July 5, 2007

Book review: "God is a Woman," by Ian Coburn

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God is a Woman
By Ian Coburn
Firefly Glow Publishing / ISBN: 0-9787979-5-7

For those who don't know, in the years I was a creative writer myself (mostly in the 1990s), one of the scenes I spent a lot of time in was the poetry-slam one; indeed, the Chicago slam community in the '90s was the largest on the planet at the time, due mostly to the slam actually being invented here by a guy named Marc Smith (at a bar called the Green Mill, which believe it or not is just four blocks from where I live). And as part of being involved with the slam community back then, I also ended up getting involved a little with the comedy scene as well; and that's because, for those who don't know, the arts here in Chicago tend to intermix between disciplines a lot more than in many other cities. (For a good example, see the Steppenwolf Traffic series, in which the famed theatre company invites a series of writers, musicians, dancers, performance artists and others to collaborate on cutting-edge projects, which are then presented for live audiences in the smaller second space of the Steppenwolf complex at North and Halsted.)

You see, the stand-up comedians here in Chicago (the ones who haven't moved to LA or New York, that is) tend to be more literary than a lot of the others, more cutting-edge, and this is why certain slam poets like myself tended to do well in those venues back then, as well as certain comedians doing well in traditional poetry venues. And thus it was that I became friends with a whole group of comedians back in the '90s, which I just found such a strange and fascinating experience; because really, just about every comedian I've met now in life seems to have such an odd combination of personality traits, a kind of overwhelming pathos about the world that hides just underneath that incessant drive to make people laugh. The more one studies comedy and what exactly comedians do, the more one realizes just how much anger and blackness there is at the core of the creative process, and how the best comedians are able to take this burning anger and turn it into something that makes the general public guffaw and applaud and in general have a light and entertaining evening. And believe me, if you ever want an interesting evening, go out drinking sometime with someone who can pull something like that off.

God Is a Woman, by Ian Coburn

It's what I kept thinking about, to tell you the truth, while reading through Chicago comedian Ian Coburn's first full-length book, the comedically tragic faux-real-faux dating guide God Is a Woman, which (if I have my story right) is also the first book from new Chicago basement press Firefly Glow. Because let's just put the cards on the table right away: the book is funny, and it's offensive, and it's thought-provoking, and it's offensive, and did I mention that it has the possibility of really offending a certain amount of you out there, especially of the female persuasion? Because ultimately, what this book is "about" is actually a look into the mind of a stand-up comedian, a much deeper and more frank look than I think the author even intended, where we can fully see the ugly and black bits that the typical comedian observes about life around them; but then where we can also see how such depressive realizations can be turned into some really funny comedy, once it's twisted and edited and pushed to absurdist extremes. It is a raw look at the creative process, in a discipline not known for its sensitivity in the first place, and because of that is just naturally going to be so offensive to certain people that they should just not bother even picking it up (seriously); but for others, it's going to be a fascinating and often hilarious look into how exactly a comedian views the world around them.

The double-sided nature of the story starts right away, in fact; right in the introduction, Coburn tells us that this is not going to be a book about comedy, but rather a real and sincere dating guide, something he wished he could find at the stores but couldn't, which is why he wrote it himself. But is it? Like I said, that's kind of a tough question to answer, because Coburn slips very effortlessly throughout the manuscript between comedy and drama; in one chapter he's gleefully recalling the former date who tried to run him over by the end of the evening, in another rather shockingly detailing all the ways his real-life sister is a cunning manipulator who uses sex as a devastating weapon, even to the point where it once almost got her killed by a stalker. Each chapter ends with the "lessons" about dating that Coburn learned from that particular anecdote: but here again, some of the lessons are quite real and serious ("Don't make people into something they're not;" "There are ways to defeat the bitter friend"), while others are just waiting for a rim shot to follow ("A good ass can make anything seem like a good idea;" "Don't f--- with Brett Butler").

Where this dichotomy comes to a head, though, is through the following facts: that Coburn lives in the notorious Lincoln Park neighborhood here in Chicago, and of course otherwise spends his time in a series of smoky suburban strip-mall comedy clubs, which means that his entire dating pool consists exclusively of...for lack of a better term...Trixies. Hmm, international readers, how do I best put this? Imagine the vapid, Paris-Hilton-worshipping, bleached-blonde, fakely tanned airheads of whatever community you're from; yeah, that's a Trixie. (Brits, think 'Chav;' Germans, think 'Shicki-Micki.') And man, I'll tell you, I've never been a part of that world myself, but Coburn certainly paints a nightmare of a picture of its dating scene, stories I can sometimes barely believe; a world where a man can't even go to the bathroom during a date, for example, for fear of his date drunkenly wandering off with a random frat boy and never being seen again. It's a world where men literally paw and jostle each other in front of the preening, overly made-up objects of their drunken quests; a world where at every moment, with every action, both of the sexes are playing a delicate and complex game of manipulation, in order to get a series of things from the other by the end of the night (free drinks, a little nookie) while expending as little effort as possible, through a series of elaborate primitive rituals.

It's unfair of Coburn to predict the actions of all women based on this relatively small group of Trixies in the world; as unfair as it would be to say that I support George W. Bush's policies simply because we both own penises. But it's also a fascinating look into that slice of society, one that many of us eggheaded book-lovers never see; and it certainly explains things like that icky Dustin Diamond sex tape that came out last year, or Michael Richards' infamously racist rant at a comedy club one night when he didn't realize any cameras were rolling. That said, there are for sure a lot of points in God is a Woman where you simply want to grab Coburn by the shoulders and yell, "My God, man, you've got to stop dating all those damn Trixies! Join a church or go to some indie-rock shows or something, 'cause these women are warping your brain in a way that's not very good!"

Now like I said, this book is also funny; it's very funny at points, in fact, enough to make you very curious as to what Coburn's polished stand-up routines must be like. And that, like I said, might be the most compelling reason to read this book; that far from being a bitter drama about the futility of Lincoln Park dating, far from being a whimsy comedy about the foibles of the opposite sex, it's actually an intriguing combination of the two, a tale that weaves naturally back and forth between the extremes because of Coburn's natural talent at narrative storytelling. (Well, except of course for the various beginner's stumbling blocks over voice and style found throughout; but that's nothing experience and a couple of writing workshops can't fix.) And that's ultimately why I'm giving this book a thumbs-up, and why I recommend to those who are tempted at first to be offended by it to maybe look a little further; to understand it not as a sweeping indictment against all women, but rather as a fascinating cultural study of just one group of them, a group that admittedly deserves to be scorned (as do all the men in that group, don't get me wrong), if Coburn's stories are to be believed. When read with this mindset, God is a Woman can be a riveting tale, and a sign of hopefully even better things from Coburn in the future.

Out of 10: 6.5

Read even more about God Is a Woman: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:25 PM, July 5, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |