Kurt Baumeister and Jonathan Evison on Nate Ragolia’s Podcast A Vague Idea, Discussing Football and Writing, April 6, 2021

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A Vague Idea « »Football with Kurt Baumeister & Jonathan Evison

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This week, authors and football fans Kurt Baumeister and Jonathan Evison are facing off on an episode all about FOOTBALL. We discuss Mike, Sam and Will, the USFL, Knute Rockne, and try to sort out who would win in a battle to the death between the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2007 New England Patriots. This is as physical as a podcast can get, so strap on a leather helmet and brace for impact.

Check out the many books by Jonathan Evison: https://www.jonathanevison.net/

Or, if you’re gonna listen to Jonathan, check out Kurt’s novel, Pax Americana: https://kurtbaumeister.com/ and look out for his forthcoming Twilight of the Gods.

If you like A Vague Idea, please subscribe, rate and review us! We’ll love you forever.

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Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by John Madera for his podcast Jamming Their Transmission, Episode 17, Life During the Contagion, July 3, 2020

https://tunein.com/podcasts/Arts–Culture-Podcasts/Jamming-Their-Transmission-p1205725/?topicId=144764640

Jamming Their Transmission: Episode 17, Life During the Contagion, Pt. 4

7 views•Apr 6, 202110SHARESAVEBig Other47 subscribersSUBSCRIBEDToday’s episode features Big Other‘s editor John Madera in conversation with  writer Kurt Baumeister, writer/musician Matthew Binder, artist/musician Hieronymus Bogs, and musician Jeremiah Hosea sharing encouraging words and/or their thoughts about what gives them hope during the contagion.SHOW MORE

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Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Ben Tanzer on This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode 221 on April 20, 2020

http://tbwcylinc.libsyn.com/this-podcast-will-change-your-life-episode-two-hundred-and-twenty-one-write-what-you-want

This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode Two Hundred and Twenty-One – Write What You Want, starring the Kurt Baumeister.

April 30, 2020 · Kurt Baumeister,Podcast,Books,Success,Social Anxiety

I’m really excited to share new This Podcast Will Change Your Life. I’m also excited that you get to hear my conversation with the Kurt Baumeister and contained therein, including, but not limited to literary citizenship, publicity, self-promotion, and public readings, also social anxiety, anime, success, doing the work, not to mention timing and luck, PAX AMERICANA, magic, blurbs, reviews, and a whole lot of name-dropping, Jonathan Evison, Kara Vernor, Martin Amis, Gabino Iglesias, Caroline Leavitt, and A Mighty Blaze, Greg Olear, and much, much more. So please do This Podcast Will Change Your Life, because it will most definitely do that.

Also, as motivated, most definitely check-out our last episode: This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode Two Hundred and Twenty – Being Heard, starring the Shifra Malka.https://www.tanzerben.com/show_iframe_component/3930159SUBSCRIBEPreviousThese Books Will Change Your Life – How To Write An…NextIn which The Coil Magazine most graciously runs with “We… Return to site

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

FEATUREDINTERVIEWSLIT.SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS

SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS: KURT BAUMEISTER

AUGUST 31, 2020
by TOBIAS CARROLL

Kurt Baumeister

The guiding principle of Six Ridiculous Questions is that life is filled with ridiculousness. And questions. That only by giving in to these truths may we hope to slip the surly bonds of reality and attain the higher consciousness we all crave. (Eh, not really, but it sounded good there for a minute.) It’s just. Who knows? The ridiculousness and question bits, I guess. Why six? Assonance, baby, assonance. (And in a very special edition of Six Ridiculous Questions, this time around it’s 6RQ creator Kurt Baumeister’s turn to get a host of bizarre questions. One might even call this turn of events “ridiculous.” -ed.)

1. After centuries of isolation, the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists emerge from their secret castle with a bold revelation: months are bullshit. Specifically, the existing 12 months. Total bullshit. And to make matters worse, holding on to the current system of 12 months will hasten the end of the universe. From here on in, each year will last for 5 months, and these months will be significantly longer than the ones we currently have. What would you name these 5 months? And would you prefer a system where all 5 are roughly the same length, or a calendar where there are 4 months of 3 days apiece and then one month lasting 353 days? For extra credit, figure out how leap years factor into this.

I’m glad the truth is out. For years, I’ve dealt with the burden of having this vast, secret knowledge. As an Associate Assistant Vice Prelate of the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I’ve known since my induction at the age of…oh, you wouldn’t understand, the calendar is completely different, but I was absolutely younger than I am now. 

At that former, younger age I learned I’d have to say goodbye to the traditional twelve months. No more Christmas in December (or July for that matter), no more 4th of July (even in July!), and absolutely no more Thanksgiving in November (turkeys everywhere would have applauded if they could). It was tough but I managed, and I’m here to say it can be done. I mean, look at our forefathers, the Game of Thrones™ TV show people. They didn’t have months. I’m actually not even sure they had weeks. 

(Contributor’s Note 1: Research tells me humanity’s ancient ancestors on the Game of Thrones™ TV show, used “moons” instead of “months,” but didn’t give them names(?) Or maybe this is something they were still working toward when the Neanderthal hordes came out of nowhere (actually a cross-dimensional tear in the time-space continuum) and took over Westeros renaming it what it really is which is England.)

As far as the new system goes, if you’re asking my opinion, which the Most Holy Conclave did, in fact, not, I’d tell you I’d prefer no system at all. Just let it ride, start counting days, day after day after day. No months, no weeks, no years. How old are you, one might ask conversationally? To which a Trump supporter might be forced to say, “I can’t count that high.” Fun, right?

But if you force me—and being the guest interlocutor of Six Ridiculous Questions™ at Volume 1 Brooklyn™ you do, indeed, have immense power—I’d probably name them after pets I always wanted to have. Maybe everyone should just do that? You know, have their own set of five months named for their own set of five fictional pets. Which, honestly, would achieve my true goal of having people stop using months entirely. 

(Contributor’s Note 2: MenipPUSS!, Madame Rasputin, Van Howl-sing, Count Pugnacious von Countervalence, and Rusty Buzzsaw.) 

(Contributor’s Note 3: Though I admit to membership in the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I make no representation as to whether said membership is in “good” standing. Make what you will of my need to put “good” in scare quotes.) 

2. Why aren’t there more cryptids that are clearly inspired by large, ill-tempered ducks? The Jersey Devil doesn’t count.

There aren’t more large, ill-tempered anatine cryptids because people outside New Jersey don’t care enough about them. And it causes pain, I know, great pain not only to the citizens of New Jersey but also the cryptid in question, said Jersey Devil. 

Like any devil, from El Diablo on down, the Jersey Devil is a bit like Tinkerbell. If people don’t believe in it, it becomes less real, closer to not even being a cryptid at all. What should those creatures, of which there must be billions, those former anatine cryptids who no longer live even in myth, be called? Nultids? Niltids? 

Whatever you choose to call them now that you know about them, they live in a pocket dimension unseen by human eyes. A little like old, forgotten gods—a little like El Diablo himself—they sit, lonely, praying for the day when humans will once again believe in them enough to debate their existence. Except, now, we’ve fucked that up. You with your question, me with my answer, we’ve turned these creatures if not into cryptids then certainly not into niltids any longer. Is there some yet to be named shadow-state between cryptid and niltid? 

Well, whatever they are, these critters (can I even call them that?) have got people thinking about them, which means they’ve become a little more real, even if they’re not really real. They remind me a little of anti-Trump Republicans. I think they might be out there because I hear much talk of them. But I can’t be certain until I see whether they vote to save us from what some might call…a demon messiah…

3. The demon messiah crept from his tomb, his eye glowing a bright green and his single fang beginning to smoke. Honest Walt Dingo, interplanetary trader, had only one shot with his trusty LaserKite. Yet instead of ending the demon messiah’s newfound reign of terror, Honest Walt Dingo chose instead to destroy the world’s supply of monster trucks. Just before the demon ate him, Walt Dingo called his shot “perfect.” What did he mean?

Aside from imagining Trump as a political demon messiah which seems appropriate for many reasons…the term makes me think of Ziggy Stardust’s “leper messiah,” which I have for fun occasionally pronounced “leopard messiah.” And let’s be honest: wouldn’t you really rather have a leopard messiah than just about any other sort of messiah? I know I would. 

Anyway, back to Honest Walt and his perfect shot: I don’t know if perfect is accurate in terms of assessing the success of his shot—and, to be clear, anyone who assesses their own anything as “perfect” has a suspect opinion—but let’s say Walt’s shot was “really, incredibly great.” And destroying all the world’s monster trucks in one shot would be quite impressive. But, what else must Walt have achieved with that shot to think it perfect? More to the point, what else might Walt have achieved had he focused his energies in a more productive direction? 

To answer the former, I suppose Walt may have been dying of a terrible disease which means that this whole scenario, in which he was able to skirt his last twelve agonizing months and, in turn, destroy all the world’s monster trucks (hideous creations not un-akin to an automotive cryptid) then was killed by, of all things, something as cool as a messiah, let alone a demon messiah, may have been just what he was after. To answer the latter: Walt could have cured cancer or, more apropos, his own hideous disease, whatever it was. He could have been President of Westeros or even America. He could have created a whole new cryptid named Honest Walt Dingo, which would have been a nice trick, right? 

(Contributor’s Note 4: A dingo is a type of wild dog indigenous to Australia, land of more than a few cryptids. See giant saber-toothed kangaroo, etc. (Of which you can see a facsimile at the Natural History Museum in Hobarton, Tasmania!))

4. Would you rather pilot a giant robot or have the power to psychically control a kaiju from miles away? What if there were too many voles in the city?

No. But what I would like to discuss is society’s general opinion of rodents. By the slant of your second question, I infer you to infer voles to be not good, as in bad. This is a common perception, so don’t feel bad about thinking ill of them. 

For my part, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I had a hamster and a gerbil as childhood pets, but I’ve always found rodents pretty cute. Yes, even rats. True, I don’t live in New York City where I’m told rats grow as high as an elephant’s eye, where rats, I’m also told, will slink off with an unattended pizza slice, toy poodle, or small child. That said, I had an ex-wife once—

actually, I still do as far as I know—who hated squirrels, going so far as to call them “yard rats.” 

While I found the phrasing pithy, and still do, I never agreed with the characterization. Accepting my general pro-rodent stance, I’ve always seen squirrels as far above rats in the rodential hierarchy. Is this why my wife became ex-, this affinity I seem to have for rodents in general and yard rats in particular? Who can say? What I can say is that I resent your implication as to there ever been “too many voles” in any city.

5. “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” as the saying goes. But why would someone want to live in a glass house to begin with? 

Only in post-postmodern America is this question trenchant, for a land must indeed be rich and careless for its citizens to contemplate living in houses made of glass. I imagine it would be nice to be able to look out into the world from any point in one’s own house. The light in a glass house must be pretty phenomenal. Of course, unless we’re talking about some specially treated sort of glass, which we could be, people can see in, too. Which would, I suppose appeal to an exhibitionist.

(Contributor’s Note 5: Is there a point at which a glass house would become problematic in and of itself? Are you, definitionally, enticing people to look in and see…whatever? And what if they see something they don’t like? Which seems quite possible. You were in your house doing whatever, which whatever was presumably legal, so…is it on you or on them that they looked?)

(Contributor’s Note 6: Once upon a time, an old-timey musician named Billy Joel put out an album called Glass Houses. Perhaps the true solution to this important question lies within?)

6. Who taught you to juggle?

I cannot juggle, Toby, but it’s something I’d like to be able to do. Other things I can’t do but would like to: ride a unicycle, hula dance (though I can hula hoop), and walk on stilts. 

Kurt Baumeister is an American novelist, essayist, critic, and poet. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press, 2017) was selected as a Best Book of 2017 by [PANK] Magazine. Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Rain Taxi, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, and others.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

REINVENTING POSTMODERNISM: A REVIEW OF CHARLES YU’S “INTERIOR CHINATOWN”

JULY 28, 2020
by KURT BAUMEISTER

Charles Yu book cover

Once upon a time, when postmodernism was young—before it became what-the-hell-is-postmodernism-really(?) and post-postmodernism—unique literary conceits were enough to draw oohs and ahs from critics. Think of John Barth with the nested narrative loops and literary equations of Lost in the Funhouse; Nabokov with the fiction inside poetry inside criticism of Pale Fire; or Coover with his cinematic A Night at the Movies. Great as those works were in their time, the audacious formal tricks that defined them have, to a great extent, already been tried. The novel as screenplay…or treatment…or cinema, for example, has been done and done and done. So much that when I came to Charles Yu’s latest, Interior Chinatown, I wondered whether there could possibly be enough of a point to what seems primarily a formal experiment. Could Yu, a writer I confess to liking, even admiring, possibly do enough to justify publishing a novel like this in 2020? Then I read it. And, in this instance, at least, reading is believing.

Driven as Interior Chinatown is by the form and fragmentation of a screenplay, never mind its satirical focus, you wouldn’t expect it to pack the emotional heft it does. Maybe that has to do with the number of less-is-more choices Yu makes here, the way he pares down to the essential not only in terms of prose but in story and characterization. True, Interior Chinatown may be about big issues like family, culture, and society but this is fundamentally the story of one man. That man is Willis Wu, aspiring Kung Fu Guy (KFG). 

Having progressed through a litany of pre-determined Asian-American roles, including, of course, Generic Asian Man 1, 2, and 3, Willis is trapped in the diabolical TV industry that is Interior Chinatown’s America, a place where all that’s left for him is potential ascension to KFG, the pinnacle of Asian-American achievement. This arc of confined ambition and outwardly determined goals is one we see acted out by the rest of the book’s predominately Asian cast from Willis’ father (Old Asian Man) to his mother (Old Asian Woman) and love interest, Beautiful Asian Woman. But it’s in Willis’ “big break,” his guest role on Yu’s invented American cop show, Black and White: Impossible Crimes Unit (ICU) that the story achieves its greatest effect, more than earning its formal gymnastics. 

The satire is brilliantly sharp, here, the canvas an SVU sendup that perfectly encapsulates the struggles of people of color in America. Smart, funny, and an effortless read, this is a book that never comes across as a racial screed against any one group. Rather, Interior Chinatown is about America, where minorities often struggle to cling to memories of a distant homeland while embracing a new land that often seems, like the old one, to be honest, as though it doesn’t want them around.

***

Interior Chinatown
by Charles Yu
Pantheon; 288 p.

TNB Book Review: Teddy Wayne’s Apartment Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Teddy Wayne’s Apartment , reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

July 09, 2020

Fiction Reviews

On its surface, Teddy Wayne’s latest might seem like an obvious rebuttal to today’s literary culture. Set a quarter-century ago, Apartment is a book about young, white men narrated, not surprisingly, by a young, white man. A brief, breezy read, chock full of winning twists of prose, Apartment is a semi-satirical take on class, masculinity, and the Academy; Columbia’s MFA program, to be precise, where dubiously constructive workshops teem with “types” recognizable to anyone who’s been within screaming distance of an MFA.

There’s the mid-list novelist/teacher who hasn’t published anything in years but somehow manages to present himself as a sort of Hemingway; the talented, effortlessly handsome “working class” writer; and the Atlantic-published “hack” who may not be a hack at all. Then, there’s our nameless narrator whose psychiatric problems (He’s a writer, isn’t he?) may present superficially in relation to his work but, like any good Teddy Wayne protagonist, run much deeper.

Unlike David Federman, the murderous misanthrope at the dark heart of LonerApartment’s protagonist seems harmless enough at first. Continually back-footed by the world, he’s a lovable quasi-loser who sweats too much, gets tongue-tied easily, and lacks the sort of literary self-confidence Mr. Effortlessly Handsome (aka Billy) seems to have in abundance. Like the reader, in fact, our “hero” has no idea just how bad he is until he’s presented with a crisis in the friendship—a threesome that goes from foursome to nonesome in a matter of seconds, leaving the once chummy roomies at odds.

Over the intervening weeks, Billy’s behavior goes from chilly to Siberian, eventually presenting our narrator with the justification and opportunity for a modest amount of payback. In taking revenge, though, our hero reveals a malevolence at least kindred to Loner’s Federman as his desire for vengeance snowballs into a potentially life-destroying crime of passion.

Simmering at the center of Apartment are issues of class and wealth, yes; but at a deeper level, this novel is about sexuality. The homoerotic subtext of this book is handled sparely and with grace by Wayne, who leaves our unnamed protagonist alone at the age of fifty. His literary dreams forgotten; he looks back on the relationship with Billy with an honesty he has somehow still not managed to turn to his own sexuality. This ending with its strains of sadness, anomie, and the lingering possibility of a world held together by a sort of happy nihilism is possibly the finest part of what is overall a well-crafted novel.

Overall, I can’t call Apartment anything but a success. It deftly captures the highs and lows, the heady dreams and soul-numbing disappointments, of the young writer. No, this isn’t the sort of book you read and say to yourself, “Gosh, I can’t wait to write.” But, in the intervening minutes or hours or weeks, as you pick yourself up off the metaphorical floor, you will appreciate the humor, literary polish, and psychological depth of a book that only seems obvious.

TAGS: apartmentTeddy Wayne

KURT BAUMEISTER reviews books for The Nervous Breakdown. His writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Entropy, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, The Weeklings, The Good Men Project, and others. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA was published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. Find him at http://www.kurtbaumeister.com.

The Brooklyn Rail: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks

The Once and Future Queen: Amber Sparks’s Weird Realism

By Kurt Baumeister

Amber Sparks
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges
(Liveright, 2020)

Tension isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s not always bad either. Under the right circumstances, tension can become pressure and pressure can produce the magic of physical transformation. It can turn coal, a grimy, black rock—unloved but by the odd mustache-twirling, workman’s comp-bilking billionaire—into diamonds which, as any Discount Diamond Warehouse commercial will tell you, some people will do just about anything to get their mitts on. They’ll kiss and hug you for diamonds. They’ll love and forgive you for them. They’ll even kill and steal for those sparkly nuggets. (Granted, killing and stealing aren’t generally mentioned in the ads, but anyone who understands the history of blood diamonds knows the truth.) Good writing, also a product of many different forms and levels of tension, can make us feel many of these same powerful impulses. But writing does more than simply feed off tension: At its best, writing acts like a tension reactor, producing it in turn, producing more tension than ever went into its creation.

Mechanical considerations like dramatic and dialogue tension aside, there’s the issue of critical tension, the fact that for every sweeping denunciation of this piece or that writer, this school or that style, there’s a countervailing, and equally, if not more, emphatic, “No, ma’am, I do not agree.” These days, in our cybernetic postpostpost-whatever world, many of these opinions and their related dust-ups get spun out on Literary Twitter. A case in point: Recently, a self-described millennial decried as “old weirdos” Gen X fiction writers who keep wanting to make things really goddamned strange. (I knew we were weird; but, shit, when did we get old, too?) Since the Tweet has been deleted, I won’t recount the extensive back and forth that ensued (in which I was not directly involved, thanks), but, obviously, the tension between the literarily realistic and not-so is alive and well today. Fortunately for me, I had a book to review by a writer who age-wise rests on the cusp between Gen X and millennial, who simultaneously—and this is the important part—manages to produce work that marries the weird with the realistic, work that produces the best sort of tension.

Amber Sparks’s third story collection And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges is, as the title suggests, teeming with tales of retribution, though reducing the book or even its concept to that of a glorified burn book would be way off the mark. Desire, anger, murder, madness, robots, gods, monsters, apocalypses, love, hate, violence, magic, fairy godmothers, women as heroes, and men behaving badly (badly-behaved men who often pay with their lives, or hearts, or souls for said bad behavior): all these things live within this book’s pages. As with Sparks’s first two collections, May We Shed These Human Bodies (2012) and The Unfinished World (2016), it’s not difficult to find things to like here. From her ability to spin an enchanting web of story to her gifts with language (alternately slangy in its idiom and jaw-dropping in its eloquence) and resolutions (bizarre and idiosyncratic yet somehow also universal) this is the perfect collection to dip into for 15 minutes here or a half hour there. You’re going to want to—and, honestly, probably have to—read all these stories more than once to get everything out of them, so there’s no need dashing through. Not that you couldn’t. Taken individually, the pieces are certainly good enough to make you read straight through; more still, to leave you wondering along the way just how Sparks does it.

How can she blend her fantastic, off-the-wall conceits with flawless execution and real world flourishes, seamlessly craft a modern faerie tale (“We Destroy the Moon”) about the end of the world and the death of a god into a triumphant revenge parable about a woman finally free of her self-centered husband?

It is always this way, at the end of things, you said. The people will need a god.
Are you fucking kidding me, I said.
Same thing, you said, and kissed my forehead, chastely, like the saint you were becoming. I despised you when you got this way; I wanted to ask Herod for your head.
Your son, I started, then stopped because I did not wish to know. There are boxes better locked. And I shivered and wished you gone, even then. Already it was growing too hard to love a statue.

In its combination of the epic and everyday, its effortless interspersing of references from Biblical and Greek mythology, “We Destroy the Moon” is an exceptional achievement, a piece of climate fiction (it’s that, too), that in its scope, tone, and depth had me thinking of Matt Bell’s brilliant novella Cataclysm Baby (2012). But there’s much more than a good story or two here, a fact that sets And I Do Not Forgive You apart from so many collections.

Really, in looking back on the collection, it’s possible I could highlight every story, but these were the ones that were most memorable for me: “A Place for Hiding Precious Things” in which a daughter is forced by her fairy godmother to wear a donkey carcas to escape her incestuous father; “A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” in which a woman struggles to gain recognition for her achievments; “In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father” features, yes, that Athena and a cheeseburger-mowing Zeus clueless to his own trolling; “The Eyes of Saint Lucy” in which a woman impassively recounts the tale of her mother poisoning her father; and “When the Husband Grew Wings” in which a woman grows her own wings in response to her husband’s stilted transformation. Overall, And I Do Not Forgive You is nothing short of a raging success, a volume that points to a potentially incandescent literary future.

According to Kundera, the point of literature is not to do away with tension by answering questions definitively; it’s to suggest more questions, something that, no doubt, Sparks’s latest does. Ultimately, the various tensions at play in And I Do Not Forgive You are of the best sort, driving the writing brilliantly. Amber Sparks may be on her way to doing something rare—that is creating a style that requires the development of an expanded critical vocabulary to explain it. No outcome is assured this early in her career, but if Sparks keeps progressing at this rate critics may someday talk about “weird realism” or something like it, and do it in a way that acknowledges Sparks as its queen.

The Brooklyn Rail: No Good Very Bad Asian by Leland Cheuk

Leland Cheuk’s No Good Very Bad Asian

By Kurt Baumeister


Leland Cheuk
No Good Very Bad Asian
(C&R Press, 2019)

Any writer who attempts comedy has considered the maxim, “Being funny is never enough.” They have, likewise, considered the corollary, “Until it is.” As a writer, you can be funny enough—accepting the innate subjectivity of humor—that little to nothing else matters. You can make your reader forget holes in character, plot, and story by achieving the comic writer’s Holy Grail of making them laugh again and again.

But simply being funny isn’t enough for literary comedy (or its subcategories satire and black comedy). The balance between comic and serious is crucial in literary comedy. Stray too far in either direction and you fail, becoming simplistic on one hand, boring on the other. While a perfect balance is admittedly impossible, never mind a matter of taste, Leland Cheuk does an admirable job in his latest, No Good Very Bad Asian, achieving a true synthesis of heart and humor highlighted by the fluidity of his first-person voice and a steady diet of sharp turns of prose.

Sirius Lee, the stage name of Cheuk’s protagonist and narrator (born Hor Luk Lee) is a young Chinese-American comedian. Growing up in the near-poverty of a cramped apartment he shares with his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother (whom he refers to alternately as The Lee Council and The Yellow Panthers), Sirius is sent to a toney, primarily white, Hollywood high school. After the all-too-familiar bullying and racial abuse, he’s befriended by one Veronica Razzmatazz, reality TV star and daughter of B-list comedian Johnny Razzmatazz.

Veronica takes Sirius home, and he soon becomes a character in the Razzmatazz reality series progressing from a job as Johnny’s assistant to one as his joke writer. Ultimately, Sirius becomes Johnny’s comedy protégé and they hit the road together, during which Sirius’s lingering infatuation with Veronica is forgotten for a time. Months later, post-divorce for Johnny, the two crash-land in an NYC loft, Sirius having become what passes as the narcissistic Johnny’s significant other—something between adoptive son, sidekick, and best friend. But only for a while. In America, we learn, relationships can be just as fleeting as acceptance and success.

The novel spans 19 years of Sirius’s life (from the ages of 14 to 33) in which time he becomes extremely successful in an objective sense. Television, movies, HBO specials, and sold-out stand-up shows: these are what Sirius comes to know. In this time, he amasses millions, growing famous and ever lonelier; the performer’s common companions of drugs, alcohol, depression, and bad behavior eventually take center stage in his life as they have, with disastrous consequences, in Johnny’s. As Sirius becomes more like Johnny, he eventually grows alienated from him, has a romance with Veronica (who finds Sirius newly attractive as he basks in the glow of fame), and generally comes to look on in a sense of inertia as his life skids from A-list success into a series of rehab visits and attempted comebacks.

Eventually, Sirius does get clean. With Johnny and Veronica seemingly in the past, he meets his wife-to-be, Tina. Something like domestic bliss follows, culminating in the birth of Sirius’s daughter Maryann, or M: the book’s epistolary addressee. This, of course, is not where the story ends. To borrow a term from magic, this is simply the turn; the prestige will see Sirius and all four generations of his family contend with the costs of success in America.

As a writer, Leland Cheuk has a varied palette of talents. Most striking is his novel comic sense and timing, abilities that routinely produce surprisingly humorous results. You can tell as you read this that Cheuk has done his research, going so far as to spend years doing standup. His imagination is strong but precise, blending figment and reality to produce his tale of the entirely fictitious Sirius Lee. Ultimately, this book is exactly what it says it is, the story of a man who sees himself (and, for various reasons, always has) as a No Good Very Bad Asian. Caught between his parents’ glorified memories of the China they fled and the life he knows in America, Sirius is at odds with himself—his Americanized name (and its implied pun) is symbolic of this conflict.

No Good Very Bad Asian is a quick read, consistently funny, and surprisingly poignant at times. Cheuk achieves the very difficult balance necessary for successful literary comedy, pointing to a bright future. His fertile imagination given still freer rein, it would be interesting to see what Cheuk might come up with. I, for one, will be looking forward to that whatever that is.

The Brooklyn Rail: Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha

Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose

By Kurt Baumeister

MARK DOTEN

Trump Sky Alpha
Graywolf, 2019

In Trump Sky Alpha, Mark Doten writes: “On 1/28, the first commercial telephone exchange is established in New Haven, Connecticut…On 1/28, a fifteen-inch snowflake falls on Fort Keogh, Montana. On 1/28 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperor, curses the known and unknown worlds he’s left unconquered, and his dumb ass croaks and becomes a ghost. On 1/28, Canuplin is born. On 1/28, Jon Postel will reset the system,” (emphasis mine).

Humanity has a sort of love affair with lists. Big/Small, Bad/Good, Whack/Lit: we love lists because they compress the vast and unknowable into the concise and knowable, because doing this helps us create the illusion of understanding, which is, itself, understandable.

We’re terrified at the scope of what we don’t know. And we have been ever since the first homo habilis took a look around and grunted, “What the fuck?” Whether through selective attention, lying, stories, or simple compression, we struggle to create the illusion of comprehension because it makes us feel like we’re in control.

As far as lists are concerned, some of my personal favorites have always been Granta’s compilations of Best Young Novelists. The first of these, put out in 1983, showcased their Best Young British Novelists at the time and included Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and Julian Barnes. In 1983. Not bad, right?

Fast forward a few decades and who do we find on Granta’s latest list of Best Young American Novelists but one Mark Doten, whose second novel, Trump Sky Alpha, recently crossed my path. Now, I hadn’t read any of Doten’s fiction before this, but based on his mention in Granta, I went into Trump Sky Alpha with high expectations not only for the novel itself but its satirical dismantling of Trump, a creature whose nefarious political charisma ties right back to our love of lists.

Donald Trump is great at labeling people, at demeaning and reducing them. He dispenses withering nicknames with the sadistic aplomb and nasty nonchalance of a fraternity pledge master gone radioactive supervillain. This reductionism is one big reason why Trump’s minions love him: not only does he shrink their enemies down to subjects of mockery, but the concentrated malice they see in Trump as he does so mirrors the monster they know themselves to be deep inside. This, at least, is how Doten would have it. In Trump, Doten sees not a cause, but a symptom.

“Be that as it may, we’re in Trump’s timeline, and Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he’s an internet creation, this avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment…”

For the ultimate cause of apocalypse in Trump Sky Alpha, we must reckon not with Donald Trump, but with the post-postmodern world created by AI and robotics, by climate change, nuclear proliferation, the surveillance state, and ultimately the Internet itself. For Doten, though, the what of his chillingly realistic fictional apocalypse pales beside the whys and hows.

“So there are big questions. The people who took it down, what did they want? Was it some specific attack that got out of hand, was it China or Russia and it got out of hand, was it just fuck-up-the-system, watch-the-world-burn lulz that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?”

“Watch-the-world-burn lulz” is the sort of line you find yourself smiling at then chuckling at then scanning the room huntedly to make sure no one can see what it is you’re laughing at. On a certain level it encapsulates this novel perfectly. Hidden beneath the vicious satire of Trump sailing the skies in his mighty, gold-plated blimp, monologuing like a reflexively prevaricating Nero as the rest of the world burns and sputters and smokes, are Trump Sky Alpha’s real questions about what happened and why: events which are not completely outlandish to think may now be in the process of happening in our real world.

The answers to Trump Sky Alpha’s questions lead to everything from an Internet terror group called the Aviary that may or may not be based on a novel (all of which is, yes, obviously, planted within yet another novel) to an article on Internet humor after the apocalypse, to the villainous and insane master-hacker Birdcrash, a character that seems almost to take on the Platonic form of Mayhem, and lists of everything that happened on this or that date, lists in which the items that truly matter are buried within a mass of pointless information.

Having finished with Trump Sky Alpha, I come back to my initial expectations, the ones provoked by Granta’s pronouncement that “Mark Doten is one of the Best Young American Novelists” and the implied question, “Is that true?” The answer, mine at least, is “possibly.” But, as Trump Sky Alpha teaches us, simple inclusion on a list is not significant in and of itself. More central to understanding is what underpins the list: the rationale, say, for inclusion.

In Trump Sky Alpha, Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose, all of it wrapped around a novel of ideas that never stops dancing from one question to the next. Satirically pyrotechnic and brilliantly formed, Trump Sky Alpha has a musical quality both on a line-to-line basis and in terms of narrative structure; a quality that, in the end, leaves the reader feeling a little like he’s listening to a sort of swan song for civilization, the world’s last symphony, if you will. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Doten belongs on some best-of list. What I can say, without a doubt, is that Trump Sky Alpha is indeed a great literary novel, one that deserves to stand alongside the best work of writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

Fallen Flowers

Fallen Flowers


by Kurt Baumeister

Published initially in The Oddville Press Spring 2019 issue


Your dresses of pale rose and budding sunflower,
carnation, marigold, and tulip made time slow,
made me dream there was nothing wrong with the
cheap wines, Louisiana nights, streetlights, the mists
and fogs, the closing specters of war and truth and
dawn. In the evenings, I’d find you waiting as your
flower of the day, the dress an excuse for conversation,
a way to forget the waiting world. It never took long
for the words to die, for the silk to gather, flowers
fallen at our feet. And on that last night, as I left,
as you slept, I saw the flowers as they were, truth cut,
cunning symbols, coming realization that he would
return from the war he’d chosen over you, that you
would forgive him as you always had. That the
flowers meant nothing, or were, at best, lies; the
only thing we’d shared withered on the ground.