Imagine I’m an awkward 20-something man, kind of hip – but not a hipster – maybe I look like I’m in a band – and that the readers following me are like characters from a Louis CK skit: a shy and awkward teenager who transforms into her characters as she reads; a fashionable, attractive but standoffish 40-something woman and another 20-something, a dude — my brother and writing partner, in fact.
Imagine that none of us, except for myself and my brother, have anything in common other than that we are here, but that as we tell our stories, common elements begin to appear and slowly, our characters start seeing each other, across their stories, and begin to communicate.
Throw in post- apocalyptic scenarios, aliens and essays on the fate of women and what it means to be a great, and you have Low Self-Esteem Reading Room.
As the title implies, there’s no linear, traditional story (or even a complete non-linear one, in the Vonnegutian sense). Rather, there is a mishmash of story fragments and internal monologues on a variety of subjects, along with a meta-story about the creation and consumption of the anitbook itself.
As one might expect, the quality and general intelligibility of the work varies from chapter to the chapter – which makes sense, given the presence of multiple “virtual authors.” At its worst, the voice is dogmatic, railing against some status quo from days gone by. At best, its vivid and horrific, as when the state of a woman’s face is described, after half of it has been sucked away by a pinpoint singularity.
A couple of favorite parts feature a mysterious child wandering around with her dog. The opening descriptive passages are superb: “A pale child wanders in the grass – tall grass – almost as tall as the girl. Her dog bounds ahead of her. The dog’s head appears, then disappears, then appears, while child’s head, a ghostly sphere, is constant.” Things bog down a big towards the end of this thread, when the child, does, or perhaps doesn’t, go to heaven or commune with an alien fog-bank or something, but the events are so immersive, and so beautifully described it’s easy to overlook the fact that they provide no true conclusion and don’t particularly make much sense.
Some of the lines in the story are so good that they’re great in their own right, and don’t really need context to prop them up. An example:
“She has no plans to do bad things. She has no plans to murder her dog or set her father’s barns on fire.”
This is awesome. Just awesome. It’s ominous, but in a contrary manner that’s like a shiv in the ribs that makes you bleed out before you realize you’ve been injured.
Another: “… because life is not linear. It is not a graceful series of arcs and intersecting characters. It is a soup. It’s a garage sale. It’s a garage sale, two months after it’s happened, that hasn’t been packed up, in fact.”
This, in essence, appears to be the book’s mission statement, and it’s a great one. It’s hard to make a statement of something as broad as “life” without coming off as hackneyed, pompous, or both, and the author manages it wonderfully.
And yet another: “She’s holding me, herself, and even Mitchell, hostage to a story she makes up.”
It’s a terrifically universal line. How many of us trapping ourselves, and those around us, in a cage built from our own narratives?
So… themes. What’s this thing about. Generosity, solitude, justice, religion, and trust, seem to weave their ways in and out of various threads, but to my mind no one theme dominates. Like a lot of litfic, the book features a lot of characters who seem to be exceptionally depressed and detached from the rest of humanity. Even a character who’s just undergone an epiphany and realized she’s destined to be author seems pretty fatalistic.
Okay, so, I like this book, I like it a lot. But, as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t like all of it.
At its weakest, the narrative voice turns preachy, and seems to be paraphrasing any one of a thousand women’s studies lectures. Correctness does not equal creativity, and there’s nothing insightful, evocative, or entertaining about the fact that the virtual author doesn’t seem to comprehend this.
One of my favorite bits is a one-off allegory called, “Sneaking Up on Respect.” Though a bit heavy-handed, it’s clever, and offers a bit of nuanced light-heartedness amongst what are mostly angsty or outright dismal tales.
Despite the occasional wart, the anti-novel is more sublime than insipid, and more than worthy of an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
(Backing this with a big old boatload of stars).
She addresses issues that I believe we all face or feel or think about… and quickly push away and deny. I appreciated the vulnerability of the writing and got an absolute sense that if van Delst really let lose, the reader better hold on.
…I want to know where the kindness comes from in all that hurt… I want to discover where the intellect comes from among the repression… The other area that struck me as quite profound was the insight into the very lost power of women as a collective and how that power needs to be beaten and humiliated and sexualized by men.
I finished this thoughtful and innovative book in late December. Here are things that struck me:
- The critique of “generosity” and this idea that what goes around comes around – as the author points out, that depends so much on systemic power relationships.
- The way characters interact across dimensions and through the frame of the books and tapes from the merch table
- The opening and the Open Mic frame is humourous, attention-grabbing, clever and self-reflexive
- The imagining of addiction as a very literal form of social control is thought-provoking in regard to our current drug policies and cycles of poverty, ill-health and criminalization
- Lastly, the characters and voices are SO WELL DRAWN and REAL that I felt the author has a similar kind of brain and heart to me. Ergo… I should write an anti-book too 😉
The Apples are Already Gone
— SCENE 3 —
A pale child wanders in grass: tall grass, almost as tall as the child. Her dog bounds ahead of her. The dog’s head appears, then disappears, appears, then disappears, while the child’s head: a ghostly sphere is constant.
It’s end of summer.
The girl runs her hands through the grass as the wind blows her hair around her face.
The blades of grass turn over, revealing lighter undersides. You can locate gusts of wind in the field by watching the colour of the grass. Shhhhhhhhhh — chchchchchchchhhh — shhhhhhhhhh — if you’re far from the field, you hear “shhhhhhh”; if you’re in it, you hear “chchchchch”: the grains shifting.
The field becomes an ocean, white capped, across which the girl walks. “Jesus – he’s always with me. God is always with me,” she thinks. “God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are one.”
“ I can never be alone. Never!”
Such a beautiful little girl! If you saw her, you’d want to take her home. You’d want to feed her, hug her, protect her. You’d want to remove the sadness from her eyes and make them sparkle the way they did when she was telling you that ridiculous story. You’d delight in her growth.
“ I will never be alone. I will never be lonely.” This thought comforts her.
She has no plans to do bad things. She has no plans to murder her dog or set her father’s barns on fire.
The apples are already gone. The ones left on the ground are rotted, small, misshapen.
She looks for her dog.
“ Yip! Yip! Yip!” she hears.
— END SCENE 3 —
ADD SOME MORE READING NIGHT READERS HERE
(Rework, and add some more reading night readers. There’s not enough.)
More Reading Night Readers
A man walks up to the stage. He’s wearing a ripped grey t-shirt that has a palm tree and the word “Aloha” on the front, in yellow, and black jeans with a what looks like a smear of white paint on the leg. His face is unshaven, though he doesn’t have a beard yet and his short, straight hair hangs over his eyes. He motions to the host. Excuse me, the host addresses the crowd, before bending down to talk to the man.
The two whisper. The host looks annoyed, then holds his pointer finger up to the man in a wait-a-sec gesture. The host returns to the microphone.
My brother would like to read if you’d be kind enough to have him. Did I mention that we’re working on the Naomi stories together? Would you like to hear his part of our collaboration?
Sure, says someone in the audience. Someone else starts clapping and others join in.
All right, Stuart, says Kyle, looking at the man, come on up!
Stuart climbs on stage, adjusts the microphone and clicks on his ipad. He reads: