Review by Rebecca Ellis
by Karyna McGlynn
Destructible Heart Press
P.O. Box 257
2008, 45 pp., $10.00
This is not easy stuff. Sure, it’s just a chapbook. Sure, it’s entertaining. On the surface—and sometimes under the surface—it’s light and funny with dazzling bright edges and breathtaking leaps. The writing is surprisingly dense, layered with history and mystery that at times require you to dig deep in order to experience the full effect of what’s going on. You’re going to have to work hard to get at the writing and much of the wit in this chapbook.
But you’re going to have a really really good time doing it.
Alabama Steve is a series of flash fictions that hop irreverently through the Western literary cannon, deflating everyone from Robert Lowell to Beowulf, punching little holes in class pretensions and literary tradition, and especially academia and MFA programs. McGlynn’s language pops and surprises and enlightens even as it twists your shorts in a knot.
The adventure begins with an introduction by Steven Brownblatt, the first of many characters named Steve who serve as guide through these fictions. Steven Brownblatt, who presents himself as McGlynn’s writing workshop teacher and a writer-in-residence, delivers praise after praise about McGlynn’s writing, each one a jocularly obvious attempt to cast attention—any kind of attention—on the speaker himself and not the object of his alleged adulation He describes her writing as “her most psychedelic to date—an experience I’ve not endured since I mixed spirit gum with donkey heroin during my infamous experiments at Berkley.” And that’s only the first paragraph. So yes, please do fasten your seatbelt.
Brownblatt is used like a smarty-pants ventriloquist’s dummy to voice the personality of a navel-gazing guy who believes he’s such a great writer that everyone else must think he’s the center of the world. He sets forth for us the basic structure to come in the personality of the other Steves, especially Alabama Steve himself: “Steve is the hermeneutic allegory wrapped in the enigma of a recursion—and let me be the first to issue a warning in respect to the collection’s Infinite Jestitudinal quandary. More inexperienced readers may find themselves trapped in the collection’s Möbius Strip conundrum: which came first, Steve or Steveness?” But he can’t sustain the focus off of himself for more than a few sentences, and continues, “I should additionally caution that Karyna takes heavy artistic license, particularly with areas of the text in which I appear.”
Indeed she does. She has invented Brownblatt so thoroughly that he exists beyond the page, and has his own myspace.com site. The maze she constructs can be followed in many dimensions.
The Steves in this collection get their serious start with Alabama Steve, a neighborhood guy who tells kids’ fortunes by shuffling nutpods on a table on his front porch. The narrator—perhaps McGlynn in one of her disguises—is too smart and rebellious to deal, and ends up punching a five-year-old girl who’s staring at her. She leaves, flipping off the “midget-bitch.” (Still got your seatbelt fastened?)
Other Steves include Steve Austin, Steve McQueen, and then for variety there’s a visit or two to Alejandro, “the science guy.” At Alejandro’s observatory, a silly and surreal sex scene occurs: “Instead of fucking me while I stare through a telescope at Venus, which, frankly, is what I expected—‘Oh god! It’s so…tumescent!’—he flicks on the lights. In the flood of sudden fluorescence, I see that the white circular room is ringed with women attached to the walls, each in a Styrofoam ejector seat, each naked and ready for sex.” At that point it’s revealed that Alejandro is in reality not a man but a mantis:
Alejandro dismisses Steve with a ‘Gracias’ and a wave of his foreleg. He carries me to the one empty seat—seat No. 23—and straps me in. He perches on a blinking center console and unsheathes his cock. It’s long, thin, pale green and coiling like a blanched dandelion stem. It creeps toward woman No. 1, curls like a question around her calves, insinuates up her inner thighs and services her with a single rude jab. She yelps; the rest of us sigh. The cock retracts quickly, coils back into the mantis like fishing line. The serviced woman is then ejected—whoosh!—through the open roof.
From there, we go with Steve to Jack-in-the-Box, then into a hotel to steal Stevie Nicks’ lingerie, then back to Alejandro who is now a flight attendant who advises a very drunk Steve to “keep your tush on the cush, mu-cha-cho!” There’s a trip to Ecuador, a grunge production of Othello, a movie-making workshop with Steve Guttenberg. In an audition with Steve Perry, all the anxieties and icons of TV stardom and MFA stardom come together in the sort of twisty cream-cone prose that in McGlynn’s deft hand ends up feeling both natural and inevitable:
It turns out that Steve got the lead role—he squeals & jumps up and down & pumps the director’s hand enthusiastically. I, on the other hand, am meant to play the part of the 2nd Elephant. I try not to look disappointed, but it’s hard not to when Steve Perry is always outperforming me. I try to rationalize this. Like, maybe, just because the director is my estranged aunt, she’s engaging in some sort of reverse favoritism. If this is true, it really sucks because she’s also the poetry editor of the Paris Review—which makes sense because this is the future and my parents are dead. Anyway, I think it’s really weird that the Paris Review is a community college-based journal, and that its offices in the Prufrock building look like the inside of Goodwill.
Squeeze-boxed in with all the Steves, and the occasional Alejandro, famous and faux-famous literary figures appear in their own brands of “Steveness.” Robert Lowell (“Cal”) shows up drunk, Lyn Lifshin appears (of course—she’s everywhere, isn’t she?), and Robert Browning shows himself to be a little uptight—he “reached over and slapped me across the face with his lemon yellow kid-gloves…” The reference to those yellow gloves is one example of the tossed-off details that you’ll need to go digging for if you want to get the whole picture. They represent Browning’s serious dabbling as a dandy, when that style was at its height, and are as good a sign as anything else of the self-regarding literary / class/ Hollywood / historical bubbles McGlynn has set out to pop.
And pop them she does. Doing so, she runs the same risk she exposes. I was never quite sure if the whole adventure was itself too self-involved, too much the voice of someone young and totally intent on knocking down the idols in the temple simply for the wild fun of it. I do want to see what McGlynn will do next—will she write something “cold and passionate as the dawn” or will she even understand why you’d want to do that and why it’s so impossibly hard? Or is she too intent on being the invulnerable exposer of all?
Even if she doesn’t, she’s done something important here. You’ll need to read this once just for pleasure, another time to look up who all the Steves are and figure out some of the detail references, and then once more time to bring it all together. To make all three reads worth your while, the chapbook itself is beautifully produced, with Alejandro the mantis starring on the cover. The inside of the book shows elegant design, typesetting and layout.
Very impressive, inside and out.
Rebecca Ellis lives in southern Illinois. She has poems published or forthcoming in Natural Bridge, qarrtsiluni, Quiddity, RHINO, So To Speak, and on a bus for the Metro Arts in Transit 2008 Poetry in Motion project in St. Louis. She edits Cherry Pie Press, publishing a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women poets. Comments on poetry, publishing and information about Cherry Pie Press can be found at http://cherrypiepress.blogspot.com.