novel Bad Sex, Clancy Martin plunges the reader into the mind of a woman who’s done it all before and will probably do it all again. The result, though not entirely compelling, is worth reading for its intimacy and honesty. Brett, a writer on the brink of middle age, lives in Mexico City with her husband, a businessman. Her life is as ordered as it’s ever been. She’s not drinking anymore, but she’s not writing much, either. Then a one-night stand with Eduard, her husband’s banker, develops into an affair, and the lies pile up as she travels throughout Central America to be with him. She starts drinking again. Brett’s asides let us know that this is familiar territory. She is experienced at, among other things, hiding her drinking from a lover. “A secret drinker,” she tells us, “looks for restaurants with bars next door: if necessary, she can exit out the back, take a quick drink at the neighboring place, and come back again.” The novel is shrouded in the fog that melancholy puts between the self and the world. Whether she’s at a club, drinking alone, or confronted with the end of her marriage, Brett remains numb. Numbness for the narrator often turns into flatness for the reader. There’s not a lot of motion here, and the vignettes of drinking and rough sex quickly grow repetitive. But Martin—author of a previous novel and memoir—has written a slim, slight, bleakly beautiful novel of resignation.

Bad Sex by Clancy Martin. Published in September by Tyrant Books. 182 pages. $23.00

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The End of the Universe Begins in the Suburbs

Writers have long mined the suburbs for rich veins of ironically sunny ennui. The highways, big box stores, and mathematically precise grids of identical houses are easily made to stand for culture and ambition left at the wayside. The sprawl extends to the horizon, then swings back and plunges just as far into your soul.

In his screenplay-as-novel The Glacier, performer and writer Jeff Wood exaggerates this common anxiety to fantastical, end-of-the-universe proportions while managing to say surprisingly little.

Early on, we see a crew of three driving through the snowy landscape and taking measurements, chatting and arguing among themselves. But this is no ordinary survey crew, and something otherworldly is taking place beneath the surface of this nameless Ohio suburb.

A mushroom cloud appears in the distance, and “a wall of atomic fire rolls across the grid.” Jonah, the quietest of the surveyors, pauses the cloud, is vaporized, then reappears along with all else that has been destroyed.

We see other characters, all somehow affected by these stitches in reality, who eventually cross paths. There’s Robert, an old man who’s barely stopped himself from committing suicide with a shotgun to the head. Samson sells hot chocolate from an ice cream truck, but can offer more powerful substances to those who ask. Simone is a caterer for the polite but cold Mr. Stevens, and suffers from an unnamable fatigue.

While time keeps stuttering, they continue, faintly aware that something’s off. Strange things keep happening: the characters glimpse face-painted apparitions of themselves, something smells like it’s burning, and a flock of cardinals crashes into Robert’s house. All this is rendered in flawless, crystalline prose: “Red birds are piled like roses, circling the house.”

What’s happening? We keep on being reminded that it is getting closer, but never quite learn the nature of it. Instead we’re treated to pretty but vapid monologues, such as this one when Jonah reads aloud from his notebook:

 It came like a great tide, sweeping them away. A continual, invisible explosion of white heat particles twinkling and glittering in the ether between entropy and determination. Suspended and informed somehow, and brutally awake. A throbbing nerve mode. Arced-mass breathing in the curvature of space as if released from its cage of flesh and skull in one precise flash. Titanium veins pounding incandescent armies of nano-teleology.

Toward the end, we witness the prologue to “it”—a grotesque mass suicide orchestrated by the catering boss Mr. Stevens. He gives some speeches of his own, marked by the same mix of philosophical and scientific terms name-dropped in a muddled frenzy, before the novel culminates in “a field of brilliant white light” and what appears to be another reset in time.

(Mr. Stevens makes some interesting Biblical allusions. He calls the mass suicide “the last supper,” and he sees himself as the snake in Eden, who he considers the hero of the story. These allusions raise intriguing questions. What’s so bad about knowledge of good and evil? What’s the relationship between the faithful and death? But they connect to nothing else in the novel. Throwing out ideas like this without developing them adds little to a work, like a brilliant philosopher’s quote presented without context or analysis in one of my high school essays.)

We learn nothing about the characters here, their origins or motivations, as they go their murky business. No themes develop either, though Wood constantly tells us how bleak everything is (“Rising light bleeds over skeletal treetops”), and that this is in the suburbs. Even during the climax, it’s about as coherent as one of the more hastily written episodes of Dr. Who.

Wood’s prose, as I’ve acknowledged, can be lovely, but imagery does not a novel make. Atmosphere may be able to carry a film by itself; on the page, it grows cloying. The Glacier is not as much a novel as a collection of vignettes that glitters, weightless and mundane, in the ether between entropy and determination.

The Glacier: A Cinematic Novel by Jeff Wood. Published in September by Two Dollar Radio. 214 pages. $24.99

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Praise God and Live

The Abbey, Jesuit priest James Martin’s fiction debut, is not strictly a conversion story or even a prologue to one. This is the novel’s greatest strength. If nothing else, it deserves credit for being more honest than the common, smarmy man is sad…man finds Jesus…man is happy conversion story that reduces faith to a good mood and Christ to life coach.

Its protagonist, Anne, is by her own admission “not so big on God right now.” Raised Catholic, she drifted away from the church as a young adult. She still grieves for her thirteen-year-old son, hit by a car while biking home from a movie three years ago.

Her tenant, Mark, is a once-promising architect now supporting himself by working as a handyman at a monastery. He is thirty years old, and uncertain of the future.

One day, car trouble forces Anne to ask Mark for a ride. He swings by the monastery on the way home, and Anne remembers the place where her parents spent so much time.

She is skeptical of church, and largely ignorant of it—listening to what she thinks are psalms, she wonders if those are in the Old or New Testament—but she is drawn to an icon of another mourning mother: Mary. And so starts a series of conversations with Father Paul, the abbot.

Paul tells her about God, His mercy, His Love. When Anne complains that she sees God as a judgmental man in the sky, Paul concedes that, yes, the judgment is there, but the love is more important:

“[A]t least as I see it, a God who didn’t judge what we do is a God who doesn’t care how we live. And who would want to believe in a God who doesn’t care how we treat each other? But for me God is much more about mercy and love than about judgment and punishment. We see that over and over in Jesus’ parables.”

Paul’s conversations with Anne, and his reflections as he attends to his labors, are the high point of this novel, but would seem more at home in an essay than a novel.

Martin’s narration is both workaday and needlessly ornate. Note the overloading of adjectives in “The vivid color of the flowers in the bright May sunlight was like a scene from a postcard,” or the redundant third sentence in “The silence enveloped Anne. It was like something she could touch. Like a blanket.” Getting through this brief novel is a bit of a slog.

But while this novel may be inelegant, it’s never unintelligent. Martin (also the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of many nonfiction books) never lets us think that faith is easy or quick.

At the end of The Abbey, neither Mark nor Anne has become a Catholic. They have found no road to Damascus, and their problems still exist: Mark is still a handyman, and Anne’s son is still dead. But the possibility of faith has brought a glimmer of hope that wasn’t there before.

The Abbey: A Story of Discovery by James Martin, SJ. Published in October by HarperOne. 212 pages. $24.99

The Cat Video As Art Form

In the summer of 2012, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted the world’s first International Cat Video Festival, or CatVidFest for short. Thousands gathered to watch cat videos, honor recipients in categories including best comedy and best drama, and vote for the recipient of a Golden Kitty—“a cross between an Oscar, a People’s Choice Award, and Best in Show,” according to a festival organizer.

It sounds like a punchline, or a satire on academic considerations of low culture. Perhaps it is. But CatVidFest is also the inspiration for Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, a collection of fourteen essays on the allure of cats and the videos they star in.

Here, Fusion editor Alexis Madrigal recounts the adventure of finding a new home for his cat when it didn’t get along with his newborn. Music critic Carl Wilson looks at the history of cats in the arts. The late media critic David Carr, in a lone anti-cat piece, writes that he prefers the unconditional love and loyalty of a dog. “If I wanted another being to take me in with baleful indifference when I come home every night,” he tells us, “I would have stayed married to my first wife.”

In “Feline Darlings and the Anti-Cute,” her exploration of the symbolism attached to cats throughout history, Sasha Archibald writes that the cat’s cuteness is heightened by its resistance to our adoration and pity:

As most cat lovers acknowledge, the cat’s imperviousness is key to its charm. Knowing the object of our attentions will never be subjugated makes its pursuit enjoyable: In chasing the cat’s exquisite not-need, we allow ourselves to need….In a cat-and-mouse game of our own invention, we attempt subjugation, and the cat resists, over and over and over. With the online cat video, however, our attempts at mastery have acquired their most powerful arsenal to date.

A dog doesn’t mind slobbering all over us, but a cat stubbornly tries to keep its dignity, even when dressed in a shark costume and placed on a Roomba. That explains why dog videos haven’t caught on the way cat videos have. (Similar points are made throughout.)

This collection’s implicit thesis—that a cat video festival is a legitimate thing for an art museum to host—rises to the surface in the final essay by festival co-organizer Sara Schultz. “People have idiosyncratic tastes,” she writes, “and they always have; the internet just allows us to indulge them more freely. Cultural institutions should embrace divergent and seemingly contradictory aesthetics and practices…Questioning rather than imposing what is worthy of our attention can only give us a richer experience of who we are and who we might want to become.”

Point taken. But in this case and many others, the answer to the question “is this cultural phenomenon worthy of our attention?” is a resounding “not for long.”

Our relationship with cats reveals something about the human condition, and cat videos are part of that. But the scholar of the cat video can only dig so deep before hitting mewling, furry bedrock.

What rises to the level of an art form, like literature, can provide something new with every encounter. On my second reading of The Sun Also Rises I noticed the extent of the casual anti-Semitism directed at Robert Cohn; on my third I noticed the loneliness of Harris, the Englishman Jake and Mike meet on a fishing trip. In contrast, no matter how many times I watch a video of a cat playing the piano, there will still only be a cat playing the piano.

Does CatVidFest turn a solitary activity (watching cat videos) into a communal one? Yes. Does it bring more attention and funding to the Walker than a gallery of paintings? Probably. (This second issue goes discreetly unmentioned by the writers here.) But is it art?

There’s nothing wrong with partaking in guilty pleasures, like cat videos, thin but thrilling novels, and inane pop music. To raise these pleasures to the level of art makes as much sense as saying we can get our daily serving of fruit from a pack of Skittles. There is still good reason for gatekeepers like art museums to influence culture rather than merely reflect it, to both question and impose.

But I digress. Like its subject, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong feels no need to justify its existence. It is nonetheless lovely and well-constructed, and succeeds in making something compelling out of a rather scanty subject.

Cat is Art Spelled Wrong edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach and Sara Schultz. Published September 15th by Coffee House Press. 208 pages. $16.95