Book Review: Machine of Death

April 23, 2011

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die

Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki!

Published October 13, 2010

Bearstache Books

464 pp.

ISBN 0-982-16712-1

Reviewed April 23, 2011

It’s impossible to look at “Machine of Death” and not see it as anything but unequivocal victory for the Internet. Not only was it based on an idea from a widely popular webcomic and assembled by a wide pool of bloggers, webcomic writers and other web-centric contributors, but it was also the subject of a widely blogged and tweeted campaign to buy the book on the release date and shoot it to the top of Amazon charts. And not only did it succeed in that goal, but it earned a vitriolic response from Glenn Beck that only managed to garner it more positive exposure and healthy sales past the release date.

That’s a fantastic success story for marketing in the age of Twitter, but even if they’d cut all that organizing out it wouldn’t change the fact that “Machine of Death” is a wonderfully solid collection of short fiction. In soliciting the best stories from the Internet talent pool, the editors of “Machine of Death” – Ryan North, M. Bennardo and David Malki! – have inspired a wide range of mediations on what’s really important when your ultimate faith is hanging over your head, mining psychological trauma for stories that oscillate almost seamlessly between the funny and the tragic.

Each of the stories is focused on the same broad concept: the existence of a machine that can take a blood sample and infallibly predict how that person is going to die. However, the prediction is laid out in the vaguest of terms, only one word or short phrase such as “cancer” or “friendly fire” or “while trying to save another.” Each prediction is purposely vague – it doesn’t say, for example, whether the subject will commit suicide or die as a result of someone else’s suicide – but it comes true in a fashion that leaves no doubt as to the efficacy of the machine.

Obviously, many of the stories are internally focused, dealing with the specific reactions to the knowledge. In some stories, the subjects will be rendered utterly paralyzed by the choice, trying to avoid any and all incarnations of what could kill them and yet still fall prey. Still others will dive into their fates – “fire” leads to firefighters, “robbery” leads to police officers – and others will embrace it joyfully to the point of psychosis (“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions,” Jeffrey C. Wells). There’s also stories about those who built the machine, such as John Chernega’s “Almond” or Tom Francis’ “Exploded,” which get into the heads of those who build or maintain the machine, and do a masterful job in showing how being so closely tied with an inanimate doomsayer would break you down psychologically.

But even more than the individual impact, the best interpretations of “Machine of Death” come up when it expands to consider just what would happen to a society where such machines are commonplace – even moreso since no two stories share the same interpretation. Would it be like Camille Alexander’s “Flaming Marshmallow,” where it’s mandatory for everyone to have their blood tested in high school and the results completely replace the high school cliques of jocks and nerds with crashers and bullets? Or could it be like Douglas J. Lane’s “Friendly Fire,” where a new breed of domestic terrorists devote their lives to its destruction, haunted by what the knowledge of death did to their loved ones? Much like death itself, the possibilities are endless, and the stories get better the more they expand their scope.

The sheer breadth of ideas means that there’s stories for every taste, but here’s some particular favorites of mine: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of “Mogworld”)‘s “Exhaustion While Having Sex With a Minor,” which offers some excellent irony and political satire; M. Bennardo’s “Starvation,” which uses the concept as a springboard for a haunting wartime tale of isolation; and Erin McKean’s “Not Waving But Drowning” which mixes the adolescent, societal and ironic sides of the concept in a very interesting way. Bonus points for creative formatting go to “Love Ad Nauseam” from Sherri Jacobsen and “HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” from Brian Quinlan, the latter of which is so wonderfully succinct Hemingway would nod approvingly.

The timeline to enrage Glenn Beck by purchasing it might be long past, but that only takes away one of the many reasons why “Machine of Death” is worth reading. It’s alternatively dark and funny, always creative and varied enough that at least one of the stories will be worth your attention. Who’d’ve thought an offhand comment by a green tyrannosaurus could yield this much depth?

Extra Credit:

  • If you want to take a look at the sample stories, the publishers are offering it through Creative Commons on their website. Several stories are also available as free podcasts.

Book Review: The Imperfectionists

December 1, 2010

The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman

Published April 6, 2010

The Dial Press

288 pp.

ISBN 0-385-34366-3

Reviewed December 1, 2010

In my time working for the Daily Cardinal back in college, I probably crossed paths with over a hundred individuals who played some role in making the paper. Some of them remain very close friends of mine, whom I exchange updates with on a regular basis. Others I haven’t seen for years, but I know I could meet up with and fall right back into a familiar groove with or at the very least be offered a couch for an evening. Still others I couldn’t identify by face or name now, but I know if I found myself in conversation with them and we learned that we shared that connection, we’d fill at least five minutes going over old war stories.

A newspaper tends to both attract a wide variety of people, and inspire a mix of emotions in the people who work for it – and that psychic pull is just one of the things that Tom Rachman manages to do so masterfully in “The Imperfectionists.” Centered around an unnamed English language newspaper in Rome, operating in what may well be the twilight of print media, “The Imperfectionists” is a brilliant debut novel that understands the most interesting thing about journalism. It isn’t the circumstances of the business or its efforts to stay relevant in changing times, but the multifaceted and frequently damaged people who make it their trade.

“The Imperfectionists” is split into eleven chapters, each of which focuses on one of the staffers at the unnamed paper. Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solsen struggles to do more with less in the face of the home office’s apathy, while the nitpicky copy editor Herman Cohen lambastes his three-headed copy desk – particularly the wallflower Ruby Zaga – for amateurish edits. The financial officer Abbey Pinnola reluctantly embraces her role as hatchet man, while the business reporter Hardy Benjamin tries to assimilate someone new into life outside her office. Abroad in Cairo and Paris, respective correspondents Winston Cheung and Lloyd Burko are either so far out of their comfort zones it approaches farcical or so mired in their comfort zones they have nothing left to offer.

Readers with journalism backgrounds will certainly find the chapters engagingly familiar – with each character embodying the professions’ archetypes at least in part – but “The Imperfectionists” is by no means restricted to that group. The chapters are focused on each character’s personal dramas, with the newspaper merely lining the cages of their doubts and revelations. Herman eagerly embraces a visit from his oldest friend and tries to get him to write for the paper, only to find that neither of their lives have turned out precisely as they thought – and they come to some surprising realizations about it. Katheen reengages with an old boyfriend in public service, tempted to use him to get inside information on the prime minister’s office – or just get back at her cheating husband. Each vignette is well-fleshed and original, and manages to come to meaningful conclusions all around.

The plotting makes each chapter interesting, but what makes them gripping is how well each character is defined. None of the chapters are in first-person, and Rachman’s voice is apparent in each of them, but you really do feel like you’re hearing a brand new person’s story each time. In some instances, particularly Kathleen’s and Abbey’s, the dialogue continues to flow for pages at a perfectly natural rhythm – these read like conversations real people would have, with small talk skirting around an elephant in the room and reaching conclusions neither party likes. Conversely, chapters on Lloyd and Ruby are more about internal monologues, their insecurities eating away at them as they desperately try to find some validation in work or in life. Ruby’s chapter in particular, mixed with internal asides to herself, has particularly poignant moments:

“To eat or to sleep – the perennial night-shift conundrum. She confronts her dilemma as always, with a tub of Haagen-Dazs on the couch and Tony Bennett on the stereo, volume low. The CD came free with a magazine and has become part of her after-work routine. She has the TV on, too, with the sound off. She watches Ballando con le Stelle without seeing, listens to Tony Bennett without hearing, eats Vanilla Swiss Almond without tasting. Yet the mix is the most splendid she knows.”

Prose like this is reminiscent of some of the finest short stories, and indeed the almost insular feeling of each chapter makes it very feasible to take each one as a single serving without digesting the narrative. As the book progresses, names repeat and the connections become more apparent – the same man ricochets off the paper’s editor-in-chief, copy editor and fervent subscriber in very different ways, a broken friendship indirectly tips over a line of dominoes to start an affair – but for the most part those connections matter because they evoke memories of just how good that character’s chapter was, and poignancy at how damaged they remain.

For as good as these character studies are, there is a central narrative – the origins and future of the paper, the great edifice that churns on oblivious to its staff’s problems, where “what was of the utmost importance yesterday is immaterial today.” The chapters are split up with vignettes on the origins of the paper, the mysterious industrialist Cyrus Ott who abandoned his family in Atlanta to become a publisher and founding editors as damaged as any off the current staff. The reason for the paper’s genesis comes in the last chapter, opened for personal reasons as tragic as any its existing staff has for staying with it – but the revelation is lost on the chapter’s subject, Ott’s grandson, the weak-willed publisher dwelling in an empty mansion with only a basset hound for company. It’s a tragic hammer strike, made even harder by the denouement of the final fifteen pages.

In those last pages, the observation is made that the paper is a “daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species” – and that’s a label that can easily be applied to “The Imperfectionists.” By farming the tightly wound, diverse world of a newsroom, Rachman has created some of the strongest character studies in recent years. It’s heartfelt and complex, all its considerable parts adding up to something greater – much as its staff’s contributions inexplicably bring a paper to life. This is, quite simply, one of the best books of the year.


Back Shelf Review: Interzone

April 16, 2009

Interzone

burroughs-interzone1By William S. Burroughs

Published February 1, 1990

Penguin Books

224 pp.

ISBN 0-140-09451-2

Reviewed April 16, 2009

It’s a writer’s curse that out of everything they write and devise and concoct, they will be lucky if even a quarter of it sees publication. Stories and essays can be rejected by dozens of publishers before they finally give up trying, a first novel sits in a desk drawer for years, and projects will be raised and rejected before something finally sees acceptance. Past that, there are first and second and third drafts, letters to friends floating ideas, and countless notebooks and scraps of paper filled with notes that are sometimes not even legible to the writer.

Every so often though, an author’s thoughts and drafts are the audience for a complete revolution of style, finding something new and experimenting with it in a variety of curious ways. Few writers have undergone such a revolution as William S. Burroughs, who went from drug novelist to visionary in only a few years, and whose transitional work has been collected in “Interzone.” Essentially the bridge between “Junky” and “Naked Lunch,” “Interzone” is a truly energetic piece of work that shows an evolution (or possibly mutation) of thought.

Fittingly for an author who pioneered the “cut-up” technique, “Interzone” is more a loose scrapbook than a proper collection, consisting of journals and stories Burroughs wrote from 1954 to 1956. At this time, he was living in Tangier, indulging his opium addiction and trying to sell short stories through his friend Allen Ginsberg. As time went on he began to go deeper into his subconscious, using his writing to fracture and rebuild the world in his own surreal image.

What makes “Interzone” such a fascinating part of the Burroughs canon is it reflects all sides of his brilliant persona. His first books “Junky” and “Queer” were straightforward, almost deadpan novels that took a historical view to drugs and homosexuality in 1940s New York; while “Naked Lunch” and successive novels ripped apart those topics into sci-fi depravity. “Interzone” is a work that maps the process of coming to that viewpoint, as well as seeing the hints of literary theory and spiritualism that marked much of his later works.

Fans of Burroughs’ more conventional style will be rewarded by the early short stories and articles, pitched to Ginsberg in the hope he could sell them. “The Finger” has an almost Kafkaesque humor to it, relating a real-life anecdote wherein he cuts off a finger joint to impress a girl and finds himself committed as a result. “International Zone,” written as a magazine feature on Tangier’s strange situation (split up between four countries) has “Junky’s” anthropological eye for a place, while “In the Café Central” captures the cast which populates it.

Use of opiates and the withdrawal symptoms began to alter Burroughs’ viewpoint, and the style change gradually makes itself clear in the journals and later stories – a move that builds a terrific energy as the book progresses. Characters begin to take on a more inhuman angle, resembling insects and growing “auxiliary assholes” in their foreheads (“Spare Ass Annie”). The borders between dreams and reality gradually break down, with “The City” gradually turning into a living thing and paranoia an everyday occurrence. Burroughs himself acknowledges the shift, speaking of an abstract novel constructed as a mosaic, a work that has a life of its own, a guide for the future.

Even with this gradual evolution, the tonal shift was so extreme that a breakthrough effort was needed, and “Interzone” contains this in the section “WORD.” Essentially a rough draft of “Naked Lunch,” the section is a rapid profane stream-of-consciousness effort mixing all the images of sex, drugs and control that would come to dominate his later work. This section isn’t for the faint of heart – or for anyone who thought “Naked Lunch” was too nonsensical or garbled to enjoy – but it continues the build of energy the journals started and is fascinating from an aesthetic standpoint, seeing the castoff embryonic thoughts that led him to reach his conclusions.

“Interzone” is chiefly a historical curiosity and a book for Burroughs devotees who want to track their hero’s evolution, but it’s also a useful primer for anyone who wants to experience his thought process in smaller doses. It’s a book that is at varying times dryly humorous, intentionally shocking and borderline illegible, but never able to hide the crackling energy of the voice that was finding itself.