Everything in its Rightful Place: Big Venerable by Matt Rowan
In an interview with Freerange Nonfiction, Seth Fried said he considered himself a fabulist. He went on to say, “I like the idea that stories are supposed to have meaning or raise important questions. Fables are great for that.” Matt Rowan is another author who fits into this category. His sophomore collection Big Venerable is a compact lexicon of moral imperatives. They shed light on the human condition and remind us that it’s okay to be a little strange. In seven stories, the collection spans the rise and fall of a unique fast food chain, a man’s struggle to make a dinner reservation, a father’s search for his missing son, a baker as he fights for love, the improbability of a man overcoming a bureaucratic wholesaler, a woman who is taken from her family by an organization that is dedicated to putting “everything into its rightful place” and a group of woodsmen on a filming expedition through an artificial forest. Each story stands on its own as uniquely funny and insightful, but the connective tissue that brings them together is their form and style, which is Rowan’s take on a new-age fable.
For instance, in the title story, we are thrown into a world that is divided by revolution. Central to this backdrop is a big-box store called Big Venerable that acts as neutral ground. The narrative starts broadly, layering the inner-workings of the store and how it fits into the surrounding conflict. Then, as it develops, the narrative focuses on a man who is fired for cutting in line at the register. The incident is a misunderstanding, but it’s the first injustice in a succession of injustices that lead to an explosive climax (literally), when the protagonist drives a truck filled with barrels of combustible liquid into the front of the store. It’s a veritable Grapes of Wrath but with less heartbreak and more humor, and instead of big banks, it’s Big Venerable that steps in as the bureaucratic antagonist. Rowan is commenting on the problems with consumerism and how it places more emphasis on money than humanity, but he also humanizes the machine. He places it in an environment that exposes its ethos as self-destructive and manipulative, which are two traits that are uniquely human.
These broader strokes are what make Rowan’s stories specific to the fable form, but unlike more traditional fables, his stories don’t skimp on character development. In the story “The Bureau Of Everything Fitting Into its Rightful Place”, we follow Myrna as she is abducted from her family and held in a camp designated for people and objects that don’t yet have a rightful place. The story starts with a rally that Myrna skips. She says, “I was confident that all we needed to do was ignore the process altogether. I could live and function in the world in one sense, but remain totally apart from this.” As she says this, we understand that it is impossible, but nevertheless, we want to hope that it is. The story that unfolds is teeth-gnashingly suspenseful and devastatingly real, but the momentum is driven by Myrna’s unrelenting perseverance and willingness to sacrifice her own wants and needs for those of her family and the people around her.
And while “The Bureau Of Everything…” may seem like a devastating romp through hell, it’s true charm and the charm of this whole collection is Rowan’s ability to balance sincerity with humor. In an interview that Joy Williams did with the Paris Review, she said: “We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality… We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” I love this statement. I walk around thinking about it all the time and what it means. I want to believe that there is a threshold that rubs right up against the prolix prose that she’s talking about, but still reflects the optimism and sentimentality that she says is so important: being sincere but not sentimental, while still keeping a since of humor that doesn’t ignore the real problems, big and small, that everyone faces everyday. This is no easy task, and it’s hard to say whether any author has hit that high mark. What is so fun about reading Big Venerable is that you can see Rowan reaching for it, and he manages to come pretty close.
In his attempt, he creates wonder similar to Ben Loory or Amelia Gray. He manages elements of sci-fi and spec-lit similar to Mathew Derby or Ben Marcus. And at times, his comedic prose is like that of Sam Lipsyte or Gary Shteyngart. If you’re a fan of any of these authors, I suggest picking up a copy of Big Venerable. I know, I’ll be picking it up again and again.
by Matt Rowan