Gang of Guerrillas
FEBRUARY 1, 1999:
Hectic Ethics by Francisco Hinojosa, City Lights Books, $9.95 paper
Despite everything you've read, most Latin Americans will pass through life without finding an apparition of the Virgin Mary in one of their tortillas. Just as surprisingly, rarely do they call up their ghosts for cooking advice, and their loves are just as sweet when they are not stuck in the time of cholera. At first glance, Francisco Hinojosa's slim collection of stories, Hectic Ethics, provides a surprising reprieve from the familiar tradition of magical realism that has made all those ghosts and rich food such clichés: His characters are lonely and cruel, and every twist of the plotline leads to the further destruction of an already apocalyptic Mexico City. But -- and this is one huge but -- this brash work of prose is, quite subversively, just as much a renewal of the very tenets of true magical realism as it is a shake-up of them. This sneaky paradox, whether intended or not, allows for a voice that is both gravel and cloud, delivered with nightsticks and kisses.
From the book's first utterance, Hinojosa sets himself up as a writer in search of a rupture from the present artistic tradition: "I strove to create something beautiful. I wanted this beautiful thing to be Beautiful in and of itself, regardless of the ideology of the observer." The implication that this so-called Beauty must also be found independently of historical and artistic antecedents is not lost on the reader. The story unfolds, however, not as a sincere attempt at this Beauty at all, but as a parody of the self-importance and absurdity of the very type of artist the speaker takes himself to be: "It was (and still is today) a Rotten Papaya that truly radiated (that radiates) that Pure Beauty I was searching for." It is this capacity for flippancy and irreverence that first places him in opposition to the common conception of magical realism, a style of writing that takes itself a bit too seriously, perhaps.
If this opposition and rupture were the only goal of Hinojosa's work, however, it would be a work without any worth. We all know how cheesy magicians and artists can be, after all, and we don't need to be told when to roll our own eyes. Fortunately, the stories reveal an emotional complexity beneath Hinojosa's rebel yell. The book's most intriguing story, "People Are Strange," is also Hinojosa's most plaintive. An old man and his grandson, both without names, are dying of the same mysterious and debilitating disease. Add to this trauma their constant attacks of low self-esteem and their frequent loss of vital limbs, and by the end of the story, the reader is left to deal with two self-proclaimed "hollow people" made mostly of plastic who, in spite of their painful disease, don't even have the good fortune of dying. So to keep themselves busy, Grandpa and sonny take turns making love to a curious young nurse day in and day out in a swimming pool, prosthetics be damned. By the last lines of the book, though, Hinojosa delivers a weighty punchline to the senselessness and suffering of his Mexico City natives: reincarnation. I won't give away all of the rest, but be warned -- Grandpa ends up a bartender in Texas. Hinojosa's talent for using wit to bring a reader to shivers makes it easy to forget how wonderful a smart-ass he can be and is reminiscent of earlier Latin American writers like Vicente Huidobro and Adolfo Bioy Casares. And wouldn't you know it, these are the very same writers who infamously lived and died for transforming the "tired" artistic traditions they themselves had inherited.
But ah! What to do with such guerilla writers aiming to shoot at our sacred tradition? Octavio Paz once wrote that every generation's inevitable attempt to break from the art of its parents creates a pattern of rebellion that is, itself, truly the larger tradition. Well, perhaps. The original rules of magical realism, though, never included requirements for martyrs and sensual plagues. All they demanded was a challenge to the perceived physics of nature and culture. Read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, for instance, and then try to tell me that Hinojosa is some face-painted rebel. Truth be told, Hectic Ethics is one welcome example of literature that skips a few decades of weak imitations and many clichés to pick up where the original intention of this century's Latin American fiction was dropped. -- David Garza
Italian fiction writer Anna Maria Ortese (1914-98), whose work only recently became available in the U.S., has been labeled a magic realist, but that's a useless classification. Writers, admittedly including Ortese, have been mixing the realistic and fantastic since literature began; it's not something that started in Latin America 50 years ago. Ortese sees beauty around her, but deals, often symbolically, with the terror of life. Beside her novel The Iguana and her short stories, Stephen King's stuff fades into insignificance.
Certainly Ortese lived through some awful times. Born just before World War I, she experienced it, the Mussolini era, World War II, and the lengthy Italian depression that followed. Her family, containing nine members, was constantly uprooted. She spent her childhood in Southern Italy and Libya, often in or close to conditions of poverty, and had to quit school at 13. Almost anyone who went through what she did for the first 45 years of his or her life would be shaken, and in the decades that followed she often lived in straitened circumstances. Despite having won some of Italy's most prestigious literary awards, her books sold poorly. The terrible and depressing things Ortese went through are reflected in this volume, which contains nine short stories and a philosophical, autobiographical essay, "Where Time Is Another." Syntactically and grammatically, Ortese is a conventional writer, but in other respects she's unique. Her depiction of depressed and/or poor people is like no one else's. A subtle artist, she doesn't hit readers over the head with her characters' suffering, but, partly because of her understatement and selectivity, makes obvious to readers the agonizing difficulties they face. This is apparent in "Folletto in Genoa," which concerns a 112-year-old pixie who's lived with the same family for the whole of his life and, like them, is at the end of his rope.
Almost all of Ortese's stories here have a first-person narrator who could be the author herself. In one of them she meets God, in another Jesus. Both appear to her as young men. God is somewhat disappointing. He tells her, "You think I'm good. ... That's such a shame. I'm just like you and just like all the others. I am even less good than you, since you love me and I can't do the same. Beauty is the only thing I love. I hate trials and errors and I hate decay. Things amuse me for an hour and then I abandon them, turning my thoughts to the search for new amusement. You mustn't think this doesn't make me sad. There's a court here inside of me, but I am the judge no less than the accused." Jesus, on the other hand, is an agreeable, sensitive fellow who lives with his mother and does a lot of gardening.
In "Where Time Is Another," Ortese comments on her writing life by stating, "So, the tragedy of my life (a euphoric expression, so ingenuous as to amuse me, since life is always tragic, even the lives of a blade of grass or a single atom, and nothing truly escapes this tragic dimension, which lies in being 'swept along' irresistibly) lay in my almost immediate discovery that everything -- even people, faces, books -- was only void and appearance: 'images,' of which the freedom and material substance were totally illusory. ... So I quickly discovered that I had to do battle for something -- for life -- which in fact was an abyss and a sense of hopeless loss." It seems she's saying, "Life is a bitch and then you die, but while you're alive it's good to keep active so you won't dwell on the hopelessness of it all."
With all of her gloom, Ortese often writes lyrically, as in the excellent "Nebel (A Lost Story)." Her picture of spring in the Amalfi Coast region has a fresh, bracing quality even while the work's title character is shown to have lost faith in God and commits suicide. Some of her works, in fact, contain prose poetry, such as "The Great Street," a portrait of Via Foria in Naples.
Now Anna Maria Ortese has died. Will her work be read in the future, when it was pretty much ignored while she lived? Who knows? But it should be; it will speak meaningfully to readers a century from now. (Readers unable to find this title in local bookstores can call the publisher at 800/613-8219.) -- Harvey Pekar
"What happened was I was digging around in my hole..."
Thus begins Lee Stringer's Grand Central Winter, a series of unflinching stories about his journey from being a successful advertising businessman to a homeless and crack-addicted resident of New York City's Grand Central Station. The book begins with Stringer discovering a pencil in his nest and the ecstatic rush that follows when he writes a story to pass time and to elude demons. Shortly thereafter, he stopped collecting and redeeming cans (for which he devised a system to net $100 in a couple of hours) and began contributing to and selling "Street News," a small newsletter by, for, and about the homeless. He ascended to being a columnist and editor, which brought little pay but did provide a couch and a roof. Eventually, the writing addiction proved stronger than the addiction to crack.
Stringer is a writer of brutalhonesty, but he wields his brutality gracefully. He distills events to their essence with observations that are nearly X-ray-like in intensity. There is the desperation of the tightening cycles of addiction just as there is the ache of loneliness and confusion behind people's daylight facades. This is Stringer's take, for example, on the innocence of a child born into a world offering little more than a dire future: "Valentine waddles breathlessly around the office, a world of wonder in her big black eyes. ... Her joy like a fragile gift." Stringer aims for the true center of events and people and his gaze is a balanced one that finds humor and satisfaction as well. A community service stint leaves him proudly recounting the accomplishments of clearing city lots, making a garden for an old woman in Harlem, and making a tangible difference.
Stringer's perception of being homeless may surprise readers: "I didn't really feel I was missing anything out of life by being on the street either -- at least not anything that could be had by a paycheck. And I wasn't really interested in being employed simply for the sake of it. What I wanted was to do something worth a bit of satisfaction as well as a buck. Something that might make a difference."
Stringer's pursuit of meaning connects every page of this book. He takes on everything and offers some sound explanations of street life stereotypes: addiction, homelessness, mental illness (New York state law changed in the Seventies, releasing mental patients to depend upon themselves for treatments), the criminal justice system, the political forces looming over the homeless, and racism. The murky, "subtle" forces of racism and politics become clear under Stringer's microscopic gaze: "I'm sure most Americans take comfort in the fact that racism has been abolished in this country. Not the practice, of course, but as a topic for public discussion." Like it or not, readers are forced to contemplate and even point their own finger at this country's mix of selective freedoms and oppressions.
Ultimately, Grand Central Winter is about people discovering how to survive or racing to self-destruct in these fast times. In Stringer's hands, the stories become those of everyone who is homeless and wandering in America, living in cities where "even God himself has abandoned his corner and made off for some other dark region of this city where good, bad, lost, found, or in-between, beat the raw, true hearts of men." -- Tyler D. Johnson
For years Penny Van Horn's drawings were used to illustrate my essays in this publication, and I'll admit it took me a while to get used to them. They were intense, they were not pretty -- sometimes they were even ugly -- and though they were as personal in style as the stories of mine they accompanied, I as a writer was always trying to enlist the reader's support while Penny as an artist didn't pander for a minute. Yet as I looked at the drawings -- made myself look, at first -- I began to see their appeal. And to realize how urgent that appeal was. Part of it is the folk-art primitivism of the style, some of it is the cleverness of the execution, but most of it is the absolute vulnerability that comes through the images. It takes a certain unsqueamishness to really look at what Penny Van Horn is doing. But once you do, you're hooked. After a while, if a story of mine didn't have a Penny illustration, I was disappointed. Almost anything else seemed mild by comparison.
Penny Van Horn is not afraid of the dark, either metaphorically or otherwise. Her illustrations, which look like woodcuts or linoleum block prints, are composed of frantic white scritch-scratches on dense black backgrounds, as if something is trying desperately to get out -- and, in her new book, Recipe for Disaster, I believe it has.
A mutant child of Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, and Edvard Münch, Van Horn's graphic story collection tells tales that are dark, scarily intimate, weirdly funny, and often just plain weird. In a tone lying somewhere between ironic hysteria and hysterical irony, she lays out sagas of thrift-store shopping, trashy neighbors and bars, one-night stands and other sexual mishaps including, but not limited to, pregnancy and motherhood. Penny does South Austin living as you won't see it on King of the Hill -- lowdown, seamy, and out of control.
The title story tells about Penny's early career in New York City. After futilely making the rounds of art directors at agencies and big magazines, she found herself weeping over failed typing tests and living with her dad in the suburbs. This much of the story sounded eerily familiar to this reader, at least. But things took a turn for the bizarre when Penny apartment-sat for a friend: "With the help of a few books and records" -- she names Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and Sylvia Plath as particular culprits -- "a typewriter and some marijuana, I managed to go totally insane." She alienates her friends, considers getting her fillings removed, writes reams of "automatic haiku," and after an attempt to flee during which she wraps her car around a tree, winds up in a mental hospital. Her portrayal of this period in her life recalls Susanna Kaysen's wonderful novel Girl Interrupted, with its compelling depiction of the intersection of youth, inspiration, and madness.
My other favorite story in the collection is called "A Revealing Dream." I had a copy of this comic on display in my home for years, though was forced to remove it to a less public location when my children got old enough to understand. In it, Penny dreams she is at an all-girl party, where all the guests are playing with an amazing toy -- "a light brown vibrator sporting the head of James Brown." The unit has two speeds: "HUH!" and "OOOOW!" This is one you have to see to believe, and I think it is fair to say that Carl Jung would be pleased. (Recipe for Disaster can be found at FringeWare or by calling the publisher at 800/657-1100.) -- Marion Winik
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