Monday, April 18, 2016

Like an Electric Worm in Your Brain: A Review of Zero Saints

This novel has everything you need. You knew it just from looking at the cover. You knew it from the title.

Yes, Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias is one of those books.

Complex characters? Check. Dark magic realism? Check. Scathing commentaries on border politics and contemporary society? Check. Fully bilingual brutality and grit like you’ve never ever seen before? Check.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the genesis of “barrio noir,” and you’re gonna want to get in on it.

Like now.

Zero Saints is the story of Fernando, a smalltime “enforcer and drug dealer” in Austin, Texas, who winds up eyeball-deep in shit after some real-deal Mara Salvatrucha gangsters decide that he and his associate Nestor are an inconvenience to their own retail endeavors.

Well, Nestor is cut up and fed to…something by the gang’s sociopathic leader. Fernando is left reeling, stuck between a rock and a hard place. He's forced to continue his dealings to get by, risking a fate similar to that of his friend. (He’s also got the hots for a fairly straitlaced neighbor-lady, which further complicates things.) Good options are a luxury that Fernando cannot afford. So, with the help of an ancient death saint, a handful of seedy business associates, a few dark mystics, and some expert-level prescription pain-pill abuse, he attempts to overcome the odds and save himself from a most grisly demise at the hands of the Salvatrucha.


In addition to all this insanity, I really respect that Iglesias wasn’t afraid to get overtly political at times with this story. His commentaries are as rock-solid as the book’s narrative and gritty aesthetics. Zero Saints is a full-fledged literary punch to the gut. It's a fist of beautiful words clad in filthy, rusted brass knuckles.

In regard to the novel’s bilingual prose, some readers out there seem concerned. I admit that I'm biased on this matter. I’m fluent in both English and Spanish (I spent a few years doing activist journalism in Mexico and Central America). That said, I don’t think the book will pose any major problems to all you English-only readers. If anything, you’ll pick up some useful slang and profanity in Spanish. Just give it a shot, güey. 

I loved Zero Saints. Not only can I say that it's the best book I’ve read this year, it’s also been added to my list of Favorite Things.


Yes, whether Gabino Iglesias likes it or not, his novel now occupies a space in my mind alongside Videodrome, The Locust’s Plague Soundscapes, northern flying squirrels Hieronymous Bosch paintings, and pizza.

And if you don’t like that, Gabino, well, you’re just gonna have to hunt me down, saw me into pieces, and feed me to…something.

However, know that I too have a Russian friend.

Yeah, okay, I don't.

Here’s an excerpt from Zero Saints para ustedes.

For real though, just go buy the fuckin’ book. This shit’s gonna burrow into your brain like an electric worm.

I promise.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Dystopian Nightscape Sounds: A Review of Lost Themes II by John Carpenter

It’s about as amazing as any reasonable person would have expected.

John Carpenter’s Lost Themes II is a synth-rock masterpiece. It is a diabolical tribute to everything the man stood for during his heydays as a filmmaker and composer.

The album is Carpenter’s second release of “non-soundtrack material” with the Sacred Bones label. Much of Lost Themes II, though, really could be a soundtrack to any Classic Carpenter Film. And that’s a good thing.

It's all instrumental, by the way—no vocals.

The album opens with “Distant Dream,” a driving, blobby little piece that calls to mind some of the best music from They Live. From there we’ve got nearly an hour of sounds that induce fevered imaginings of uneasy night drives, neon-lit alleyways, and glistening skyscrapers towering into obsidian skies. Everything you ever wanted from Carpenter, amirite?

The songs of Lost Themes II are cryptic, creepy, and short. However, some of the tracks, like “Angel’s Asylum” and “Last Sunrise” delve into moods of sadness and sentimentality. Carpenter is certainly no Ennio Morricone when dealing with such emotions, but the tracks ultimately deliver within the context of the album.

Oh, and John Carpenter even tossed in a broody, badass bonus track—“Real Xeno”—just because he likes you so much. (I’m still not sure what makes the song a “bonus.”)

Segments of the music world are currently undergoing a re-visitation of 1980s synth genres. Tasteful tributes, knock-offs, and pretenders abound. Sure, much of it is passablesome of it is even excellent. But when The Master himself is back at it, cranking out albums and touring the country, why mess with anything but the best?


Okay, yeah.

You’re right.

It's important to support new, up-and-coming artists as well.

But now is still very much the time to hop on a glider and descend into the stylized, dystopian-nightscape sounds of Lost Themes II.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Darkness in a Vacuum: A Review of You With Your Memory Are Dead

I’m a fan of the film Begotten. Accordingly, I was drawn to Gary J. Shipley's You With Your Memory Are Dead from the first moment I read about it. The publisher’s description reads:

“When Mr. Shipley first shared with me his desire, to lock himself in a room with nothing but 
Begotten playing in a loop cycle, watching its images over and over again for two weeks, isolating himself from any outside influence, taking no interruption or break except to sleep, it seemed like a recipe from the writers of the old testament prophets manipulating and isolating all sense so they may unfettered by the noise of the everyday unearth their experience of the divine; Gary’s approach to making Begotten his own in a ritual of creative-conscious engagement is a decision to no longer passively ‘watch’ Begotten but to enact and digest within his own being a ritual which would remake the film inside his very temple of earth, his body.”

Sounds like fun, right?

Also, turns out the above is part of the book’s preface and attributed to E. Elias Merhige, the guy who made Begotten


So between that comment, the book’s sinister-beautiful title, and the unsettling cover art (a very choice still from 
Begotten on VHS), I was totally sold. I put it on order.

It wasn’t until after the book’s arrival that realized 
You With Your Memory is something like horror-poetry, not prose. 

No problem, I thought.

I’m a big fan of horror-poetry, so I dove in. 

You With Your Memory Are Dead is 119 pages of free-verse, delivered via chapters broken into countless disjointed sentences. The sentences are descriptions of überdark imagery and phenomena. It's overwhelmingly very abstract. Much of it is difficult to visualize.

Take a look. 

“A cloud’s puked black nuptial flight.
A light contaminated with every kind of tension.
A flickering licked dream of atomic waste.”

. Had the book degenerated into this kind of thing from a more coherent or relatable start-point, I think the writing would have packed a much harder punch. But the abstracto insanity begins on page one. Here are the opening lines.

“I forget everything.
The un-knowing I knew that became the fetish of me.
And the room I’m in.”

What about Begotten? you might be wondering. How does this book connect to the film?

Some of the writing certainly references Begotten outright. At times it also does so indirectly. Often, though, it doesn't at all. If you’re a fan of the film, you’re liable to feel totally indifferent to this book.

Here's another excerpt.

“When there are shadows but nothing can cast them.
And a human flag made from human skin.
Because I look down at my hands, and my fingers look like the tangled skeletons of eaten mice.”

And from there we’ve got giant birds, “spectral goo,” a partially-melted walrus, and a total lack of context for any of these things. 

Yes, it’s all very unsettling.

Dark shit occurring in a vacuum. 

I have to admit, I would feel uncomfortable recommending this book to most people. Obviously, it's not for the whole family—or anyone who demands discernible meaning in the things they read. That said, the book is somewhat fascinating, and I do appreciate Shipley's literary risk-taking. You With Your Memory is certainly no Naked Lunch, but today's world is sorely lacking for anything along those lines.

While I'm not sure what I got out of this one, it's at least praiseworthy, on principle, for its raw madness and brazen, fuck-the-establishment aesthetics. 

And there are some gems in the mix (to be clear, I did enjoy the partially-melted walrus concept). Here's an interesting segment that struck me as meaningful for reasons I still cannot fathom.

"And my throat clicks and whirs like a camera shutter. And I am swallowing rooms and light, and the brain from my head, and my home in pieces, in geometric chunks. And the universe going down. And I'll need some water."

Also, much of Shipley's writing 
in You With Your Memory called to mind seedy mondo films from the 1980s. That's another asset in my book.

But still.

Surreal images, dark fragments, and literary Rorschach experiments—these things are sometimes worth our time and attention. When handled correctly, they can help us to understand the world and give meaningful form our fears, anxieties, and ailments. I'm still trying to decide if You With Your Memory Are Dead offers any of that.

In the meantime, I would recommend this book to only the most diehard fans of dark, surrealist, and experimental writing. 

Here's a long excerpt if you want to check it out.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Joke’s on You: A Review of Your Glass Head Against the Brick Parade of Now Whats

I almost didn’t buy this one because it's a work of poetry.

See, I’m a huge fan of Sam Pink’s prose. His novels Person and No Hellos Diet are among my all-time favorites. And his short stories, like “Two Things About Living in Romeoville, Illinois” and “Ryan Francis,” are works of violent, depressive genius.

His poetry, however, has often left me disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, when it’s good, it’s really fucking good. “Apartment” and “I Always Think, ‘If I Just Get a Good Amount of Sleep I’ll Be Fine'” come right to mind as poetic high-water marks for Pink. That said, his book of collected poems is some 450 pages-long. As I look over my copy, I see that I’ve dog-eared maybe 15 of those pages. Much of it reads like a boring, melodramatic diary. 

Your Glass Head Against The Brick Parade of Now Whats is perhaps
 something of a turning point in Pink’s poetry. It’s 70 pages long, and every single fucking word is worth your time.

I promise.

Sam Pink describes Your Glass Head as a single “beautiful nice poem,” which seems fitting enough, I guess. But I’d add that it’s also a catalog of depressing aphorisms, grim metaphors for modern living, and bleak, fragmentary observations—all completely relevant to real people in today’s world. It’ll strike a chord for sure. No narrative frills. Just raw, unmitigated negativity, depression, and self-loathing. It's a perfect distillation of Sam Pink’s oeuvre, calcified and sharpened to a glistening point for slow insertion into one of the more membranous parts of your body.

Your Glass Head is full of wisdom for today’s world.

“Every waking moment, forced forward by invisible bayonets.”

“Life like the only reality is waking up every couple of days for ten seconds in the seat of a car that’s skidding off a snowy road.”

Yet, it also has tragic absurdity and black humor.

“Yearly Christmas card that reads, ‘Still haven’t killed myself, Merry Christmas.'”

“That thing where you go to shake someone’s hand but pull it away to slick back your hair except instead of that you reach into your pants and pull out a gun and shoot yourself.”

And it even offers some righteous, anti-authoritarian anger as well.

“Spitting at the firing squad.”

Truly something for everyone.

Well, everyone who has the courage to look into the mirror each day and actively hate what they see. Everyone who has the strength to look at our world and acknowledge how utterly stupid and suffocating it is. If you're one of those people, this poem will sing a song to your soul. It is a masterwork of depression and abject alienation. It is epic. It is Sam Pink's "Howl."

But here’s the thing. Increasingly, when I read Sam Pink’s works, in spite of his seething self-loathing, I can’t help but feel that the joke, ultimately, is on me—on his readers.

See, Sam Pink is a reasonably successful and respected author. He’s published several books that seem to resonate with people. He can sleep easy knowing his ideas—and his life—have meant something to other human beings. If you’re anything like me, you’re still struggling to publish your work. You're full of bad ideas. You’re broke and on-track to be forgotten, immediately, upon the moment of your death. You’ve had no significant impact on the lives of others, and you probably never will. You are nothing. Sam Pink, though, is something.

So the joke is on you, my friend.

The joke is on me.  

Sam Pink is “Depresso-O the Magnificent,” and I love him for it. Go get a copy of Your Glass Head Against The Brick Parade of Now Whats. Read it and contemplate what a directionless mess your life is, you pathetic piece of shit.