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Still Life with Psychotic Squirrel
By CB Smith
Six Gallery Press / ISBN: 978-0-97817-726-3
As any heavy reader knows, there are of course many different types of literature that exist now, and many different ways to appropriately enjoy that literature -- from punchy nonfiction within the pages of a magazine, to weighty epics bound in book form, to the casual and intimate life observations found at most personal blogs. So given that all these example are technically nothing more than words on a page, why then do they all feel so jarring sometimes when presented outside of the typical "optimized" format we're used to? I was thinking about all this, to tell you the truth, when recently reading through CB Smith's basement-published Still Life with Psychotic Squirrel; because the fact is that this is not the three-act novel at all that I was expecting, but more like a blog-style series of small personal observations about life, adhering to no particular narrative arc besides that of, "All these stories come from the same person, and so concern the same subjects in that person's life." And indeed, this wouldn't be so bad if reading it at an actual blog, and I would probably become a subscriber of it if coming across the stories here in that way; but as a 240-page bound paper book, the whole thing ended up rather frustrating and irritating me at a lot of points, with me finding my eyes glazing over during certain sections and hastily skipping ahead in others. And that makes me wonder -- what's the difference? Why do some formats seem to inherently work better than others when it comes to certain literary projects?
Perhaps, for example, it's the serial nature of blog publishing; that when you only read one or two such stories a day, every single day, the whole thing becomes much more like sneaking a peek at someone's diary, a situation where most people are willing to overlook the occasional subpar entry, in return for the vicarious thrill of making this other person's intimate life a part of their own daily routine. Perhaps when such stories are presented all at once, with a reader expectation of getting through 30 or 40 of them at each sitting, we simply lose the soap-operaish pleasure of following along in a serial way, and hence are less willing to overlook the stories' various weaknesses. Or perhaps it's the nature of the binding itself; that when we sit down to consume an entire full-length artistic project, we simply need for it to follow a traditional three-act structure in order for it to be compelling, and that we will unconsciously and unfavorably compare any bound collection of literature against such a standard. There's a reason, after all, that the three-act structure has been the backbone of nearly every full-length Western artistic project for several thousand years now, from plays to novels to movies to videogames; and that's because the structure itself adheres very closely to the natural cycles of our real lives over time, a "buildup, climax, wind-down" arc we find easy to relate to, and that helps us understand our own lives better when presented in fiction form.
Or maybe it's the quality of Smith's writing in particular; because to tell you the unfortunate truth, I found it only so-so, with every great story here balanced out with a particularly overwritten or navel-gazing one, and with the manuscript itself riddled with silly blog-style literary gimmicks (for example, five entire pages of the phrase "I don't care" repeated over and over), the kind of stuff that even when used very lightly still only ever comes off as "cute" at best, and at worst can be an entire deal-breaker in the eyes of many intelligent and heavy readers. Again, I don't want to give the impression that Smith's writing is bad, because it's not; just that I would like it a lot more if only reading a couple of these each day, and with the chance to easily skip the ones that seem to my eyes overly jokey or self-indulgent.
Bloggers, let Still Life serve as a cautionary tale, concerning the difficulties of converting a blog (or at least blog-style writing) into a full-length bound format; that it's actually much more difficult than simply copying and pasting all the entries into one big giant Word file, and that the things that make that blog popular in the first place do not necessarily transfer over to a book form automatically. Although I applaud Smith for getting the book out in the first place, and encourage him to try his hand again at a more traditionally-structured story, I am forced today to reluctantly give this particular book a pass.
Out of 10: 6.4