The Rest of the Trilogy: Re-Reading Makers of Empty Dreams and Identity Papers by Ian Seed

Makers of Empty Dreams by Ian Seed      Identity Papers by Ian Seed

[posted by Alice]

Ian Seed’s New York Hotel, a collection of prose poems published in 2018, was the subject of the first comments posted in Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe. Since then, this third volume in a trilogy published by Shearsman Books was named a Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement. To help celebrate the positive reception Seed’s work has received, I decided to comment on the first two volumes in the trilogy. This will also give me a chance to talk about some of the things I have learned since I posted those first comments.

For one thing, while writing comments about Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman, I came to understand the importance of the prose poem as a genre. At first, I continued to believe that some prose poems work like stories and others work like poems, so the genre itself is a rather confusing hybrid. But I was more influenced than I realized by Daniel Lawless’ introduction to Floating Tales. In it he describes an important volume, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, which was first published in 1976 and edited by Michael Benedikt. Lawless tells us that the anthology contained works by Brecht, Borges, Edson, and Kafka, among others, and these works were “[s]trange, image-centered, associative pieces through which, still, a narrative often might be glimpsed or even serve as a kind of scaffolding or superstructure on which all manner of odd brise-soleil, parapets and volutes might be affixed.”

I still think that prose poems containing a narrative scaffolding are the ones we would consider to be irreal, but as I re-read Seed’s trilogy (the first two volumes are Identity Papers (2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014)), I understand more clearly why he has adopted the prose poem as his preferred form and that it is a genre unto itself. It’s also clear to me that this form repays its adherents by giving them many different creative options.

In addition to knowing more about the prose poem, I now also know more about Ian Seed and his influences than I did when I first began our Year of Reading. Largely, this is because of an essay at Fortnightly Review in which Seed talks about his discovery, turn away from, and rediscovery of the prose poem as a genre. In this essay I also learned that Kenneth Patchen was one of Seed’s early influences. Patchen, an anti-war poet initially associated with the Beat movement, was the author of The Journal of Albion Moonlight, as well as many collections of poetry. These ranged over the years from the early socially conscious free verse to the painted and more experimental poems he produced in later life. Seed indicates in this essay that it was Patchen who introduced him to the possibilities of poetry and the many forms it could take.

Furthermore, regarding Patchen’s Love and War Poems, published in a small edition, Seed says, “The fact that I discovered prose poems through editions like this meant that for me they quickly became associated with a literature which was underground and subversive. Prose poems were outsiders. In spite of their square shape, they would not be boxed in by academic labels or commercial interests.”

I share Ian Seed’s enthusiasm for Patchen’s work, and in fact, I grew up just a few miles from Patchen’s home town in Northeastern Ohio. In 1989 I attended the Kenneth Patchen Literary Festival in Warren, Ohio, where I got to meet and talk with Patchen’s widow, Miriam Patchen. She told me, among other things, that anyone can write one effective poem but to write them over an extended period of time as Kenneth did is the real accomplishment. In Fortnightly Review Ian Seed described the fact that after he found the prose poem form, he let go of it for a period of twenty years and only recovered it in the early 2000’s; since then, however, the overall effect of his outpouring of work is more than the sum of its parts, as was Patchen’s.

Seed was also influenced by the prose poems of Pierre Reverdy, whose work he later translated, and by the work of Cory Harding. Yet, Seed says, when he finally tried his hand at the form, the resultant short piece, which was published in 1981, was considered Kafkan by the editor who accepted his work. Seed says that he hadn’t thought of Kafka when writing this story, but he had earlier “soaked” himself in Kafka’s work and “now realise[s] that his influence has lasted to this day.”

Yet it is Max Jacob, a friend of and mentor to Pierre Reverdy, who is cited by Seed as having had the most explicit influence on his work. “While Kafka builds an alternative universe through the accumulation of seemingly realistic detail, Jacob is a writer who with just a few brushstrokes plunges us into a world we create for ourselves. His language is plain, pared-down, almost conversational, like that of someone telling a jokey anecdote in a bar. Yet the pictures he paints are astonishingly beautiful, filled with a sense of mystery and loss, which is in no way diminished by their comic absurdity.” In his prose poems Seed himself uses pared-down and conversational language, painting pictures that combine mystery and loss with comic absurdity. Even so, I clearly see the Kafkan influence in Seed’s work, and I agree that he uses fantasy in a very Kafkan way in stories like “Insect.”

In his short but concise and very approachable book Existentialism, Thomas Flynn states that this philosophical approach has always been connected with the fine arts (though he determines to “treat existentialism as a philosophical movement with artistic implications rather than as (just) a literary movement with philosophical pretensions”). Kierkegaard, for example, used pseudonyms, parables, and other forms of “indirect communication” in his philosophical writings to enlist the reader’s involvement in the ideas under discussion. Seed’s prose poems are not parables, but they often seem to work by indirect communication. Control over his material is Seed’s forte, and he leaves us certain that we know something, yet we mull over each short piece for much longer than it took us to read it in order to determine what it is that we know. In the case of those prose poems we consider to be irreal, we are given “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” as in the case of Kafka’s work, but all of Seed’s short works challenge us to find meaning. Here are three examples:

“Bad Faith (I)” in Makers of Empty Dreams centers on an old homeless woman begging outside the subway entrance. One day the narrator asks her what happened to her, and she says she was a collaborator during the war. He seems dismayed – the war was such a long time ago – and he raises his voice to remind the passersby that lots of people “even your great Jean Paul Sartre, slept with the enemy in one way or another.” The passersby respond by passing by even more quickly, but as a reader, I am left with the task of wondering if that is true, if that was true of Sartre, if that is true of me.

In “Creatures,” which is also in Makers of Empty Dreams, the narrator has found a snake living under the kitchen sink and needs information to make a choice: if the snake is venomous, he will have to kill it. If it’s harmless, he can keep it as a pet. And then too there is a woman upstairs lying naked in her bed, and he doesn’t know if she is waiting for him. Before he gets back to the old familiar routine of his life (and goes to the shop around the corner to talk with the owner and buy a bottle of wine), he must make decisions and he must choose. There’s a glimmer of irreality here, but it’s often true that the choices we are condemned to make are equally obscure and absurd.

And “Parenthood,” which appeared in Identity Papers, addresses the existentialist notion that you are what you make yourself to be. The narrator, who has just discovered that he has a grown son, waits to meet his child for the first time. The son turns out to be a strong young woman who is both a priest and a comedian. “Everyone is full of such contradictions,” she tells him, “but few of us have the joy of living them out.” This in turn inspires him to take his newfound son to see his mother, who not only embraces her newly discovered grandchild, but also shares the (somewhat unlikely) news that she is pregnant. As it illustrates the notion that you are what you make yourself to be, “Parenthood” undermines the gender binary and hints at the irreal.

The short dense prose poems in both these volumes have repaid frequent re-reading, allowing me to get something slightly different (or very different, depending on my mood and current situation) each time. Though New York Hotel received the most significant acclaim, each volume of Seed’s trilogy deserves careful reading and repays the reader’s careful attention. You can still buy Identity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams at Shearsman Press.

An Irrealist Reading of Three Plays by D. Harlan Wilson

Three Plays by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has been a regular at The Cafe Irreal for a very long time. We published his story “Circus” in Issue #3 (which went online nineteen years ago, in February of 2000), and his work has appeared on our site five additional times since then. Wilson’s story “Giraffe” was included in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader — Fiction and Essays from The Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013), and in May of 2016, one of his plays, “Primacy,” appeared in Issue #58. I first read Wilson’s collection of Three Plays when we published “Primacy,” and I decided to re-read the plays during Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe.

Wilson is the author of biographies, fiction collections, novels, and criticism, including Modern Masters of Science Fiction: J.G. Ballard, and he is a professor of English at Wright State University. According to his bio, he is also one of the co-founders of bizarro fiction. David Vichnar, in an essay about Wilson published at 3:AM Magazine, has this to say about bizarro fiction and Wilson’s writing in general: “[s]ome critics have been cited as calling him ‘a genre in himself.’ That’s lazy, though, for in the best spirit of the avant-garde business, Wilson has helped to cofound and shape the movement & aesthetics of ‘bizarro fiction,’ a mélange of elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with genre fiction staples (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) aiming to create subversive, weird, and above all entertaining works, and defined as ‘literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.’ In Wilson’s hands, bizarro is a sometimes extreme, sometimes (hyper-)exaggerated, sometimes flippant, almost always blackly humorous critique of what our lives have become.” Vichnar considers Wilson’s anti-literary avant-gardist approach to writing to be a purposeful effort to undermine the fetishized nature of literature and literary writers in this stage of late capitalism. I propose to add something to this portrait of Wilson as I talk about his plays because I find in them a search for meaning and insight into the ways the means can revolt against the ends that add to my view of Wilson as a genuinely irreal writer.

“Primacy” is the most accessible and in some ways the least irreal of the three plays. In fact, it calls to mind the work of absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett who in 1945, after a considerable period of living in James Joyce’s shadow, realized that his work should focus on “poverty, failure, exile and loss,” and acknowledged to himself that he was interested in ignorance and impotence, in impoverishment and in man as a “non-knower.” There is something of Beckett’s focus on impotence and loss in the line often-repeated by “Primacy”’s only two characters, Man and Woman: “If you die, I’ll kill you.” Also like Beckett, Wilson infuses this play with a bleak humor that results in lines like these: “Nobody likes you sober. You and sobriety are a bad mix. Like water and dirt. That makes mud.”

Despite their generic names, the two characters have a relationship that is semi-realistically portrayed at times. But Wilson undermines our expectations of how a domestic drama about a couple should unfold as the two end up, hapless and disoriented, in the front yard, in the backyard, on the roof, and in the dark offstage, all the while continuing their somewhat hectoring, somewhat affectionate dialog. Until the end, that is, when Man’s ongoing insistence that Woman transcribe the obituary he is dictating meets an absurdist conclusion. An absurd and Beckettian bleakness can be found in Man’s line: “The best obituaries are composed in the darkest silences.” Note that “Primacy” was staged as part of the Rutgers University-Camden Student-Directed One-Act Play Festival.

The other two plays in this volume, “The Triangulated Diner” and “The Dark Hypotenuse,” might more accurately be called bizarro, according to the description given in Vichnar’s essay, but they undermine our expectations of the conventions of drama and they also engage in a search for meaning that makes them irreal. The diner in “The Triangular Diner,” according to the stage directions, “occupies the basement floor of an evacuated industrial elevator shaft,” and we are told that it is “a kind of culinary museum distinguished by appliances, wallpaper, décor and bric-a-brac from another era or dimension. The geometry of the diner belongs somewhere else, too, ceiling and walls forming a deranged rhombus.” But it is the superscreens that add the most non-realist elements to the stage setting. The three superscreens in “The Triangulated Diner” are supposedly there to show us what is happening in the mall where the diner is located, but in fact the superscreens’ offerings sound more like surrealist films – for example, on the one on the right wall: “Colorful amoebas of light flow across it in slowtime. When the amoebas collide, one assimilates the other, like protoplasm. Sometimes they ricochet, lobes groping for stability.” This description calls to mind Man Ray’s short films and the images on the superscreens do sound somewhat surreal. Yet Wilson’s work doesn’t read like the automatic writing championed by Breton. Instead the play is made up of dialog and quotations that contribute to an overall irreal effect.

Roarke, the hungover man at the center of this drama, keeps asking for a Mimosa that he never receives. What he does get, among other things, is a chance to hear an offstage psychologist quote Darwin on male sexual attractants, an extravagant bill of $875.24 for a hotel room he didn’t stay in, the sight of a gunman firing an Uzi and killing mall-goers and hotel guests alike, a chance to hear a waitress quote Jacques Lacan on “the sexual relationship,” and an unsatisfactory grilled cheese sandwich. After re-reading the play I went back and read the quote from Freud’s Civilizations and Its Discontents that appears as one of the epigrams (the other is a quote from Jimmy Carter about aggression). Yes, this play is bizarro in its overall intent, but it also gives us insight into why, as Freud would have it, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks,” leaving us with no alternative but to seek various “palliative measures.” In the play’s final scene, as Roarke tries to get the waitress to lie down and have sex with him, she says, “The metaphor of love is that thing we think we point at inside of somebody else, but in fact it is only that which we point at inside ourselves. And our insides are defined by lack.” Though Wilson frequently invokes Freud, this play does not give us the sense of harsh determinism often favored by writers who take a psychoanalytic approach to human nature, but instead has a more questioning and open-ended quality.

In the third play in this volume, “The Dark Hypotenuse,” another middle-aged man with a hangover, Starke, finds himself in “what may or may not be the Lacanian Real.” We are also told that “The Dark Hypotenuse” is another name for the Lacanian Real. The stage directions here are unsettling: “The stage is a thick black rhombus that hovers in the middle of the theater. The floor is a maze of trap doors through which actors may enter or exit. Some of the trap doors swing open whereas others slide or fall open. Giant mechanical arms extend from underneath of the stage. At the end of each arm is a gondola that sits up to ten spectators. Throughout the performance, the arms are in constant motion and move the audience all over the theater so that each gondola achieves a fluid multiperspectivalism as it glides east to west, north to south, accomplishing close-ups and bird’s-eye views and everything in between.” Even the alternative stage setting given involves stage and audience constantly rotating, but since such stagings are unlikely, it is mainly the reader’s imagination that is sent spinning.

In addition to its unsettling stage directions, “The Dark Hypotenuse” is a one-act play with no fewer than twenty-seven scenes and a cast of hundreds if we include the pigs, apes, mannequins and deconstructionists. As I describe this, I realize that it sounds completely chaotic, but Wilson has a surprising amount of control over this material. The play sometimes reminds me of the work of Dadaist Tristan Tzara, whose plays use language to a similar world-building effect. And its manic energy reminds me of the work of Alfred Jarry, creator of King Ubu, because Wilson’s play also shames and fascinates us at the same time. But though there are times when “The Dark Hypotenuse” reads very much like these avant-garde plays, I always find within it a return to irrealism as our expectations of theater are undermined in a way that invokes the revolt of the means against the ends.

At one point, just before Starke – who is increasingly distressed by what he is doing – participates in the execution of an elephant that killed a human being, Wilson gives the following stage directions:

Starke’s cinematic unconscious flits across a movie screen that looms over the western edge of the stage. The torrent of imagery is dominated by still shots and stock footage of war, pornography and Red Carpet bacchanalia. There are also clips from home movies, commercials, sitcoms, satellite recordings of deep space, and Hitchcock films. No soundtrack accompanies the cerebral carnival. It is aggressive and uninterrupted and silent.

And in the end, when all the chaos and violent imagery is over and done, the stage and the audience grind to a halt and a trap door falls open on an empty stage that we are told is somewhere in eternity. “The Dark Hypotenuse,” too, deals in a shocking but meaningful way with the “pains, disappointments and impossible tasks” of the lives we have been thrown into.

Though I read these plays when we published “Primacy,” Wilson’s Three Plays rewarded this second reading. I was especially struck this time around by the humor – deconstructionists “doppler[ing] into the abyss,” stern grammar policing at the dentist, and the mysterious conjunctions between the first two plays – a sly wink at readers to see if we are paying careful attention. Both plays begin with the same one-word line of dialogue: “Siparium,” a word that might refer to a tapestry used as a curtain in ancient theaters. There’s also the role of geometry: a triangulated diner, a dark hypotenuse, a rhomboid stage, etc. I enjoyed these small and mysterious conjuctions, which made the plays more irreal for me.

Wilson’s plays contain elements that could be described as bizarro, and they also have an avant-garde sensibility that I found energizing. He builds worlds from words in a robust and sometimes frenetic way that is surprisingly humorous and often quite humane, though his splatterschtick sensibilities don’t always ensure that. But while it’s true that there are a few scenes in the plays that distressed me, I know I live in a world filled with intensely disturbing events and images that don’t give me trigger warnings before presenting themselves. Overall, I found that this re-reading made me laugh and gave me imaginative enjoyment that made up for the occasional discomforts.

The effective black-and-white cover by Norman Conquest shows off the designer’s surrealist, dadaist, and irreal influences, among others, and features a photograph by Lodiza LePore. She describes her own work as “‘surreal,’ ‘edgy’ or an ‘absurd view of the status quo,” and the photo features a mysterious figure in an ambiguous costume on a textured, somber background. At the front of the book there is also an intense “Illustration of Screaming Pope” by Goodloe Byron, which foreshadows one of the scenes in “The Dark Hypotenuse” with its screaming live-action version of Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” Publisher Black Scat Books is dedicated to bringing us art and literature, notably “absurdism, pataphysics, erotic fiction and works in translation” that might serve to “disrupt, disorient, and smash boundaries — academic, cultural, literary, and philosophical.” Wilson’s volume of plays is a good fit.

Note that, coincidentally, a short dramatic monologue by B E Turner (“His Exegamination of Poelemtics as Addressed to the Audience“), whose plays we commented on earlier in this Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe, also appeared in Issue #3, which means that we’ve known both these prolific writers for almost as long as The Cafe Irreal has been around.

Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe Looks at Earlier Reviews

The Twentieth Anniversary issue of The Cafe Irreal is in production and will be online on February 1.

As part of our celebration of The Cafe Irreal‘s twenty-year history, Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe has included comments on a collection of prose poems by Ian Seed, story collections by Ken Poyner, Luis Garcia, Jeff Friedman, Brian Biswas, Vanessa Gebbie, Bob Thurber, and Ana Maria Shua, as well as plays by B E Turner (all of which contained material that had previously appeared in our pages).

Before the anniversary issue comes online, we plan to post comments on one more collection of plays, but we’d also like to call your attention to past comments on books that contained material originally published in The Cafe Irreal.

You can read Garrett Rowlan’s “Irreal expedition: a review of Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey” in Irreal Reviews. Note that “The Other Assassin” and “Odysseus in Hell” by Zachary Mason appeared in Issue #19 of The Cafe Irreal before The Lost Books of the Odyssey was published, first by Starcherone Books and then by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

You can also read G.S. Evans’ phantasmagorical review of George Belden’s “Land of the Snow Men,” a book that lists Norman Lock as its editor. Note that Norman Lock’s work appeared eight times in The Cafe Irreal.

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction by Ana María Shua, Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction by Ana Maria ShuaTwenty years ago, as G.S. Evans and I were distilling and defining our ideas about irrealism and putting together a first issue of The Café Irreal, I happened upon issue No. 44 of The American Voice, which contained stories and poems by Latin American and Spanish women writers. Because we had decided to use the tagline “International Imagination” for our publication and because many of these stories fit nicely within our concept of irrealism, we read this magazine with great interest. We felt a special attraction to “Twelve Short-Short Stories” by Ana María Shua, an Argentinian writer whose novels, children’s books, and collections of short fictions have won prestigious prizes, both in her home country and internationally.

A few years later, after The Café Irreal was well underway, we contacted translator Rhonda Dahl Buchanan and asked if she had other stories by Shua that we could publish. She kindly forwarded for our consideration ten short pieces under the title “A Selection from Other Possibilities,” which appeared in Issue #6.  And in our next issue we were able to  publish, under the title “A Selection from Botany of Chaos,” the “Twelve Short-Short Stories” that had appeared in The American Voice. Surprisingly, there are only eleven short pieces in that selection, a fact which contributes to the satisfyingly irreal nature of this group of microfictions.

In general, I find that there’s something about a very, very short piece of fiction that gives the impression of irreality, even if the story is told through realistic details. Stories by Lydia Davis come to mind (see, for example, “Spring Spleen”). Much of Davis’ fiction seems realistic in intent and tone, yet in a story this tiny there isn’t enough descriptive space for a setting, for characterization, for metaphors and symbols, and this in turn undermines the reader’s expectations of the work a story should do. The fact that the writer has only hinted at meaning and narrative and we readers must do so much work of our own forces us to use our imaginations more than usual, even when the story is realistic. And, therefore, when the writer intends something less realistic, as did Kafka in many of his parables and other short fictions (see, for example, “Before the Law”), the effect can be intensely irreal. This is also, in fact, the case with Ana María Shua’s work.

In 2008 when Rhonda Buchanan published a volume of her translations of Shua’s microfiction under the title Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction, she graciously sent us a copy. I decided to re-read it as a part of Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Café. Quick Fix is divided into four sections, which correspond to Shua’s four extant published volumes of short shorts at the time this book went to press. Each section has an informal theme – “Dream Catcher,” for example, deals with sleep, dreams, and insomnia – but all contain tiny histories, concise philosophy lessons, miniscule news stories, and reimagined fairy tales. In addition, many of Shua’s stories work as epigrams and humorous adages, giving us some sly wisdom and a refreshing amount of wit as well. And each story is included in the original Spanish, which enables us to see quite clearly Rhonda Dahl Buchanan’s skill as a translator.

When I first read the selections from Other Possibilities which we published in Issue 6 (and which are included in Quick Fix, with some changes in text and/or title, in the “Geisha House” section), I was delighted to see that all of them related to the theme of writing and reading. In “The Author and the Reader” a writer is asked by a journalist if he thinks about the reader when he writes, and though the author thinks of nothing else, thinks of the reader “as a prince clothed in dazzling, embroidered fabrics,” and so much more, he says that he does not. The conclusion of this little interview is an unexpected glimpse into the writer’s mind that is both humorous and poignant. “Four Walls” shows us something about a writer’s isolation through a claustrophobic sort of geometry. In “Unlucky Robinson” (which appears in Quick Fix as “Unfortunate Robinson”) we learn that a shipwrecked writer would have preferred to build his novel out of “some nails, maybe even a collection of pipes, or a few simple wooden planks,” rather than the “soaked paragraphs” and “metaphors encrusted with barnacles and mussels” that the sea has delivered to him. In “Literary Workshop I” a writer’s stories are found to be demanding, unruly, and voracious. In “Respect for Genres” a man who wakes up next to a woman he doesn’t recognize must find a way to fit his story into the appropriate genre or risk remaining unpublished. (These last two stories, among others by Shua, appeared in our 2013 anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction and Essays from The Café Irreal.)

Quick Fix is filled with ingenious line drawings by Luci Mistratov, and the cover bears a color-washed depiction of a man who might be a letter hunter from the tiny story “Run for Your Lives!” The other drawings show us bits and pieces of the universe Shua has created, including fused lovers, the menacing sight of clothing on a chair, a girl transformed by words, the varieties of ties that bind, a rabbi making what might be tiny Golems, a waiting room after patients have exchanged symptoms, and many others. These drawings do not violate Kafka’s injunction that nonrealistic stories shouldn’t have realistic illustrations ( but instead they riff on and complement the tiny stories they accompany as they contribute to the overall irreal effect.

Because Shua’s stories are so small and yet so complex and imaginative, Quick Fix was truly worth a second reading. In fact I’m sure that it would bear up under repeated readings, yielding new variations of its diverse meanings and imagination-taxing pleasures again and again. As Rhonda Buchanan notes at the end of her introduction to the volume:

Those who are addicted to reading know that oftentimes it is impossible to put a book down once you open it. Ana María Shua is certainly aware of this danger, and once remarked about her book Casa de geishas that it was her intention to set a more subtle trap for her readers, one that would entice them to return to the pages of her book time and time again, at the risk of becoming entangled forever in the web of her intrigue.

There is almost something irreal about how well these challenging little pieces stand up under such intense scrutiny. Happily, you can still get Quick Fix online at Wordery.

Nothing But Trouble: Stories by Bob Thurber and Images by Vincent Louis Carrella

Nothing But Trouble by Bob Thurber
[posted by Alice]
At The Cafe Irreal, when we meet talented writers who know what we mean by irrealism and are inclined to write irreal stories, we tend to publish their fiction as often as we can get it. In fact, most of the writers whose work has been featured in Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe have been published in The Cafe Irreal on a number of occasions. So it’s a tribute to Bob Thurber – an “old, unschooled writer,” as he unfailingly describes himself – that though he is probably best known for his realistic stories, his irreal fiction has appeared on our site more often than anyone else’s (in no fewer than twelve issues).

The cover of his 2014 story collection, Nothing But Trouble, features a photograph by Vincent Louis Carrella, whose powerful images add depth and flavor to this volume. Often, they don’t so much illustrate the stories as amplify them, with their steady gaze into a world that is both familiar and challenging. The cover photo is whimsical but also a little disturbing, and it features an impish-looking boy with a moustache, beard, and eyepatch drawn onto his face. As you look at the cover photo you wonder how this image could fit the description of art given by Christine Brooks Cote (founder of the volume’s publisher, Shanti Arts) when she says that art “often brings with it a powerful sense of stillness and focus.” Yet the cover image does give us a chance to think about the title – Nothing But Trouble – before we dip into the stories, and as we read on, Carrella’s photos continue to give us resting points, places where we can stop and mull over Thurber’s sometimes heart-breaking stories before we continue reading. They also gave me a chance to think about the ways this “old, unschooled” writer creates his own version of the irreal.

As I said earlier, we published Bob Thurber’s work in The Cafe Irreal twelve times, and six of the stories we published are included in this collection. “The Cat Who Waved,” which appeared in Issue #5 (in 2001), is here accompanied by a photograph of a barn owl that looks as though it might be dancing. Though we agree with Kafka that nonrealistic stories shouldn’t have realistic illustrations, in this case the irreal nature of the story is actually enhanced by a photo of a dancing owl. “The Cat Who Waved” is a deceptively simple piece about a man who spends the night with a girlfriend, wakes in the dark, and thinks he sees, out on the balcony of the woman’s ninth-floor apartment, two cats. He tells us he’s had dreams like this; he says he’s seen illusions brought on by trying to see through thick thermal glass or having drunk too much alcohol; he says he thinks the shapes might be pigeons or might be owls (in this way the image of the dancing owl relates to the story but doesn’t exactly illustrate it). The narrator also admits to having problems with his eyes, and he gets out of bed to try to see these shapes for what they are. Going over to the balcony door he says, “You tap the glass, trying to get them to turn, these two dark shapes. Owls can turn their heads 180 degrees. They have to. Their eyes are so large they have no room left for eye muscles. Barely room for brains,” but then he becomes more certain than ever that they are cats and that one of them waved at him. The rest of the story involves the narrator’s attempt to explain – to the woman and to himself – what he has seen. The story undermines our expectations subtly, and the photo of the owl helps it to do that.

Several years later, in Issue #34, we published “You Don’t Belong Here,” which also appears in this volume. As the story begins, the narrator tells us that he has been invited to a surprise birthday party for a friend. He says he has few friends. He says he really hates parties. He says he sometimes does go to them, but the problem is that he often runs into his doppelganger. The story’s title becomes clear when the narrator describes an incident at a wake where he encounters his doppelganger in the restroom and they simultaneously call each other “my evil twin.” Then the narrator says, “After a long accessing stare, we both said, in the same tired voice, ‘You don’t belong here. You should do yourself a favor and leave.'” He describes other events at which he and his doppelganger have both shown up. We begin to wonder if this is some sort of psychological disorder, if the narrator is hallucinating, and we are told that this presence of the other, the “evil twin,” the doppelganger leads to confusion for both men and sometimes neither is sure whose life is which. Part of the pleasure of reading Thurber is the deftness with which these events are handled. The dialog is spot on. The incidents are believably told. Yet the oddness of the outcome, which blends so smoothly into the story as a whole, is what makes it irreal. The story springs into a different configuration, a different perspective, like those optical illusions where you see the head of an old woman looking one way until someone suggests that they see a young girl looking in another direction. This shifting perspective is the key to the irreality of this piece.

A Woman on the Bus,” which we published in Issue #38, follows a somewhat different trajectory. The viewpoint character often sees a woman on a bus, but each time she is so differently described, we imagine that this can’t possibly be the same woman. She is dressed in varying costumes, she is pregnant perhaps by the bus driver, she is not pregnant, she is in pain, she is “quite composed,” she looks like she is dying, she looks “lovelier, more beautiful than ever,” and she even has some hard-to-define relationship with the narrator. It’s Thurber’s choice of detail that keeps us engaged, as in “The next time he saw her she wore plaid everything, except for her Buster Brown shoes. She was telling a man with a brown cap that she had released her equity, consolidated her assets, become bullish on America.” The ongoing litany of these sightings has a dreamlike quality that undermines our expectations yet again.

In “Crackers,” which appears in this collection and was in Issue #40 of The Cafe Irreal, the setting is old fashioned and evocative. The narrator lives in a rooming house with a main door at street level. People wedge the door open with a brick. The narrator lives on the third floor and says he was never bothered by people who came in off the street, attracted by that welcoming open door, “but one hot August night, while I was eating stale crackers and reading at two A.M. with my own door open, I was visited by a strange white-haired man in a rumpled sports jacket who claimed that he was from the future, my future, that he was in fact me.” This sounds like vintage Twilight Zone, but in such stories isn’t the visitor from the future, who is the future version of the narrator, supposed to give him warnings that make life easier or more livable or at least tell him what to expect? Not here. Thurber undermines our expectations of what we want to get from a Twilight-Zone-style tale and gives us something a little more philosophical that includes some advice for writers.

Also included in this volume is “Mister Fumble Bumble,” which appeared in Issue #43 and whose irreality flows from the way it undermines our expectations of a tale in which Death is personified.  And then there’s “Old Sharp Photo,” which appeared in Issue #45, and is a story which not only calls to mind vintage Twilight Zone because the setting is a “dilapidated rooming house for men only,” but also even cues the reader by describing “what makes it all feel like some bizarre lost episode of the Twilight Zone.” The narrator says that, although there is a phone in this rooming house, it’s just an old pay phone that isn’t in his name or associated with him, and yet his ex-wife manages to call the pay phone after a ten-year separation to tell him about a photo she found of the two of them from the time when they were together. This story, like “The Cat Who Waved,” is written in the second person and gives us the ex-wife’s somewhat breathless description of the photo:

“She says, listen, yesterday I was cleaning out a closet and found a box full of useless junk and at the bottom of the box was a picture, a snapshot, a black and white, no frame, just an eight by ten glossy with the two of us in our pajamas sitting across from each other eating breakfast, though I suppose it could be lunch or dinner, you can’t see what’s on our plates, but it’s a really nice shot, focused, very sharp, plenty of natural light, probably because in those days we didn’t have any curtains, we couldn’t afford curtains, remember, so you can see our faces, half our faces, good and sharp like a couple of statues in perfect profile, excellent detail, as I say black and white but with all the shades of gray, and we look so young and pretty, goddamned happy the two of us, though in an odd pretty hard to describe way, neither of us is really smiling…”

The photo that accompanies this story about a photo shows the rotary dial and coin slots of a very old pay phone, but that’s OK because the irreal nature of this story comes not from the Twilight-Zone wonderment of how someone could be calling on a pay phone after all these years and get her ex-husband, but the emphasis that the story isn’t really about weirdness but about that combination of poignancy and cynicism that Thurber evokes so effectively and which in this case undermines our Twilight-Zone expectations.

There are a few other non-realistic offerings in this volume, but most of the rest of the stories in Nothing But Trouble are what we might call naturalistic or realistic stories. Thurber turns his steady and unflinching gaze on failed or failing relationships between parent and child or between domestic partners, and again and again he views poignant situations with a cynical and distanced eye. In “My Daily Bread” a father tells his son he’s just “nailed” the babysitter that the son once had a crush on. In “Portrait of a Virtuous Woman” a wife threatens to cut her hair short in order to keep her physically disabled husband in line. In “Cryptogram” all the members of a family try to help a dying man communicate, but as the title suggests this isn’t entirely successful. In Nothing But Trouble the stories and the photos give us that “powerful sense of stillness and focus” Christine Brooks Cote describes because they help us see what we might easily have missed – either because it was too painful to look at or because we didn’t even know it was there.

You can buy Nothing but Trouble at Shanti Arts or at Amazon. For more of Vincent Carrella’s work, go to

Nothing to Worry About, Flash Fictions by Vanessa Gebbie

Nothing to Worry About by Vanessa Gebbie
The cover of Vanessa Gebbie’s new story collection, Nothing to Worry About, features a monoprint by Brighton-based artist Michaela Ridgway. In that image two figures seem to move forward with effort and determination. We can’t make out much else about them, but because of their somewhat mysterious and indeterminate outlines, these figures help to create a mood that complements both the stories and the title of this anthology. Everything about this slim volume seems to say there may be nothing to worry about and all may be well if we continue moving forward – or else of course it won’t. In either case we really must keep going.

Vanessa Gebbie’s work first appeared in The Café Irreal in 2007 when we published a three-part story called “Three Stages in Learning to Fly,” which can also be found in Nothing to Worry About. This story offers a good example of Gebbie’s tendency to oscillate between a sense of the ominous and a sense that all is well. The piece begins with specific details that immediately undermine our expectations about reality as we know it – Ed’s wife became an ant one night in August after the couple experienced an ant infestation. Ed marks her with a dot of nail polish so he will recognize her later and then takes her outside to the terrace. In a second incident Ed’s wife “became a sound in the grass. Perhaps she was a cricket. She’d always been a little person, self-effacing.” And in the final incident Ed’s wife is a flock of birds which “wheels from roof to tree to roof.” Each part of her flies, but one bird is her heart, and “[a]s the flock crazes, mosaics, wheels, this bird is now at her centre, then her boundary.” Ed is sanguine about these changes, but there’s also a trace of anxiety as he struggles to keep watch over his wife and to keep track of where she ends up after her metamorphoses.

So too in “The Note Takers” – also published in The Café Irreal and included in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal – there is a sense of the ominous, though with perhaps a little less of an implication that there’s nothing to worry about. “You are not looking forward to this,” the story begins. This is because the narrator must tell a waking dream to a note-taker at a scheduled meeting, with the potential for personal harm if the meeting doesn’t go well. The narrator who must communicate this waking dream says, “You must create truth, like glass, out of sand dug from that strange country between sleeping and not.” The situation is dangerous but there is pleasure in it, too – “One can, you have found, enjoy the frisson, the sensation of uncertainty.” Though we never learn why the narrator is forced to speak about dreams to the note-taker in the first place, the situation seems somehow familiar, reminding us of times in our lives when foreboding and anxiety mingle with a desire to get as much from an experience as we can.

A third story in this collection which appeared in The Café Irreal, and was also in The Irreal Reader, is “Storm Warning.”  A phone call comes from Istanbul at 3:00 a.m., and a woman’s voice can be heard saying, “Storm Warning.” There is also the sound of a “clicking, secretive language, robotic, strange.” This story exemplifies Gebbie’s ability to take a small, strange incident and to build around it an internally cohesive world in which the viewpoint character responds to the incident in subtly unexpected ways that also create a sense of the irreal. This also happens in “Flood,” the fourth and final story in this volume that also appeared in The Café Irreal. At the beginning of the story a drowned man is found. He is claimed by many bereaved people – as the son of one of them, as the father of one woman’s child, as the priest of an abandoned congregation, and others. In all these cases there is the overarching problem that, though these people may be missing a loved one or a significant leader and though the missing man’s dark blue eyes are cited as his identifying characteristic, no one seems to be able to say conclusively that the drowned man is theirs. The inability to say who the drowned man actually is results in uncertainty and anxiety for so many people that we have a sense that reality is being undermined.

All of the stories in the volume, in fact, have a sense of unreality (if not irreality) about them and tend to oscillate between the ominous and the optimistic. As the publisher – Flash: the International Short-Short Story Press – says on the page they devote to Nothing to Worry About: “After all, the world keeps turning, and people occasionally do strange things – but then, that’s life, and life is nothing to worry about … Or is it?”  Gebbie’s challenging yet engaging short fictions insistently ask us to think about that question and in a variety of imaginative ways.

Some of the stories magnify small and seemingly insignificant incidents from everyday life which take us in unexpected directions.

  • In “Gifts” a misdelivered package challenges a whole neighborhood.
  • In “Door” a “lovely door” inspires a lot of activity but never actually delivers what it promises.
  • In “Window” a homeowner decides that privacy is the highest value.
  • In “Swarf” a worker at a nail factory becomes enamored with the shavings that are produced when metal is filed.

In each case the story starts with a small aspect of the quotidian and embellishes it, creating a small doorway into an irreal world.

In other stories Gebbie deals with larger philosophical and somewhat mystical issues – actually, matters of life and death – yet in a very personal way.

  • In “The Little Archaeologist” Male 6580 has reached the end of life, and in the world in which he lives, a personal archaeologist comes “to plumb you, speak your body away.” This intimate process involves both a physical and a psychological summing up of the individual by a woman whose “slim purposeful fingers calloused at the tip move over, under my skin like so many arthritic spiders.” The story creates a mood of deep sadness in just a few hundred words, yet it manages to assure us that the personal archeologist doesn’t hurt the ones she plumbs.
  • “If a Baby Could Speak,” at the other end of the life spectrum, is the interior monolog of a newborn infant who, besides ruminating about the existence of God, also tells us what it likes and wants in a voice that is surprisingly wise and not what we might expect.
  • And in “Reeds” there are babies growing in the reed beds. The narrator, though warned not to stray off the path or make eye contact with the fetuses, says, “Below me, the water was still as glass. And, under the water, babies. Curled up tight, thumbs in mouths, floating under the surface…” and then feels a strong desire not to heed the advice given.

All three stories have a much stronger impact than their brevity might lead us to expect.

And then there are some short pieces that start with an unreal but insightful premise and carry it through to a fantastical conclusion:

  • In “Navigation,” during a time of rising flood waters, people begin to grow sextants and maps and other useful items under their skins.
  • In the title story, “Nothing to Worry About,” a husband worries, despite her doctor’s reassurances, about the fact that his wife is turning to metal.
  • In “Wei-Ch’i” a man comes home to find parts of his wife’s body scattered throughout their home, cool and bloodless, yet he does not seem to regard this as a reason to panic.

Though most of the short fictions in this collection are told with relatively serious narrative voices, there is also humor to be found. “Personal Bonsai” takes the form of a letter from a woman whose ear-trees and nostril-trees (as well as trees in other bodily spaces) enjoy classical music and cause their host a variety of problems. And in “Selected Advice for Strangers,” which was first published in Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief, we learn that “It is mandatory to dress as a bee-keeper when visiting the UK for the first time.” The story then proceeds, in perfect bureaucratic jargon, to elaborate on that regulation. Is there anxiety and discomfiture in these humorous pieces? I’m not sure I’d say that, but because these stories unfold in Vanessa Gebbie’s fictional universe, I also wouldn’t be willing to say that there’s nothing to worry about.

You can buy Nothing to Worry About, Flash Fictions by Vanessa Gebbie at

Reading at the Irreal Cafe: A Betrayal and Other Stories by Brian Biswas

A Betrayal and Other Stories

[posted by Alice]

Next up in our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe is Brian Biswas’ first collection of short fiction, A Betrayal and Other Stories. This volume, published by Rogue Star Press (an imprint of Lillicat Publishers), contains nineteen stories which span nearly thirty years of Biswas’ writing career. Beginning with the cover and its evocative illustration of a lone figure walking through what seems to be a moonlit and shadowy forest — and the title, which features my favorite story in the collection, “A Betrayal” — I found this collection of Biswas’ work to be first rate. In his author’s bio, Biswas states that his stories are either written in a literary style reminiscent of magical realism or are straightforward science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But having read through the collection, and with no desire to contradict the author’s view of his own writing, I would put the stories in one of three categories: irreal stories (because of course I am Coeditor of The Cafe Irreal), gothic or neo-gothic tales, and straightforward horror and/or science fiction stories. I enjoy Biswas’ writing in all three of these dimensions and found the stories to be satisfyingly literary, as well as entertaining. The small black-and-white illustrations that accompany each story complement Biswas’ fiction very nicely.

But back to the irreal: Brian Biswas has written eight stories that we’ve published in The Cafe Irreal and which we consider to be irreal, including three of the stories found in this volume. The qualities we are looking for in an irreal story involve reality being undermined, the dream state being evoked, and the story having a certain Kafkan sensibility. In particular, we found all of these qualities in Biswas’ story, “A Betrayal,” which reminded us greatly of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor.” In fact, we liked the story so much that we included it in our 2013 anthology, The Irreal Reader. Though “A Betrayal” is notably different from Kafka’s story (the doctor deals with a girl in love rather than a wounded boy; he faces different obstacles and ends up in a different situation), the setting and narrative call Kafka’s work to mind, and the doctor’s sense of betrayal at the story’s end echoes Kafka’s doctor’s mindset at the end of “A Country Doctor.” But there are other aspects of the story that are also very representative of Biswas’ style, such as the clear descriptions of the characters’ physical appearance, something that can be found in nearly every story in this volume. The woman who calls the doctor at the beginning of “A Betrayal” is described as the narrator imagines her, “her left hand frantically brushing back her ash-blond hair,” and she in turn describes her ailing daughter as “feverish and pale… her eyes swollen, and red.” And yet despite the realistic nature of these descriptions we enter an irreal realm in which the doctor tells us about the patient’s village of Tamborini, which is one of those small communities that “are here one minute and gone the next,” which suddenly opens before him as he travels along, and which, as he leaves it and takes a few wrong turns, may have brought him hundreds of miles from home. Rounding out the appearance of the irreal in this volume of stories are two other stories that we published in The Cafe Irreal, “The Bridge” and “In the Garden”, as well as “Sedgefield’s Diary,” in which the diary begins to write the man instead of the other way around.

Biswas masterfully writes a certain type of story that some might call gothic or neo-gothic tales. Some of these stories are set in the past and others in a somewhat anachronistic present. These latter tales remind me of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone or Science Fiction Theater and yet they still have a certain gothic sensibility. In “The Roses of Charon,” for example, a short fat man comes to the door offering something that will make its recipient “rich beyond your wildest dreams” and Meredith, a woman in a cotton house dress, is at home in her kitchen when a door-to-door salesman calls, as women often were in the 1950s and 1960s. Meredith is a woman in distress until she learns the surprising nature of her visitor. Another such story is “Barnegat Inn,” in which a couple on their honeymoon end up in an out-of-the-way inn with its odd collection of furniture and timepieces “ranging from modern to antique,” including a “Japanese mulberry pillar clock.” The somewhat odd older couple who run the inn have a secret that is revealed in time and in a way that, combined with the setting, makes for a very successful story.

And then there are the more straightforward science fiction stories, such as “A Journey Through the Wormhole,” in which a scientist has found a way to create small wormholes that make interstellar travel possible in response to a challenge by a wealthy investor. The description of temperature variations and their effect on wormhole creation is compelling, and the presence of a science journalist who is interviewing the scientist in question gives the writer a way to give this information to the reader without creating an “info dump.” Also in this category is”Puff” in which the human quest for unlimited sources of energy leads to what seems to be the perfect solution: nuclear fusion, a form of power generation which doesn’t have the negative side effect of waste that has to be disposed of. The story ties the successful creation of fusion power with the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and Biswas again gives information both about how fusion power might be harnessed as well as how we might conduct a search for extraterrestrial life. This story is both a cautionary tale and a very good example of hard science fiction.

Whether the stories in this anthology remind me of the work of Kafka or Rod Serling or have their own unique style, I find Brian Biswas to be a writer of great descriptive skill and storytelling ability. His prose is lucid and straightforward, and it leaves vivid images in this reader’s mind that come back from time to time, long after I’ve finished reading, to remind me of these satisfyingly strange and well-written stories.

You can buy A Betrayal and Other Stories at Lillicat Publishers or from Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Or you could order it at your local bookstore.

Reading at The Irreal Cafe: Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman

Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman
[posted by Alice]
Next up in our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe is Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman. Before I began reading this volume, I was aware that Friedman was a well-published poet, with six earlier poetry collections to his name, mostly brought out by Carnegie Mellon University Press. I knew that his work had appeared in many literary journals and anthologies (including The Cafe Irreal), and that he is also an editor and translator. Because of all those things, I expected satisfyingly polished and engaging work from Floating Tales, and that is what I got. In addition, I appreciate a good book cover, and MadHat Press has graced this volume with cover art that is subtle and yet delivers a twist, as Friedman’s writing usually does. The cover resonates with the title; it consists of grayscale images of water and landforms merged together in such a way that it’s hard to tell which way is up.

Floating Tales was a pleasure to read, all the more because commenting on it gives me a chance to riff a little on the nature of the prose poem, which is to me the most confusing of literary forms. Inspired by my reading of Friedman’s work, I went on to do some reading about prose poems. For a woman who sometimes says, “We don’t publish poetry because Kafka didn’t write poetry,” that’s significant. In fact, I was even forced to change my view of Kakfa’s poetic output, at least in part.

In Daniel Lawless’ introduction to Floating Tales, at one point he uses the term microfiction interchangeably with the term prose poem, then goes on to talk about a collection edited by Michael Benedikt, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, which was first published in 1976. Lawless says that in this volume there were works by Brecht, Borges, Edson, and Kafka, among others, and these were “[s]trange, image-centered, associative pieces through which, still, a narrative often might be glimpsed or even serve as a kind of scaffolding or superstructure on which all manner of odd brise-soleil, parapets and volutes might be affixed.” I love an architectural metaphor, so I didn’t question the presence of the brise-soleil – and besides, I live in Tucson, Arizona, most of the year and appreciate anything that might deflect the sun; however, I did think, “Did Kafka really write prose poems?!” and then asked my favorite search engine (Duck Duck Go) the same question. The SERPS took me to a familiar place, Twisted Spoon Press. This small, Prague-based press has been the source of some of the work we previously published in The Cafe Irreal. Among other texts by Kafka, they have re-published Contemplation, which they describe as being “composed of eighteen ‘prose poems,’ displaying the full range of Kafka’s compact metaphorical style.”

I had always thought of the pieces from Contemplation as creative non-fiction and/or fiction, but I went back and read them all again (in the volume Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which contains everything Kafka published during his lifetime). To be sure there’s poetic language to be found there, and I admit that a piece like “Looking Out Distractedly” works more like a poem than a story. “What shall we do in the spring days that are now rapidly approaching?” asks the first line, and the descriptive language in this short piece, combined with the satisfying yet unexpected nature of the concluding sentence, means it could be called a prose poem.

I will not, however, concede that “Children on the Road” is a prose poem. In an earlier essay about this story, I described it as follows: “‘Children on the Road,’ … opens with a young boy sitting on a swing, watching life go by as adults make their way home from work, children run past, and people enact their social roles. [When] it’s dark, he eats his supper tiredly, and he watches passersby lethargically. Suddenly, he’s called by his friends to come out into the world he has only been watching up to this point. He says the children then ‘put our heads down and butted through the evening’ — and they sometimes ‘ran along in a herd,’ sometimes lay down to sleep on the ground, sometimes hurtled along roads and over ditches with alarming athleticism. This evocative piece contains many examples of the way in which Kafka uses descriptions of bodily activity — poses and movements — to express complex notions about the way human beings relate to one another and themselves. In this story, all bodily motion becomes body language. And when the narrator leaves his companions behind and instead of heading for home sets off ‘for the great city in the south’ where it is said that they never sleep, Kafka leaves us unsure where the dream state ends and the dream begins.” That, I think, is a description of a very Kafkan sort of story and not a prose poem at all.

So now back to Friedman’s work: Floating Tales contains the same two types of short pieces – in some of them the writer is working more like a poet, but in others the reader finds all the trappings of short fiction. In “Fate Written on the Forehead,” on the one hand, we are given an artful description of the forehead the narrator sees when he looks in the mirror: “I see creases: a crow sitting on a branch perusing the long rows; a dog chasing a squirrel into a ravine; a woman bowing her head; an old man cursing the squirrels that tightrope the fence railing surrounding his garden.” But he sees no hint of what is to be: “Dust falls from my forehead but no matter how much I squint, I don’t see the word ‘truth’ or ‘death,’ so I may be like a golem, but I’m not actually a golem. No piece of parchment with a fortune printed on it pops from my cookie.” The conclusion of this short piece gives a satisfying twist, but “Fate Written on the Forehead” worked on me in much the same way as “Looking Out Distractedly” did. This piece describes an attitude toward the world that actually exists around us.

On the other hand, the prose poems in Floating Tales that I think of as stories work differently from this, and a number of them involve animals, including horses, cats and bears. “Black Cat,” which appeared in Issue #48 of The Cafe Irreal introduces us to a cat who drinks vodka, has bad manners, procures its own samovar, and acts like a cat except when he doesn’t. “‘Get me some caviar,’ he ordered Serena. ‘There are going to be some big changes around here.’,” after which the narrator realizes that this is the cat from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The cat in that novel, known as Behemoth, not only bears the name of a Biblical monster but has a taste for vodka and sarcasm. In this case, however, the presence of an obnoxious cat isn’t being used to make political commentary but to undermine the functioning of a seemingly peaceful household, and in turn is undermining our own expectations of what the presence of such a beast might mean.

Then there are also a couple of pieces that feature bears, which I thought worked particularly effectively as stories. “Bear Fight” begins as follows: “When Liza fell in with the bear, I was more than disappointed as I had been in love with her since childhood. ‘What’s he got that I don’t?’ I asked as we walked past the diner together. ‘He’s a bear.’ She let go of my hand. ‘He gets a little jealous when I’m out with my friends.’” Because Liza loves someone the narrator thinks is a bear, he disguises himself as a bear to woo her, only to find out that his rival isn’t who he seems to be, but then neither is Liza. And then there’s “The Beer Bear” who asks for beer to go with what he has found in “the garbage dumpster he had just plundered.” The narrator tells us, “I went inside and uncorked a Sam Adams. ‘I’m sure that serving beer to a bear is against the law,’ I said, but handed it to him anyway. ‘Show me the law,’ he countered. He stood up to slug it down, and I could see he had a roll of fat around the middle, a big beer gut. Very unbearlike, I thought. ‘Give me another, please.’” In both pieces bears and bearishness seem to have something to do with stereotypical ideas of masculine behavior, but Friedman’s bears point toward something less clearly defined, as they keep metamorphosing in unexpected ways. “Besides, I don’t believe you’re a bear; you’re just a drunk disguised as a bear,” says the narrator. “’No, I’m a beer disguised as a bear,’ he answered, pouring himself into the bottle, where he became a bottle of bear.” Wordplay, by the way, is a feature of dreams, and we also love to see it in an irreal story.

Earlier I mentioned Daniel Lawless’ introduction to Floating Tales and his discussion of Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem: An International Anthology. Besides Franz Kafka, Russell Edson is another name he mentions in association with this anthology. The three blurbs on the back of Floating Tales also refer to Edson in one way or another, either by comparing Jeff Friedman’s work to Edson’s or by citing Edson as a poet who is both a “fantastic fabulist” and a purveyor of “oneiric logic.” I decided to see what Edson had to say about prose poems, and I found an interview Peter Johnson conducted with Edson for a 1999 issue of The Prose Poem, an International Journal.

When he is asked whether or not he is a surrealist, whether or not the “odd happenings” in his work put him in Breton’s camp, Edson says, “So many so-called surrealistic poems come across as stylized fakes, as very conscious attempts to be strange.  My desire has always been to argue the case for reality. A good example is found in the works of Kafka, who explored the vaunted dreamscape, and yet was able to report it in rational and reasoned language.  Language is sanity.  We all teeter on the border of dream and consciousness. To pretend insanity is insulting, both to the clinically insane, and to those of us who strive for reality.  Dreams, no matter how absurd or strange, are believable because they make physical sense.” This exploration of the dreamscape in rational and reasoned language is at least in part what we at The Cafe Irreal mean by irrealism (and indeed argue in essays such as “Irrealism is not a surrealism”). For me, the prose poem that works like a story can often do this very well, and many such examples can be found in Floating Tales.

You can buy Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman at MadHat Press.


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.]

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.