The Short Version: A collection of “the hardest-hitting, most provocative, deadly serious, patently absurd, cutting-edge, avant-everything-and-nothing work” from 2011-2013 – writing that is as much about the words and the writing itself as it is about what the words are saying. Real heady stuff, you know?
The Review: I have a tumultuous relationship with so-called “innovative” writing. At the end of the day, I’m not sure I buy into the idea that words-as-art still qualify as a reading experience. An artistic experience, sure – but not necessarily a reading experience. I threw There is No Year across the room more than once – but I love Jeff VanderMeer’s work. I’ll pick up Mark Z. Danielewski any day but Angela Genusa’s piece in this collection/anthology (for example) left me oh-so-cold. So I went in wary…
The perhaps most-telling thing for me, with this collection, was the fact that it features an excerpt from Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, which I’d previously read in situ. I had some trouble with that book, enjoying the plot and the ideas but struggling in the end with the language and the way it was written – and this excerpt, which (I did not go back to check) appears to be the opening of the novel, reminded me of how I struggled with that book but ultimately found it a worthy experience. (ed. note: I’m aware that it comes towards the end of the collection; I was jumping around pretty much at random once I’d checked in with the authors I already knew.) It allowed me to approach this collection in the same way: not expecting anything too much and knowing that I could always tap out if I needed to.
And there were certainly stories I walked away from. I won’t call them out but plenty of times I thought “ugh, really?” – simply because I am frustrated by overwrought writing that’s there for its own sake. It may be beautiful in its own right, but I ask the question “to what end?” I realize, when I read ‘innovative’ writing, that I often do want a few traditional things, chief among them a story I can sink my teeth into but also including things like writing that doesn’t feel like it’s going to cause my head to explode. Call it a personal failing.
That said, there are also a bunch of really exciting and interesting pieces here. Jeff VanderMeer’s piece “No Breather in the World But Thee” appeared in 2013 – but it has some echoes of his ensuing work in the Southern Reach Trilogy (“I do not believe it is a tower”, says a character – an amateur biologist no less – relating to a strange growing… thing in the story) and it has a strange pull to it, even as it battles the readers’ attempts at rational understanding. And some of the truly weirder (not Weirder) pieces are the sorts of writing that make me wonder if we ought to be lobbying the MoMA and other modern art houses to include text – like Stephanie Strickland and Nick Montfort’s “Duels—Duets”, which was an automated text generator. Similarly, Richard Kostelanetz’s excerpt from A Book of Eyes is just a bunch of different typographies of the letter ‘I’.
And, about halfway through the collection, I came upon an excerpt that reminded me more than any other that writing can be strange and innovative and deadly yet still… accessible feels wrong, like a dirty word under the circumstances, but that’s the one I want to go for. Kate Zambreno, an author I really liked the first time I read Green Girl and I’m anxious to read more of, made an appearance here with an excerpt from Heroines – and I wouldn’t have expected to see this writing here, mainly because while it is innovative… it isn’t so stylistically daring or crazy that it threatens to alienate the reader. It’s my kind of thing, basically.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. There are emoji-poems (emoji’d and translated) in this collection – so I’m pretty sure that invalidates any criticism OR praise and insists that you just go take a look. If you’re willing to try something new or push your boundaries, this is the way to do it. Even if you end up not liking it, the &NOW AWARDS are a place to be assured that the weird/innovative writing you’re getting is good weird/innovative writing. Not, you know, just writing where you think: “Was that good or bad? Or just weird? Is that what they consider innovative today? Maybe I should just get another drink and hope nobody asks me about it…”