Monday, June 27, 2011

NOÖ Knows Stories #11: Ella Longpre on Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor was everywhere. I read her in every town, in three states. It was “Good Country People” that got me. The smarmy Bible salesman and his side-part, he really thought he had everyone fooled, but I knew all about him.

Maybe the third time I’d read that story, freshman year in college, I had just broken with a fundamentalist religious group I’d belonged to for six years. Though I’d never met a Bible salesman, I recognized this character right away. I’d seen plenty of traveling preachers on tour, toting around their self-published books and Gospel CDs and charming Southern drawls. They visited our tiny congregations, young and inspired, often looking for a wife, preaching holiness, devotion, and reminding us that our daily focus should be the transcendence of our sinful flesh. As a teenager, I wanted to be one of them myself. I wanted to preach the word. I gave sermon-ettes on Sunday afternoons. I evangelized door-to-door. Then one day in Atlanta, I watched as one of those preachers committed a sin he had just, that day, preached against for an hour.

That moment opened up holiness for me, turned out its insides made of filthy rags. O’Connor’s Bible salesman opens up holiness, too—when he’s stolen Hulga’s wooden leg and finally unclasps his suitcase where all those Bibles are supposed to be.

Though I took a break from Flannery O’Connor after freshman year of college, I often re-told “Good Country People” in an effort to get friends to read her. I described that preacher in detail, and that moment when he opens the suitcase, and inside there are no Bibles, only glass eyeballs, wooden feet, wooden hands, hooks, and other prostheses pilfered from other girls in other barns. How his true calling is misusing religious devotion to cheat proud women out of their independence.

Last month, someone returned The Complete Short Stories to the library where I work. Thus ended my break from Flanner O’Connor. So many characters I delighted to watch yet again—serial killers, dishonest little boys, upstanding racists and oppressive mothers. I welcomed the South back into my heart and watched as O’Connor ripped it open, ripped the South open, slashing scissors through the great pillow of the South to find the iniquity hidden within. The struggle of goodness puffing itself up against evil until it deflates into a pathetic, mundane attempt of desperate people just trying to do OK.

I got to “Good Country People.” I was pleased—chatty neighbor, yes, she’s here, and here’s the judgmental mother, and the sour-puss atheist with the horse sweatshirt, and finally, the dopey potato-faced Bible salesman. This time, though, in the barn, when he opens his suitcase to throw in Hulga’s wooden leg, inside there are no prosthetic limbs or glass eyeballs or other stolen synthetic body parts. I had remembered the suitcase all wrong, and packed it, myself, with those limbs. Because really, in the story, his suitcase is empty, save for two Bibles. — Ella Longpre

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Little Monster Book

I had never heard of xTx or any of her writing when Mike gave me a copy of Normally Special and said, "You'll like this, it's really freaky." An introduction like that not only sparked my curiosity more than most conceivable things but made me compare xTx's writing to what was perceived to be my taste in literature. The verdict is that Mike was right, I did like Normally Special, and my reaction was directly related to its high content of freaky (see also off-kilter, bizarre, uncomfortable, queer, and "wtf"). This book is the first of California-based writer who publishes under a pseudonym in part because she's written a lot of things she's described as too fucked up for people in her real life to read. Learning this was curiosity-sparker number two. Then I read the book, cried on pages 11-12, and from pretty much there on felt an extremely wide spectrum of emotions including humbled, warm, disconcerted, embarrassed, empowered, and hungry. xTx explores loneliness, violence, and sexuality when they appear in the most unlikely of situations. Her characters are multi-layered and are, for the most part, total freaking weirdoes. This collection of short stories tests the limits of what we can empathize with and is successful if at the very least for its ability to simultaneously shame and make champions out of its readers. More specifically, after I read this book, I realized what a freak I am. And that I kinda like it.

"An Unsteady Place" appears in the second half of the book and is about a woman vacationing with her husband and children at a beachside rental. The house they stay in is nautical-themed down to the handles of utensils. The idea of a fail-proof vacation with a perfect family is supposed to seem unsettling in this context, especially after the speaker says in what I imagine to be a pretty deadpan voice, "There is no way to make a mistake here." This is pretty much setting up everybody in the story for failure, and sure enough, a few pages later our protagonist can't look her children in the eyes because she's convinced they are turning into sea creatures that will devour her alive. She counts the starfish decals on the walls incessantly, and when she gets the same number everytime, the normalcy of that seems to drive her further into madness. "An Unsteady Place" is an example of a time where xTx creates a character who goes completely crazy for what seems to outsiders as irrational reasons, if they even notice the growing psychosis in the first place. Another example is in "The Mill Pond," which deals with a totally different kind of outcast, a chubby, pre-pubescent girl cursed with a bitterly ironic name - Tinkerbell. She toes the edge of what it means to feel sexual, and her underdeveloped sexuality, especially in relation to the polluted motives of the adult world around her, feels disturbing, if not ominous. Without making any kind of negative connotation about sex in general, this story, like "I Love My Dad. He Loves Me.", draws parallels not between sex and being sexy, but sex and estrangement from other humans. Something is really weird and sad about Tinkerbell laying on her back in the sun, pulling her shirt up to her "boobies," and rubbing her belly, alone with her thoughts. I thought for a second that I felt sorry for Tinkerbell and her contemporaries but this reaction was probably just a defensive one. You know how sometimes you pity or hate a quality in someone else because you actually just see it in yourself? I felt this way about Tinkerbell, which I think is a pretty cool/ intense reaction for a writer to get out of a reader. We surprise ourselves by never feeling better off or more sane than these characters, even when they are doing things like fantasizing about a boy named Fritos stabbing himself 33 times in the belly. Other than being compelling and often charmingly relevant, the characters xTx creates in these stories are remarkable for a reason I didn't fully understand until "I Am Not a Monster," the last story in the book. This story's title and most of its first page sound like a character statement of a suspiciously unreliable narrator. But then the narrator says this:

"I am the most timid of monsters. They have removed me from my position within their ranks citing words like fail, coward, reject, weakling, useless, stupid, worthless, dumbass. I tried to hang within their monster ranks, I did. I do. I try every day. It's a reenlisting of a reenlisting of a reenlisting. Every day I think, I am there and every day they kick me out. They make me go back to my life. They know what I know and that is, I have too much to hold on to so I cannot truly be a monster."

I think it's amazing how this character, despite functioning as a complete social outcast, is even a freak perceived by the rest of the freaks. The "freak elite" perhaps. Because she (I assume she is a "she," there is something astoundingly feminine about the majority of narrators in this book), has "too much to hold on to," she cannot fully embrace and be open with her nonconformity. She is certainly a monster, but in a way less tangible way than being green and slimy and living under your bed. That would make things too easy for her. Instead she must privately deviate from the average human emotions, desires, and fantasies. You can't pick her out of a crowd because she looks exactly like everyone else. Only she understands how fucked up she truly is, and this understanding brands her perpetually alone. "I Am Not a Monster" was a perfect end to Normally Special for me because I felt this really exciting catharsis where I was reminded of so many other characters in the book and how they are all secret freaks in the same strange, lonely, undisclosed way. I also started thinking about other secret freaks I know. I thought of Dexter and Dennis Cooper's George Miles. Monsters with pretty brown hair and healthy relationships with their dads. Chubby comic-book readers or young mothers at beachside vacation rentals. Anybody whose weirdness goes completely unsuspected by everyone else, and maybe even by themselves. xTx has said in interviews that she writes under a pseudonym to protect the people in her real life from seeing this ugly, dark, societally "wrong" side of her. It's like under the guise of this alternate persona, her inner freak is unleashed, free to be as wild and disgusting and honest as her characters wish they could be.

Anyways, if that's not incentive enough to read this book, then maybe I should mention its size. It's small enough to fit in my purse, which is so small that I can't carry around a normal wallet anymore. It's cute. It's a cute, unassuming, strange little read.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Meet Phoebe Glick sounds like a teen rom com, but it's actually the title of this interview

That's right, Phoebe Glick is probably in some other disguise a rambunctious crime solver, but she's also the Summer 2011 NOÖ Journal/Magic Helicopter Press intern, and you'll be seeing her work around these here blog parts. Phoebe is a UMass Amherst student, a sub shop veteran, a fan of Biggie and Peaches, and a prolific blogger and photographer. When I first met her she told me "the weirder the better" when it came to literature, so I gave her a copy of God Jr. by Dennis Cooper and knew she'd fit into the NOÖ fold. To introduce her, here's a little Q&A:

Hi Phoebe! Where did you grow up? What is one interesting character you remember from your hometown?

I grew up in a small town in central Massachusetts called Holden. I tell people I'm from Worcester, which I hope sounds cooler, but which actually just sounds less clean. An interesting character I can think of on the top of my head is this guy who was always in the Holden Friendly's sitting with a cup of coffee and his briefcase open on the table at a ninety-degree angle. There were a bunch of wires and a computer screen in the briefcase. I went to Friendly's recently and he's totally sitting in the same booth, years after the last time I saw him. I'm pretty sure he's recording sounds.

What are some of your favorite books?

I love the Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, and the Picture of Dorian Grey. In a broader sense, I like books with protagonists who are lonely or weird, and anything with a homoerotic subtext.

When did you first realize that language could make people feel things?

Probably when a woman from the Holden library read a ghost story to my second grade class about a creature that haunted a man for eating his tail. It made me feel a terror so real that I cried in the bathroom until my teacher sent someone in to ask me if I was having a "problem."

What is your favorite meal?

This is sort of complicated. Last summer I lived in Brooklyn for a month. Two feelings that will always characterize that time for me are that of being really hot and really poor. Perhaps to relieve these uncomfortable sensations, my food cravings took on the form of something light, heat-relieving, and expensive; more specifically: Pinkberry frozen yogurt. The first time I ate Pinkberry, my friend Lanny warned me that there was some kind of addictive ingredient in the pastel-colored, sweetly acidic, self-defined "swirly goodness." He also told me to order pomegranate flavor with raspberries and coconut shavings. It was love at first, uh, lick.

From reading your blog, I feel like you travel a lot. What are some of your strangest traveling experiences?

Once in Utah I almost drowned in a very strong whitewater rapid, and was brought to the shore by a six-foot-five-inch-tall blonde man whose spirit animal was a stallion and whose name was Tex. Because Tex spent so much time under the sweltering sun of the Western United States, cracks formed on the surfaces of his palms and he filled them with superglue to keep his skin together. Naturally, I fell in love with him. The way you fall in love with someone who saves your life. I'll never see him again.