September 16th, 2011

The Quarterly Conversation

Review of Amazing Adult Fantasy
Jeff Bursey

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We’re in an unimaginative period when many readers prefer memoirs to fiction. Perhaps there’s something in Canadians and Americans that demands fiction to mirror life, to provide a perspective on how to live, like one would download an app designed to locate chain restaurants in foreign cities. Imaginative writing, so newspaper reviews would lead one to believe, has its best home in science fiction and fantasy titles. The serious novels—written by Philip Roth and James Ellroy, for example—don’t stray far from realism, unless you’re Spanish, South American or Salman Rushdie. When was the last time you picked up the local paper and saw a long review of a book that didn’t pretend to tell you exactly how this or that occupation was carried out in the 1540s, or describe minutely the way clothes were worn in 19th-century Wales? When was the last time an author’s style, above all other elements of a book, received praise in that same paper for its vocabulary, fresh metaphors, complex sentences, and the use of adverbs and adjectives, without once mentioning plot?


In the first volume of his four-volume set of criticism, Sheer Fiction (1987), Paul West has an essay titled “In Defense of Purple Prose,” and in it he says:


“Certain producers of plain prose, however, have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum, or flat, can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that, you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This essentially minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive, and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant, turns its back on something almost holy, and that is the human bond with ordinariness. . . . Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or point. Got up as a cry from the heart, it’s really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the speciously democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else. How many prose writers can you identify from their style?”


Based on this first book of fiction pieces by A.D. Jameson, I can say that though I think he could write like a realist, he has greater ambitions than devising a plot (though now and then one pops up) or developing a character you could care about. In fact, it would go against everything in the mood and nature of Amazing Adult Fantasy if a reader invested himself in what happens to the swirls of black on white that make up Ota Benga, Melissa, Nok Yai, and other figures. The opening piece, “Fiction,” occupies only one page but promises much, while addressing certain illusions we might have about what fiction ought to offer: “Fiction may be the worst thing about the 21st Century. Nobody likes it. Everyone has better things to do than pretend to care about who does what to whom, considering that these people aren’t even real. You think we would have learned our lesson after the 1800s, definitely after the 1900s.” This concludes with: “It’s no shame that this book was lost soon afterwards in [a fire]. Still, everyone was terribly disappointed.” What will his magically recovered version of fiction contain, then, if what appeared in two hundred years of creative writing is left out? Not real people (or not precisely, as we’ll see), not rounded characters, little plot, no dramatic arc; instead, we’re given style and the kind of playfulness one feels in Raymond Queneau’s The Sunday of Life. No wonder people were disappointed.


There are 16 short pieces (some are job ads for waste extraction workers, others summarize a television series), and a seven-part sequence titled The Solar Stories. A good example of Jameson’s extravagant prose can be found in “Rock Albany!,” the fifth of the Solar Stories:


“Rock laughed and shook his head, then dove into the lake far below. He swam easily to the far shore, where he dressed, then strolled down a path. He walked swiftly, with a loose, lazy expertness of motion. He walked down the long road on the sun, the sun’s only road. The sun was his home. He had lived there for seventeen years. Most men would die if they tried to live on the sun. They would burn up at once. Rock laughed at this thought. He found the sun charming. The sun, he thought, has been waiting here just for me. Waiting to be ripped apart by my dynamite and drill. Waiting for the new shape my hands will give it. He would paint it pigeon blue. He would install a Pekinese buttress. He would hand-raise pudgy canaries. Rock liked canaries.” [italics Jameson’s]


It’s clear that we are far removed from fidelity to the world, from colorlessness, and from parsimoniousness imagery. We stop at one word in particular: if “most” men would burn up on the sun, then not all will, allowing an impossibility to be possible for a moment. Or forever, since multiple readings will allow us, theoretically, to entertain that conceit eternally. Both the possible impossibility, or impossible possibility, and its longevity, are qualities found in fantasy, myths, legends, and tall tales. Rock could be the Paul Bunyan of Sol. What we also see here is the cruelty we associate with gods, demi-gods, and those touched, or afflicted, by the gods. Rock has no second thoughts about dynamiting, pillaging, defacing, and remaking the sun.


In the short pieces that precede these stories, Jameson has us meet Indian Jones, who bears a resemblance to a film character, yet his career and old age are not what we would have expected: “By now he’s a very old sculptor who can’t remember anything, who sits all day in a courtyard, drinking grappa.” His dog “feels like a goddess of memory on Olympus,” and “Indian Jones is God.” Not quite what the movies tell us, though of course there are movie gods (and screen sirens). Oscar the Grouch, who meets the narrator in many different ways (myths begetting littler myths, ad infinitum), Big Bird, and others who show up don’t do the things you’d expect, though their behavior isn’t entirely unfamiliar. They just seem to have wandered over to the dark side.


In Jameson’s multiverse, real people also float free of their tethers. This suits those whose stature is larger-than-life. In “Buzz Aldwin” Jameson riffs on Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong (renamed “Neal”). As iconic figures go, these two are near the top, and you have to admire a writer who steps in to mess around with their lives, substituting surrealism and soap opera for factual biography and science. The result is a warped version of their lives that mingles mystery and despair with “odor-starved dogs” and “a ten-thousand-word typewritten love poem.” The figures don’t come across as cartoonish because they were never people to begin with. (It also might be that Aldrin’s achievements, in Jameson’s view, raise him above the level of the ordinary person.) In a similar way, fun is had in “Bonnie Raitt, I Am Coming to See You.” While there is a resemblance to the real-life musician, it’s doubtful she’s aiming to “master the art of ceramics, ceramic music” that her obsessed fan, verging on a stalker, insists is her next step. (Jameson doesn’t mention Raitt’s healthy love for the music of NRBQ, though, which is a shame.)


All the well-known figures populating Amazing Adult Fantasy, some whose achievements are part of history, some whose existence flickers in the mind as part of a soundtrack or a celluloid memory (including the casts of Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation), were mythical before Jameson wrote about them, but he transforms them, re-imagining them—“Waiting for the new shape my hands will give it” indeed—for his pleasure, and for our times. He does so with fresh language that catches you unexpectedly. Rock Albany has “the mouth of an executed saint”; Goths “stank of mirrors”; a young boy named Peter who’s an intuitive cook “makes the meats he uses look like a suicide.” Alternatively, in “7 Movie Reviews,” Jameson blandly presents the contents of movies, uses the same character names over and over, and only occasionally forces out a sell line, so that the lack of energy and invention become the very things that seem to be missing. It’s as if he’s saying, “Watch, I can rein myself in.” He can also be crude and stereotyping in reverse, as when, in “My Parents Tried to Make Me More Popular,” the male character complains his “nice Irish girl can’t get knocked up worth shit.”


Two things struck me about the fireworks, off-beat remarks and jazzy phrasing. First, Jameson’s craft hides the effort behind writing freewheeling prose and knowing what fanciful conceits to retain. Second, while the stories contain humor, they aren’t sunny, and the Muppet-inspired pieces certainly aren’t for children. For all its lighthearted exterior, a grimness rests inside Amazing Adult Fantasy. A phrase from “Big Bird and Snuffy” applies to this book: “hidden deep inside a forest . . . uneasy things enjoyed themselves.” Those vague beings come out in the open suddenly, make their mark, and then retreat. Menace and foreboding help comprise the atmosphere of myths. But Jameson isn’t offering a glum view of the world because he isn’t offering the world at all. He’s written a book that places inventive writing at the forefront and come up with a work of fiction that looks breezy and contains much unpleasantness. His myths, in keeping with 21st century writing, don’t offer a lifeline to anyone. As Gilbert Sorrentino said, “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything” (The Moon in Its Flight), and I think Amazing Adult Fantasy is reminding us of that. There’s no life-changing message here, but perhaps by merging the poetic and the absurd we can tell our stories in new styles. Yet even that small solace is a source of tension, and may be denied by A.D Jameson when, on the last page of this fine book, a character who has gone through several adventures advises or warns of fiction’s follies:


“But even still, before we knew it, our time had come and gone. Now, at the end, we have to admit that we haven’t enjoyed ourselves. No one has had any fun. Our lives haven’t turned out at all the way we planned. Our lives haven’t turned out at all the way we wanted. Our stories, we have to admit, have been the cause of all our problems. Fiction, I’d like to insist, has been to blame.”


[Originally printed in The Quarterly Conversation]