December 31, 2008

The Year In Books 2008: Best experimental

The CCLaP Year In Books 2008

(This is part three of the four-part "Year In Books 2008" report I am publishing at CCLaP this week. Don't forget, if you've never done so, you might want to check out both the CCLaP Manifesto and the Ridiculously Long Guide to CCLaP's 10-Point Scoring System before reading these reports; also don't forget that books up to eighteen months old are eligible for this year-end list, meaning that some of the titles were actually published in 2007.)

One of the things I really pride myself on here at CCLaP is the site's concentration on cutting-edge and experimental works; such little-publicized titles can sometimes be an intimidating challenge to the casual reader, but will often hold untold rewards for the patient fan. Today, a look again at eight such books originally reviewed here in 2008, and why they're worth tackling despite their sometimes obtuse nature. As always, listed in alphabetical order.

The Gum Thief
The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland
So ironically, we start today with actually the least experimental of today's titles, the latest major-press release by popular cultural critic (and inventor of the term "Generation X") Douglas Coupland; despite its mainstream status, however, this is a challenging book that will throw many of his existing fans for a loop, not only much darker in tone than usual but even written in an unusual way. The story of a middle-aged functioning alcoholic facing one of the lowest periods of his life, working as a powerless clerk at a big-box office-supply store surrounded by teenaged morons, the entire manuscript's written in the "epistolary" style so popular during the Victorian Age; or in other words, instead of us invisibly hovering over all the book's conversations and "listening in," we learn of the story's developments through a series of third-party documents, things like emails and diaries and newspaper articles, all of it adding up by the end to a more profound and revealing look at depression and addiction than the usual omniscient narration of most modern novels (or so goes the argument). It's a bleak book, make no mistake, a story where no one gets away completely scot-free; but it's also a fascinating book, an example of this bestselling veteran stretching his artistic muscles a little, at a point in his career when it'd certainly be easier to simply coast along with what's already worked in the past.

Lala Pipo
Lala Pipo, by Hideo Okuda
And speaking of starting with the exceptions today, it's a fact that I did not give the borderline-offensive Lala Pipo exactly a glowing review when first taking a look at it, a supposed black sex comedy from Japan which most Americans will actually find more horrific than funny. But there's something about this book that simply lodges in the brain and refuses to let go; perhaps it's the way it examines the issues of sexism and extreme pornography in Asia in a zeitgeisty manner I don't think the author even meant, or perhaps because the linked stories themselves are just so unrelentingly dour and melodramatic. Told in a "vertical storytelling" style, in which the standalone tales connect in various odd and synchronicitous ways, it's a grim look at the "war between the sexes" in a society that sees tens of thousands of gang-rape and public-groping complaints filed with the police each year, few of them ever solved; and that's maybe why the Japanese themselves consider this much more of a comedy than most Americans will, in that the book assumes that you're already familiar with and desensitized to such alarming real Asian phenomenon as "rape clubs" and "sharking." To be sure you should proceed with caution, but those comfortable with the more prurient edges of literature will find this provocative title very much worth checking out.

The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli
The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli, by Ginnetta Correli
Unsurprisingly enough, many of the best experimental titles these days come from the financial ghetto of basement presses and self-publishing, in that it's nearly impossible anymore to get the corporate-controlled bottom-line mainstream publishers even interested in such work; take for example this great little volume by Ginnetta Correli, a story that ostensibly covers the same ground as Augusten Burroughs even while clearly kicking his ass. A dysfunctional-family drama masquerading as a wacky fairytale, the book does a wonderful job at establishing a quiet tone of menace throughout, lurking just under the surface of the absurdist events on display; then when appropriate, such subliminal menace comes explosively breaking through to the surface, turning by the end into a fantastic look at one very messed-up family. One of those books you have to go out of your way to even find and get ahold of, but that is worth all the effort by the end.

Nova Swing
Nova Swing, by M John Harrison
So if experimental writing is one of my secret pleasures, you better believe that such experiments when wrapped in the tropes of science-fiction are my favorite secret pleasures of all; and such projects didn't get much better this year than with genre veteran M John Harrison's Nova Swing, not only the winner of this year's Philip K Dick Award but technically a sequel to his former award-winning Light (or not actually a sequel, but set in the same world and referencing a number of shared characters). It's essentially a haunted-house story combined with the gonzo nature of Hunter S Thompson, in which an unexplained galactic "event" has been playing random havoc with a whole section of a space-colony city for decades now; the absurdist developments within this quarantined zone (buildings that move, rainstorms of used shoes) have attracted a horde of gawkers from across the universe, inspiring the noirish plot concerning a gray-market tour guide and his pulp-fiction friends. Intelligent and funny but hard to follow at times, this is the book for those who like their speculative tales dense and witty.

Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed
Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed, by Robert Freeman Wexler
As mentioned yesterday, I am not the biggest fan of story collections; but I did want to take a moment to mention again the remarkable Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed by Robert Freeman Wexler, one of those cultlike books whose cultlike audiences often have trouble even finding the damn things. One of the celebrated "New Weird" writers associated with Jeff Vandermeer and that whole crowd, many of the stories in this small and tight collection will take originally as their premise a gimmicky concept prone to hacky excess (mutant cowboys! loaves of bread that can talk!); the saving grace, though, is that Wexler does wholly unexpected things with such premises, turning in a whole series of contemplative and sometimes deeply moving theses as a result. As with many other cutting-edge titles, I don't have a lot of analytical things to say about this one; it's just a book I wanted to highlight here at least one more time, for the small crowd out there bound to passionately love such a book.

Three Novellas for a Novel
Three Novellas for a Novel, by Carl Shuker
And speaking of celebrated New Weird authors, fans of experimental work will definitely want to check out the latest by celebrated academe Carl Shuker; much like CCLaP's own publishing program, Shuker released these novellas himself online this year under a Radiohead-style "pay what you want" scheme, and is now shopping around the collected manuscript as a traditional commercial novel. Granted, in this case things get very experimental and dense indeed, with me for example not even able originally to finish the entire thing; this tale of a near-future dystopian Asia, however, is certainly worth at least taking a chance on, if for nothing else than for his mesmerizing concept of "concrete cancer" (in which various random concrete structures suddenly lose their entire integrity, collapsing instantaneously into giant mounds of sand, inspiring such arresting futuristic visions as Plexiglas highways and wooden skyscrapers). And who knows -- along the way you might just find yourself deeply swept up in the thick layers of language and meaning Shuker piles on here, a story that much like James Joyce's work almost requires a university class and a smart professor to help you fully understand and appreciate. A must-read for those who enjoy deep literary challenges, cyberpunk, and the work of Thomas Pynchon.

Unlucky Lucky Days
Unlucky Lucky Days, by Daniel Grandbois
So I admit it -- that my own checkered history with the poetry community tends to make me poo-poo any project that even smacks of a poetic nature itself; and this of course is a shame, and especially when it comes to such remarkable cutting-edge projects like Daniel Grandbois' Unlucky Lucky Days. Ostensibly a story collection, although with stories that are barely comprehensible from a narrative standpoint, this is instead more of a celebration of language in its purest form, exactly what poetry itself was supposed to be before the rise of dreadful postmodern "free verse" and then the even more dreadful slam poetry and performance work. As with other titles along these lines, I don't have much from an analytical standpoint to say, simply because there's not much to say; it is instead a project to be swallowed and digested in small delicious bites like a rich dessert, wallowed in for its love of language and not necessarily parsed from a rational mindset.

Zerostrata
Zerostrata, by Andersen Prunty
And then finally today is this title, squeezed into 2008's eligibility period at the last minute (it was originally reviewed only a few weeks ago), which like the earlier Beatie Scareli tells the Burroughesque story of a dysfunctional family through the sometimes funny trappings of absurdist humor. And indeed, after reading the assured, confident Zerostrata, ironically enough it's easy to see what Burroughs himself was actually going for in such overhyped trainwrecks as Running With Scissors, and where in fact that much more famous writer went horribly wrong; he should've been more like Prunty himself here, turning in a clearly made-up tale that nonetheless contains a profound sense of emotional truth at its core. Funny and sad at the same time, sometimes creepy and sometimes incomprehensible, Prunty deliberately plays here with the stereotypes of fairytales (including two main characters literally named Hansel and Gretel, not to mention a possible Dante-like trip to a convoluted Hell), by the end delivering a story that says tons about family relationships even while loaded up with a whole series of ridiculous details.

So anyway, that's a look at some of the best experimental titles I was able to get my hands on in 2008; and do make sure to stop by again tomorrow, for the second year now of the coveted CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards, a total of ten books this year that I just happened to fanboyishly love through and through, even though by all rational rights I shouldn't. Who oh who will be this year's winners? The literary world is waiting with baited breaths!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:33 PM, December 31, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |