Meanwhile, in California… The Nervous Breakdown at Book Soup
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1.Lenore Zion kicking off the reading with her essay, “Community Service,” where she explores and upends the guilt ridden magnetism of social work. On her retirement facility foster child: “You tell him everything. Everything…That you’ve always lied about your biggest emotional trauma…then you cry…later you stand up and show him your breasts.” 2. Ben Loory reading from his short story collection, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. He feels like a rich, hopeful cross between Russell Edson and Kelly Link — imagining fantastic landscapes only to reveal what’s most human about them. 3. Greg Olear, the editor of TNB, reading from his novel Fathermucker. Describing a play date gone sour — “Iris growls, ‘I don’t like Beatrice and Brooke. I want to go home.’ What he’s learned: if your child wants to end the play date, what you do is end the fucking play date.”
Across LA, Friday night crowds were driven indoors by gloomy, scattered showers clearing the way for Fall, and in West Hollywood’s prolific Book Soup bookstore and magazine stand, it was standing room only. People finally had reason to wear their black coats with their black pants and I was feeling right at home with these fans of, and contributors to, The Nervous Breakdown, as a day rarely passes where I don’t gaze long into some cruel, shame-filled abyss. Founded in 2006 by fiction author Brad Listi, TNB is an online magazine and literary community that posts and reviews a wide variety of contemporary art, including work by Mindy Nettifee, Buddy Wakefield, and The Outlet contributor Jesus Angel Garcia. The readers were some of The Nervous Breakdown’s hardest working — and most well-reviewed — monthly contributors, and subjects of the evening included an old, nose-less leper, a skydiving moose, farts, and an at-home dad wrestling with toddler rage.
1. A crowd that understands an honest story must be both tragic and funny. 2. Victoria Patterson reading her exhaustively researched new essay, “Great Farts in Literature,” which she explained are used to convey, “drama, plot, and sensory details.” This is the sort of material English and Creative Writing teachers should really be passing out on the first day of class.
First up was the acerbic and experimental Lenore Zion, who read from her book of personal essays, My Dead Pets are Interesting, one of the first publications of TNB Books. The reality of her piece “Community Service” is one distilled between honesty and frustration, as she confesses to feelings like they were crimes, then uncovers their ridiculousness. When her nagging desire for public outreach drags her to a soup kitchen, she imagines those in line as “all the people who went under with the stock market crash and reacted with crippling psychosis.” When the old man she’s assigned to at a retirement home kills her in checkers, she thinks, “Next time, I’m gonna beat that motherfucker.” He has “skin like a leopard, purple spots dotting his arms & chest.”
Next up was Ben Loory, whose calm style and elemental progression creates a subtle and unique storytelling experience. Before reading his piece, “The Well,” he told the audience, “When I read it alone in my house I burst into tears, so we’ll see how this goes.” It’s about a boy who falls down a well, then “abruptly realizes he can fly.” When he can’t achieve liftoff again on land and his friends don’t believe him, he returns to the well, but, “Something’s missing, something’s wrong. It’s different in the well at night…he begins to think he didn’t actually fly out.” Ending with a nod to Woody Allen, in “The Man and the Moose,” Loory exhibits how to introduce a moose in disguise to your hunter friends at the Explorers Club: “This is my friend, Lawrence. He just came in from the coast.”
1. The crowd after the reading filling the bookstore. Book Soup struck me as LA’s answer to San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Books, with its towering shelves collecting a vast array of oddly specific genres.
Taking the podium with a nervous grin, Victoria Patterson, author of Drift and This Vacant Paradise, squirmed a bit as she informed the crowd that we would be the first to hear her essay, “Great Farts in Literature.” This is why Patterson is one of my literary heroes. “Please laugh, laugh or I’m gonna die,” she begged. Here’s an example of how James Joyce, as she says, blazed the trail: “You had an arsefull of farts, my darling, and I fucked them out of you.” W.H. Auden on writing: “Most people like the look of their own handwriting like they like they smell of their own farts.” One author lamented, “The anguish of a repressed fart,” and another later suggested it’s what leads to “excessive conversation” between women. Patterson then recounted the true story of the Earl of Oxford who took a seven-year absence from the royal court after farting as he bowed to Queen Elizabeth. Upon his return, she said, “My lord, I have forgotten the fart.”
Patterson introduced Greg Olear, editor of TNB, by saying that she brought his novel Fathermucker with her to read during a recent short hospital stay because she didn’t want to recover in “Chick lit land.” She accidently left it there, and when she returned found a receptionist “deeply engaged” in it, telling Patterson it was something she could really relate to. Olear writes about a dad home with two kids while his wife is gone on business, thinking in the back of his mind that she could be having an affair. Even through the father seems uneasy and exhausted, he paints the children as dynamic beings of beauty and strength. He read from the book’s intro — “Iris plods into the room…hair like Moe of Three Stooges fame, with whom the girl shares a striking resemblance.” At night, Iris wiggles between her parents “like a goiter in human form.” She’s mysterious, too — “She loves her passy. She puts it in her mouth like a cigarette.” To her, a preschooler, “Every conflict is a life or death struggle. It’s do or die.” Like Louis C.K., it’s dads like these a guy can actually learn something from.
1. I fully endorse this practice and want all bookstore owners out there to take note. 2. The post-reading crowd about to forge their way to decent restaurant/bar with some Italian name. I drank the best White Russian I’ve ever had, ate bread, and talked to Patterson about comic books.
To hear Ben Loory giving a great reading of his story “The Octopus,” go here.
— David Ohlsen, an LA native, is a thoughtless product of UC Riverside’s Creative Writing program and is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.