October 27, 2008

"Repetition Patterns:" Official critique/opinion page

Repetition Patterns, by Ben Tanzer

This is the official blog entry collecting up all the various things being said online about the book Repetition Patterns, written by Ben Tanzer and published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. For example, below you will find a deliberately-all-positive critical essay about the book (otherwise known as an "Apologia") by me, Jason Pettus, owner of CCLaP and editor of Patterns; then if anyone else online ends up writing a book review as well, you will of course see a link to it below too. By the way, I highly encourage you to leave your own thoughts about the book in the comments section of this entry; as long as it doesn't violate CCLaP's ethical guidelines, I am more than happy to approve the comment, whether you loved the book or hated it. And don't forget, all my fellow Goodreads.com members, Repetition Patterns has its own official page over there as well; both Ben and I (daily-visiting members ourselves) would be thrilled if you had a moment to say something small and nice over there.

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November '08: Author Nick Ostdick does a very nice write-up, calling the book "ideal to have on your desktop for a quick read" and comparing Ben's writing to no less than Raymond Carver, Junot Diaz and Ha Jin. Wow!

Also, Time Out: Chicago's Jonathan Messinger does a more technical write-up about the book's "pay what you want" pricing scheme, but also calls the book itself "inventive" and "sharply designed."

October '08: Author Jason Jordan (who is also editor-in-chief of the literary zine decomP), over at the book's Goodreads listing, says: "Tanzer does it again with Repetition Patterns, a forty-page eBook that could be his best work yet."

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Why I signed Repetition Patterns.
An Apologia by Jason Pettus.

So before anything else, let me confess this: that even from the beginning, I have been predisposed against signing any story collections to CCLaP's new publishing program. And partly that's simply because of the oversaturation of story collections already among struggling basement presses; and partly that's just personal preference, as well as my long-time vision of CCLaP Publishing being a home for mature full-length works by mid-career writers, but just of an odd length for traditional paper-based commercial books. In fact, if anything, I would love to have people look at a CCLaP book as an artistic "punctuation" to an established writer's career, someone who already has a couple of more commercial books on the market; this is a chance for that writer to really flex their creative muscles a bit, and produce something that will add critically to their career if not necessarily that much financially. As an organization that is semi-nonprofit in scope and mission, this I feel is the most important thing CCLaP's publishing program can provide to both artists and the audience, instead of directly competing against other presses on a purely commercial basis.

And so, while I had already been a fan of Chicago author Ben Tanzer before all this, because of reviewing his first novel in 2007 before getting to know him, I can't say I was exactly thrilled when he first submitted the untitled story collection that he did; and throughout the first several stories I read, I had actually been ready to take a pass on the whole thing. But then I got to the remarkable "Life As He Had Known It," currently the seventh story of the published finalized book, and suddenly saw exactly what Tanzer was going for here, of how exactly these stories actually all fit together as a giant remarkable jigsaw puzzle, and how they touch on much bigger issues than their childhood pop-culture fascinations might let on at first. See, it's a story about new parenthood, not exactly remarkable unto itself; but it's a story about new parenthood gone horribly wrong, a constantly screaming baby and no known medical reason why it won't stop, driving the parents into a more and more panicked, sleep-deprived, stressed-out, dysfunctional mindset about it all. "Why not just pack up and leave my family tomorrow?" our frazzled narrator thinks to himself one particularly hopeless night. "People do that all the time, right? Why not let the baby sleep on its stomach, the only way we can seemingly get it to shut up for even a few minutes, despite the increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome it presents? Who would ever know?"

These are dark, terrifying fears, ones I imagine a whole lot of new parents fleetingly experience at their lowest moments; yet very few contemporary fiction writers ever address these kinds of fears in their stories, I imagine precisely because they're so dark and terrifying. This is something that's always consistently impressed me about Ben's writing -- his willingness to dig under the polite layers of young middle-class life, to find the ugly and dark bits and hold them up for all of us to look at -- and that for sure is part of why I signed this book. But this particular story also made me realize that in fact all the stories in this collection are craftily examining these kinds of issues as well; of where that fine line lays between being a good but frustrated parent and being a bad negligent one, of what tiny little private moments of decision in our lives separate us from being a decent person and an indecent one. And this too is a reason I ended up signing the manuscript, because I always think this is an important issue to mull, and especially these days when more and more people seem to no longer understand what exactly is decent behavior and what isn't.

But even better, as I made my way through this entire collection for the first time, I realized that Ben was doing this in a rather stylistically unique way; and that was by creating a very realistic-feeling yet fictional town for all these stories to take place, literally jumping back and forth in time over a good twenty-year period, with it never exactly clear whether our narrator is the same person in every story, but definitely with some shared friends between one story and the next, and definitely with shared locations whose fates we can watch progress non-linearly over the decades. It's no coincidence, after all, that existing fans of these stories have referred to them before as Sherwood Andersonesque, and in fact you can see this manuscript in many ways as Ben's attempt at creating his very own Winesburg, Ohio, a very real-feeling place that one hopes he will continue to revisit occasionally throughout his career.

But make no mistake -- this is Sherwood Anderson with a fair dose of Sam Shepard injected into it, plus a dash of Chuck Klosterman for good measure, all of it filmed with a flattened lens by Robert Altman*; yes, they are related stories about small-town life that are sometimes nostalgic, but with a pitch-black sense of despair many times thrown in, tales of rural smothering and the tragic consequences that can sometimes ensue, most of it tinted through the grimy filter of '80s pop-culture gone to seed. And this is yet another reason why I signed this manuscript, because I consider Ben excellent at what I just described: of being dark but never hopeless, emotional but rarely melodramatic, an intense setter of mood and lover of language but never delving into purple prose or awkward gimmicks. And by doing it in this case through such fascinating stylistic techniques as repeated motifs and references, as well as repeated dialogue placed in different contexts within different stories, he achieves his goals in a mature, inventive way that I believe marks a new high point creatively for him.

It's for all these reasons that I signed Repetition Patterns, despite it on the surface not appearing to be the type of project I was originally looking for; it's why I'm so sure you're going to like it too, even if like me you're not a usual fan of story collections. I call Repetition Patterns a "story cycle" for a reason; it is a more complicated book of short pieces than the usual "greatest-hits" one, a more special book as a result, and one I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed working on it.

*And speaking of piling up a bunch of pop-culture references in order to refer to Ben's work, I think it's very telling if you take the "summing-up" statement at Wikipedia of each of the artists and projects mentioned above, and string them together: "A collection of related short stories, which could be loosely defined as a novel. Explores the theme of loneliness and frustration in small-town America. An American journalist whose work often focuses on pop culture. Known for making projects that are highly naturalistic, but with a stylized perspective." As far as I'm concerned, all of that is Repetition Patterns in a nutshell. Thank you as always, Wikipedia!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:46 AM, October 27, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Reviews |