Feb. 25 2013 04:23 PM

Reviews of Confessions from a Dark Wood' by Eric Raymond; Board,' curated by Brad Listi and Justin Benton; and The Guardians' by Sarah Manguso


    There comes a point fairly early in Confessions from a Dark Wood, Eric Raymond's debut novel from Sator Press, where it appears as if the author is determined to take his 21st-century satire over the top. And then he takes it further.

    The "wood" in question is the murky world of contemporary branding practices in the "Post-Idea Economy." The "confessor" is Nick Bray, who's hired by LaBar Partners Limited as a favor to his recently deceased father. Nick is given the title "New Media Expert" simply because he is a recent college graduate and lives in San Francisco.     

    Nick's new boss, Pontius LaBar, is a Daniel Snyder-esque brand consultant and pint-sized tyrant who owns a pair of Porsches, one of which he keeps in his massive suite, and a gargantuan orangutan named Shelby, who warrants his own glass-walled office. Nick's six-figure salary helps allay LaBar's increasingly bizarre demands, but when he starts getting visits from his dead father, he begins looking for a way out.

    One of the most intriguing characters is Nick's girlfriend Sadie, who has "a colorful clutch of banking tattoos arranged in an AK-47 rifle shape on the calf of her left leg" and aspires to be America's first suicide bomber.

    Raymond's America is one of ugly extremes. He zeroes in on the situational humor of our ruthless business practices and absurd privilege and calculates where it might lead us. Artful, engaging and intense to the last page, Raymond is an entertaining writer with something to say about the human cost of compulsive consumerism.

    Board is a curious work of literary collage curated by Brad Listi and Justin Benton. 

    In a note that opens the book, the editors explain that the book's content is "derived from comment boards on The Nervous Breakdown (TNB), an online culture magazine and literary community founded in 2006." 

    Each block of text was stripped from the post where it originally appeared, rendered anonymous by removing author attribution and re-assembled in a new artful arrangement.  

    How is reading Board different than reading the comments on any website? For one thing, you won't find the racism, sexism and rampant nutjobbery from trolls who make YouTube and Yahoo comments a no-go zone. 

    Listi and Benton organize the text around themes that aren't always obvious. Stories of childhood loss are coupled with tales of teen sex, and a strange kind of yearning kicks in—not nostalgia exactly, but a feeling that makes one grateful for having survived one's early years. 

    Comment boards are aggregate systems, spontaneous and unpredictable. We read these message boards like a burglar casing a house, looking for an easy entry point. 

    That's not the way to read Board. Without the constant urge to contribute to the conversation, a different kind of story emerges that might one day go down in history as the story of literary culture between the print era and whatever comes next. 

    The elegy is a dying tradition.

    Sarah Manguso, author of three books of poetry and a memoir about illness, makes a go of it in The Guardians—but in prose form.

    In short, modular episodes, she tells the story of the life and death of her dear friend Harry, who committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. 

    When reading The Guardians, which is now available in paperback from Picador, it's helpful to imagine a veil between the writer and the world she describes. The information is vague, settings dim, chronology jumbled. It's meant to feel unsettled.

    Writing about the dead when grief is new is like composing a travel guide the moment one steps off the train. The primacy of first impressions makes one an authority on the impressions, not the place. 

    Manguso is aware of the limitations of her approach. "I want to know about my particular grief, which is unknowable, like everyone else's."

    When grief is new, there's an impulse to recollect everything we can about the person we lost. We don't seek input for this endeavor. The idea of picking up a phone to ask someone even more devastated than we are for details of our lost friend's life feels self-serving and perverse. So we hold on to our grief and nourish it in solitude. 

    By giving up our grief, we transform the dead. The lost are found, remembered, loved. This isn't a criticism of the book, but hope for the author and everyone who suffers the loss of someone close. As we all do. As we all must. 

    "Everyone alive on earth is here, cheating death at every minute. We're all the same."

    Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


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