Monday, April 14, 2008

Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground - Ed. Dennis Cooper

Userlands is an excellent concept that goes perhaps a mile too far in its ambitions. That does not stop it from being of critical importance to everything that has ever had the slightest thing to do with Flying Houses, for it was during my first night reading this volume that I decided I must have my own blog. I was tired of being expected to produce content appropriate for other people's businesses, companies, ideas and "projects." Flying Houses, I decided, would be an appropriate starting point for a track towards accomplishment in literature.

Userlands, effectively, is the anti-Best American Short Stories of 2007. Anyone who has ever tried to push their way through one of those collections without prior knowledge of the contributors is in for a bumpy ride. Undoubtedly, you will find a couple of very memorable, nay even classic stories, which you would asterisk in the table of contents and pass along to a friend as the only pieces worth reading...Userlands is a very similar experience, except the success rate is a bit lower. Oh, and the content takes a bit of getting used to.

The first thing to praise about this book is Dennis Cooper's preface, which describes how he started his own blog, and how tons of people started posting comments as a way to start corresponding with him, and how he discovered all the different young writers of today who posted their work on their blogs. It is an inspiring set of consequences and coincidences, and perhaps predicts the future of literature. Or at least, a more adventerous future than the one we are currently on track for. I felt the boil in my blood subside when I read Cooper's state-of-the-union-esque comment in his opening piece, "This is Not an Isolated Incident":

"It's not exactly a revelation to say that book publishing in the United States is in a gentrified, conservative, and economics-driven state. The contemporary fiction known to the majority of book buyers and reviews readers is a highly filtered thing composed for the most part of authors carefully selected from the graduating classes of university writing programs that have formed a kind of official advisory board to the large American publishing houses. To read that allotted fiction and look no further, it would be easy to believe contemporary English-language fiction has become a far less adventerous medium than music or art or film or other forms that continue to welcome the young and unique and bold. Userlands offers one alternative to the status quo, one unobstructed view of contemporary fiction at its real, unbridled, vigorous, percolating best." (12-13, italics mine)

What a disappointment, then, when perhaps 20% of the 41 stories Cooper has selected, are the only ones worth reading! Now, I have the opportunity to act like I am a literary agent, or a publishing house slush pile reader, or a member of the advisory board of a literary journal. Of course, maybe 10% of these stories would qualify for journal publication (and that 10% would not include the 20% that I think is worth reading). First of all, we should do a slight oeuvre rule concerning Cooper. Of course, his books skew towards a rather extreme edge of fiction, and the writers he picks sometimes imitate his content and style. Perhaps predictably, these 15% or so that ape his style comprise the majority of successful literary experiments. Much of the rest of the time (several stories packed together at what appears to be the direct middle of the 360 page collection) I found myself skimming through the stories, or not caring at all about weird, purposefully vague, "hazy," text-blocking, Borges-imitating stories falling under the "experimental" genre. But for every "Five Stories About Trains" (which opens the collection) or "Saliva" or "The Before and the Plastic Dinosaurs" (which seems like it's missing a word) or "Lycanthropy Wife (better get your dictionary)," there is a "Fantastic, Made of Plastic," (not very different from a story I once wrote) or "I Don't Know What This Means," (a beautiful rendition of a "soft apocalypse") or "Spatial Devices Can Take Any Form," (which is vulgar, yet entertaining Cooper-copying). There are a disconcerting number of "serialized" pieces or numbered or ridiculously-structured pieces. A few stories deserve a bit of a deeper mention though.

The first is James Champagne's harangue on Barnes and Noble, "Kali Yuga," which is either the worst or best piece in this book (and I vote for worst). True, we are immediately in familiar territory. Everyone has been in Barnes and Noble. And probably Borders too (who imitates whom I cannot see). And yes, I have known a person who worked at Barnes and Noble (though it might have been Borders) and complained about, but generally tolerated/liked it. I think he would appreciate this story, but he would also admit that the kid is complaining a little too much. Of course, I've hated every job I've ever had, but most of the things he complains about are simply too ridiculous to care about. They seem made up, but if confronted I am sure he would say he told 100% of the truth. Or, he never worked there and he just imagined what it would be like. Regardless of its pleasurable or painful qualities, "Kali Yuga" is undoubtedly the seminal piece of literature ABOUT Barnes and Noble culture. Surprising, considering the only other reference I can think to that behemoth was in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind..."

"Sixteen" by Robert Siek is not an excellent story but works in very familiar territory--party at an NYC industrial goth nightclub--and is really only about having fun. I noticed this story beyond the others because it reminded me of things I had written, and really reminded me in particular of something a friend once wrote, and who had it published in a journal. Thus, writing a story about a contained set of scenes in a bar or club without anything really serious happening at the end might be a good way to get your first piece published. Unfortunately, that does not allow the content to get very deep usually, especially when stories end with groups of characters smiling for photos saying "DRUGS!" instead of "Cheese!"

The two stories that close out Userlands are, perhaps on purpose, the two best stories in the collection from beginning to end. Will Fabro's "Duels" nearly made me jump out of my skin from how much I was able to identify with in the work. It was as if Fabro had taken a peak at my second novel, laughed at it, and wrote this story as a parody of it. Regardless, my second novel is much more dangerous than "Duels," and is not so nearly as perfectly contained.

"My Body's Work" by Matthew Williams could double as a pitch-perfect imitation of a long short story or novella by Cooper, and in any case is by far and way the best thing in this collection. It may be complete fiction, or it may be completely true (I am veering towards believing it is 100% made up) but regardless it will not fail to hold your attention from beginning to end. It may be a bit gimmicky, but that is its easiest quality to critique. It is one of those crazily over-structured pieces, but here all the separation by numbers and varieties of storytelling approaches do not seem superfluous. It may be slightly gimmicky, but regardless Williams's story (or "confession") is the most essential piece in the book.

And there are many other stories I won't soon forget, but most of them I will. Still, not bad for a first edition. The Userlands concept should be passed down like a torch from successful underground writer to succesful underground writer, or at least re-surveyed by Cooper himself every few years. While it may not be 100% satisfying, this tome is quite a gift to aspring writers and lovers of left-of-center literature and most of all to the literary industry. Sadly, it is a gift that anybody who ISN'T "underground" will fail to notice.

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