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Briefly Noted – February 2014

Monthly book reviews in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner and associates
Hand-Drying in America

Vol. 3 Issue 1. February 2014. Ed. James Madison Redd & Paul Clark.

 

Hand-Drying in America by Ben Katchor | Reviewed by Claire Harlan-Orsi

The Obstinate Snail by Rachid Boudjedra (A Short-shrifted Review) | Reviewed by Jack Hill

Chord Box by Elizabeth Lindsey Rodgers | Reviewed by Hugh Sheehy


 

Ben Katchor. Hand-Drying in America. Pantheon, 2013.

Reviewed by Claire Harlan-Orsi

There are artists whose aesthetics are so fully realized that they latch to yours and hang on, in ways both delightful and troubling. So it is for me and the work of the cartoonist Ben Katchor. In the manner of true originals, Katchor may have invented his own genre: I’ll call it “surrealist urban planning.” Earlier this year Pantheon released a collection of fourteen years’ worth of his full-page comic meditations within this genre, each of which originally appeared in Metropolis Magazine.

Each mini-story in Hand Drying in America illuminates, as the title suggests, a half-fanciful, half-real aspect of urban innovation. The precise location and time period of Katchor’s urban universe is never actually defined, but seems to resemble most New York City in the 1930s, a city of Automats, down and out businessmen hawking products no one has any use for, sour-breathed Eastern European immigrants. If there is a quirk of the lived experience of cities that you haven’t consciously noticed but has yet been under the surface of your mind’s eyelid, there is a Katchor character who makes it his life’s preoccupation.

Take, for example, the man so enamored of coat check rooms that he builds one in his apartment and hires an attendant to run it, the man obsessed with airshaft ventilation or the tourists of Sunday Open Houses, just there to look. Katchor’s linework is crude, his perspective misshapen, his draftsmanship as visible as scaffolding, his color palette bathed in the tepid fluorescence of an Amtrak station at night, and yet these formal characteristics are so firmly entrenched in Katchor’s singular aesthetic they have at least as much emotional resonance as the meticulous artwork of his compatriot graphic novelist of urban ennui, Chris Ware.

In other words, it is impossible to read this book and emerge seeing the world the same.

 

Rachid Boudjedra. The Obstinate Snail. 1977. Translated from the French by Leon Stephens. Xenos Books,  2013. | A Short-shrifted Review.

Reviewed by Jack Hill

In the first English translation of Rachid Boudjedra's infamous and controversial 1977 satiric novel, The Obstinate Snail, the personal notes of a North African city sanitation manager hurl the reader through an absurd obsession with eliminating all the rats in his city. During the narrator's fixation to extinguish the rats, the destroyers of infrastructure, he subjects the persons encountered on his daily routine to various convoluted social critiques that chorus, “I am too loyal to the State to believe in God.” While the rats loom as enemies of the state at first glance, the narrator discovers a deeper enemy in the garden snail as it represents a problem more detrimental than the crumbling infrastructure—individuals living in ignorant slowness. Boudjedra layers this snail fixation with notions of sexual repression. Jealously of sexual pleasure oozes from the narrator as he notes the hermaphroditic qualities of the snail. In one such passage, the sanitation manager misses his first day of work, ever, as a result of watching the snail, and says: “Such viscosity and voluptuosity. Male and female at the same time. [The snail] gives and receives, simultaneously, an inconceivable amount of pleasure.” Although the snail represents a new sort of complicated dissident for the narrator (obtuse, smug, masturbatory, leisurely), representative of the persons living in his county, a compulsion for progress seems to be the larger theme at work. Tensions that arise from a lack of progress form an original, yet bizarre, culmination in this story of one government employee who is self-imprisoned by repressive obsession. The Obstinate Snail asks readers to reconsider their perceptions of progress and civic role.

 

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers. Chord Box.  University of Arkansas Press, 2013

Reviewed by Hugh Sheehy

“Chord Box,” the title of Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers's excellent poetry collection, suggests at least two things. The first is that the contents will be demonstrative, the way a chord box diagrams correct finger positions for a guitar student. The second is that these demonstrations will instruct, so as to produce music from an instrument − only here, it is a body, specifically the organs related to speech, that will be played. The resulting voice carries a distinct and nuanced music about encountering spirits of the past and other mysteries in words and things, and in musical instruments especially. Rogers plays her songs loud and quiet and in-between, depending on what she needs the language to accomplish. Sound effects take a backseat to pictorial images in some poems, as in "To the Conservatory: 1983":

Since you and your mother
have nothing, by now, to say,

it is safe to crown yourself king and queen
of Gomorrah, and to your cropped
hair, lift the snake of your headphones.

In others, acoustics lead and inform the visual and other senses, as in "Five Fades" (set in Climax, NC):

Bent over testicular tomatoes,
and the hairy vines of squashes,
she had gone out for an hour
to escape the sick-bean smell
in the kitchen. Inside, he dozed,
the radio fuzzy, Lynchburg
his honeybee.

As everybody knows, good music has a subject, and Rogers never removes her sights from her speaker's memory and fascination with history as she creates three narrative sections: a music student's affair with her teacher, self-education through the study of classical music, and a stint teaching English in China. A prominent word throughout is breve, which in musical notation directs one to double a note's length, but which in diacritical notation tells one to shorten a vowel. In Rogers's poems, the breve is, among other things, "a bridge"... "meant to hold"; the symbol, we are given to understand, is real, a piece of culture, part of the architecture of mind joining present to past and bringing us into contact with each other, no matter how distantly (in time, in space, through whatever media) our lives intersect.

 


Claire Harlan Orsi is a UNL PhD student in writing whose essays and fiction have appeared in The BelieverBetter: Culture and Lit, the Cincinnati ReviewMAYDAY and Passages NorthJack Hill edits Crossed Out Magazine (crossedoutmagazine.org) and is a first year creative writing M.A. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Hugh Sheehy is the author of THE INVISIBLES, published by University of Georgia Press.


Submission Guidelines:

The editors of Briefly Noted welcome submissions of short reviews from our readers. The series features short reviews of books published in 2012 or 2013; however, we occasionally publish short-shrifted reviews of significant older works under the radar. We're looking for reviews that are punchy and to the point, around 100 to 300 words. Send all submissions to pswebed@unl.edu with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you in brief!

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