Book Review: STORIES V! by Scott McClanahan

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STORIES V!
Scott McClanahan
Holler Presents, 2011

I formally met Scott McClanahan through Facebook. He was wearing a suit that looked like linen. I quickly warmed up to him. He struck me as a big personality, a generous and sincere and open person. The first thing I read by him was this interview with Noah Cicero.

His Book: I got it in the mail on a Saturday. I was excited to hold the yellow envelope on my walk back to the apartment. My fingers squeezed the bubble wrap lining. Mail is the best kind of Santa.

I waited until I was alone to tackle the thing. Tackle is such a shitty thing to do to a book, especially STORIES V!, which I knew came to my home to please me. Why would I tackle something that meant well?

What I’m wondering is if V! can tackle back. I wouldn’t mind for it to body slam me to the ground. Losing my breath to V! seems oddly tittilating. Is this a fetish poking its head out: wrestling books?

But seriously, STORIES V! knows it’s an object, a book object. I respect that. I also see a lot of thought in the design of this thing. It makes sense. Just flip the book over and turn it upside down and count how many V’s you see. Even rightside up I see V’s. I think this means something.

I also read a post from one of Scott’s readers on his Facebook wall that said something like, “What’s the deal with the cover, Scott? Is it a reference to that Faulkner quote?”

I don’t know what this literary person was getting at, and the beauty in this cover is that I don’t have to know. This cover works on so many different levels. It can be as shallow as you want, or as deep as you can hold your breath.

On Why I Like This Book, Ignoring The Cover Girl And Her V’s

It’s a product of the writer’s imagination and sweat. Scott made this book. It’s indie. I fucking love indie books.

On the first page, Scott made it read:

Holler Presents
STORIES V!
2011

This book is a collection of stories. But in between each story, Scott carried me onward using cinematic segues that sometimes led directly into the next story, or somehow pulled me out of the story that just ended and spoke to me in such a way that I remembered where I was, what was around me. It’s this recognition, this extraction from his world, that propelled me headlong into the next piece with renewed energy and unfailing spirits despite the disturbing grit peppered throughout.

STORIES V! opens with the story of Scott’s mother telling him about the existence of Invisible Ink. Scott ends up believing in Invisible Ink, and he asks the reader to believe in it, too. After a few blank pages, after enough time to maybe believe on our own, the reader sees that there is such a thing as invisible ink, his mother wasn’t lying. Against all rational thought, his mother makes us believe in something that doesn’t seem possible, that shouldn’t be possible, and Mother becomes someone we can trust.

But then I turn the page and begin Jenny Sugar. I can’t stop reading this story. Every word counts for something. I follow each line. I dig through the white space that seems to be randomly inserted, to give the reader a chance to breathe, to ball into child’s pose and feel the body-warmth generated from words. By words.

Scott has a mother in this story too, the reader can assume it’s the same one, this time she is also telling Scott to believe, except she isn’t saying that word believe, she is saying I promise, she is telling him something that cannot possible be true, like invisible ink, she is telling Scott to believe in her, she promises nothing bad will ever happen to them, she won’t let it, she will make sure nothing fatal happens on their drive, the highway will listen to her, bend to her will, she can shape the highway, force its cars and trucks to put their safety first.

This time Scott isn’t so gullible. He simply can’t believe this, and Holler Presents doesn’t give the reader a few blank pages to start believing. This time Scott calls her out and the story ends.

Where does that leave the reader? Where does that leave me? I think all people become disenchanted, at least for the split second after they learn mom isn’t really a safehouse. What of dad? What happens to us when we learn dad is just another guy doing what he can? Scott doesn’t call his dad a fucking liar. Why is that? Maybe dad was spared only because he’s never around. Absent fathers are a curious presence in literature these days, at least it feels that way to me. I don’t know.

Sex Tapes is one of the more disturbing stories in V!. It follows a little chapter that reads like magic realism. Come to think about it, STORIES V! as a whole challenges my understanding of reality. I thought I knew something about life, about how strange and sad and beautiful it can be, but really I don’t know the half of it.

Sex Tapes is a story with ice in its veins. It’s a jarring story, infested with all kinds of people. In my wildest dreams I never would’ve thought to write a story like Sex Tapes, as narcissitic as Sex Tapes, as profane as Sex Tapes, that’s why I’m not Scott McClanahan.

But I won’t dwell for too long on this, after all, there is still popcorn to eat and a movie to watch, or rather a book that mimics a movie, uses the same devices that make movies different from books. Scott McClanahan’s STORIES V! is at once a book and a movie.

But There Is a Second Ending to Sex Tapes Too is like a scream into a canyon, and Dead Baby Jokes is the echo.

The intro to Nicky was new for me as a reader. I’ve rarely had a book make me feel like this. It took the time to draw me in. I wasn’t ignored. I was a real person.

Having said that, Nicky made me regret this special meta-treatment. I would’ve preferred being ignored and left alone in my non-existent reader state. Don’t bring me more to life than I already am, not if you are going to write stories with a wonky moral compass. Turpitude lives here. If you let it rub you, life will lose all its surface shine. I want my novels to be life-affirming, somehow, it doesn’t have to be sweet, it just has to be redeeming. It’s not really the characters per se in Nicky that are morally reprehensible, but the way they interact with each other and the plot they are stuck in.

There is another mom in Nicky, but not Scott’s. This mom isn’t kind or loving enough to straight out lie to her son. Instead, she beats him upside the head and reduces him to bits of something small and hard and jagged.

It feels like McClanahan is trying to say something about mothers in general, about how much sway they have over their children. It’s not that the mothers in STORIES V! are mistaken in their actions, but rather they don’t have good timing, all except for maybe the first mother, the one who makes us believe in invisible ink.

As for the others: There is the right time to confront your child and the wrong time, and this makes a big difference in the way a child turns out. Being an effective mother is all about choosing the correct battles to fight, the correct hands to bluff. It’s a sensitive role to play, and one that is decisive. Scott wants to illustrate this, a particularly important thing to get across since the final pages transubstantiate his indie book into a tiny little warm-blooded baby, his baby, Sarah’s baby.

I will read STORIES V! again, someday. I’ll probably get something different out of the experience when I do, as is so often the case with excellent writing that breathes, that is allowed to breathe and grow into itself. For now I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Hill William, Scott McClanahan’s first novel due out in Spring of 2012 from Tyrant Books.

My Rating =

June 19, 2011 7:52 pm

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