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Book Review: YOU PRIVATE PERSON by Richard Chiem


Richard Chiem {lives here & here}
Scrambler Books, 2012

Day 1


Here’s what happens: Bridget takes the keys from my sweatshirt pocket and walks into the mail area, where every resident of The Oaks gathers their mail.

I stay with Lenny, our German Shepherd mix. While he vacuums the area around the trashcan with his nose, Bridget scoops the contents out of our box.

She says, “Oh, look what you got.”
I say, “Is it a book? I’m expecting something from California.”


Back in our apartment, which has 2-bedrooms and 1.5 baths, Bridget asks if I want whiskey and freshly squeezed watermelon juice over freshly frozen watermelon ice cubes.

I taste the watermelon in my drink. I feel like I’m in Barranquilla, Colombia. Bridget is preparing butternut squash gnocchi. The whiskey in my drink, even though you can’t see it, is Benchmark.

As my body warms and loosens, the less I want to read THE VOICE OF THE MOON, which is an Italian book by Ermanno Cavazzoni made into a major film by Federico Fellini, and the more my attention breaks toward YOU PRIVATE PERSON by Richard Chiem.


Here’s how it happens: I look at the spine. I see the name of the book and the name of the author but not a mark from the press: Scrambler Books.

I go to our bookshelf and grab EVERYTHING IS QUIET by Kendra Grant Malone, also a Scrambler Books production, and I look at the spine: title, author, and the name of the press.


I walk back to my stool, which is one of two bought at Walmart. I admire the cover of YOU PRIVATE PERSON, designed by Mark Leidner. I feel anxious from the jumble of cars smothering what could be planet earth on the cover. I don’t say it but I think it.

I think, “I hate fucking cars.”

The font interests me. It’s not Helvetica. To be honest, I don’t know what it is. Then again, I don’t know many fonts other than Helvetica.

Three contemporary writers blurb Richard Chiem’s book on the back.

Dennis Cooper says, “… I think I’ll just nominate [Chiem’s] work for immortality.”

Kate Zambreno says, “… measuring days not in coffee spoons but in cigarettes and Simpsons episodes.”

A Simpson episode is 22 minutes.

Blake Butler says, “… full of passages that actually lead somewhere off of the paper.”

Under the blurbs is a narrow ISBN barcode, similar to Publishing Genius. To the right of the ISBN barcode is,



Here’s what happens: I see the CONTENTS. The contents seems a lot like a poem. I almost feel like it’s a meta-contents. I flip the page and scan the back of the contents and the number 18 stands out. I think, “There are no other numbers on this page.”

I flip the page back to the front side of the contents and the number 1 stands out. I see how the contents works. This books has 18 short stories in all, and two – ‘sociopaths’ and ‘animal’ – are slightly longer short stories, composed of multiple chapters under headings of their own.

On the page after the contents, there is a dedication,

for Frances Dinger

And on the next page there is a quote.

“The first fiction is your name.”
Eileen Myles

I read this to Bridget because I like INFERNO by Eileen Myles a lot.

On the front of the next page I see the word/title ‘sociopaths’ and I turn the page and read at the top ‘animals with expression’ and I start, not knowing what to expect.


I drink some watermelon whiskey and read,

Cigarettes can levitate you and the bare weight you have very bored in your head and you have never known you were unhappy until the feeling leaves you like imagined geese from hills eager for migration.

I think about Blake Butler’s blurb and I feel like he definitely read the first sentence. I want Richard Chiem to do this more. This sentence moves and does not wait for the reader. If you’re like me, this is the kind of sentence you reread three times or more, until you’re satisfied enough to read the next sentence.

And I’m happy there are other sentences like this throughout ‘sociopaths’ to keep me on my toes, following the migrating geese. Richard Chiem knows what it means to use a comma. He is sensitive to the pause of a comma. He knows when to use one and if he can get away without using one.

Kind of like minimalists, sensitive to what one additional word can do to a single sentence, how one word can tip the balance and, in the end, weaken the sentence, which is connected to the story, Richard Chiem takes this approach not with words, which he uses with soul, but with commas, which he disciplines.

Prose is sometimes pushed into new molds, to see if it works better. Do away with paragraphs (Bernhard), do away with some apostrophes (McCarthy), do away with quotes (Saramago), do away with some commas (Chiem). Stylized writers build their own rules. Rarely do these rules tend toward more syntax. In my experience, these rules shed layers, working toward the skeleton of language, toward whatever Bruce Lee meant when he said, “When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style. ” By taking away from language and syntax writers are moving toward a more streamlined universal code, something that doesn’t need rules, but is intuited.


‘sociopaths’ has six parts. I want more of this story, don’t want it to end. The pacing is right, scenes and characters develop without drag, the story is fresh, like it’s growing into something larger than its parts. I don’t feel it’s going to end too soon, leave me in the cold. I feel there’s a chance ‘you private person’ is going to be a novel starting with ‘sociopaths’ and ending with ‘when she pets the back of my neck I can be an animal’.

I get comfortable on my bolster.

Day 2


Wait. I forgot a detail.

I forgot to write,

“Here’s what happens: I turn to the end and see www.scramblerbooks.com with their logo, which is beyond my level of description. I want to say it’s an S that is actually uncuffed handcuffs spinning in an atomic orbit. I turn to the next to last page and see a b&w picture of Richard Chiem.

“Frances Dinger took it.

“Richard isn’t looking at the camera. I read his bio and say,

“‘He’s born the same year you are Bridget.’

“‘She says, “Really?”‘

“I drink watermelon whiskey and read his bio aloud,

“‘Richard Chiem (b. 1987) currently lives in Seattle with his girlfriend and their loud cat. In 2008, he survived a car accident. This is his first collection of short stories.’

“I show Bridget Richard’s picture and she says,

“‘It’s always interesting seeing what details writers include in their bios.’

“Survived a car accident.

“Here’s a picture of Richard Chiem at a reading in Seattle,

“Richard is the human body farthest to our left, looking at (and probably talking with) the person off camera. He’s wearing the same style beanie and glasses as in his author picture.”


On page 37 I make my first marginalia using a mechanical pencil.

Page 37 is toward the end of a story called ‘imagining Greta Gerwig’. Richard Chiem writes,

she thinks, the best dreams are when you wake up and discover you have been drooling the whole time on your pillow.

I write this in the margins, “Not true, WORST dreams for me end up with the most drool.”

For Richard Chiem to write a story in which he says ‘the best dreams are when…’ and go on to describe what is specifically my worst dream, is uncanny.

This isn’t the first time I feel SHARED EXPERIENCE with this book.

It’s giving me friends.

A popular song on the radio gives me friends, too.

Dopamine is involved in both instances.


On page 44, in the story ‘the same thing we do every night Pinky’, I make my second marginalia in response to something I think a lot about after I finish the book.

It’s from a transcript of a voice recording. In it a person tells a story beginning,

– This guy comes up to me on the street and gives me a dollar.

And I’d like to quote the whole page because it’s beautiful. The pop culture reference is exactly what I need, because the guy who gives him a dollar,

… looks astonished. While missing the crosswalk too, he watches me peer up from the dollar and opens his mouth. He nearly caresses my face when he reaches out and embraces my shoulder. Something softer for a moment replaces the air, as though lighter air. The man frighteningly resembles Bill Murray with a beard…


His look is very serious and ebbing into the slowness of the atmosphere with his blue eyes, his presence is this gentle wave thing. It’s surreal but okay. Bill Murray tells me, No one will ever believe you.

In the margins on page 44 I write, “Bill Murray prank.”

I know these moments happen. I know it because I’ve seen pictures of Bill Murray serving people drinks in bars. It’s possible, and it happens in the book, and I believe it really happened. I believe Bill Murray gave someone who wasn’t asking for a dollar a dollar, and said no one will ever believe him.

It’s great to think about.


By the middle of the book my marginalia is unrestrained.

On page 46, which is all in italics and part of the story ‘the same thing we do every night Pinky’, which is about the Bill Murray prank, I read what seems to be further development of ‘sociopaths’ at the very beginning of the book. I immediately become interested.

It’s about Thom, who is friends with Richard and Mary (characters in ‘sociopaths’) but apparently isn’t anymore. Richard and Mary ignore his call, and instead Thom leaves a long message about Bill Murray giving him a dollar, only the story isn’t true.

Thom is infatuated with Bill Murray.


I write marginalia everywhere. Clearly the book provokes Thoughts Through Activity. I don’t want to bore you with my notes. More often than not they are too personal to be of any value to anyone but myself, which is fine.

Like I don’t want to mention this note on page 87, but I will. In response to,

She belongs to a particular space on the carpet, a certain cushion on the sofa, the middle of her bathtub, and the space between her bed and wall.

I write, “Effective characterization of an introverted person.” In these short pieces (that sometimes read like flash fiction) Richard demonstrates how a character can be fleshed out in short order. It’s all about the details he mentions. If you find the right details, you don’t need to mention much.


The other stories in ‘you private person’ not associated with ‘sociopaths’ don’t stand out in my brain, that is, except for ‘how to survive a car accident’, which is about how we’re at the mercy of cars and everything else around us, constantly threatening our survival.

Richard Chiem wouldn’t have been able to write this if he hadn’t, like his bio says, survived. But there are no tips on how to survive, only a second-person narrative of the actual car crash and the mental and social confusion that follows the event. It’s almost as if he were saying, “You want to know how to survive a car accident? By living to write about it.”


The book ends on pages 138 and 139. Like all good books, you want to get even more from the writer. As if the writer hasn’t done enough already, you want something to carry around inside you.

And this book, meaning this writer, leaves with a short piece concerning Mary, the same Mary in ‘sociopaths’ is my guess, but it could be the Mary from ‘animal’, if they are different people.

This time Mary takes a shower with an unnamed first-person narrator, whom I believe to be Richard from ‘sociopaths’ even though it could be Richard from ‘animal’. Either way, both Richards are estranged from Mary by the end, so to END end on a story where Mary is with some unnamed first-person narrator, well, it is all a bit foggy, and my only complaint about the book: this intentional ambiguity, this carrying of characters (or at least their names) from one narrative to another. But, like Eileen Myles says in her quote, “The first fiction is your name.”

This last story is called ‘when she pets the back of my neck I can be an animal’ and it does a lot in the space of two pages. For me, Richard Chiem shines when his subject is a young couple. He doesn’t need to have the plot of ‘sociopaths’ or ‘animal’ to bring this couple to life, but the fact that he does have these plots, full of psychology and action, along with a young couple, makes these slightly longer short stories endearing.

There’s also a touch of humor/irony in this last piece.

First the narrator (Richard?) says,

Suddenly [Mary and I] know we will live for a long time and survive everything.

And then, at the very end, this young, invincible couple drives backward on a highway on their way to the airport, and that’s where they leave us. This is probably not literal but instead a statement about how reckless people can be simply because they think nothing bad could ever happen to them. Or at least they live fuller lives if they operate under that assumption.



November 25, 2012 9:29 pm

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