January 5, 2012

The Year In Books 2011: Best Experimental and Cutting-Edge

The Year In Books 2011

(For an overview of this year's essay series, and a linked list of all its chapters, please click here.)

One of the things that CCLaP really prides itself on is its dedication to reviewing and promoting experimental, gonzo, and otherwise cutting-edge works. Here is a list of my ten favorite such reads in 2011, listed as always in alphabetical order.

alt.punk, by Lavinia Ludlow
alt.punk, by Lavinia Ludlow

A book that got a lot of play among litbloggers this year, this confessional comedy by indie-rocker Ludlow is not really a tell-all memoir of the music scene like its title might have you think, but rather a charming character study of a trainwrecky twentysomething who is constantly making bad decisions in her life -- from her loser boyfriends there in northern California to her dead-end job at a convenience-store pharmacy, her relationship with her dysfunctional family and more. A quick read from the always reliable Casperian Books, it will be especially loved by fans of such other indie coming-of-age tales as Hairstyles of the Damned and High Fidelity.

Black Hole Blues, by Patrick Wensink
Black Hole Blues, by Patrick Wensink

To make up for minuscule print runs and promotional budgets, many gonzo/bizarro authors will become just as well-known for their energetic and unique live performances, as they endlessly cross the country literally selling one copy of their book at a time; take Wensink, for example, whose absurdist, hard-to-classify comedy is truly at its best when accompanied with the author's anti-Kenny-Rogers memorabilia available at live shows, the sexy-nerd shtick of his reading style and more. The perfect choice for fans of Sam Raimi Saturday-afternoon television actioners, for an extra-great experience make sure to catch this entertaining writer on one of his tours.

Felix and the Sacred Thor, by James Steele
Felix and the Sacred Thor, by James Steele

And then speaking of gonzo literature (aka "bizarro," aka "strange"), here's a great example of the other major type of novel in that genre, out-and-out fairytales for grown-ups which start like a bad dream and just get weirder from even there. It's deliberately difficult to give a plot recap for a book like this, so I won't even try -- suffice to say that the "Sacred Thor" in question here turns out to be a giant bright-green sex toy imbued with mystical powers, bestowed by an obscure god to a professional horse-masturbator for the purpose of saving the world, which gets us to around page ten -- this is for those who otherwise enjoy things like Juggalos and 4chan (either legitimately or ironically, or perhaps a bit of both), but who still manage to have at least a little self-respect as far as demanding intelligence from their ridiculously obtuse and sexually childish creative projects.

The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie
The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie

This was the first year I received books from the fantastic small Canadian publisher Pedlar Press, and I could've easily included almost all of their titles in these best-of lists (and in fact earlier this week I did feature another, Jacob Wren's Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed); but when all is said and done, this is probably the one Pedlar title I admired the most this year, for the beautiful hybrid of poetry and traditional narrative prose that author Baillie achieves, making it a delight as an art object but a pretty good traditional read as well. Ostensibly a series of dry reports from a small Toronto public library from each time there is a public "incident" there (a homeless person bothering a patron, a child vomiting in the bathroom), these descriptive passages from a mousy librarian quickly become confessional and artistic in nature, eventually turning into long rants about her love life, a mysterious customer who leaves her stalking notes, and a lot more varied subjects. A good choice for those who love language simply for its own sake.

Luminarium, by Alex Shakar
Luminarium , by Alex Shakar

It's important to realize that this sometimes surreal novel is not the trippy sci-fi tale that its cover and promotional material makes it out to be, and that those expecting one will be sorely disappointed by this ultimately reality-based plot; but what it turns out to be is pretty great too, a clever and meandering examination of the human condition in post-9/11 America, seen through some of the filters that so defined the mid-2000s (virtual worlds, cut-throat startups, Homeland Security, New Age philosophy, the Disney town of Celebration, Florida), mixed together in a McSweeney's-style blender until becoming a smooth puree of hipster intelligentsia goodness. A book that will make your jaw drop at points from its pure sense of inventiveness, this comes recommended to anyone who ever wondered what it might be like if Jonathan Franzen ever wrote a sadder magical-realism sequel to Buckaroo Bonzai.

The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, by Lonely Christopher
The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, by Lonely Christopher

A personal pick by transgressive writer Dennis Cooper for his superlatively disturbing "Little House on the Bowery" series with Akashic Books, this story collection by edgecore author Christopher is not for the faint of heart, an unholy baby from the collective loins of Sister Spit, Kathy Acker, early Poppy Z. Brite, and that freaky shirtless guy in front of the convenience store who's always yelling about the microchips the CIA secretly implanted in his head. As such, then, this title is perhaps the one book from this entire week with the smallest potential audience; but those who are into this kind of work are going to freaking love this nasty little title, the kind of book to take to a bar with you to guarantee the most bizarre one-night-stand you will ever have.

Muscle Memory, by Steve Lowe
Muscle Memory, by Steve Lowe

This is my fifth third year in a row now of regularly receiving titles from Eraserhead Press's "New Bizarro Author Series," short books from beginning writers who are trying to establish themselves for the first time; and this was one of my favorites in 2011, mostly for maintaining such a consistent tone in a genre that can very easily slip out of an author's control. The story of a small town whose citizens wake up one morning to realize that they've switched bodies with anyone they might've been intimate with the night before (so singles are largely unaffected, married couples largely switch with their spouses, and one farmer notoriously switches bodies with a sheep), it's not really the cause that Lowe is interested in exploring but rather how it affects all the people in question, the author getting a lot of mileage out of the comedy inherent in both men and women suddenly receiving an overdose of the exact opposite type of gender-specific hormones. A slight book as are all the titles in this series, it's still a fun read for those into these kinds of stories.

The Rage of Achilles, by Terence Hawkins
The Rage of Achilles, by Terence Hawkins

This fascinating novel has a really simple concept at its core -- it's a retelling of Homer's The Iliad (covering some of the major events of the ancient Trojan War), still set in the same period but with all the dialogue and descriptions updated to modern language, and not just modern but the same kind of rough, curse-strewn language heard on a typical HBO series (or in other words, The Iliad as rewritten by Quentin Tarantino). As such, then, I don't really have a lot to say about the story itself -- it's The Iliad, after all, which after thousands of years is hard to exactly criticize or bring new interpretations to the table -- but nonetheless recommend it strongly for the way it really makes this story pop, the updated text a little gimmicky but mostly working really well for what it's aiming to be. Recommended both to fans of Classicism for its noble experiment, and to sullen teens currently being forced to read The Iliad in its original form, as a cheat-sheet of sorts to help them really understand just what's going on from a plot standpoint.

Shades of Green, by Ian Woodhead
Shades of Green, by Ian Woodhead

One of the underground subgenres out there that really fascinates me is so-called "alt-horror," an attempt to shake off the cheesy standards this genre has developed over the last thirty years because of the overwhelming popularity of Stephen King; and it's because of titles like these that I find this genre so fascinating, which like a lot of challenging sci-fi as well doesn't bother to lead the reader up to the main action via first-act exposition, but simply throws us into the chaos from page one and trusts that we'll eventually catch up. A triple-story that is partly about a malicious fungus that takes over rural England, partly about an age-old war between good and evil entities that use this fungus merely as a weapon, and partly about alternative universes and the ramifications of quantum-theory karma (I think), this is clearly not the kind of book for fans of simple tales about things that go bump in the night, but is instead a challenging and satisfying read for those who like a lot of experimentation in their genre tales.

There Is No Year, by Blake Butler
There Is No Year, by Blake Butler

A massively overhyped hipster touchstone because of the author's industry connections (he's the founder of the insanely popular litblog "HTMLGiant"), the publicity surrounding this Danielewskiesque haunted-house tale simply couldn't stand up to the book's preciously academic approach, resulting in an equally massive backlash against this "Grand Future Of American Literature;" and that's a shame, because taken on its own terms this is a great little unsettling tale, which like Victorian "Weird" literature gets most of its mileage not from actual shocks but rather from establishing a highly disturbing mood, the rambling and sometimes nonsensical text working much better as a carefully written prose-poem than as a traditional genre tale. Only for the most diehard fans of experimentation out there, this is nonetheless a must-read for that small but passionate audience.

And that's it for today; but make sure to come back tomorrow for the conclusion of this series, the fifth annual iteration of the coveted CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:37 AM, January 5, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Reviews |