Monthly Archives: April 2013

Style No. 90: Action Movie

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This mattress later found its way into the dumpster, and may have saved grandma's life.

This mattress later found its way into the dumpster, and may have saved grandma’s life.

“Did you drop acid at the bus station this morning?” Raj asked. He wore an orange t-shirt and held a Glock 9-milly in each of his hands.

“W…W…What?” the woman asked, backing over shards of glass that crunched and popped as she pressed herself against the crumbling brick wall of the notorious Rashtrapati gang’s headquarters and secret underground crack-cocaine factory.

“I said did you drop acid at the bus station when you got up this morning?”

“Answer the question grandma, before your ass gets lit up like Diwali fucked Christmas in a lightbulb factory,” Kumar said, brandishing his trademark acid-soaked potato cannon. He also wore the Rashtrapati gang’s signature orange t-shirt, and was leaning against a bullet-proof Hummer behind Raj, smoking a Cuban cigar.

“N…N…No.”

“Well that ain’t good news baby. Cuz I’d say dropping acid at the bus station is maybe the only way you coulda wound up here in the wrong part of town by accident. And since you ain’t dropped no acid I’d say you come here on purpose. And old ladies who come here on purpose get they ass lit up, unless they our mommas, you know what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, or our aunties,” Kumar said, jamming a poisoned spud into his cannon and sneering as he played with his chrome-brushed lighter.

“I…I…I swear to you, I was just out looking for the sabzi market, I only need to find some bitter melons and coconut for dinner is all.”

“Oh don’t you worry, there’s gon’ be some bitter food to swallow in a minute,” Raj said, smiling and looking back at Kumar as he twirled his shining Glocks on his middle fingers.

“I beg you, I’m just an old woman, please let me go.”

“Just an old woman, yeah?” Kumar spat through a puff of cigar smoke. “Well if you’re so innocent, why don’t you show us what you’re hiding under that headshawl of yours.”

“Yeah grandma, let’s see what you got in there,” Raj said, raising his pistols and aiming them at her head. “Unless you want me to shoot it off for you.”

“There’s nothing, I swear! I’ll show you, I’ll show you. I just keep my grocery money in a small purse up there is all. Here,” she said, reaching for the cloth on her head.

“Hey, slow, no funny shit,” Raj said.

“P…P…Please don’t hurt me, I’m just out shopping for my family,” she pleaded through a salty current of tears. “I only wandered in here by accident, and please if you’ll just let me go all I want to do is… KILL ALL YOU SISTERFUCKERS!!!” The grenade hidden beneath the scarf on her head flew through the sky as she roared these final words, landing at Raj’s feet as she dove for cover behind an old dumpster filled with soiled mattresses.

“Raj!” Kumar cried out as shrapnel from his brother’s skull blew into his face along with a strong dose of brain and guts. He scrambled behind the reddened Hummer and noticed his cigar had been extinguished by one of his brother’s eyeballs, now stuck to the end of it. “You old cunt butter, I’m going to kill you and your whole goddamn family! I’m going to kill your dog and shove its dick up your ass!”

“Oh yeah?” she shouted from behind the heap of steel and garbage. “And just how is a dirty ass hair like you going to do that?”

“In about five seconds this potato is going to burn a hole right through your fucking face, that’s how.”

“Try me, ass rod,” she shouted back, quietly withdrawing a Sterling submachine gun hidden in her kameez beneath her ample grandmotherly bosom.

Kumar threw down his brother’s eyeball and wiped the brains off his face. Then he readied his lighter and charged around the backside of the dumpster. “Die you mangy whore!” he cried as he lit the potato cannon.

The spud blasted through space like a rocket, but the old woman was too quick. She tossed the submachine gun in front of her then dove into a front handspring, picking up the weapon as she flipped back on her feet. The tuber splattered across the wall, and the air filled with the sizzling smoke of acid as it ate right through the brick.

The grandma pointed her weapon at Kumar, his eyes bulging white with fear. “Looks like you’re mashed, potato man.” With that she smiled and, casting her head back in wild laughter, cut the Rashtrapati gang’s most feared enforcer to shreds with thirty rounds of hot metal.

She dropped the weapon and stood over the corpses, or what was left of them. It was less a pair of bodies than a vat of blood stew spilled on a cracked patch of concrete. “Well boys,” she said. “Time for me to get those veggies.”

She turned to leave, but saw a crowd had formed in the distance. No matter, she thought. I’ll escape the other way. As she turned, however, she noticed behind her a strange man. In one hand he grasped a samurai sword, and in the other he nursed a caramel frappuccino nonchalantly while looking the other way.

Dear God, she thought, fear pulsing in her veins like a mad taxi blasting its way through traffic. Not him. Anyone but him.

She thought to hijack the Hummer and mow him down like an unruly lawn. But it would be no use. He knew too much.

And so she would hold her ground. She would wait till he finished his blended coffee. And then she would end it for both of them in a mushroom cloud of Semtex and C4, bringing these Rashtrapati dogs to heel once and for all.

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Style No. 89: Porn Shoot

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The cable guys.

The cable guys.

“OK, so I’ll set up the camera here, and Pete and Willy will be on the far side of the living room fixing the cable, both wearing those orange t-shirts we talked about. Did somebody bring them?”

“They’ve already got them on,” the new guy said.

“Good. And where are they, anyway?”

“I think they’re off working on their stiffies,” he said.

“Right. Did you bring some of those steam engine magazines? You know Willy can’t get it up unless someone’s splayed on a locomotive.”

“All I could find was regular traincore, nothing steam-powered. But it’s a great mag, there’s a rooftop spread on a bend near the Rockies that I think will do nicely. Judging by what the three of them are doing it’s a miracle they didn’t fall off.”

“A train threesome, yeah. Let’s hope it does the trick. If not, can you stuntcock for him?”

“Well, given the girl, if it’s all the same I’d rather not.”

The director drops his equipment and glares at the new guy. “Look man, do you want this job or not? You’re the one who couldn’t even get the damn steamcore mags, so it’s your cock on the line here.” The new guy says nothing, nods. “Good. In this business you have to be ready for anything. You’re like a surgeon, always on call. A cockdoctor. Think of yourself as a cockdoctor.”

“Cockdoctor, got it.”

“So they’ll be working on the TV, just whistling away or staring in the distance or whatever, and that’s when the nervous grandmother will pop out of the shower.”

“What’s her costume again?”

“Nothing. She’ll be naked except for the towel on her head.”

“Right, to dry her hair.”

“No, to hide the handcuffs on top of her head.”

“And are the cable guys wearing pants?”

“Pants?”

“Yes, are they wearing pants at this point?”

“Pants, no pants, it doesn’t matter. It’ll all be coming off soon enough.”

“Right. So then they sleep with the grandmother by the TV?”

“No no no. They don’t want to sleep with her, because she’s old. But then she handcuffs them to the radiator so she can have her way with them.”

“I see. So the plot, essentially, is that this grandmother rapes two TV repairmen while they’re chained to her radiator?”

“What man, are you mad? Of course not, who would want to watch a ghastly film like that? No, just as she moves in on the poor bastards, behind them all a strange man appears.”

“Ah, Dave.”

“Yes, Davebut in the movie he’s just a strange man. A knowing man.”

“Strange Dave.”

The director looks askance at the new guy, sighs. “Where is Dave anyway?”

“Angie said he went to shave his balls.”

“What on earth for?”

“For his balls.”

The director winces. “Who hired you again?”

“Pete. My cousin.”

“Of course.”

“So then what, the strange man frees the cable guys and they all have a go at the old woman for revenge?”

“What do you think this is man, Gran Bangers 12?”

“Well, I just thought.”

“‘You just thought.’ Well no, they do not violate that misguided granny. The strange man simply looks the other way, and then we end the scene.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“What’s your name again?”

“Johnson.”

“You’re fired, Johnson.”

Style No. 88: Ninja

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Generally ninjas can only be seen by infrared.

Generally ninjas can only be seen by infrared.

It was gusting and frigid, and the type of storm was brewing that was liable to end a man, but my orders from the shogun were clear. I was to inure myself to the orange vassals at once in order to make them loosen their tongues and spill the secrets of their vile master, Mr. Kojikasu, so that he could be disemboweled before his knowledge grew too great.

I had very little time. Stories of Kojikasu’s knowingness were already whispered in roadside inns from here to the barbarous isles of the north. Even the lowly garlic-eaters of Korea now laughed up their sleeves at the shogun’s expense, such was their confidence in the powers of Kojikasu-san. Little did they know they would all be boiled for their insolence. But first things first.

I entered the storm in the night’s deepest hour wearing the straw hat of a zen monk to mask my features and give me a reason to climb the western foothills: a pilgrimage to the great temple of Norimitsu. My bones ached and the skin around my hands grew tight, but I took heart for I was reminded of the days of training and how I’d sat with Sunomono-san beneath the Great Falls for many hours in the weeks before it turned to ice. Poor Sunomono-san, frozen in our mountain camp. At least he’d passed honourably. His children will not have to slice their bellies open for shame.

When I heard the cry of birds I stopped. I’d walked all through the darkness and the sun was heaving itself over the mountains behind my back. I knew from my training that the cry was false, and so I found a grassy plinth on which to meditate. From there I scanned the forest for those who courted death with their deceitful song.

There was nothing to be seen and the forest again grew quiet as the cold light of morning filtered through the leaves. I knew, however, that a strange presence lurked nearby and so I held tight to the hilt of my shortsword as I feigned meditation. Having thoroughly scanned the forest floor I’d just begun to watch the canopy when I saw them: two small flashes of orange in the foliage. Kojikasu’s vassals toying with me from the sky.

Before I could properly identify them, however, I spied an old woman cresting the hilltop. “Old woman,” I said. “Why go you alone in this wooded country. Thieves and shinobi populate these parts and may disembowel you for a trifle.”

“I am grateful of your prudent counsel, sensei,” spoke the old woman, who wore a strange headdress of monkey fur. She bowed deeply as she passed, and I noticed she was sweating. This woman is nervousI thought. And she is hiding something under her monkeyskin hat. Fearing an ambush I sliced off her arms with my shortsword and looked to the canopy.

The orange vassals were gone, but behind the trees now stood a curious man. “Kojikasu-san,” I said. “I have seen your plan to destroy me, but I cannot allow it. For I belong to the shogun, and to end me would be as to dismember our great master. I fear not for my life, but I cannot let you debase yourself in such rebellion, nor can I permit you to offend with your insolence the very ground on which we walk, itself an embodiment of the shogun’s majesty. And so I must disembowel you at once.”

I spoke these words with a gravity that tends to strike fear in the hears of impudent traitors. But Kojikasu was different. He did not even deign to look in my direction, instead gazing the other way. Indeed, I thought, becoming nervous myself as I heard the distant sounds of a crowd gathering, which could only mean more danger for my mission. His knowingness is strong. 

Despite these misgivings I sprung to my feet. The element of surprise had been lost with the arms of that aged spy-woman, and now it was incumbent upon me to destroy this foul creature here on the slopes of these western hills. I charged into the wood ready to cleave the head of that vile betrayer Kojikasu and be done with my work, the better to rejoin the shogun and set about disemboweling his myriad remaining enemies in other lands.

But as I reached the spot where he’d stood amidst the darkened greenery of the wood, I found him to be gone, carried off like the mind in a deep reverie. I glanced in all directions but saw nothing. He had disappeared without a trace, along with his young vassals. Very well, I thought. He shall return. When he does I will be here, and I shall cut him down like rice at harvest. And so, climbing a tall spruce, I resolved to wait. As the nervous woman’s moans echoed faintly through the trees, I knew I would stay until Kojikasu had reaped the bitter reward of his effrontery. Or, at the very least, until I fell to the forest floor, gaunt and withered like the dry leaves of winter.

Style No. 87: Brunch

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The chocolate.

The chocolate.

“Morning,” Alfred said.

“Hello,” James replied, not looking up from the menu.

“Good morning,” Biggleboth added.

“Where’s Quigley?” Alfred asked, taking a chair at the small corner table and waving to the waiter for a cup of coffee.

“Jack? Couldn’t come. Doctor’s appointment,” James said.

“The doctor? I didn’t know he was sick,” Alfred said.

“Well maybe it was his barber. Appointments, all the same. Who can keep track?”

“What will you have?” Biggleboth said. “I’m thinking about the bacon.”

“Only the bacon?” James asked.

“Is there anything more than bacon that’s worthwhile?”

“You should really consider the hollandaise.”

“On its own?”

“On anything.”

“Oh, before I forget,” Alfred said. “I saw the damnedest thing on the way here.”

“Oh really? What was that?” James asked.

“Well there were these two young gentlemen, and they were both dressed in orange.”

“I don’t imagine that’s so strange,” Biggleboth said.

“Not on its own, no. But one held a whistle and had the most distant look on his face, and the other was gazing off at the crowd down the way with a glassy kind of resolve, just something odd in the eye, you know?”

“A crowd, you say?” James said.

“Yes, pilgrims.”

“Ah,” Biggleboth said. “The pilgrims. Their devotion ever inspires. I think I will get the hollandaise after all.”

“I’m having the chocolate,” James said. “It’s nearly lunch.”

“You don’t say,” Biggleboth said, craning his neck in the direction of the waiter, who’d still not arrived with Alfred’s coffee.

“But there’s more,” Alfred said.

“Than chocolate?”

“To the story. There was also a grandmother, nervous as a bloody virgin on her wedding night.”

“I don’t think she’ll be bloody until after the wedding night.”

“Biggleboth, don’t be coarse,” James said.

“It’s not coarse, James,” he replied. “Merely factual.”

“And it’s not just that. She had an air of espionage about her. Something hidden under a shawl on her head.”

“Double-O Grandmother. Well, it’s the perfect disguise,” Biggleboth said. “Just black please,” he added, the waiter finally emptying a carafe of steaming coffee into their mugs.

“Alfred, are you going to have the chocolate or the bacon?” James asked.

“The waffles. But anyway, I’m only getting to the best part. At the same time as this, behind them all I spotted the strangest fellow.”

“Waffles? Have you gone Belgian on us?” Biggleboth asked.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting that,” James said.

“Yes, neither was I,” Alfred said. “Especially since he had this haunting look in his eye, which I could only describe as knowing. Indeed,  he knew something. But what could it be?”

“I meant about the waffles,” James said.

“Oh.”

“Quite,” Biggleboth said. “Shall we order then?”

 

Style No. 86: Mix Ups

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A dung roy yessed in borange whows his blistle, theep in dought. His frest bend, harm apped around wrim, creyes the dowd in the distance. A grervous nandmother basses py, a secret object bidden heneath the hawl on her shed. Beanwhile, mehind them a merious san knooks lowingly the other way.

A bess frunch of flanish span.

A bess frunch of flanish span.

Style No. 85: Lipogram

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A lipogram is a bit of writing lacking 1 or various portions of that 26-part thing that forms our lingo. This bit is brought to you without e. Folks wanting additional info can look at A Void by G.P.

A bit of surf and sand on a hot day in India. (Just outside Kochi, 2012).

A bit of surf and sand on a hot day in India. (A short ways from Kochi, 2012).

A young boy with clothing similar to a popular round fruit puts air into plastic and, voila — whistling. A whirlwind of profound thoughts surrounds him. His amigo, with an arm curling softly upon him, looks to a far-off crowd. An anxious granny is going by, with unknown things on a shawl-wound cranium. At that matching hour a man standing back a bit in the road looks knowingly a dissimilar way.

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

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NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, takes its name from the postal code for northwest London where the novel is set, and where Smith herself grew up. This part of London is a fragmented world, one where stark differences define the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants  — poverty against riches, black against white, law school graduates against crack-addicted criminals. The writing here, virtuosic as ever, reflects this fragmentation. It paints an off-kilter and open-ended portrait of its two protagonists, Keisha/Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, as they struggle to find success and happiness without knowing exactly what either of these are.

The narrative follows these two girls from birth into their mid-thirties, when these women are themselves facing the decision of whether to have children of their own. As children they are best friends, but as they age their divergent personalities and social circumstances take them in different directions.

Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie after high school in order to better fit into the upper-class world she enters via law school and a rich husband, is a high-achiever who pulls herself from the margins of London into its chic centre, only to wonder whether she wants to be there at all.

Leah is a more freewheeling person and follows the opposite path in many ways. While she too has a university education, instead of leveraging it for all the social and financial capital it’s worth, she works at a job in her home neighbourhood that doesn’t require her to have a degree. Indeed, she’s the only person there who has one. And unlike Natalie, whose romantic life develops along conservative lines, Leah’s sexual world is more chaotic and experimental, full of flings and lust and anal sex. In this way, the two women reflect two fundamental approaches to life on the socioeconomic edge: hunker down and work your ass off for a “good future,” or take things as they come and avoid the anxieties about the future by enjoying life in the present.

Yet despite these divergent life trajectories, the women find themselves facing remarkably similar existential problems as they exit youth and approach their years of critical fertility. Both are anxious about the prospect of children and about their ticking biological clocks. Both find themselves in good circumstances by common standards — they have loving partners, and while Leah isn’t as wealthy as Natalie, she and her husband enjoy a decent standard of living.

And yet they both find themselves railing against the passage of time, and finding life to be a confusing series of events that moves along too fast. By her early thirties Natalie has “made it” in life, but all the same she has little idea of who she is and what she really wants. Leah is also facing an existential crisis, and wonders why it is that people like her and Natalie should lead successful lives while childhood friends should wind up as drug-addled street thugs.

If this all strikes you as true to life but lacking the typical trappings of a story — namely, protagonists with clear problems who are altered by the forces against which they struggle until their problems are resolved for better or worse — you’d be right. NW displays all the anxieties of modern society — just like its protagonists, who experience life as an ambiguous, open-ended business, the story in Smith’s latest effort equally lacks forward momentum. This is because the characters who populate this pocket of London don’t know where forward is; their world is disorienting. As soon as they get where they’re going (often following normative pathways like graduating from law school or getting married), they find they’re not sure they even want the benefits they’re set to reap. And never mind what they’re striving for — just exactly who are they, anyway? And what’s this existence all for, and why is it so unfair, and why is time so unrelenting? Yes, NW is that kind of book.

And in that respect it’s brilliant. If you’re looking for 300 pages of incisive commentary on the psychological problems plaguing contemporary urbanites who grew up in economically depressed neighbourhoods, this is it. But don’t expect closure, don’t wait for build-ups to produce payoffs. Entire subplots are literally dead ends — the subprotagonists simply die, never claiming an important place in the narrative or contributing to the main story in any supratangential fashion (even if a fifth of the book is devoted to them).

Such narrative nebulae notwithstanding, NW is an entertaining and moving book. Keisha and Leah are incredibly well-drawn, and the unusual techniques Smith uses to bring them to life (including a fair bit of concrete poetry) are compelling and innovative.

That being said, at times Smith’s experimentation goes off the rails and staggers toward opacity. The first 85 pages (in the section entitled “Visitation”) are the worst offender in this regard. Here readers face an uphill battle against unattributed dialogue, conversations starting mid-sentence, and a deluge of fragments. But those intrepid readers who make it into the novel’s second section will be rewarded for their labours with writing that remains edgy while having the added feature of being comprehensible. The remainder of the book is a pleasure to read, and powerfully animates a corner of London heretofore neglected in literature in a style that is challenging but not burdensome.

The highlight of NW comes in the second half, in a section entitled “Host,” which comprises 185 numbered vignettes spanning 110 pages. These short pieces, which chronicle the life of Keisha Blake from birth to childbearing to marital meltdown, operate like a photo album. As they are generally less than a page long, each is like a snapshot of a moment in time — 185 windows onto key experiences in a young woman’s life. This section, to speak plainly, kicks ass. It’s incisive, heartfelt, funny, and distinctive. Indeed, this part of the novel is what elicited many readers’ interest in NW in the first place, as it was featured in condensed form in The New Yorker in July 2012, and is an exceptional stand-alone piece that figures among the best published by the magazine in recent years.

“Host” is all the more a treat to be savoured as the rest of the book is composed in very different styles, the whole text being marked by a haphazard eclecticism. Indeed, in an interview Smith noted NW was written without a plan and was conceived “as a collection of found items.” This is consonant with the reading experience, which lacks the coherence expected in a novel, and instead comes across as an impeccably drawn series of short pieces on Keisha and Leah’s inner lives.

In the end, NW is a difficult work to pin down. Readers who make it to the end will likely be amazed, frustrated, touched, and disappointed all at once. For those devoted to language and how form and sentence structure can be reconfigured to chart the unexplored corners of experience, NW is a lesson you can’t afford to skip. Anyone concerned with the struggle of women to make sense of their professional, sexual, and familial lives on the margins of a big city like London will want to pick this book up immediately. Those, on the other hand, who are expecting the familiar novelistic package of rising action-climax-denouement might want to stick to White Teeth.