Author Spotlight: Jordan Krall

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When I started reading bizarro, I bought and read three books to kick things off. The first one was “Lost in Cat Brain Land”, by Cameron Pierce. The second was “Satan Burger”, by Carlton Mellick III. The third was “Squid Pulp Blues”, by Jordan Krall.

Squid Pulp Blues is a mess of three weird, dark, gritty tales of bizarro squid fetish noir. If that doesn’t interest you, then maybe Krall’s not for you. Or maybe there’s something else in his books that’ll get your attention. If I’m totally honest, I’m not a fan of the collective works of Krall. I love some of his stuff, and others… not so much. And I’ve told him this, too, as a fan of some of his books, I’d love him to write more like that, and less like the dead babies and urine fetish shit that goes down in King Scratch. That’s because I’m not an all out bizarro-fetish fan. But I do understand that I’m one person asking for one thing, and if more people are asking for the sick fetish stories, I can’t really blame him for writing sick fetish stories.

So I read Squid Pulp Blues, which had a bit of the squid fetish, but backed it up with a whole lot of stylish genre badassery. Then I read King Scratch and I was left wanting more of that sweet gritty genre style. Then I read Fistful of Feet, which has got some pretty graphic freaky fetish material, but it’s backed up by a heavy dose of weird western/spaghetti western influence. And I’m glad I pursued with Krall.

After that, I got the first book he published; a novella called “Piecemeal June”. And man, that one is waaaaaaay gross out. Not my favourite Krall, but if you like sick shit, be my guest. I mean, at the very least, he has the common decency to make a story out of it. It’s not just ramming sick shit down our throats. He’s got his story, characters, he builds interest, conflict, development. But he does so with graphic detail. I read it anyway, but some things I just don’t want to read. It’s personal preference.

By the time I read Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys, I was used to his writing. I knew I was going to read some things that are pretty sick. But I was also informed that it was toned down in this book, which it was. And at this point I got a couple of signed Kralls. Apocalypse Donkeys and Fistful of Feet. And the book delivered its promise of sick shit, while keeping it stripped back and focused on the plot. And it was glorious. A throwback to the time I read Squid Pulp Blues, an introduction to something weird and disturbing and graphic. Something that makes me a little uncomfortable, but it’s a something that I’m glad I read.

So, Jordan Krall loves his graphic, awkward fetishes, and he loves his genres. I haven’t read anything since, but his latest books are definitely on my radar. An apocalypse genre novel called “Tentacle Death Trip”, and a novelette called “False Magic Kingdom”, which is (according to the man, himself) unlike his usual bizarro genre books and more like J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, and Barry Malzberg. Both of these sound like stories I could really get into.

And I guess that’s why I like reading Jordan Krall. He’s bizarre, he’s got some cool genre things going on, but he also likes to mix things up a bit. And while I like some of his books more than others, I admire his ability to write those scenes of shockingly graphic perversity. I know some people love it. And while I hate reading some of it, I love being placed in that position of discomfort.

And I’d love to see him keep putting out the books that he so evidently loves writing. It’s a great thing to see writers who are so passionate about their own work that they practically live and breathe it. Even if I don’t love every single one of his books (chances are that I won’t), I’ll probably still read them and take the good with the not-my-cup-of-tea.

I’d also like to wish happy birthday to Jordan Krall, best of luck for your future. And I hope to hell you’re not writing anything from personal experience…

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Double-Sided Review #1: In Watermelon Sugar and Ugly Heaven

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I thought I’d like to introduce something new to my blog, to break up the dreary essays/assignments/loosely compiled rambling thoughts with something I might actually be able to maintain glares at those month-by-month bulk review drafts going nowhere and the reviews I put up here usually wind up on goodreads and amazon too, and sometimes a few other places. I think I’ll still post regular reviews here from time to time as I have been doing, but I’ll try something new and do what I’m going to call the “double-sided review”.

I pick two books and review them simultaneously. I might try to keep them so they’ve got some common thread between them, but basically it’ll give some point of reference in addition to a simple star rating. I’m going to judge books on: Style, content, entertainment, and degree of difficulty. Basically, all the things I like to look for in a good book.

My stars are shaped like sad face creatures, and they look like this:

That’s two-and-a-half sad face creatures out of five.

To kick things off, today I’ll be reviewing Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, and Carlton Mellick III’s Ugly Heaven. Both of these books are set in very abstract, surreal worlds, and I really enjoyed reading both of them.

In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan

I bought this story in a collection with two others by Brautigan: Trout Fishing in America, and The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. While you get your money’s worth with the three-in-one volume, it’s worth it just for In Watermelon Sugar. To me, it’s clearly the best of the three, and certainly the most cohesive. The story is about a man who lives in a commune by the Watermelon Works. Here, they make everything out of watermelon sugar. He tries to avoid his ex-girlfriend, while a relationship begins to form between him and one of her close friends. Most of the people live at a place called iDEATH, but the narrator lives in a shack, and there are a group of outcasts (led by the rebellious inBOIL) who live in the Forgotten Works, a place no one really likes to go. The setting is really strange and hard to define without listing examples, yet this place is full of history, the Forgotten Works, the statues that are lying all over the place, and an event a long time ago involving the extinction of the tigers.

Style:

This book is brimming with a trademark Brautigan style that is present in Trout Fishing and The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. It’s entertaining and poetic and quirky, yet remarkably accessible. It rolls off the tongue. And it really comes together in this story, the narrative flows smoothly from chapter to chapter. I love the way it begins:

“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.”

                         

Content:

I can confidently say that I’ve never read anything like this before. There’s a different coloured sun for every day of the week. This place is populated by things that are just strange, and the context of the book doesn’t seem to make them any less strange. The guys in the Forgotten Works make whiskey from the trash they find there. And the characters grow and develop in interesting ways too. There is a conflict between the residents of iDeath and the narrator’s ex-girlfriend because she’s going down to the Forgotten Works and collecting forgotten things and hanging out with inBOIL and his gang. The tension between the narrator and inBOIL heats up, and it’s really the character-driven conflict that pushes this story apart. It threatens the community at iDeath, and it’s also what brings them together. It’s nothing grand or sophistocated, but it does its job wonderfully.

                         

Entertainment:

This book is fascinating. It’s driven by an internal logic that’s beyond our comprehension. It’s humourous, yet it’s dramatic. It’s fun, yet it’s serious. The narrator’s voice is interesting, the world is interesting, the characters are interesting in a very mundane, everyday sort of way. It moves along without a clear sense of direction, but it gets there. It really gets there.

                          

Degree of difficulty:

This may seem like a strange category, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit lately. How difficult is it to write this story? Is the plot more complex than your average plot? Is the style more difficult? My tutor talked a bit about the degree of difficulty in a story as one of those things that you’re better off trying to write something easy than trying to write something hard, because there’s a greater chance you’ll do it well. So a simple story can have a low degree of difficulty and still be a really good book, and a story can have a really highy degree of difficulty and it can be terrible if it’s not done well. Now, I would say that Brautigan’s style, his tone of voice, is unique, and adds flavour to the story without being overly complex. The plot is pretty basic. There’s really not a lot to it. I would say the degree of difficulty of this piece would be quite low if not for the setting, and the things that populate his world. Like how Lord of the Rings has got this really complex and richly detailed setting, Brautigan has got this amazing world, and it’s got these little details that keep it self-contained, but express a life and history outside our immediate observations of the story, and this place bears little resemblance to our own world. And I’ve got to give him points for that.

                           

Overall:

This is a wonderful, imaginative, vivid story, with fascinating characters, a beautiful, original setting, a rich history, and an engaging plot. For anyone looking for anything out of the ordinary, In Watermelon Sugar is remarkably strange, yet hauntingly familiar.

                          

Ugly Heaven, by Carlton Mellick III

This story originally came out in a split-volume in 2007 alongside Jeffrey Thomas’ Beautiful Hell. It has recently been re-released on its own. Now, compared to Brautigan, I am much more familiar with Mellick’s writing. I read this book for the first time on its re-release, and I must say that I’m glad that it’s back.

Two men arrive in heaven and find out that the heaven they believed in has gone. Now it represents more of a dystopia. It is overrun with shadows, which are thought to be the evil portion of one’s soul. The two men, Tree and Salmon explore this strange heaven, discovering new things about themselves as they go. As their journey takes them deeper into heaven, it makes less and less sense. They can see it and feel it and smell it, and they’re also developing a few new senses too. God is nowhere to be seen, and they’re not really sure if this is heaven or not.

Style:

I’m a fan of Mellick’s earlier stuff (from what I’ve read) compared to his later stuff in terms of style. This one is sort of edging towards his more current style, yet it’s got the occasional nod towards early Mellick. While I do like his no-bullshit approach to progressing the narrative, and he tells some really great, weird stories by getting straight to the guts of it, I think the character element of developing senses is a nice touch. It’s something I really loved about The Egg Man. He describes things in interesting ways, but I think the gradual transformation towards a heightened sense-perception sets this story just that little bit higher, on a stylistic level.

                          

Content:

When working with such iconic settings as heaven and hell, it would be easy to work with what’s already there. This heaven is like no other heaven you’ve read about before. There are places in Mellick’s heaven that are weird, there are some that are more like earth, and there are some that are pretty dark/terrifying. The content is Mellick’s sick and sloppy, ugly, fetishised world. The characters are these strange alien life-forms, and they eat and shit and fuck in impossible ways. And Mellick never dwells in one spot for long enough to let you get comfortable with it.

                         

Entertainment:

This book is driven by action. Something is always going on. And the characters are driven on a quest for knowledge. They’re being told all these things that are either straight-up lies, or the person telling them has no idea themselves. Heaven has taken a turn for the worse, god is nowhere to be seen, and all they’re looking for is answers, and all they’re finding are things that raise more questions or threatens to destroy them or consume them. They go places they’re not meant to go, and they’re trying to find things that they’re clearly not meant to find. It’s a great, fast-paced read, but it leaves a lot of questions unresolved at the end. I’m waiting for a sequel.

                          

Degree of difficulty:

As with In Watermelon Sugar, I think the degree of difficulty here lies in forming a coherent, imaginative story from nothing. Mellick is a master of this. And I mentioned before that a lot of his work is driven by a no-bullshit drive to progress the narrative. It makes for a fun, easy read. This is the story, then this happens and that happens, and Mellick really rockets along with that, and I guess the way he rips the characters from one thing and dumps them in another so smoothly, there’s a lack of control and lack of cohesion and resolution that isn’t exactly the easiest trick in the book. Then there’s the reworking of heaven. Where Brautigan constructs something from nothing, Mellick does that while we’re all thinking, “no wait, hang on, this is wrong. I know what heaven’s supposed to be like, and this isn’t it.” He’s working with what we already know, he doesn’t need to describe any of that, and just does things different.

                         

Overall:

This is a fantastically surreal take on heaven, and it rewrites what we know completely and tells a story that is kind of dark and kind of scary and very weird. To die and find out the afterlife is nothing like you expected, and the overshadowing feeling that god is gone (which is similar to the themes Mellick explored in his first book, Satan Burger), and there’s just nothing for them. The characters know fuck all, and the reader knows fuck all, and all they can do is keep going and hope it’ll all start making sense soon. How numb that feeling is. It’s a great read if you’re looking for something really surreal and a little disturbing.

                          

The Big Reveal

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This is the last in my 1000 word blog posts I did for my Creative Non-Fiction class. I’ll probably also post my major project for that class up here once I’m finished. I had to write about what I learned over the course of the semester.

Lately I’ve been watching magic videos on youtube. Those famous magic guys, Penn & Teller, I’ve been watching their tricks. It seems like they’ve been doing it so long, deception just comes natural to them. And the audience can only work with what they see, and what I can see has been filmed and edited before it went up online, to remove any trace of their deception. It’s impossible to see what isn’t there. Everything else is showmanship. To turn a trick into a narrative. Build up to the twist ending. Leave people wondering how they pulled it off. They’re almost always doing something, we just don’t know what.

I’d like to think I can bring that same sense of mysticism and wonder to my writing. To insert little magic tricks into the writing that conceals my real objective until the right moment, the Big Reveal, to entertain my audience for long enough to get them focusing on one thing, while I’m working a sleight of hand (or sleight of word) outside their gaze.

That’s why I started with Penn and Teller. See, they’ve got this thing where Penn will do all the talking. He tells the audience a bit about the trick they’re about to witness. He sells the story, he hands out information like he’s doing them a favour, telling them everything they need to know to catch the magicians in the act. Meanwhile, Teller — ironically named — remains silent, selling his side of the act through visual narratives. Whether it’s through dialogue or action, the narrative needs to be both entertaining and believable. You buy into the deceit only to find that the unbelievable part is actually the truth.

Style becomes part of their narrative. Some people, you can identify them by their narrative style. They’ve made it into a trick to lure you into a false sense of security. It’s familiar territory. When I’m writing non-fiction, I’ve found myself dropping into a casual conversational tone. Something that rolls along in your head like you’re listening to me talk. Well, yeah. There’s no reason why it can’t work. I just need to put the punctuation in the right spots to reflect the natural breaks in spoken dialogue.

And it doesn’t hurt to throw in an anecdote that doesn’t have an immediate connection with the larger context of the piece. Like this girl at work who tried to tell me I can’t start sentences with ‘And’. Whatever. It becomes a little running joke. She tried to dump her high school English lessons on me while I tried to counter it with examples of notable authors that regularly break the rule. They’re more like guidelines anyway. Whatever. This is just another way of telling stories, keeping the tricks buried beneath narrative.

I think it’s also important to keep structure in the back of your mind as well, so that you’ve got some sort of logical progression with the writing process. I think structure is very important, and the times I forget that are the times my writing just feels dead. And it’s one of those things you can play around with. I like bookending my writing to give it a rounded, resolved feeling, a sense of a natural beginning and ending. Resolution. In the middle is where the magic happens. My assignment was bookended with its core themes and ideas, yet it was also bookended quite literally by a book as my main focus. Motifs are good too. Ideas for readers to latch on to. It’s a sign saying “hey, pay attention, this part is important.” Even if they don’t know why it’s important, it’s got that illusionist angle to it that maybe something else is going on that they can’t quite see. Penn and Teller pulling tricks.

One of my biggest challenges with my assingment, writing about reading, was that I’d latched on to an idea that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t exactly wrong, but it wasn’t quite right. And what really tied everything together was that I’d spent all this time examining this one aspect of my assignment, I was working through all these ideas why it is the way it is. Ho-hum. He likes reading on holidays. There must be a direct correlation between reading and distance from home. There are no other factors. I know this, because I’m telling you this. Because on some level I believe it too.

I go from watching magic tricks to watching videos of atheists talking about their beliefs. Classic misdirection. I go from one video to another to another, and then I’m back to Penn the magician, and he’s talking about his book on atheism and religion. I was pleased to hear the man say, “I don’t know” when asked how the earth came into being. And what happens when you die, you cease to exist. Just like you don’t exist before you are born. It’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a part of life — like so many things — that is beyond comprehension.

Now, I found that while I was working on my assignment, I was driven towards knowledge. To come to an understanding about a fundamental aspect of my life. At times I felt like I was trying to confront issues that were beyond my comprehension. I was writing to work through what I didn’t know. How does my environment affect how I read? This question (posed in a variety of less succinct forms) plagued me for weeks and weeks while I had convinced myself that being in other towns and cities enhanced my reading experience without knowing why. What I came to realise was that I’d been circling around the real issue the whole time. I’d been performing a magic trick where I didn’t know the Big Reveal. I didn’t know what I was going to show off at the end.

Once I found out, I couldn’t just go back to the start and admit that my initial suspicions were wrong. I had a story here, something to distract from the real themes and ideas. Rewriting this assignment was a matter of convincing the audience my first idea was the right one while I built up the story and sold the deception, while the truth was pushed out of sight and pushed up to the end. Some things, some universal themes and ideas really are beyond comprehension, but in my story, it’s my role to know everything. To entertain and to sell a believable story. I want my readers to think they’re smart — look at all the things they know about me! But this is my story. You’re smart? Well, I’m smarter. And I’m here to tell you, you don’t know shit.

Fishing

Flash Fiction

The old man went fishing for intelligence. He took his row boat out into deep waters – where the deep thoughts were, and dropped his brain anchor overboard. His fingers trickled through his bucket of bait and pulled out a bit of grey matter to fix to his hook. He cast his line out and thought about catching something really big, like Santiago did. His thoughts wandered from there. He leaned back and breathed in the salt air. The beach was just a thin line on the horizon, and everything else was ocean. The water was calm. The old man could lean over the edge of the boat and see shadows of ideas darting around far below the surface. He was waiting for one of those ideas to take hold of his line. It didn’t matter if it took a minute or an hour or an afternoon, that’s just the way it was.

When he was a young boy, he had gone fishing with his grandfather at the old jetty. They sat on the end with their legs dangling over and talked about school and family and the book shelf his grandfather had been making for for his father. The wood stain he had been using was all over his hands and clothes and the smell hung about like he’d never left his shed. Fishing with his grandfather, he caught the whiff of those wood stained hands and never let it go. They sat there for hours without a bite, and bought fish and chips for dinner from the corner store.

The old man caught nothing, yet he found himself thinking of what he’d do if he did. Maybe he’d digest it. Maybe he’d cook it in a stew. Maybe he’d put it in the pond behind his house and let it grow. Maybe he’d release it back into the ocean.  The smell of salt air had since become synonymous with the smell of his grandfather’s hands. It was only then he realised, he’d been fishing his whole life.

One Pill, Two Pill, Red Pill, Blue Pill

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Here’s another blog I wrote for my creative non-fiction class. This one had to involve our thoughts (either positive or negative) on a set text for the unit. I went with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

Let me tell you about Nugget Diving. It’s the difference between Gonzo and News. It’s the difference between culture and counter-culture. It’s the difference between truth and gossip. It’s about diving into a story and coming up with nuggets of truth and nuggets of information. It’s a term I coined myself. Chances are, it’s not going to stick.

At the point where Nugget Diving becomes something worth caring about, there is subjectivity. News is society. News is the nugget-less waters that acts as mediator between us and the world. News is the authority that picks and chooses information that tells us the things we think we need to know. Gonzo is the Nugget Diver’s goldrush. Gonzo is the interpellator that reminds us that the News is always subjective. It reminds us that we are reading, and that we are breathing, and that our apparent awareness of the world is limiting. And so is Gonzo, but it’s not trying to convince us otherwise.

Las Vegas has this stigma about it that entering Las Vegas is like entering a world full of decadence and sleaze and pornography drenched in alcohol. I went there when I was eight and it was nothing like that. It was loaded with flashy lights and slot machines and spectacular casinos and hotels, yet there was none of the stigma attached. Then comes Hunter S. Thompson with his Fear and Loathing. The book I read a couple of years ago. The book he wrote almost four decades ago. There was the American Dream in Las Vegas, lived only as Thompson could live it, and the stigma is written as a goddamn descent into madness. But the difference between Thompson and Las Vegas was that his stigma was not cultural, but personal. This was Las Vegas through Thompson’s eyes, demonic and beautiful and terrifying and real.

This is not the Vegas we grew up believing in. This is not the Vegas with the mountains of cocaine and casino chips. No dead hookers in hotel rooms. It’s like that surrealist painting of a pipe.

This is not Vegas.

This is Thompson’s Vegas. The perspective Nugget. The Gonzo Nugget. Thompson, this is you and no-one else.

If you think this is Vegas, you’re living in a dream world, Neo. You’re dreaming, Alice. You’re performing social normality, a Baudrillardian life reflecting media. Society performing the role of reified society.

Dive for them Nuggets, dive!

Take the red pill and dive. Come up in the machine world. Breathe in the air of the subjective. Look at the inner workings of our culture, and contemplate on what this means.

I read a science fiction novel in high school that had a quote that went something like: “If the human brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” In the Matrix, you dive and come up looking at your own brain. You hold it in your hands, soft and grey and throbbing. You’ve seen images of brains before. You know what they’re supposed to look like. But you’ve never actually seen it before. Not like this. There’s nothing cosmetic about it. The brain is function and the body is aesthetics. We strip the aesthetics away.

Take a dive into Fear and Loathing and come up holding Hunter S. Thompson’s brain. A juicy little brain-nugget. And in the beginning there are bats because Thompson says there are bats. He believes there are bats. Thompson is not the sheriff of Las Vegas. He’s not the authority on flora and fauna in Nevada. Thompson is the authority on Thompson. And the authority on Fear and Loathing. And Gonzo Journalism. In your hands, in Thompson’s brain, there are bats in Nevada.

In Gonzo, there is no fabrication of facts. There is no making a story where there is no story. Thompson went to Vegas to report on the Mint 400 desert race, but he found it unreportable. Whether or not the bats in the sky exist doesn’t matter. What matters is that he found the Mint 400 to be unreportable, and so he offered his view on the race in the context as part of a larger experience of Las Vegas and the American Dream.

The thing about Gonzo, and the thing about Thompson (as one is synonymous of the other), is that you’re not diving through a sea of facts to find the truth, or to find the story. You’re diving through a sea of story to find the truths that stitch them all together. The truth in Fear and Loathing is that Las Vegas is wild, but the image of Vegas is a different beast altogether. And that is the Vegas that tourists often come out to see. Thompson’s habit of taking things to the excess exposed a Vegas that was wild and terrifying and self-destructive to the point of absurdity. This was a Vegas that exceeded its notoriety.

Have you seen the Japanese animated film, Ghost in the Shell? Have you read the graphic novel? You dive into that story and come up with an identity crisis. How can you tell the difference between humans and machines when humanity transcends the physical body? You dive into Ghost in the Shell and come up with nuggets of brain fused with machine. It is far more complex than we can comprehend. Human beings are complex creatures, and we are all distanced from one another in our perspectives and subjectivities.

I am not you, and we are not Hunter S. Thompson or Masamune Shirow. Yet we glimpse into their minds at a specific period in time. In Shirow’s science fiction, we see the creative process, a whole world invented and populated with cyborg police and artificially engineered terrorists. We dive into this world and come out with identity and psychological nuggets. Hypothetical nuggets that only science fiction seems to be able to produce. Like a warning for future societies to come.

In Thompson’s work, there is the temporal placement of the reader placed directly into the narrative, and Thompson’s construction of this narrative in reflection. The non-fiction narrative reflects on the past, on history. These things have happened, according to Thompson. We dive into Fear and Loathing and we come up drenched in a cold sweat, brain-deep in Thompson’s disturbing psychosis. We have nuggets of happening, of things that have existed and have been written about and have come from the brain of Thompson to the desk of Thompson to the book that sits on my desk.

I dive for nuggets and come up with Thompson speaking for Thompson, and Las Vegas has somehow been swept up in his gravity, an afterthought that has not been spoken for, but rather, spoken about.