Alexandra Chasin - Her characters distribute their kisses indiscriminately, however, she is more promiscuous in form than in content

Alexandra Chasin, Kissed By (Fiction Collective 2, 2007)

"This work is a collection of innovation fictions that range widely in form and style. Alexandra Chasin's remarkable stories employ forms as diverse as cryptograms (in "ELENA=AGAIN") and sentence diagrams (in "Toward a Grammar of Guilt") to display her interest in fiction as a form constituted by print on the page, every bit as much as poetry. In "They Come From Mars," the words are arrayed on the page like troops, embodying the xenophobic image of invading armies of immigrants and illegal aliens that animates the narrative. One story incorporates personal ads ("Lynette, Your Uniqueness"), another is organized alphabetically ("2 Alphabets"), while another leaves sentences unfinished ("Composer and I"). A number of stories take metafictional turns, calling attention to the process of writing itself. The last piece in the collection plays with genre distinctions, including an index of first lines and a general index. Set in New York, New England, Paris, and Morocco, these tales are narrated by men and women, old and young, gay, straight, and bisexual; one narrator is not a person at all, but a work of art. Each of these deft, playful, and sometimes anarchic fictions is different from the others, yet all are the unmistakable offspring of the same wildly inventive imagination. Chasin's diction is precise and purposeful, yet it retains a colloquialism that enables a dialogue with the reader. Humorous and heart-wrenching, often all at once, Kissed By offers the sort of acute insight evoked through the interplay of empathy and intellect."

"Formal adventurousness, anarchy, wordplay, and intellectual sophistication... there is a great deal of authority in this writing... superb." -R.M. Berry

"Until I read Kissed By, Alexandra Chasin's marvelous collection, I never understood what the term 'experimental fiction' really meant. Now I get it. Chasin enters each story as if it's her laboratory. She has the great gift of being able to bring us along on her investigation; she seems to hold up each sentence for our inspection. It's thrilling to watch Chasin as she pours her chemicals to find out what will fizz and what will explode." - Pagan Kennedy

"A tour de force of pieces about love and longing and language, but mostly longing, deferred desire at both a thematic and structural stratum... beautiful narrative mutations... bright, whimsical linguistic wrenchings... luminosities..." - Lance Olsen

"With an alchemy entirely her own, Alexandra Chasin turns indexes into poetry, flips love inside out, and fixes her dissecting, tender gaze on both the minutiae and vastness of the world. Strange birds, these stories, to show up in your neighborhood - and how they sing." - Elizabeth Graver

"Some readers will agree with a blurb on the back of Kissed By that labels Alexandra Chasin’s debut work of fiction “experimental.” It’s not as if experimental writers can be easily profiled, separated from the main stream of writers into a straggly line leading to a holding area where authoritarian Contract novelists inspect the baggage of shadowy literary figures who require detention. Gabriel Josipovici stated in an essay that reviewers view experimental writing as “a sub-branch of fiction, rather like teenage romances or science fiction perhaps...” and Gilbert Sorrentino regarded the word as a “euphemism for that work which cannot be called ‘serious.’” Chasin is an exploratory writer. The eighteen pieces in Kissed By roughly divide into those that plunge into the cerebral, the composition of the work being the narrative, and those replete with deep, mature emotion. “Toward a Grammar of Guilt” and “Composer and I” are examples of the first category, where we can enjoy Chasin’s political engagement and inventiveness; “B. & G. & I” and “Lynette, Your Uniqueness” exhibit bitterness, wit, and a delighted enjoyment found in listening to sounds and converting them into language. This is not simple play with language because one can—the flaw marring “They Come From Mars” (each word four letters long) and “Kant Get Enough” (filled with puns)—but because it’s fun to let the imagination go its merry way. This collection is most serious for being at times humorous, allowing for contrasts and juxtapositions of mood. In Chasin’s world, her lovelorn or lovesick creations can hear birds say “Cheater. Cheater. Cheater. Cheater... Read. Weepweep. Read. Weepweep” and make one feel a tug of recognition as well as an appreciation of a truly fine ear." - Jeff Bursey

"Kissed By Alexandra Chasin begins with wordplay in its title and ends with wordplay in its index. In between are 18 short fictional pieces, a lot of kissing, and too many puns. Her characters - gay, straight, and bisexual - distribute their kisses indiscriminately. However, Chasin is more promiscuous in form than in content. The chief pleasure in reading her short stories (or whatever they are) is watching their forms unfold. The most inventive and playful piece is the last, "Toward a Grammar of Guilt," a recollection of 9/11 and its aftermath told entirely in sentence diagrams. Another story, "They Came From Mars," looks at first glance like the work of a monomaniac playing with a typewriter, but it turns out to be a weirdly cryptic account of an invasion of malodorous aliens. The piece is one part Ed Wood, one part M. Night Shyamalan, and one part Georges Bataille. There's only one scatological story, and that's about a woman whose love life consists entirely of sex with philosophers. Poor Schlegel would be horrified to learn how he appears in the story, and you may wince at Karl Marx being reduced to a pun, but the scatology is a sly reference to the mind/body problem.
Kissed By is published by the Fiction Collective 2, so you know its form is aggressively innovative. In my experience experimental fiction writers tend to fall in love with their formal conceits while neglecting the content, which too often is flat and unimaginative. A good argument can be made for this arrangement, however. The French avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920's deliberately grafted experimental montage onto simple, even melodramatic stories. Still, much indie fiction shares the same subject matter: the messy love lives of the underemployed. The stories are interchangeable: an arty type with a jobette falls in love with a charismatic but flawed person. The relationships never work out, and in the end the arty type is wiser but no less blocked. Chasin's "Composer and I" and "B & G & I" fit this model. Interestingly, they're also among the most conventional of her stories. Conversely, the most moving piece is "Two Alphabets," which tells the story of a man reunited with his son shortly before the son is killed in a car accident. The plot proceeds alphabetically so that we glimpse the awful ending, then glide right past it.
A truly experimental writer should be at their best when he or she is experimenting, and Chasin is just such a writer. The pieces never overstay their welcome; as soon as the form has unfolded completely, the story promptly ends, a sign of a witty intelligence. Humor bursts forth in unexpected places, such as when a woman hopelessly torn between two lovers consults a psychic, who tersely advises her, "Get a job." When a clueless guest wonders why a tapenade has to have olives, the host snaps, "Otherwise, the whole concept has no specificity." Moments like these, when we get slapped awake, are exactly what innovative fiction should provide." - Richard Prouty

"The ideal reader of Alexandra Chasin's wonderful - and wonder-full - debut collection of "innovative fictions", Kissed By, is no slouch. He has work to do. She can't pass over a single word in a Chasin story, for to skip or skim would be to miss something vital. And yet at the same time, Chasin's reader has to approach many of her fictions in a similar way to a viewer looking at a Magic Eye picture: you have to relax focus so that the image will appear before you in all its glory. This sounds complicated. It's not. Just pay attention. If you do, you will be well rewarded.
Chasin's stories are the sort to have terms like "experimental" or "meta-fiction" thrown at them, but I would rather not do that so as not to put anyone off. This is not "worthy" fiction that you "must read" because of the fact that it is "innovative". Let's just talk about the stories, of which there are 18 in this book published by FC2, the Fiction Collective 2, "an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction".
In the first story, Kissed By, Chasin immediately signals that we are in non-traditional territory. The main character, it seems, is a figure in a painting, who is rather angry that the painter hasn't given him/her a face, and longs to be kissed. The opening paragraph is unsettling: "I began, as we all do, by wanting something. I began by wanting somebody, everybody, nobody, to know that I wanted something, but I hardly knew which."
Chasin often seems to be telling a story and, at the same time, talking about the telling of the story; neither interfere with the other. This, I think, is why it is necessary to pay attention and to relax focus simultaneously. If you think too hard about it all, this could have disastrous consequences. For example, in The Mystery of Which Mystery, the author is wondering about the kind of mystery the story needs, while bringing us the very story that needs the mystery, the love story of Leo and Lise. The added layer makes this fairly pedestrian plot more compelling, maybe more so to a writer who enjoys access to an author's machinations or pseudo-machinations!
As with Lise Erdrich's collection, Night Train, there is a story here that could be seen as purporting to explain the writer and her process. In Composer and I, the narrator is a writer who is plagued by the Composer inside her head who wants to write all the time: "This is the bane of my existence. Since I was a teenager I have been afflicted with a narrator who offers - no, imposes - a running commentary on everything I hear, smell, touch, taste, feel, or do. This irrepressible composer mediates every last experience - fights with my Dad in the great backyard, cityscapes in the dusk, hot sex, backgammon victories, losses in love, brushing my teeth, endlessly driving on roads, and cetera, ad infinitum."
Maybe it is Chasin's own Composer who, in stories such as The Mystery of Which Mystery, insists not only on writing the story but on writing about the writing of the story. And after reading the whole collection, it appeared to me that perhaps the attempt to silence - or, at least, to distract - Composer for a while, might lie behind some of the most wacky of the fictions here. Such as They Come From Mars. An extract (in the same font as the original):
Then they walk pour flow ooze down town rows upon rows flow
folk from Mars rows upon rows like ants Dont obey when City
Hall says dont Then wewe spec they want fear they want TAKE
OVER TAKE OVER Wewe spec fear that what they want they want
from usus Come from Mars this flow ants that want what wewe
have rite here What Dont Mars have nice down town nice life
This is most definitely innovative, and requires much concentration, but the effect is not to simply hear about but to feel the rows of Martians marching, bearing down on you as you read, messing with your brain. It's more a sort of sensory bombardment than a short story.
There are some fictions whose innovation were wasted on this reader, such as ELENA=AGAIN. I am a frequent solver of cryptic crosswords, but after spending much time on this fiction, I failed to crack it. When it was originally published in DIAGRAM it was accompanied by a note: "As a rule, readers create a text in the moment that they read it; readers render a text meaningful in the very act of reading, regardless of the form of the text. This cryptogram is a formal experiment in pushing this axiom to its logical limit. It is an inquiry into readerly activity, whose results its putative writer will never know... paradoxically."
'Toward Grammar of Guilt' requires turning the page to read words written sideways down branches of a sort of family-tree-like structure. Clever. Yes. Also Kant Get Enough was basically just puns on philosopher's names, which was amusing but not much more.
As someone who enjoys non-traditional fiction, I was surprised that the stories that I was taken with the most in this book are the ones that are probably the closest to traditional, with just small twists in their fabric. In B., G., and I the narrator is torn between two lovers, one male and one female, B. and G., and is forced by them to decide on just one. Composer and I is also a straightforwardly-told tale.
What comes through very clearly in this collection is an author who feels wondrously free from constraints, be they linguistic, grammatical, temporal, spatial. Chasin also seems to feel free not to be innovative, which to me is the greatest aspect of this collection: she does what she believes serves the story she is telling. And by doing so, she enriches our concepts of narrative. I look forward to reading much more of her work." - Tania Hershman

"The opening sentence of Alexandra Chasin’s Kissed By reads like a line from the first chapter of an odd sort of origin text: “I began as we all do, by wanting something, but I hardly knew what.” And indeed it is a fitting point of origin, because it establishes the creative impulse behind the rest of the work. With this sentence, Chasin introduces into the book the word want and its numerous meanings; includes us, her readers, in the wanting; and admits to a certain lack of knowledge on her part: what do we want? Those familiar with Chasin’s work, or with the writing of her fellow FC2 authors, will appreciate this honesty, for not only does it allow Chasin the liberty of seeking the what through the written word, but also it means that we are welcome to join her. If there is anything for which Chasin does not want, then, it is a sense of language and all of its possibility.
The book consists of eighteen experimental texts, each varying in degrees of accessibility, each exploring the idea of want. The more accessible texts rely upon basic structural elements to move the story along, as in a series of want ads or a letter to the editor, while the oddest examples sprawl across the entire page in their search for narrative, as in “They Come From Mars,” in which columns of four letter words march down the paper in a formation reminiscent of the video game Space Invaders:
'Then they walk pour flow ooze down town rows upon rows flow
folk from Mars rows upon rows like ants Dont obey when City
Hall says dont Then wewe spec they want fear they want TAKE
OVER TAKE OVER Wewe spec fear that what they want they want
from usus Come from Mars this flow ants that want what wewe
have rite here What Dont Mars have nice down town nice life'
As we read this particular story, the rhythm of the columns, the odd way Chasin breaks up multi-syllabic words into nearly incoherent fragments, and the recurring visual pattern on each page climax with an alarming hate rant against Martian aliens, which have actually, we soon discover, come peacefully in order to satisfy a desire to be a part of a better society, to make a better life for themselves. Where, then, does that place us, the readers, who suddenly find challenged our own expectations of good and evil? What do we want?
Here, Chasin wants to challenge our own expectations, our expectations about fiction, about meaning, about language, and she does so by involving us in the process. Each story asks of us to bring to bear upon its completion our own interpretive abilities. “ELENA = AGAIN,” “Potatoes, You Ask,” and “Towards a Grammar of Guilt,” the beautiful sentence diagrams of which had me revisiting my old 7th grade grammar textbook, are perhaps the purest examples of this urge to collaborate. Of “ELENA = AGAIN,” a text encrypted through the use of a substitution cipher and first published in the online journal DIAGRAM, Chasin writes:
'As a rule, readers create a text in the moment that they read it; readers render a text meaningful in the very act of reading, regardless of the form of the text. This cryptogram is a formal experiment in pushing this axiom to its logical limit. It is an inquiry into readerly activity, whose results its putative writer will never know... paradoxically.'
As I deciphered “ELENA = AGAIN” on a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper, I experienced the act of reading a story in a completely new way. The text appeared before me piece by piece, and despite my still lacking many letters, my experience as a reader allowed my mind to understand the narrative in its fullest sense, much like how the eye will fill in the missing parts of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle to create a whole picture. I was pleased to find that Elena was not only a key to the cipher, but also a character in the narrative.
Even the less experimental of the texts meet Chasin’s requirements necessary to create meaning because they leave enough for an active reader to explore on her own. The most touching of these stories is “Two Alphabets,” a story narrated by an estranged father grieving over the loss of his son to a drunk-driving accident and in which each group of lines begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Here in the W section, we find some of Chasin’s clearest, most emotional language in the entire book:
'When I thought that his visits, filled with arguments but also camping and lessons in packing and laying a mud brick with hair and straw knit up in it, and, more recently, Scrabble, which he brought two trips ago—when I thought that those visits were proof that you can never lose a child even if you abandon him, I was as yet totally untutored in loss.'
Even these simple details give us the ability to create meaning on our own. We imagine the narrator and his son arguing over the breakup of the family, and we understand how the mud brick symbolizes the reconstruction of their relationship. We picture the father and his doomed son kneeling over the neat tiles of a half-full Scrabble board, having suddenly assembled words out of the chaos of language, and we realize that here is a narrator sadly struggling to understand what it means to want, to be without, by way of reciting for us the alphabet of his life.
As an experimental work of literature, Kissed By is one of many such books that should inspire in its readers a desire to seek out a more active role in the creative process. Those hesitant to approach such experimental writing should know that Chasin has made room for them in her work. They should take encouragement from Chasin’s thoughts about the relationship between the reader, the text, and its author—these thoughts, which do not strike me as particularly experimental or innovative, suggest that she writes with a sharp awareness of her reader, an awareness that protects her work from the coldness of heart often attributed to failed experimental writing. And the more adventurous readers, who have come to this review expecting an affirmation of their thoughts, already know that there exist numerous opportunities in a book like this for the reader to learn the language of want. What these readers will find, then, is this: Chasin, its author, is a gifted tutor."- Ryan Call

"I finished reading Alexandra Chasin's experimental fiction collection Kissed By a day or two ago, and it's been in my thoughts quite a bit since. It's a very inventive, interesting collection, and a challenge to read in all the best ways. A lot of the stories are initially hard to get into, but given time teach you how to read them and how to understand what they're doing. Luckily, Chasin's writing is excellent at a pure sentence level, offering plenty of time to settle into each story. Ryan Call recently reviewed the book for The Quarterly Conversation, and goes into way more depth than I'm capable of, so I'll point you over there for more information about this intriguing collection.
Here's a short excerpt, from Chasin's "all kinds of people on the Q train":
'rattling horizontal in the subway car, one gazes one dozes another drifts off, but the junkie always nods. nods on the subway nods in the waiting room nods at the wheel of the car, and nods at home with the television up too loud to think while a child pulls at her sleeve, mommy wake up, i'm hungry. but it's always a waiting room wherever she is, and she's always nodding. off.

we rattling along we know the nods. it's not a nap.

the camel coat on my right elbows the high heels to his right silently to say, look at the child. the child breathes on the window blacked by the racing headlong flashlight tunnel walls and draws an O in the greasy condensation of her breath.

some like it nap some like it nod. the child turns to her mother slumping like some cilium in a lung, turns away, and says to the graffiti above her head, let's pretend we're in a spaceship." - Matt Bell

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