With work by:
Summer Block, Matt Briggs, Aaron Burch, E. Michael Desilets, Ori Fienberg, Jesús Ángel García, Scott Geiger, Michael Hickins, Steve Himmer, Blake Kimzey, Ben Loory, Annam Manthiram, Laura McCullough, Michael Mlekoday, Dustin Luke Nelson, Ben Nickol, Steve Peacock, Jonathan Redhorse, Vincent Scarpa, Curtis Smith, Rosalynn Stovall, and Andrew James Weatherhead
Let us not pretend otherwise: I totally started paying attention to Monkeybicycle because of their name. Maybe that was their intent, but as soon as Twitter suggested them in their semi-randomly generated sidebar, I thought, "Well I have to see what something called Monkeybicycle is." Thank Godtopus, they did not disappoint. Yes, through the magical strangeness that is Twitter, I have my mitts on a rather satisfying collection of short stories and poems.
And what makes a satisfying collection? Certainly, the easy answer is character voices that consume from the first paragraph. MB8 opens with Blake Kimzey's "Donald Mason's City Inspection and the Stakeout Standoff," and it comes with an entirely familiar breed of single-minded curmudgeon. Donald Mason isn't entire uneducated — he ponders the difference between cumulonimbus and stratus clouds — but he's also prone to saying things like "some far-flung European socialist/commie hot spot like Monaco or London."
Donald has received a notice from the city about his unshoveled walk, and he's convinced it's from his supposed rival from technical school, Dan Lowery. Dan's a city employee now, while Donald works at a crappy Italian restaurant. Donald thinks Dan has it out for him. He wants to confront him.
Now it's just a matter of time, like Dan and I are caught in a two-man tug-of-war and within the day one of us will be singing the blues and Dan is essentially Napoleon sending his troops to Russia at the height of winter and does not know the scorched earth plan I have in store for him or that a guy from technical college who is smart enough to mix a metaphor is certainly smart enough to checkmate him.
Kimzey makes insecurity, alcohol, and assholeish-ness funny. I really didn't like this guy but he made for a great read.
Also compelling in a fucked up way is Jesús Ángel García's "jesusangelgarcia meets ticktockclock." Taken from García's novel badbadbad, a man who shares the author's name answers an ad for a woman who needs someone to impregnate her because "I can only be satisfied when my uterus is a food factory."
Her skin was pasty, legs rippled with cellulite, purple veins, feet and fingers pink, calloused. Her breasts sagged, her face painfully blemished, eyes dark-ringed. In truth, I wasn't physically attracted to this girl. But when I shut my eyes and moved my body with hers, I could feel oceans of emptiness. This drew me close.
I'm sure García gets adjectives like "unflinching" and "real" thrown at him all the time in reviews, but they are apt descriptors. The girl in this excerpt is rough and not unfamiliar. If you've ever worked retail in place where a wide cross-section of people shop, you've seen someone like her.
Elsewhere in the morbidity department, Aaron Burch's "Sacrifice" explores grief and pain through the head of a man who has just lost his brother. This man cuts off his index finger in an effort to cope, but the thoughts surrounding this action are interesting.
In the days after, he grew antsy and impatient around the house and so started going to the library to pass the hours.
He moved to books on Dante, whom he'd always felt a distant curiosity about but had never researched. The ninth level of heaven, he read, was closest to the Divine presence, and also, as "the last of the digits." The number nine marked the end... the conclusion of the matter... the end of man, the summation of all man's works... the number of finality or judgment. His fascination with numbers redoubled and everything felt newly connected and filled with meaning.
Other highlights from the collection include Summer Block's satire "The New Yorker Fiction Section Presents: Killer Robots From Space," Ben Nickol's "Exceptional Red Canoes," and Annam Manthiram's "Variations on a Blossoming Marriage."
However, I think my favorite pieces from the book are Scott Geiger's "Inventory," and Curtis Smith's "Lenin!" Both are a bit strange and lonely, and neither make it clear from the outset how the story might turn out.
“Inventory” takes the form of a letter to a woman named Judy from a co-worker, a fling gone wrong. “This message is a violation, I know. Mark it down with everything else I've done,” he says. Someone they worked with, Nolasco Ingersoll, has committed suicide, and the circumstances are strange. Police have come into the office to learn more about Nolasco.
“What happened is that we visited Mr. Ingersoll's residence on Rosalie Street this past weekend and encountered something unexpected.” Scenarios popped into my mind. Hitchhikers decomposing in the walls. Children tied up in the basement. “Many of the rooms in the house, they were closed off behind a fabric wrapper nailed tight over the doors.”.
“See, he talked to Ty and me about this,” said Fischer, looking at Tyler. “Nolasco said his wife put up the curtains to divide their house. He said 'curtains' to us. So she wouldn't have to see him anymore.”
“But there was no wife,” I insisted
There's a lot going on with narrative, how different people perceive facts, and who can be trusted as reliable, including the narrator himself. Geiger puts a lot into this short story, and it's one worth rereading.
Curtis Smith's “Lenin!” made me think about the movie reviewers at Pajiba and their critiques of how entertainment feeds into politics, and vice-versa, and how those in a position to make a profit will set aside either personal morals or basic dignity in order to perpetuate the moneymaking cycle. It also explores the chaos that ensues when entertainment somehow manages to snowball into a frenzied Twilight-esque movement.
Lenin! is the comeback film for an Oscar-winning child-actor, Connor Phelps, now grown and already through the rehab circuit. People loved him as a child, and now both he and his audience are adjusting to seeing him on screen again. A Reverend watches his performance onscreen and finds the experience strangely hollow.
Back in his study, he put the sermon he'd been working on in a drawer and pulled out a blank page. He wrote not about Connor Phelps or Hollywood bt about the dangers of foisting one's hopes upon an unsuspecting soul. How unfair it was, both to ourselves and those we projected upon, and to illustrate his point, Underwood offered the story of himself and Connor Phelps.
Neither in the pulpit nor on the air did the Reverend Underwood mention 'boycott,' but it didn't take long for his most strident followers to pick up the word as their rallying cry. The bloggers, already keen to swoop upon the movie, posted their takes, many citing the nonexistent boycott declared by Christians Championing Traditional Morals. The bloggers' cries spread, a wildfire swiftly parroted on conservative talk radio.
Take a minute to think about our current political climate --- the climate we've found ourselves in for at least a decade --- and tell me this doesn't ring true. Do you even need the full minute? Smith's story might be the best one in the book, and if it isn't, it still makes for a hell of a closer.
So, yes, Monkeybicycle is a silly name that gets your attention, but they offer plenty of substance, at least from what I've seen in Volume 8. There are hundreds of literary journals out there, more than one could probably every read, but I'm glad I found this one.
Full disclosure: Monkeybicycle, an imprint of Dzanc Books, sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.