Matthew Klam writes exclusively about men interacting with women. Sometimes he sounds like a slick version of British novelist Nick Hornby, who is also good the way Klam is good, at writing about the average guy’s unexamined emotional status. Klam‘s stories are sharp, gorgeous, and clean as a whistle, like very expensive advertisements for certain stylishly aloof states of mind: An alienated couple goes to a friend’s wedding. An alienated man has an affair before his own wedding. A man is alienated from his girlfriend after an abortion. An alienated couple is visited by relatives.
That last narrator says, ”I think of that mean thing I said to Linda — what was that all about? It‘s like there’s a bird in my mouth, screeching. Maybe one day I‘d open my mouth and it would come out like a flying hockey puck. I don’t know, some nights I‘d like to shoot out all the lights of this fucking house.“ A moment later the same character says, with an I’m-above-irony sneer, ”But hey, there‘s plenty of time for that. She’s still there, my cute wife, whom I love . . . We‘re going to get this thing right. Even when it backfires, you don’t necessarily hate someone for very long.“
This writing is very up-to-the-minute, smart, overtly clever. All of the stories in Klam‘s first collection were previously published in The New Yorker, and the press kit talks about the furor his first submission created in the editorial office. That story, the title selection in Sam the Cat, follows a gamy hetero man whose predatory sexual habits are disrupted when he mistakes an effeminate man for a woman and, after discovering his prey’s true gender, can‘t shake the attraction.
It’s a good story. But it‘s not really provocative or disturbing, unless you’re reading fiction as self-help, in which case it might well be disturbing to you — Oprah would be disturbed by Matthew Klam, but in a good way, because of the Issues he raises. But as literature, it‘s not taking us anywhere scary that Paul Bowles didn’t go years ago with ”A Distant Episode“ or ”Pages From Cold Point,“ and not just because Bowles would never carelessly turn a bird into a hockey puck mid-metaphor.
You have to wonder how long it‘s been since anyone at The New Yorker re-read the stories they published in the ’50s by J.D. Salinger, which are off the scale for psychosexual creepiness. Compared to Bowles‘ or Salinger’s sucking-chest-wound masterworks, which allow us to peek into places the sane or empathetic mind can never actually go, Klam‘s stories are emotional tourist brochures for states of mind we’ve heard about and always wanted to visit.
If you liked Denis Johnson‘s Jesus’ Son, then there is either every reason in the world to read Sam Lipsyte‘s Venus Drive — or else there is no reason to read it at all. That eitheror depends on whether ”liking“ a book means that you want to read more books just like it (the way liking the movie Scream made you also want to see I Know What You Did Last Summer), or you feel that the perfection of Jesus’ Son, in its sense of time, place and culture, sated some part of your literary sensibility so thoroughly that you now hunger only for new experiences (much the way people familiar with Borges were less enchanted, in the 1970s, with the discovery of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than those who had never heard of Borges).
Like Jesus‘ Son, Venus Drive features episodic stories built loosely around a druggieex-druggie main character: ”He stays home, drinks O’Doul‘s, shoots cocaine, watches the tube. It’s non-alcoholic, the O‘Doul’s. Gary bought a case of it by mistake. They don‘t mark things properly anymore. Still, it’d be wrong to pour it down the sink.“
Like Johnson‘s world, Lipsyte-land is entertainingly bleak-yet-droll — a cocaine addict drinking a whole case of non-alcoholic beer out of a vague sense of consumerish propriety is funny, but it feels like slightly ersatz whimsy. Johnson, or Padgett Powell (creator of another truly great serial short-story hero, Wayne the roofer), never feels like he’s trying to play cute with you, even when the effect his characters‘ hard-nosed bumbling creates is downright adorable. Thom Jones, too, can get cute with his misery — remember George Babbitt, the jungle doctor’s pet baboon, getting drunk and falling out of a tree? — but he does it with such prodigious, passionate abandon that it is always forgivable. With these tough-guy writers, the sweet just leaks out from all the holes in their weatherbeaten skin, while Lipsyte‘s seems to be slathered onto pink skin in an effort to attract bees.
Sylvia Brownrigg’s Ten Women Who Shook the World is not some kind of feminist tract, and the fact that all the stories are about women is no more remarkable than the fact that all of Hemingway‘s Nick Adams stories were about Nick Adams. Unlike Klam’s all but shrink-wrapped collection, Brownrigg‘s work is uneven, because she’s reaching so terribly far so much of the time. (This collection was actually written before her novel, The Metaphysical Touch, which appeared in 1998. For a review of that book, see www.laweekly.comink9935books-ulin.shtml.)
Almost all of Brownrigg‘s stories depart from reality, taking place in a Borgesian realm that isn’t sci-fi, but definitely isn‘t Kansas, either. In the story ”Broad From Abroad,“ Brownrigg creates a narrator who has never seen a city, and we meet her plopped down in the middle of an urban center: ”When I first got here I noticed just how much motion there is. Sirens sing and spin and people wave at each other constantly — sometimes in greeting, sometimes with more obscure intentions — when, that is, they aren’t knocking against each other like billiard balls and tossing out a quick ‘Sorry — ’ like a handkerchief seen briefly and then carried off by the wind. You can see their thoughts never stopping. There are so many words in people‘s heads here that they spill out and into the atmosphere, causing a dizzying array of signs to go up everywhere with melancholy phrases like ’last chance sale,‘ ’You mustn‘t miss this,’ and ‘Horne Brothers for men.’“ This odd, fascinating point of view reels you in, until you‘re so enchanted by the world as seen through this narrator’s eyes that you‘re quite unbalanced yourself by the time she lets on that ”the forest“ from which she comes, and where her friends are trees with names like Bob and Henry, is much less weird than the street scene just described.
In ”She Who Caught Buses,“ a meek, paranoid librarian complains about the ”Chranks“ she must wait on, and remembers an episode from childhood when she befriended a ”figure“ that lived in the bottom of a pond, a friendship taken away from her by the Chranks on the school bus. The definition of Chrank is never spelled out, but by the end of this most disturbing story, which warrants three or four readings, it begins to sink in. Brownrigg’s story designs are so novel they fall almost out of range of perception — they need re-reading not because they‘re difficult (on the contrary, they’re very entertaining) but because they‘re elusive and complex.
Her stories can be read almost as parables, but they are so fully felt and imagined that they seem breathed into being, rather than written — a sure sign of the presence of a great writer, when you can’t hear the writing, and the story just pours effortlessly into your thirsty ear.
Like George Saunders, another truly exceptional writer, whose collection of satirical fantasias, Pastoralia, appeared earlier this year (and who appears at Storyopolis on October 21), Brownrigg invents her own form and then, seeming not the least bit worn out by the feat of having done so, plays inside it masterfully. There is nothing programmatic about her writing. She isn‘t merely commenting on the patterns of pain and beauty to be found out there in the world, she’s actively making new ones.