Next in Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Café — Missing by Luis Garcia

Missing by Luis Garcia
[posted by Alice]
Luis Garcia’s first published collection, Missing, contains thirteen stories, most of which give us complex and sympathetic descriptions of characters who, let’s say, don’t live straight-edge lives. Missing was brought out in 2017 by Jitney Books, a small publisher focused on the work of “Miami-based authors writing about Miami in Miami.” The cover art, with its commingled faces and almost cubist shifts in perspective, is by Luis Valle, a muralist and fine artist who has long been part of the Miami art scene. Luis Garcia is trained as a fine artist, too, and his descriptive prose tends toward showing the reader rather than telling the reader, to coin a phrase.

In my comments on Ian Seed’s work, I said that if a writer doesn’t challenge or startle me at least once within the first few pages (or present me with something irreal, but more about that later) I tend not to read on. From the beginning, Luis Garcia challenges the reader with his strong language and his insistent reminders that his characters are complex personalities with complex motivations and lives that are not simplistically determined by their drugs of choice. As a result Garcia grabs and holds the reader’s attention in ways that leave us a bit breathless and disheveled at times. And though some of the descriptions of the lives and lifestyles in Missing become almost too intense at times, they are always challenging.

In an interview posted on the Jitney Books site, Garcia says that he took “a forced, state-funded vacation” for eight and a half years, during which time he read Pynchon, Joyce, and Burrows, among others. He also wrote many pages of prose which eventually made up this volume. In his work I can see hints of the grotesque images Pynchon packed into Gravity’s Rainbow, combined with elements from the phantasmagorical Circe episode Joyce included in Ulysses, as well as influences from Burrows’ outrageous hallucinogenic imagery in Naked Lunch, yet Garcia is very much his own man. He creates well-drawn characters who inhabit the Little Havana he describes with empathic clarity or who live the demimonde South Florida lifestyle he skewers so thoroughly.

As coeditors of The Cafe Irreal, G.S. Evans and I have received a fair number of stories that describe drug experiences and the unusual thoughts and/or events that result from these experiences, and their authors present these stories to us as irreal.  But they’re not. Yes, we know that drug experiences don’t coincide with what most people perceive to be reality, and the user’s speech and thought patterns and behaviors can be highly unusual. We also know that a wide range of people, from shamans using peyote to Coleridge waking from his opium dream to write “Kubla Khan,” have had their creativity enhanced and their insight deepened and their pain eased by a variety of hallucinogens and narcotics. But descriptions of their experiences don’t undermine reality in the way irreal fiction does because what’s going on in the story takes place in the mind of the person using drugs and not in the world around them. And I’ll show you what I mean by taking a closer look at two of the stories in Missing.

“Master Printer,” is about Manny, a student who is also a patient at a Methadone clinic. Manny needs to find a job and at first a gig as a giant taco advertising a local restaurant seems to be his only option. But when he begins to work as a printer at a photo lab, he starts to think like an artist and begins to curate the found photo art that’s all around him. Garcia shows us the moment at which Manny discovers his artist-self:

And all these happy accidents, cameras going off unintentionally: A dog’s blurred mug pawing the shutter. A kid’s-eye-view of a mom’s spectral figure giving chase.
And I have feelings I’ve never felt.
My heart an egg boiling in water.
Falling almost in love.
A sort of Peeping Tom.
I am.

I forgot to say that Manny is usually high on the job, but one day after he’s been working at the photo lab for a while he drops acid and goes to get his Methadone and then goes to work. And because he’s so high he begins to print photos with great speed and intensity but with some unusual results. At the same time his view of his place in the cosmos deepens and broadens:

Here I am.
Creator of memories in color of color.
The means by which we stop time’s coil, the only means to take short breaks and just…look.
Time’s breather.
Where time’s out of Time.
Proud to be here, part of it, tinkering around, making it all happen…

Though Garcia’s compelling prose keeps us interested in Manny’s artistic awakening, everything strange in this story takes place in Manny’s head and not in the photo lab around him. What then happens to Manny involves humor and pathos in equal measure, and “Master Printer” is a great story. It is, however, more real than irreal.

The title story in Missing also hints at irreal possibilities and again takes its strength from a drug experience. There is so much in “Missing” that grips the reader – starting with the opening description of the ocean at night and a sleeping pod of dolphins:

You can see in silver light seven dorsal fins huddled together abob in the black water. In the water’s divots dance sequins of reflected stars and the occasional filigree of one shooting across the sky. There is no moon, only stars, and the stars’ points are sharp. They hang up there without twinkling and, down here, a negative sort of wind sucks air for complete stillness. The air is clear, and the only sounds are the purl of seawater on the dolphins’ backs and the plosive push and breathy who from their nostrils, their blowholes.

Two friends, Victor and Brian, take a boat out into this starlit night to celebrate Victor’s birthday with fireworks and other pyrotechnics. They talk about dreams, and Victor tells Brian about the way dolphins sleep, with half their brains awake at any point in time, and they experience the ocean at night as a fearsomely beautiful place. And of course some things are so unexpected that we think they can’t be real, and some things are so beautiful they can be almost phantasmagorical. In this story beer and some other mind-altering substances help to ramp up the impression of strangeness and beauty:

Brian gets up and goes to the Igloo’s ice for another DT and uncorks it and takes a nice, long, pull, standing before Victor smoking in the captain’s chair. Brian’s pretty tanked. He sways like the ocean but the ocean is still. Brian’s always taken aback by the Atlantic’s 360° blackness, its desolateness. He swivels his head from shoulder to shoulder, slowly, considering the space of sea, the googol of stars above and below, the how fucking far from everywhere they are.

But what happens next, though unusual and unpredictable, is not impossible and is not irreal. Which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but for us the irreal is the holy grail of the reading experience. And though the story is a good one, I’m always searching for the undermining of reality that signals an irreal story. So I’ll take a closer look at two other stories in Missing to show you what I mean.

In the story “Burping Birds,” which was published in Issue #60 of The Café Irreal, we find a mix of the painfully real and the irreal. As the story opens the narrator says he is “reluctant to explain to you why I am back here,” and we begin to read the story as a letter, wondering who it’s intended for. We learn that the narrator reads and re-reads Chapter 33 of a book whose purpose he’s unable to determine and which contains a sentence fragment he wants to use in a story. The narrator presents details of his life piecemeal and after he has described his situation, he says that four months ago he began burping birds, sparrows to be exact, and he asks if his intended audience would believe him if he reported this. We take from this that he is an unreliable narrator of sorts, though there’s nothing impossible about much of what he describes, even when he says that he reads the King James Bible outloud in a mock-Monty-Pythonesque British accent or that some of the inmates keep mice and spiders for pets.  But he insists that he used to burp birds which “come out alive and well and apparently unharmed and hop happily onto my finger, ruffle their feathers, look at me quizzically, but then soon fly off, for they are by no means tame.” Then back to a more familiar reality as he describes a cell mate and a prison preacher. He also talks about other possible writing projects that include “cobbling together a story about a reality show about the making of a documentary about a family addicted to watching the reality show about the making of the documentary of themselves” and “a story about a footlocker mouse” to let us know in that he is a writer, albeit one with an unusual imagination.

Later on he says his “passerine eructations” stopped as soon as he got to his current cell and he hasn’t burped since. So were the burped birds “real” or were they hallucinogenic? The narrator says, “Burping birds? You think it is difficult for you to believe?” Of course it is, but he returns to this notion more than once as he tries to communicate his feelings. Even if this story describes an all-too-real scenario some of the time, near the end when the narrator says, “But still you swim from dream to dream in me. In this way you have gained access to my most sordid corners. And there, I am not sure which words, which images are yours and which are mine,” we think we might be reading an irreal love letter, which points to what we don’t know, undermines what we think we know, and works to keep its narrator balanced in an unsettling present moment.

And then there’s the very short piece called “The Boy Who Wanted to Make Things Fall Up,” which is a sort of irreal fantasy. Because he wanted to do what the title indicates, the boy studied both science and the occult and had some unusual successes: “Once he got a maple leaf to crawl across his desk. Another time he got a matchbook to hover inches from his palm.” But the boy grew into a “round-faced, double-chinned, doughy man, a magician who lost control of his powers,” and though he succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do through application of his magic, he still managed to fail as a magician. This undermines our expectations of the way a magician practices his art, whether we’re thinking of the show biz magic of Harry Houdini or the wizardry of Harry Dresden/Harry Potter. And in the short span of this story we come to empathize with a failure which seems to be personal and not the result of Faustian bargains gone wrong. The ability to signal this kind of complexity in such a small story is a further example of Garcia’s range as a writer.

You can hear Luis Garcia reading from his work at Jolt Radio on the third Tuesday of every month. In the first episode, you can hear Garcia talk about his life, including his time in prison, and then hear him read “Master Printer.” In the second episode, he reads “Beautiful People,” which he calls a bedtime story for adults.

You can buy Missing at Jitney Books.

[In this time of trigger warnings, I should say that this collection contains enough material about drug use and sexual situations that I believe it’s really not for kids — or sensitive adults.]

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Reading at the Irreal Cafe — Avenging Cartography by Ken Poyner


[posted by Alice]

The cover of Avenging Cartography, Ken Poyner’s recently published volume of short fiction, shows a difficult-to-map-or-measure seascape (or is it a landscape?) under a small but surprisingly bright moon.  Though the title of the collection isn’t drawn from any of the stories it contains, maybe the cartography in question refers to finding one’s way around the fictional landscape. The subtitle promises us “flash fictions roundly sounding your borders,” and we are given guidance to the terrain of fantastical storytelling that goes beyond noting “here be dragons,” though there be dragons here as well.

Throughout the nearly twenty years that we have been editing The Café Irreal, G.S. Evans and I have received a number of stories that confuse the undermining of reality required in the telling of an irreal story with the undermining of narrative convention. People send us stories that unfold using wordplay reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s work, that use Joycean stream-of-consciousness, or that are fractured and playful and artful in the manner of some surrealists. But when all is said and done, either there is no plot at all in these fictions or what is happening in the story is as stolidly realistic as the narrative is fanciful.

As I read Avenging Cartography, I was struck by the fact that Poyner frequently undermines narrative conventions, while at the same time he consistently maintains his non-realist story-telling. And so as I read, I was impressed with the variety in both form and content. Yes, some of these stories are science fiction and some are fantasies, but most of them explore the possibilities of story itself – that is, they tell irreal and fantastic stories while at the same time giving us narrations to puzzle over. And Poyner’s poetic language is an added incentive to read them all.

In an anthology called Points of View, whose editors group the stories according to narrative technique, “anonymous narration” is said to be used in stories that “… resemble fairy tales, legends, and myths, which frequently omit character point of view and the inner life. This itself tells us already something about the purpose of such stories and what they are about.” “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson are included as examples of this technique, and these are also the two stories in the anthology that seem to be most irreal. The black veil and the lottery, respectively, point to many undisclosed meanings, and the stories undermine our expectations of how a small-town congregation should relate to its minister or how a small town might conduct an important public event. Like Kafka, Poyner sometimes uses a kind of “anonymous narration,” even when the stories seem to be told from a first or second person point of view. But though he is often traveling near the landscape of irrealism, he is not always within it.

Some of the pieces in Avenging Cartography are more allegory or morality tale than irreal story, such as “Cocking the Fulcrum” in which punching down is viewed as a way to ease life’s tensions and increase sexual tension, or “The Children of Passivity” in which monsters in the closet seem to double as the odd phenomena that inhabit our ids, much like those monstrous beings that made life so complex in the film Forbidden Planet.

Many stories begin with an impossible or highly unlikely premise – like the existence of giant feral chickens in “Reasonable” – and then follow that unlikely premise to its likely conclusion. This piece becomes ironic commentary on factory-farming and the human ingenuity required to hunt worthy prey, though it is still not exactly what we mean by irreal.

And then there are science fiction stories like “A Change of Address,” which satirizes a very Earth-bound phenomenon, the creation of mortgage-backed securities in which the value of a mortgage is sliced and diced and then bought up by an unknown number of hedge funds so that it’s hard to say who owns the debt. In “A Change of Address” the same thing happens on a station in orbit around another planet, and the language of the banking industry is transported to another world resulting in a clever jargon-fest.

“The Lightning Gatherers” works more like a poem, focused on one notion – that a group of itinerant people gather to collect lightning when there’s a really big storm – and once the notion has been established the language is everything. The piece is full of fine-tuned, well-honed descriptions like “And then the first lightning strikes come distantly down, a peeling back of the far off next-of-kin dark. The lightning gatherers watch, but the atmospheric show would be too much racing up the road for harvest. They pick up their bags and stand facing the storm, the crowd of them clicking its claws and swinging its legs like a preening crustacean.” The language energizes and fascinates, but there are none of the pointers to an unknown meaning that an irreal story would contain. We know that this is what a lightning gatherer would do if there were lightning gatherers, and the whole piece springs from the notion that lightning can be harvested but not from an ongoing attempt to undermine reality itself. The story is full of beautiful language but not irreal.

Allegories and personifications can be found in this volume, along with extended metaphors. In “To Dwell in the Forest,” the beings – human beings? – who destroy the forest they depend on begin to grow leaves on their backs, the women’s hair becomes fern-like, and they produce the “thatch children, the bramble children, the stick children,” who did not even remember the forest.

But when we get to “Relative Economics,” we enter a more irreal realm. Each paragraph in the story begins with the sentence, “It is to be the execution of someone,” and we are told about the economic and implied sociological benefits of this execution but not why it will happen or what kind of society would do such a thing. Our expectations are undermined and our sense of the real is challenged. If we return to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” we remember that the person who is selected seems to be a kind of scapegoat or sacrificial victim to propitiate unknown forces, but in this case the narrator implies that he gets a sexual thrill from the impending event and absolutely everyone will be there. That’s about all we know for sure.

“Suspicion,” which begins with the simple notion of losing a favorite pen, leads not to the search for the pen or the happiness of finding it or the sadness of acknowledging its loss but to the octopus-like thief who deserves to be punished for his deed. The narrator tells us it was his housekeeper’s carnal needs that led to the theft in the first place, and of her the narrator says, “I understand her appetites, her need for those eight arms to wrap seductively, seditiously about her; to feel the scrawl of his ink on the paper edge of her neck; to listen to his erotic clicks and fathoms; to feel the bare mercury of his suction cups on her periwinkle skin.” When we add the fact that this octopus villain may have taken the pen to scavenge its ink, we return full circle to the missing pen, but our expectations of a tale of revenge have definitely been undermined.

“Joy in the Sense of Place” is about a man who carries his testicles in a bag, and yet it is told with such dedicated detachment (until the end) that it seems as though it’s something that Kafka himself could have written or perhaps is what the fragment “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor” with its errant bouncing balls actually implies. (I often say that “Kafka is a guy thing,” meaning that as a woman I don’t completely understand his fixation on his father nor the ambivalence toward bachelorhood/fatherhood that informs so much of his work.) Despite the fact that he is comfortably familiar with the concepts of wife and home, Poyner gives us a sort of Kafkan ambivalence about the male role from time to time as well.

Poyner’s personal symbology ranges from a focus on the hardscrabble nature of capitalist economics to a use of animals, most notably chickens and roosters, as characters or plot devices. But unlike what we find in the work of a writer like Donald Barthelme, there’s most often either a straight-faced stoicism to these pieces or even a touch of sadness and poignancy. Yes, stories like “Relative Economics” are amusing (and there is such a thing as irreal humor – see the stand-up comedy of Steven Wright for starters), but Poyner has a way of telling us highly imaginative tales that contain comic moments but which also encourage us to see the nature of our plight and that of every creature around us.

Avenging Cartography is available from Barking Moose Press, and it contains the story “Suspicion,” which was published in Issue #49 of The Café Irreal.