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I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit by Aaron Cometbus

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I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit If you grew up in the punk scene in the 90s, chances are you didn’t get very far before you found an issue of Cometbus in your hands. The novella-sized, memoiristic zine, started in 1981 in Berkeley, California, handwritten and Xeroxed by Aaron “Cometbus,” was instrumental in turning me, and a lot of other kids, onto writing and publishing.

Long before the near-universal belief in the Internet’s democratizing effects took hold, long before self-publishing was hotly debated on literary blogs and industry websites, Aaron was showing kids everywhere that they could create their own media. At a time before digital distribution was the norm, before digital publishing was available in every teen’s bedroom, Cometbus showed us that as long as we had a pen, paper, and access to a copier, we could produce our own publication.

Most Cometbus issues are Aaron’s accounts of life on the road with punk bands, living in vans and sleeping on fans’ couches. For those times when he wasn’t on the road, his unconventional home life became the subject of his stories. Over the years the locations varied but the day-to-day remained the same, communal living, social dysfunction, and dumpster diving.

At any given time, in any given city, Aaron had at least one friend suffering from heartbreak, one in a destructive relationship, and another in the throes of a chemical imbalance. His friends reminded me of mine; it was a familiar scene, if only more adventurous. Aaron was an angsty teen’s hero. He was my subculture’s Jack Kerouac.

Aaron’s 2006 novella, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is written in the telltale Cometbus voice: the introspective storyteller electively living a hard life, equal parts amused by and concerned about his friends.

The narrator, a character named Aaron, recently heartbroken, lives in a van parked in his friend’s yard. Laura, the friend, is also recently heartbroken.

By night, the van was an icy tomb. By early afternoon it had turned into a toaster oven … It reminded me of being on tour, with everyone piled on top of each other sleeping and the van broken down on the side of the road, smoking. Those were always my favorite times, traveling. My fondest memories. Now it was like that every day. …

Yes, a broken-down van was the perfect place for a person like me. All the appearance of movement and direction without the threat of actual change.

A certain type of fiction is often accused of being autobiography in disguise and it’s hard not to think of I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit as another installment of Cometbus. Fictional Aaron’s world feels a lot like his well-documented real one, right down to his friends.

When the story opens, the first person we meet is Laura. She’s hurling bricks at a passing armament train, presumably in some anarchist-inspired protest against war. However, it becomes clear that it’s anger and frustration driving her, not some belief in a cause. Reckless melodrama dressed in political theory.

Another character, Jemuel, plays the ambivalent friend, destined to remain exactly where he is.

Part janitor, part manager, that was Jemuel’s job. Come in when everyone else was gone and clean up the store, restock the shelves, pay the bills, and do a little bit of the books. Ideal, really. … Except for one thing: he hated music. Or, rather, he resented it. Was it music itself, or the whole business it had become? Jemuel thought about it for a minute. Both. Then he put on a record.

While reading I couldn’t help but think about my early 20s; just out of college, back living in my hometown, working at a local bookstore, hanging out with friends from high school, doing the same old thing we’d always done, not sure what the next phase of my life would look like, only knowing I didn’t want to dress up and work some temp job. Life was uncertain and what happened next was entirely up to me.

This is precisely where Aaron sits: the crossroads. As with Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 indie sensation Zazen, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit captures a moment in time capable of evoking a visceral reaction.

While one of the dangers of reflecting on an age gone by is devolution into sentimentality, Aaron’s ability to balance the romantic notion of suffering with a pragmatic view of the future helps him sidesteps the nostalgia trap. I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is an honest look at what happens when adulthood creeps in.

::[Links]::
Buy I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit at your local bookstore
Buy Aaron’s other books from Last Gasp

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Written by Gabrielle

January 15, 2013 at 6:53 am

New Reading: Frequencies, Volume 1

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FrequenciesThe first issue of Frequencies, a new biannual journal of essays published by indie press Two Dollar Radio, is, in its physical form, the melding of professional digital publishing and the DIY aesthetic of the 90s.

The cover image is an illustration of a man: scowling, working-class, probably in his 40s, eyes squinting, 5 o’clock shadow, pursed lips, and a hat that says “Fix It!” with a picture of a wrench on it. At first, he’s easily mistakable for a (so-called) hipster, one that resides in Brooklyn and works at a local bike shop or cafe. On closer examination, however, the wall of television sets behind him creates air of authenticity–a menacing one at that.

For the interior, artist in-residence, John Gagliano, uses a handwritten font for the essays’ title pages but traditional type for the essays themselves. There are old-timey advertisements for a fictional store throughout and full page illustrations to go with each story.

The debut issue includes familiar names: writer and critic Joshua Cohen looks at the etymology of “Open Sesame;” bookseller and Two Dollar Radio editor Emily Pullen interviews poet Anne Carson; and author Scott McClanahan writes about his large, and slightly off-kilter, family from West Virginia.

“Seven Interruptions of the Image” begins with seven photographs: Wild Ruins; Wardrobe; Untitled Photo; My Parent’s [sic] House; Yellow Dress; All My Bags Are Packed; and Blossoms. They are beautiful, haunting images, some unrecognizable, others just odd—all invitingly sad. Their aged quality—smoky pastels, prevalence of shadows, and dubious chemical burns—makes them look as if they were taken by a practiced photographer or someone with an iPhone.

Following the photos, coinciding with their titles, are seven short essays written by Blake Butler. Within the first two lines of “Wild Ruins” it becomes clear this is a collaboration:

My sister emails me the link to the website with the catalog of photographs she has taken in her recent days of life. As I open the webpage a siren outside the house that we grew up in moves into ear range where I sit at this machine.

Those familiar with Blake’s writing will know of his father’s dementia. “Seven Interruptions” is an exploration of their relationship and a record of the degeneration. In the first essay we learn that his father is in a nearby hospital. “Within one mile of this house,” Blake writes, “my father is in a building full of people he does not know. This is where he sleeps now.” The photo “Wardrobe” reminds him why.

McClanahan by John Gagliano Blake’s writing, as always, is hypnotic; his thoughts, heartfelt yet analytic. The linguistic twists and turns, the spiraling phrases: at first not making sense but then, eventually, unfolding upon examination.

“I don’t try to wonder if my father’s memory condition is something that will come for me in the same way. It will or it won’t,” Blake says in the fifth essay. And finally, you feel the weight. Blake holds you there a bit longer with “All My Bags Are Packed,” a photo of a suitcase, barely visible in the shadows and a sheer curtain distorting its position.

I can’t think of what I would fill a suitcase with if I knew I was going to leave this house for the last time. Maybe just as much of the air as I could get to fit into it, something later to have to breathe.

The final essay in Frequencies, “The Magic Merge,” is Tracy Rose Keaton’s personal account of growing up the daughter of a demi-celebrity father. Having been exposed to his rock-and-roll lifestyle, and the women who come with it, Keaton was familiar early on with the groupie: the “American invention,” the “quintessence of feeling like nothing.”

The groupie is definitely a consumer who ends up getting eaten in the end. Not fabulous enough to be a concubine, or glamorously sinister enough to be a succubus…

It was her father’s girlfriend, a super-groupie—“Tall and slender, with long raven hair, her ass was on the cover of a 1972 ‘gentlemen’s’ mag, perched on a bicycle seat”—that made Keaton realize she could never compete as one of these women. So, instead, she opted for her own “odd mixture of scowling misanthrope and cultural anthropologist in big black shoes.”

She found salvation in a Pretenders album:

One day my dad brought home the first Pretenders album and threw it on the brown velvet couch. He might as well have thrown a grenade. …

A pivotal moment in Keaton’s life:

When I was growing up, girls simply did not play guitars. … I had never heard a lady sound so strong and threatening and calm. … Some of the oldies-but-goodies have Betty Friedan. I’ve got Chrissie Hynde.

“The Magic Merge,” a nod to the perzine, is a natural close to a new journal that values experimentation and old school style.

::[Links]::
Buy Frequencies at your local bookstore
More info about Frequencies
Read Scott McClanahan’s essay

Written by Gabrielle

December 13, 2012 at 6:50 am

You Must Read: Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life

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Anyone familiar with Choose Your Own Adventure books—the stories written in the second person where middle grade readers, after a few paragraphs, are given options as to how they’d like the character to proceed—will take one glance at Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life and wonder if someone is playing a trick on them. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first saw a copy in the bookstore.

The book was placed prominently at the checkout counter and as the bookseller was ringing me up I couldn’t resist. “I used to love these,” I said. As I picked it up and thumbed through I asked, “did you ever read these?” Unfortunately for the bookseller, he hadn’t experienced the wonders of these fantastic little books as a kid; and, unfortunately for me he was of little help when, to my confusion, I noticed a long string of curses on one of the pages. “I think it’s a joke,” he mumbled, or something to that effect. Not sure what to make of it, I put the book back on the display but by then it had already made an impression. The cover, so convincing in its authenticity, juxtaposed with its content, unsettlingly askew, was seared into memory.

It turns out that Love is Not Constantly Wondering isn’t a joke but a parody, a well-crafted and endearing one at that. Self-published anonymously by a 33-year-old Portland transplant, the story is based on the author’s real relationship with his alcoholic girlfriend, a time spanning from August 2002 to November 2006. His anonymity is to protect his parents from the tumultuous parts of his life as well as identity of the hard-drinking girl, Anne.

However, to his friends who will recognize him in those pages, he hopes they will now understand that the years spent with this girl, the years they spent wondering why he was putting himself through such pain, were not all bad, that there were some good moments, too, and, as Slate reported, that there was an “excitement that went hand in hand with the mess.”

To digress with a bit of interesting information, It was that Slate review that gave the book a new life. While in Portland, the Book Review Editor Dan Kois found the book at Powell’s and decided to write about it. The third printing is now being handled by the author’s friend who owns a small press. But back to the book.

I can’t speculate as to why the author decided to include a race of hostile Ant-Warriors, other than it fits with the Choose Your Own Adventure genre—the first book in the (real) series features an adventure trip to the Himalayas where you and a friend go in search of a Yeti. Intentional or not, the alien race adds to the already inhospitable landscape in which the protagonist finds himself. As often comes with addict friends, if you keep them in your life long enough, you’re bound to bear the brunt of their erratic behavior, the consequences of their poor choices, and possibly even get caught up in their legal troubles, depending on your patience and goodwill.

Unlike the series it’s based on, Love is Not Constantly Wondering is best read linearly. These choices at the bottom of the page are more for effect than instruction. They range from being abstractly related to the story to being wildly unrelated. From time to time I would g back and follow a few—“If you jump across the chasm, turn to April 26, 2006; If you decide to turn back and look for another way around, turn to June 29, 2003”—and found that even though it’s a short book, when you bounce back and forth through time, reading the story in this new order gives it an infinite feel.

In a recent interview with The Portland Mercury, the author discussed the importance of creating an authentic replication. “Producing authentic-looking zines and books is incredibly important to me. With Love I spent weeks researching how Choose Your Own Adventure books were constructed: the fonts, the amount of space between lines, the kerning, how the choices are laid out within the books.” There can be little doubt that this meticulous attention to detail pays off; even the illustrations closely mimic the originals.

As mentioned, Choose Your Own Adventure narratives are written in the second-person and so Love is Not Constantly Wondering begins:

It is a beautiful day. You walk up the stairs to the library. There is a girl sitting on the steps, smoking. She is pretty in a Virginia-Woolf-meets-Helena-Bonham-Carter-in-Fight-Club sort of way. You exchange, “I think you look interesting but I’ll be damned if I’m going to make the first move” glances, then pull the doors open and step inside.

While looking at movies you see her staring at you. And again while flipping through a pile of graphic novels. Every time you look up, she looks away. Every time she looks up, you look away. You find excuses not to leave, browsing through sections that hold no interest to you in order to prolong your opportunity to steal glances. Eventually you decide that this is getting ridiculous and you walk up to her and introduce yourself. Here is what you find out:

–Her name is Anne.
–She is 22 years old.
–She just moved here from North Carolina.
–She plays the cello.
–She is a stripper

As odd as it might sound given that the book is something of a replica, Love is Not Constantly Wondering is by far one of the most unique books I’ve read in my life (no hyperbole). It’s charming and fun, and I hope destine to become a cult classic. It’s one of those books you’ll want all your friends to read. When you find a copy (and I suggest you search high and low), buy a few and pass them around to everyone you know. It will not be the biggest mistake of your life.

::[Links]::
Buy a copy from the publisher ($5)
Slate review
Interview with the author at The Portland Mercury

Written by Gabrielle

August 14, 2012 at 6:53 am

What to Read: NANO Fiction

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Last month, The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), a service organization for independent literary presses and magazines, hosted its annual GIANT Lit Mag Fair at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown Manhattan. For one day hundreds of literary publications cover tables and fill rolling carts throughout the store. For $2 each, regardless of original price and without limit, people can buy journals they normally wouldn’t have easy access to.

Among the titles available are those that are well-known, such as Granta and Conjunctions, as well lesser-known journals and obscure zines. The fair is an excellent place to discover new writing with little monetary risk.

Each year literary fans descend on the bookstore with multiple tote bags and oversized backpacks and often don’t leave until they are full. Others come to meet representatives of the journals who stand around answering questions. Whatever one’s intention for being there, it’s hard to walk away empty handed.

This year, I came across an interesting flash fiction journal caught my eye. NANO Fiction, currently on its 10th issue and in its 10th year, with its glossy cover, stood out from many others. The illustration, a woman standing in a dark forest with three rabbits in her arms, reminded me of the 50s style drawings of pulp comics. In fact, in the middle of the book, there’s a statement from the artist, Michael C. Rodriguez, where he explains that much of his inspiration for the work comes from fashion illustrations of women from the 1940s to the 60s. He goes on to say:

This series of images is composed of romantic narratives with underlying themes of love, isolation, deprivation, and man’s destructive nature. They represent life as a journey full of difficulties that are often hidden by the exterior illusions we choose to share with each other. The work illustrates this perspective by contrasting the mix of beautiful/romantic imagery with destructive undertones.

One could say the same of the stories included in the issue. Taken as a whole, there is a poetic darkness to the issue. From the gruesome description of the butchering of a deer after a hunt to hints of incessuous feelings towards a cousin, these stories are subversive in varied ways. Although the stories maintain their quality from beginning to end, my favorite remains the first, “Her Favorite Color is Light,” a piece that describes a synesthesiac experience.

Nora thinks the air and smell are one. You breathe in sweet or sour, musty or moldy or wet-dog or chicken-broth scented. You breathe out your own smell, and this is how animals know you. She’s five and reads the number one as white as snow, the number two is bluer than a dead man’s lips, the number four as orange-red like the tips of flames. Five is green as grass. Ask her to add two and five, and she’ll say a dead man’s lips and green grass equal a funeral that lasts seven hours.

In addition to the printed product, NANO Fiction’s website offers a weekly feature, a mixture of stories from the print edition, writing prompts, interviews, and reading suggestions. The editors also run an annual flash fiction contest with a $500 prize. Their current call for submissions closes August 31st, with the winner announced in September.

If the latest issue of NANO Fiction is any indication to what the journal is like as a whole, you should set yourself a reminder to look for the next one in the fall.

::[Links]::
CLMP website

Written by Gabrielle

July 10, 2012 at 6:54 am

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