All of Humanity Breathlessly Along
by Greg Bem
by Samuel Ligon and illustrations by Stephen Knezovich,
Lost Horse Press, 92pp.
“Poetry must have something in it barbaric, vast, and wild,” Tammy would say to me, quoting Diderot, as we lay in our bed of dung, happy in spite of our loathing for lords and ladies.
— from “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (77)
In Wonderland, thirteen tales are fleshed together by fiction maestro Samuel Ligon, whose pen speaks through the dire and the inebriated, stakes of equal measures absurdly bright and absurdly dark. These thirteen tales are strung along with creepy, yet mesmerizing portraits from collagist and writer Stephen Knezovich, with faces staring back at a void as deep and furrowed as the one just beyond recognition, just beyond everyday life.
The writing brings you in close, allows you to relearn the concept of gasping, guffawing, choking on one’s tongue. It’s almost as real as you could imagine it, happening around the corner, down the street. A book of realism lifted into abnormality by the craft of language. Worlds crafted from the truths we rarely feel capable of exploring. Worlds justified in their grit because the grit is what remains when all support systems have been lost, forgotten, or drunkenly abused into victimhood. I found myself reading these stories and mostly feeling like this is the American backbone I’d been waiting for, where all cards are present at the table, some shadowed, some with bright faces, iconic and idolist.
But, then, I don’t know, I sort of can’t wait for it to get run down a little. I don’t mean fake-aged and charming. I mean a little fucked up, with liquor stores and sex shops and a flock of hookers over on the edge. I’m only talking about one side of town here, maybe one borough. There can be all kinds of gleaming shit, too—skyscrapers and vegan bakeries, mega churches and cruelty-free butchers. (from “This Land was Made for You & Me” on pages 31 and 32)
Defiantly scraping across the surface, these are short stories, in the truest sense of the word. Some only a few pages in length, just enough to see the spotlight bring forward speakers whose lives are as mysterious as they are pronounced, elements of (or products of) spectacle, worlds of spectacle, a landscape of want, desire, possession. Worlds of lack, worlds of excess, worlds of polarization and containment. Fleeting images that leave the tongue hanging as the pages of the book flip on by, greasy fingers making stains on paper, the landscapes fluttering by, protagonist opinions being loosed, gunfire from the mouths and minds of distinctly mutant characters, humans whose lives may have everything or nothing, yet the need to change and identify, understand, is present, the pressure great, the motions and actions of desperation, faux or legit, properly pinned up paragraph to paragraph.
A wild ride, miserable as it can be, disgusting and disturbing as it can be, but nevertheless wild, dusty and grimy mirror of everyone’s life, everyone, the concept of the “every person,” bringing that void even more relevant, and we can only laugh, thanks to the wit (and charm) of Mr. Ligon, his jokes well-played, his tonality well-colored, his understanding of human strength and human weakness and humane guts thorough and poignant.
Open this book like you would open up Pandora’s box: with a vibration of arousal and a sigh of undulating expectation. “Wonderland.” Discover a story of freaks whose floors are sacred. “Glazed.” Discover a story of the tactile functions of the donut (as it relates to love and lust and one’s physical bondage with another). “Professor Astor’s Unsolicited Blurb.” Discover a story of the creepiest shade of literary criticism, and unwavering, spit-blasting obsession, where the only thing calming about a sense of devotion and leering praise is its finality. “A Prayer for My Neighbor’s Quick Painless Death.” Discover a story of visioning and voyeurism, where fantasies are as disappointing as reality, with offered engagement bringing one close to the yawn of everyday life, where that burst of air rushes blood to the tips of experience.
With narrative and character resemblances falling in line with at times Franzen, at times Brautigan, at times Foster Wallace, at times Bukowski, at times Barthelme, Ligon’s work finds a sense of bedazzlement and gilded lining with the capstone imagery of one Stephen Knezovich. The visual images here are as curious and overwhelming as within the imaginative imagery of the stories themselves. The form: collage. Sources used: wide and varied. A slight sense of nostalgia and antiquity with magazine and advertisement cutouts from an earlier 20th century. Photographs of women and men smiling, or looking off into some realm of distance, some gory aftermath, some deeply wrinkled and unrecoverably-stained fabric of reality.
A man eats a raw steak in front of a table of pies, a woman cleaning herself just beyond. Children play sexually with their clothing as a goat oversees from a pile of rocks in a black and white distance. A cubist baby blends together with fractures and fragments of the motherly faces on all sides. A woman’s face has been replaced with a circle containing a solitary black bird soaring into the ether. These images arrive and depart quickly in the context of the reading experience, but provide an uplifting element of the same causal absurdity that rings magnetic throughout the rest of the pages. Knezovich brings the wild and unexpected multimedia accompaniment and it works. Awkward is the positioning, but perfect is the pairing, as the book’s sense of awkward and tense moments is its major thematic grunt.
I grabbed the harpoon from the floor. Billy Wayne fired and I harpooned him through the side, then twisted into his heart and lungs, killing him deader than hell. The righteousness I felt as he dropped to the floor, burbling and bleeding, Kitty beside him crying tears of joy and love and hatred! I picked her up so she wouldn’t be stained by his leakage. “Oh, baby,” she said, as I kissed her and petted her. “Oh, darling,” she said, as she ran her hands over me. There was no doubt that she was mine and I was hers, that no one in the world would tear us asunder. You can’t get closer than killing for love. In fact, you’ll never get that close again, though you’ll think it’s all just beginning. (from “This Bed You’ve Made” on page 72)
At taking less than an hour reading time, here we have a small volume, a thin volume, that is fleeting but charming, pronounced and disturbing yet a telling account of humanism. Through all tragedy there is humanity. Through all pain there is humanity. And there is bondage. There is that which brings us together. In 2016 America, an age where what brings us together and separates us is so extreme it is often forgotten, or left in the abstract unknown, artistic efforts to turn the spotlight on its highest setting, if only for a brief glimpse, remain indefatigable, carrying colossal importance in the representation of our filthy collective.
About the Author:
Greg Bem is a librarian, technologist, and poet living in Seattle, Washington. Greg grew up in Southern Maine, lived in Rhode Island, lived in Philadelphia, and has most recently lived on two different occasions in Cambodia as an information management specialist and archivist. His gaming platforms of choice are Windows and Android, and his current favorite writers are René Char and Georg Trakl. His adventures can be usually be found described at http://gregbem.com/wordpress.