December 17, 2008

Mini-review: "Zerostrata," by Andersen Prunty

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

Zerostrata, by Andersen Prunty
Zerostrata (book; 2008)
By Andersen Prunty
Eraserhead Press / ISBN: 1-933-92975-8

As I've said here before, I'm glad that CCLaP's becoming known as a place that is friendly to absurdist and surrealist literature; these are experimental art forms to begin with, with many of the projects outright bad, making it difficult for even the good ones to get any kind of publicity. Take today's title under question, for example, mid-career author Andersen Prunty's slim Zerostrata, an almost perfect choice for anyone who likes their tales zany and bizarre, but a book hardly known by most precisely for that reason. It's ostensibly the story of "Hansel Nothing" -- yeah, I know -- a failed writer of indeterminate slacker age, who one day finds himself standing in front of the Victorian mansion where he grew up and that still houses his comically dysfunctional family, back home for the first time in years and not knowing exactly how he ended up there in the first place, parched and smelling of soot and under the hazy impression that he may or may not have recently visited Hell.

Yeah, not exactly a Jamesian Realist tale, you quickly realize, especially after meeting a mother who permanently goes around balancing on top of her head a live cat frozen in fear, and especially after getting introduced to the "Zerostrata" of the book's title, a childhood treehouse/fortress that Hansel has apparently decided to move into full-time as an adult. Ah, but see, that's the beauty of absurdist literature when it's done well; it ends up finding and holding an emotional truth at its center anyway, no matter how ridiculous some of the actual plot details get. Notice how real it feels, for example, when Hansel falls in love with a mysterious stranger, despite it happening by him spying her from the treehouse each night as she jogs naked through the neighborhood, her "honor" preserved by a group of surprisingly vicious prepubescent boys in pirate outfits; and by the time later in the book that the two finally make love for the first time, you can't help but be charmed and moved by learning that her name is in fact "Gretel Something." This is a reason I like such literature so much, is that when an author gets it right, they can tell almost fairytale-type stories that nonetheless come out more truthful than even many "straight accounts" we hear in our lives. Because c'mon, admit it; when was the last time you heard a friend say, "I got in a big fight the other day, and it was completely and utterly my fault for acting like a jerk?" It's much easier to have sympathetic characters who can say such things within a story like Zerostrata, especially when the character in question is leaping through the window of his psychiatrist's office at the same time, somehow landing on a bright orange trampoline that just happens to be located several miles away.

I don't have a longer review to write today, simply because it's not a long book; it's a novella more than a novel, really, 130 pages of big type that can be read in a single afternoon. But don't think the short write-up means I didn't like it, because I did; I liked it quite a bit, in fact, and would even go so far as to say that it's the perfect book for anyone who likes but is ultimately disappointed by the work of Augusten Burroughs, despite me in particular freaking hating the work of Augusten Burroughs. Because, see, I actually like the concept of what Burroughs is going for in his books -- a childhood so unbelievably horrific that it approaches at times the level of an absurdist comedy just on its own -- just that I think Burroughs should've done what Prunty does here and make the tales literally ludicrous ones, instead of slapping "memoir" on the cover and trying to sell a pile of badly-edited magical-realism pieces as a "true story." By being honest about what this is -- ridiculously untrue fiction -- Prunty actually makes this more mysterious than any of Burroughs' work, precisely because it makes you wonder what parts of it might be true, what bits have been twisted and reshaped until resembling the funhouse ride now on display. That's why I say that Zerostrata will be especially satisfying to those who enjoyed but were ultimately frustrated by, say, Running With Scissors; here the silly stories and hamfisted psychoanalysis is done on purpose, instead of being unintentionally funny like with the worst of Burroughs. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, you'll want to make sure and pick up a copy of the light and entertaining Zerostrata right away.

Out of 10: 8.1, or 9.1 for fans of absurdist literature

Read even more about Zerostrata: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:02 PM, December 17, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |