Windows/Screens: Pool Party Trap Loop by Ben Segal
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Keith McCleary
It’s two years ago and I’m driving Ben Segal home from class. As we pass through neighborhoods, he reads aloud from street signs and storefronts, overlapping words and shifting letters to make the text into palindromes and anagrams. A window advertisement is reshaped into a non sequitor, each letter moved forward in the alphabet one place and arranged again into the start of a dirty limerick, before being manipulated several more times with varying degrees of cohesion.
When I look at Ben in exasperation, he grins excitedly and starts complicating the game using multiple signs, building elaborate constructions of words that should not be there, that are not there, that blur with his enthusiasm.
“Really?” I’m saying against the tide of his thoughts. “What is this? Is this fun for you?”
“Oh yeah,” Ben says, his smile almost desperate. “It’s great! One of my many useless talents.” And I can see in his eyes that he truly means it.
It’s not the pithy one-liner of an overeducated ne’er do-well, but a demonstration of what he sees as a larger futility — the fine line between amusement and the void.
Ben self-describes as the ultimate academic, the end-all dilettante, cultivating minutiae and earnestness in equal measure. While many writers attempt to capture the clunky inarticulateness of everyday language, or spin wombs of performative prose, Ben’s work is obsessively precise, a maniacal attack of words. In class we attempt to workshop his stories, often learning that we’ve missed the entire point — we want to talk plot and character and Ben informs us that if we were really paying attention, we’d have noticed the iambic pattern of each line’s syllables, the staggered paragraph structure that decodes what the hell is going on in his weird little stories.
At that time two years ago, I felt like all these structural acrobatics are a waste of energy. Ben is an excellent narrative writer, able to layer detail and mood with an ornate simplicity.
“I’ve started reading it,” I say to Ben last week at a bar. I am referring to Pool Party Trap Loop, Ben’s palindrome-titled short story collection.
“I appreciate that,” he says sincerely, soberly. “What do you think of it?”
“Fucking dense,” I say.
“Right,” Ben says, perking up, gathering speed. “It’s like 140 pages and it’s the densest thing ever. It’s so dense it’s impacted. I like impacted writing. To be fair, that represents eight years of work. Eight years of my life in this little pink book.”
Pool Party Trap Loop is many things, but one is certain: it is pink. Its back copy is elaborate, the blurbage effusive. And because it is a fiction collection and you think it will help you if you know what the stories are about, here’s a representative sample: a man comes to orgasm in his vibrating easy chair by watching animals piss and shit through a glass built into his ceiling, while his wife engages in nightly acts of eco-terrorism. Hedgehogs storm a restaurant as two men named David become trapped in each other’s dreams. Planters grow grey limbs; civilizations sacrifice themselves to a pyramid of bodies. Eight brothers emerge from gelatin to walk into the ocean. A woman makes anal plugs out of her finger bones. A town is mapped with tunnels that align with star charts, tunnels that are filled with stuffed dolls. A would-be orgy among taxidermists becomes a haunting memory recorded on carcass machines.
Since none of that helps to define these stories’ plots and narrative throughlines, it may be easier to classify Ben’s work as surrealism, as body horror, as bizarro, as slipstream, or whatever else might suit. And that’s sort of fine — better than plot synopsis, anyway — but as Ben would tell you, still misses the point.
“A building exists also in language,” reads the opening line of “Windows/Screens,” the aforementioned tale of eco-terrorism and vibrating chairs. Elsewhere, entire stories are crafted from inexplicable syllogism: “Because he is a thylacine, Chris is a ghost.” The title, characters, motifs and objects in a story, like “Octopus,” reverberate around each other to create the cephalopod on the page, without a single tentacle ever being mentioned.
The rules of language, the sexual mores, the bloody violence that rigidly control Ben’s narrative decisions are not, as I once assumed, simply a set of magic tricks performed by an academic dilettante. There is an anguished deliberateness here. If the stories in Pool Party Trap Loop are a full-frontal attack — which I believe they are — the attack is not on the reader, but rather on the larger constructs that affect the way we fuck and think and speak.
Its purpose is to remind us that language, sex, violence, and even issues of conduct are inescapable and intractable, the only thing worth acknowledging, deserving of both our respect and contempt. If surrealism seems to suggest freedom and liberation, Ben’s work conversely demonstrates a series of structures — ethical, societal, linguistic — crashing into each other in ways that may be shocking, but make complete and absolute sense when set against the lattice of rules that govern and fragment our daily lives.
“The worst part of catastrophe is the normalcy that settles in after,” one narrator suggests toward the collection’s close. It’s the fear of complacency that fuels this little pink book’s fevered engines.
by Ben Segal