August 14, 2008

Book review: "The Pisstown Chaos," by David Ohle

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The Pisstown Chaos
By David Ohle
Soft Skull Press / ISBN: 978-0-9796636-7-3

As regular readers know, I am actually in the process these days of teaching myself to be a better reviewer and critic; and a lot of that, I've discovered, involves no more than trying to keep as open a mind as possible, to try to approach your reviews with intelligence and respect for the various different ways your audience might view that project themselves. That's why, for example, I now have the policy of waiting a week or two between finishing a book and writing its review; I find that the time spent with that book on the back-burner does good things, for example softens out the harshest moments of that particular reading experience, so that I'm not so harsh in my resulting review either. And it also sometimes makes me understand the book in a new way before writing my review; and it also sometimes actually convinces me to change my mind about a book.

The Pisstown Chaos, by David Ohle

But then there are other times when this is a negative-sum process; when I actually forget big parts of that book merely a week or two after putting it down, making me realize that it might not be as good a project upon reflection as it might seem when first inhaling it. Take for example today's book under review, The Pisstown Chaos by veteran weird author David Ohle; it is one of those weirdo, gonzo, Burroughsesque apocalyptic erudite black-comedy manuscripts, put out as you might expect by our weirdo friends over at Soft Skull Press. (And for the sake of disclosure, let me mention as always that I am personal friends with several employees of Soft Skull, so of course always enjoy seeing their books do well.) Ohle was actually one of the first authors of the postmodern era* to write one of these smartypants post-apocalyptic black comedies, his seminal 1972 work Motorman; and Pisstown is his latest, another bizarrely funny but horrific little futuristic nightmare, another one of those stories you can just imagine starring an eyepatched, scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper if ever made into a Hollywood movie.

And in fact, that's probably the biggest problem with Pisstown, is simply that this particular genre has gotten surprisingly big and popular within the last several years; after all, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is set basically within the same milieu, just being a lot more serious in nature, and that won the Pulitzer Freaking Prize back in 2006. There's nothing exactly wrong with this book, just ironically that its gonzo details are no longer guaranteed to automatically stick in the mind of the reader and stay there, and that's simply because there are so many other projects out there now like this -- see The Slynx, see The Pesthouse, see the insanely great Jamestown, ironically enough published by Soft Skull as well. Like all these others, Pisstown imagines a near-future America ravaged by some sort of unspoken apocalyptic event, where a completely insane religious idol slash warlord named Reverend Hooker has managed to take over the crumbling remains of society, turning all of the "civilized" US into a bizarre, cruel circus operating under random arbitrary laws -- a combination of Kafka novel, episode of "Jackass," and snuff film, as seen through the eyes of a veteran academic writer who just loves his delicately well-crafted paragraphs. Oh Lord does he love his delicately well-crafted paragraphs.

I have a feeling that this is no worse than his much-loved Motorman; in fact, I suspect now that Motorman is as well-loved as it is precisely because it came out at a time when almost no other books like this existed, right at the beginning of the postmodern period when this kind of stuff first stated catching on in the first place (think Philip K Dick, think Margaret Atwood, think Ursula K Le Guin -- all these novelists first got famous the same time period that Motorman came out). It's my sad duty to report that Ohle seems to have become the victim of his own success; Pisstown is certainly not a bad book, not at all, just simply not great or even particularly special. It's for sure something to pick up if you feel like it, but not something to rush out and get.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.7
Characters: 7.9
Style: 8.5
Overall: 8.0

Read even more about The Pisstown Chaos: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

*And a quick history lesson about artistic movements, for those who need it....What we call "Modernism" was first coined right after the death of Queen Victoria, at the beginning of the 20th century, and lasted literally over the next hundred years. The movement is split into four stages, each of them separate and unique but related: "early Modernism" ('10s, '20, and '30s, encompassing art deco and the Jazz Age writers and Dadaism and the like); "mid-century Modernism" ('40s and '50s, the age of Frank Lloyd Wright's ascendency, Ayn Rand, guys with horn-rimmed glasses and skinny ties smoking briar pipes); "late Modernism" ('60s and into the '70s, from Kennedy to Manson as they say, the period for example that the hit show "Mad Men" is set in); and "postmodernism" ('70s, '80s and '90s, where everything turned ironic and academic and theory-heavy, pop-culture-laced and philosophically imploded). Many people argue, in fact, that postmodernism itself officially died on September 11th, and that we're currently in a new stage of the arts -- the so-called "Web 2.0" age, for lack of a better term, a shiny and futuristic and optimistic look at the world, sincere and earnest, a direct backlash to the cold funny cynical ironic stance that was so embraced during postmodernism. But then, others say that's crap.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:32 PM, August 14, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |