Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Two Reviews For the Price of One

I took part in a reading once a couple of years ago, and introduced things by saying something like this:

Thank you all for coming tonight. I think I can speak freely for all my fellow readers by saying that we're glad you're hear, listening to us. Writing is about communication, and without an audience or a reader there is no communication. You are, in your own way, as much participants as those of us at the podium.

I still believe that. Any jerk can scribble away on a pad of paper or in a journal, but to take that next step and present your words effectively to a reader is a whole other thing. But lately I've started modifying my idea of what an audience is. Mainly that sometimes you can be the right audience for something, and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can't.

I recently struggled with reading Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle for a couple of weeks. It is a well written thing, probably far better than anything I'll write. The characters are well developed (although I found them somewhat uninteresting), and I marked more than a few lines throughout the text that I'll photocopy and paste in my journal. A low-level politician falls in love for his young, smart and attractive media advisor and the whole thing sits on the verge of scandal throughout the novel. There's also a leftist newspaper editor married to a rich woman who struggles with his political identity, and a frustrated novelists trying to find his way through love and life. A large part of the novel revolves around current British politics, which I am only marginally interested in. And perhaps also why I didn't find any of it funny despite all the blurbs on the cover calling it a comic gem, etc, etc.

And then along came Pick Your Poison #4.

I've never read this little zine before. I ran across it a couple of weeks ago at Atomic Books in Baltimore, laughed at the xeroxed pulp-inspired collage artwork on the cover and figured it was probably at least worth the $2 Atomic wanted for it. Back in undergrad I bought weird little zines all the time from a little store in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia called Hole in the Wall Books. It was a tiny place with loads and loads of porn and was the head shop most convenient to campus. They would often have a small rack of zines and magazines, most of which were xeroxed and not officially printed, and many covered things like witch craft, sex, punk rock, sex, science fiction, and sex. Most were pretty crappy, but sometimes I'd find a real gem like Pick Your Poison.

This particular issue is a short 64 pages, and covers the author Nate's "professional" life after high school. After selling food at a gas station convenience store for a time, he moves on to temping at odd places like ice cream factories, law offices, and a switchboard for Pillsbury. The zine documents a constant battle of finding a job he can live with while still maintaining his preferred lifestyle of staying up late, hanging out, drinking, and smoking pot. Each chapter covers different aspects of his various jobs, and there's an underlying mixture of anger and amusement at all the corporate b.s. one encounters at any job (morale meetings, strange rules, office politics). Anyone who's felt themselves stuck in that dead-end job that they abhor will find a comrade in Nate.

All first person, the zine is a straight, mostly internal narrative without a lot of action and no dialogue. By and large, the writing isn't as accomplished as Coe's. Yet, somehow, it works for me. Perhaps because of observations that seem very true and funny, like this:

Three other people worked there. Two of them were girls in their early twenties. The third was a 65 year old woman named Marilyn who had been fielding calls for the company for 43 years. Goddamn, I thought-- she had been saying, "Pillsbury. One moment" for over twice as long as I had been alive.....It, but to each their own--whatever makes you happy.

It's a thought I've had myself in just about every crappy job I've ever worked. And there have been many. Which is probably why it connects with me more than the British-poltico stylings of Jonathan Coe. I'm just not the right audience for Coe, but, god help me, Pick Your Poison seems perfect for me. Go figure.


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