Gregory Sherl, The Future for Curious People, Algonquin, 2014.
What if you could know your romantic future? What if an envisionist could enter the name of your prospective mate into a computer that would show you a film of your future life together?
In The Future for Curious People, a young librarian named Evelyn becomes obsessed with this new technology: she can’t stop visiting Dr. Chin’s office because she needs to know that she’ll meet someone and be happy one day. Godfrey, another client, ends up at the envisionist’s office only because his fiancée insisted they know their fate before taking the plunge. But when Godfrey meets Evelyn in the waiting room, true love may be right in front of them, but they are too preoccupied—and too burdened by their pasts—to recognize it.
This smart, fresh love story, with its quirky twists and turns, ponders life’s big questions—about happiness, fate, and our very existence—as it follows Evelyn and Godfrey’s quest for the elusive answers.
“A love story about love stories . . . The pages burst with laugh-out-loud scenes and crisply original set-ups. I loved it!” —Lydia Netzer
“Somewhere between Jorge Luis Borge’s ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind you will find Gregory Sherl’s warm, intelligent debut novel.” —Roxane Gay
“Enormously appealing . . . Evelyn and Godfrey are two unforgettable characters you’ll root for and remember long after you’ve read the last page of this wildly original, deeply moving novel.” —Mindy Friddle
"Poet Sherl's fiction debut, this comic novel is an intriguing but sometimes frustrating look at the difficulties of finding a soulmate. In a slightly alternative contemporary Baltimore, a thriving industry exists for 'envisionists,' who administer drug cocktails to clients and clamp virtual reality helmets on their heads, thereby allowing them a glimpse of their possible futures. Godfrey Burkes proposes marriage to his domineering girlfriend, Madge, but she wants to see an envisionist before accepting. Meanwhile, Evelyn Shriner, who has a volunteer job recording classics for the blind at which she changes the books' endings to be more uplifting, is breaking up with her musician boyfriend, Adrian. After Godfrey and Evelyn meet cute in an envisionist's office, it becomes immediately clear to the reader, if not to them, that their future lies with each other. Readers may find themselves getting ahead of the characters too often. Sherl offers some beautiful moments, both in the visions and in exchanges between Godfrey and Evelyn. Unfortunately, the light-hearted tone of his writing tends to come across as more smug and self-impressed than comic. - Publishers Weekly
The plot of Greg Sherl’s debut novel, The Future for Curious People, reads like any number of highbrow-ish indie rom-com films produced since 2000 — think Garden State, 500 Days of Summer, Elizabethtown, etc. We open with Evelyn, our female protagonist and manic pixie dream girl par excellence, who is breaking up with her boyfriend, Adrian, because she has seen their bleak romantic future during an envisioning session. Envisioning is a plot device similar to the erasing procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but in reverse; instead of allowing you to erase your past, it allows you to catch a brief glimpse of your romantic future. Evelyn, we soon learn, has become addicted to the procedure because, in her words, “The future no longer has to be messy. It can be tested out. It can be known.” Her counterpart, Godfrey, proposes to his girlfriend Madge, who refuses to accept the ring until she’s see their future together. Godfrey happens to visit Dr. Chin, the same envisionist as Evelyn, and predictable wacky romantic hijinks ensue.
Given the book’s heavy cinematic influences its not particularly surprising that an early cover design for the novel was an image of a television screen. Let’s just say that if this book were turned into a sitcom or a summer blockbuster, it would star Zooey Deschanel and Paul Rudd. In fact, it struck me early on that even the physical descriptions of the two main characters are unquestionably reminiscent of these two hipster darlings, and I began to wonder if the novel had been written with an eventual film contract in mind. It contains so many tired clichés from offbeat “indie” television series and movies that I almost hope this was indeed the case — and as a film or mini-series, I’m sure the story would find an audience. If you approach this novel as a beach read or the screenplay for a light summer rom-com, it’s fine, and it has more than a few funny and clever moments. But the problem is that it wants to be much more; it wants to join the ranks of intellectual rom-com heavyweights like Eternal Sunshine, the quintessential early-aughts angsty existential thinking man’s rom-com. The novel is a beach read that wants to be a deep, existential literary romance novel for the 21st century.
The concept of envisioning is an interesting premise, one that might have served the novel’s philosophical ambitions well. But rather than relying on the power of world-building to play out the implications of romantic foresight, The Future for Curious People attempts intellectual depth through fluff, through tiresome dialogue peppered with witty references to all things hipsters are purported to adore (bangs! Modest Mouse! Vintage clothing! Boat shoes!) and by making unoriginal gibes at its own characters, who feel naked and vulnerable without their phones and other technological devices, a lazy go-to trope which all too often stands in for real analysis of the contemporary human condition.
Sherl’s nascent commentary on contemporary, technologically mediated desires for meaning, order, and self-perfectibility, takes a backseat to the navel-gazing of its protagonists. Evelyn feels she has a “permanent hole” in her heart because her older sister died before she was born, and her parents never quite got over her death. Godfrey is terrified that he is genetically destined to become a profligate philanderer like his biological father. Both characters are much more concerned with their own anxieties than with the problems of those around them, even when it becomes clear that both protagonists have friends that are dealing with serious psychological problems.
But then, who can blame them — the supporting characters offer no more depth than cardboard stand-ins. Madge, Godfrey’s almost-fiancée, is irredeemably awful, yet for some reason Godfrey is initially madly in love with her. Dot, Evelyn’s best friend, is a kleptomaniac, a trait we’re supposed to believe is cute and quirky, but Evelyn’s flippancy towards her friend’s increasingly self-destructive condition comes across as careless at best, callous at worst. But this is a rom-com universe, not the real world, after all.
The problem is that you can’t have both — you can’t have a world where kleptomania makes you fun and eccentric, and at the same time plumb the depths of human despair and isolation in a compelling way. You can’t have a main character who completely lacks the necessary insight to see the painfully obvious flaws in his relationship suddenly become an authority on them after one drunken night of sort-of-cheating on his fiancée (but there was no penetration, so he’s not really a bad guy!). It just doesn’t work that way.
Which leads me to the biggest flaw of the novel: its borderline offensive use of various racial and gender stereotypes to deliver lackluster punchlines. At one point, Dot’s mother suggests to Evelyn that she should consider becoming a lesbian because men just aren’t worth it; Godfrey gives up his dream of becoming an early education teacher because his college roommate once joked that it was a sorority girl major; a lot is made of the fact that Dr. Chin is a white man with a Chinese last name; and Evelyn struggles to assimilate her “feminist” views with her desire for a family. All of these tropes are bizarrely outdated for a novel that seems to be trying painfully hard to be current. The lesbian joke, for instance, appears in almost every B movie rom-com. And the joke might work if it were presented ironically, or as some sort of meta-commentary on the genre. But no such depth accompanies these quips, and it’s hard to forgive the author for leaning on such tired and outdated material as a comic crutch.
And it’s doubly hard to forgive because it shows either an indifference to or a complete misunderstanding of his audience. Sherl wants to attract the sci-fi lite crowd as well as the fashionably jaded 20-something, neither of which will be won over by these quips.
Although the book shouts “Look at me! I’m quirky!” with nearly every turn of the page, its characters are flat, shallow stereotypes and the plot is tiresome and clichéd. The problem in taking so many cues from popular films is that the experience of reading these clichés versus the experience of seeing them played out on a screen is fundamentally different. That’s not to say that what offends in the book wouldn’t also offend on screen, but some of the comedy would come across a little bit better. There is, for instance, a scene in which Godfrey wakes up badly hungover in bed with Evelyn, whom he barely knows, and she is inexplicably wearing an American flag bikini. It’s a funny scene, but the sort of thing that plays out better as a visual gag where the quirk wouldn’t feel quite so overwrought. Perhaps if Greg Sherl had waited fifteen or even ten years to write this novel, he might have been successful at entering Eternal Sunshine territory. But lines like “A lasting relationship isn’t work . . . it’s home” and overly cutesy sub-plots, like the one in which Evelyn makes up happy alternative endings to the works of literature she’s recording for the blind, reveal his immaturity as a writer.
So, is The Future for Curious People worth a read? Sure, if you’re stuck in an airport and you need a distraction while you wait for your flight to board, or you’re looking for a quick, easy vacation read. But if you’re looking for a mature meditation on the tragi-comedy of contemporary romance, you should look elsewhere. - Heather Duncan
Gregory Sherl, The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail, Mud Luscious Press, 2012.
“Many words have been written about the Oregon Trail computer game. It has been discussed in college classrooms, professional conferences, radio interviews, TV newscasts, and Internet blogs. But now comes this – Gregory Sherl’s provocative book of poetry. Not a book about the Oregon Trail game, but one in which the game provides the metaphors for expressions of contemplation, disappointment, pain, and passion. I own a T-shirt that proclaims, You have died of dysentery. Sherl’s poetry goes deeper: My wagon is a carcass of remorse. I ford the river alone. Lovers of the game will delight in the many references from long ago computer screens. Lovers of life will unearth emotions from deep within their own history.” – Don Rawitsch (Oregon Trail game co-creator)
“Gregory Sherl writes the poetry of want, of “waiting to stop waiting” even as we’re fording the Kansas River. He makes oxen moan, kills us with dysentery, kisses our “floppy disk lips” and then wakes the dead. The Oregon Trail is The Oregon Trail, but it is also a modern prayer, a prescription for Xanax and a Chinese restaurant that makes you vomit. How did we get so lonely America? The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail is all the love we’ve ever had and all the love no one has ever had. This book is a fever.” – Melissa Broder
“Americana to the boot, the oxen pulling through the deserts of our imagination, chewing ghosts in the grass. Gregory Sherl has mined the world before the seven billionth child arrived, a world where a pasture and a wagon were the journey, not the tourist destination. This is not a museum, it’s a channel to the heart of the problem of how greed and comfort left the real life behind. It’s my pleasure to tell you that you need to read this book! Carve your note in the oxen’s side.” – CAConrad
Gregory Sherl, Heavy Petting, YesYes Books, 2011.
"If I had to reduce my foreword to four words, these would do: I love these poems. To three: these poems love." — Bob Hicok
"Heavy Petting is a hell of a sexy book. A sexy and generous book. A book where thighs are “spread like warm apple butter,” where one eye is so close to another there is no sight, where we don’t “feel clean unless…burning,” where the not forgotten magic of the Mississippi River, “giant but quiet” makes lovers fall asleep inside each other, where when it is “too cold to sunbathe” the speaker writes letters to skin—the whole thing a kind of “relationship porn.” Or maybe this book is feeling porn… So, let's do it. Let's live a burning life. Read this book. Be touched and burned and be happy about it. We don’t feel clean until we are burning anyway." — Dorothea Lasky
"If you wake up tomorrow early and Frank O’Hara is a Sony Walkman, Xanax is the new Surgeon General, and someone you’re not sure you recognize as your beloved is writing his/her name on the inside of your lip, don’t be alarmed, you’re reading Heavy Petting by Gregory Sherl."— Matt Hart
"Speaking of floating and sex and lyrical expression of the unspoken, the yearnings, the crevasses of time and thought, of body and thought, of aligning body and thought, or to make things make sense, the attempt.
I want to star in a movie about a boy
so tired of sex he sits in a coffee shop
all day biting nails I think the thing is yearning. Yearning for something as concrete as flesh, or a cup of coffee. Yearning to be quiet, as in still, in the own self. There is a space between what we can feel with our senses, and then what serotonin sparkles in our synapses, and that space, well, it is our roiling days and impressive how Sherl mines the space, it is his ore, he brings us ore from that space, pounds out something, brings it up to us, smiths it into something new, or:
I think Who the fuck do I feel like today? or
/touch the lemon seeds in your veins or
I am writing a screenplay for your clavicle.
Between the margins there are giants eating
other giants. Indeed." - Sean Lovelace
Yeti Love I look both ways before getting into bed. I dream a yeti romances you. In the shower you untwist his matted hair while he chews your neck, and–OH!–how blood runs quietly. In the morning the rain pings against the window shutters like quarters being dropped from the Empire State Building. You say Still we can love each other through this. I nod into my oatmeal that tastes like a cinnamon roll. I am artificial even in the way I dress. That towel is a bad blanket you say and my oatmeal is gone, so I nod into my chest. Where did I go? So many people are married at my age, and the last time I burned my tongue on a thigh I was young enough to let it heal. You promise the yeti didn’t mean anything. He was blurry even in daylight, always tucking his feelings under his own myth. A wall clock tells us tomorrow will sound the same. A song goes But this day by the lake went too fast, and now the raindrops are the size of golf balls. When the power goes out, we hide in the bathtub. I tell you I have never drowned and lived. The wind is the sound of the ocean meeting itself. We huddle under a doorway. I grip your rainy nose. Tomorrow I will wade into the nearest river, ask it when it might like to leave
Diary I want to star in a movie about a boy so tired of sex he sits in a coffee shop all day biting his nails. Let me be alone but not the boy says. Let me drink the melting snow from the gutters of the house of the last girl who let me bite her pillow. The boy’s nails are broken waves. The cuticles, silver confetti. If it were opposite day I would touch my breasts every month checking for lumps. This is what I mean: the boy’s nails have quit growing. Today I write in my diary I have no desire to memorize poetry. The boy tells his fingernails You smile the perfect amount.
Gregory Sherl, I Have Touched You, Dark Sky Books, 2011.
"Winner of Dark Sky Magazine’s 2010 chapbook contest, Gregory Sherl’s I HAVE TOUCHED YOU is a debut collection of linked stories exploring the hurt, drive, remorse and pleasure of fleeting relationships and casual sex. Through rapt, often kinky language and quick-fire observations, Sherl’s stories linger and provoke, presenting the reader with a series of swollen hearts, unmade beds, and potent narratives."
“If Tao Lin put the heart back into his writing, exchanged the bored neutrality for a sense of hope or lust or longing, we would have Gregory Sherl’s I Have Touched You. As with Lin, there are the musical references, the mapping of movements, and a diary of food and drink and drug ingestion, but instead of trapping them inside a forever monotonous plain, Sherl elongates them into beauty and rifle-fires them from a language-musket, something at once wonderfully matured and yet able to open gaping holes in our chests.” — J. A. Tyler “In I Have Touched You, Gregory Sherl writes with an unexpected, almost unbearable intimacy as he chronicles the women he has touched and how they have, or have not, touched him. Throughout his debut chapbook, Sherl demonstrates not only the strength of his writing but the strength of his heart with quiet yet moving, sometimes mysterious language and a vulnerable honesty that is rare. In “Some Kind of Fuzz, a Buzzing in the Back of My Throat,” Sherl writes, “This morning I broke myself quietly.” These twenty prose/poems will break you quietly but you will be the better for it.” — Roxane Gay
“The quotidian tedium in Greg’s short prose pieces is addictive. It feels like an indulgence to follow his sentences along from moment to gnawing moment as they chronicle a nexus of failed relationships, warped observations and dark introspections. With so much beautiful wreckage, it’s hard to look away.” — Ben Mirov
"The first time you read through Greg Sherl’s I Have Touched You, its quick, repetitive sentences slough you off like dead skin or rainwater. Its steady, innocuous rhythm casts a lulling spell, and the constant explications wash over you without your having registered them as separate or distinct from the primary flow of phrases. You get the impression of a period of time, a few pockets of geography—mostly Florida, but also an exile to Virginia—and you get a vague sense of actions having taken place, or, more accurately, taking place right now in an oppressive, half-decade-long present tense. By conflating all acts and moments to this single present—sometimes with details from one year enumerated shoulder to shoulder with identical details from years later—the whole concept of present is flattened, broadened, and expanded into an atemporal plane upon which some of life’s events happen. What the book gives you access to then is an essentially static epoch mediated by its heartbroken, bipolar narrator. The progression of time is stalled, and any sense of continuation or movement is subordinated to the rock-like pressure of space alone. Sherl dedicates his book to “anyone who has ever felt stuck,” and creates with the banal repetitions of drugs, sex, depression, music, poetry, and soap, a hypnotic and paradoxically slick sort of stickiness.
I Have Touched You‘s great strength is in its ability to balance reems of over-articulated sameness with hidden moments of difference. It is, contrary to first appearances, a gem of control and restraint. Though the narrator is free with certain details—drugs he’s taken, who he has slept with, under what circumstances, and in what positions—he keeps other, more vulnerable details hidden. The effect is that when, on page 31, nearly two-thirds through the twenty linked stories that make up the collection, you get this passage—
“Two years ago I quit cigarettes, but what’s one more? At the Tin Can I drink two tall boy PBRs very fast. I sweat when people look at me. If my other sister didn’t die, would I smile more? Someone says What do you want? I say Pizza with grilled shrimp on top. Laura is married, but she’s touching my leg.”
—you are devastated. You knew about the cigarettes, you knew about the drinking, the anxiety, the likelihood that a married woman would touch his leg. But that he had a sister? That’s new. It’s a detail given with the same tonal weight as any of the book’s other details. It isn’t dwelled on. It is established as one point in a narrative space crowded with other details and that’s it. Though the fact isn’t mentioned again, it extends backward across the 30 pages preceding it and re-characterizes everything. It is a plot twist as surely as a bloody dagger found in the houses of parliament. Interestingly, it is precisely the sameness, the repetition of events and tone, that allow this new event to take on such epic weight.
In this way, the steady patter of details reveals, if hazily, a plot that serves not only to connect the vignettes across space, but to reintroduce, and to make possible again, the distinctions of time. The plot points lay out in the narrative field like a shipwreck; reading them, aside from enjoying the beach and the sun, is like sweeping your metal detector over the sand for traces of the dead or else the explosive that prompted their drowning. Each echoing scrap of relationship triggers your re-understanding of the linear. There was a time, and as you read you come to understand what it was. When Girl #2, married now, emails the narrator to say “Remember when you came on my chest?” in “Poem as Leaving” (p29) it calls you back to this passage early on in “Florida: An Essay” (p13) :
“Libbie comes back to my apartment and showers. We make out above the covers. Girl #2 still texts me. I write back I only came on your chest because I didn’t want to be a father. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in so long that when I do, I can feel it in my toes.” It seems plausible that the original mention of his coming on her chest was a response to this second mention, though, at the same time, it just as easily implies a history of identical text message and email conversations. What is being sketched in these short, corresponding passages is a pearl of time. The time when he is discussing with Girl #2 fatherhood and ejaculation; the time when Girl #7 is painting him; the time when he is dropping out of school and moving to Virginia. These pearls, connected, arrange the narrative like a necklace tossed in a drawer.
Because they track the essence of the whole, it’s worth sharing all mentions of Girl #3′s documentary:
Girl #3 is making a documentary about her heart. Forty-seven minutes into the film I show up on a Vespa, a Camel Light behind my left ear. She says I can feel the sun bleaching us. I hold her until someone builds us a bed in the left corner of the set. She closes her eyes, and I start picking cotton. Through her nose she says Thursdays suck, man. I nod into her top molars, the back part of her tongue that has never seen sunlight. (p20)
Girl #3 is making a documentary about her heart. In it I say Do you need some water? Three weeks later I’m sleeping on the floor. (p22)
Girl #3 made a documentary about her heart. It’s playing at the Lyric sometime after the sun falls below the dirt. I sit in the balcony. The soundtrack is someone slapping a rubber band against an empty plastic bottle. A voice over goes There are days when we only know what we know. In the opening scene Girl #3 wears a polka dot dress I remember touching her in, but here, in this scene, there’s someone else touching her. I have a headache but no Tylenol, only cough syrup. I drink it anyway. The timeline is fucked up; I am agitated I didn’t buy popcorn. Forty-seven minutes into the film Girl #3 and I smoke cigarettes on my patio. I say If I were a TV show I would change my title every year. We fuck only twice. Each time, I lick the beads of sweat off her upper lip. I have never left Virginia and missed it. (p27)
Girl #3 is making a documentary about her heart. I make a cameo in the second act, right after she throws up in a garbage can, her hair too short to get in the way. (p29)
Girl #3 is making a documentary about her heart. She’s editing it right now. Your cameo might get cut she says. Maybe it’ll make it into the special features on the DVD. I understand. There are too many people who know how her thighs smell, and I tried only twice. I miss the way you kiss I tell her. Like a rocket ship. (p33)
Girl #3 is remaking a documentary about her heart. In it I say That was a casual use of metaphor. The last time I paid to be teased, I was a straw in her mouth. (p41)
While taking these passages out of context changes their shape, it nevertheless shows the deepening effect of their repetition. Neither the documentary, nor the narrator’s role in it, nor anything else is spelled out, but they don’t have to be. The physical book space, the two pages between the semi-hallucinated first mention and the more straightforward second, is enough. It’s a kind of narrative memory colonization or world-building, built from the tension of incompletely, even contradictorily, told events. What is actually happening in minute 47? Is he on his Vespa? Are they smoking? What’s the actual dialogue? Not knowing the singular truth opens a multiplicity, not of possibilities, but of coextensive truths, all of them laid out across the narrative plane.
Greg Sherl has created a nuanced, multi-dimensional world full of anxiety, insecurity, love, and heartbreak. More importantly, he has done so in a bewilderingly immersive way. His world, at first a flat, sealed surface of repeated details, quickly becomes porous. Through the tiny ruptures formed by the inversions of time, the stunning sudden revelation of things hidden, and a masterful control of rhythm, tone and assertion, he opens space. Like blowing up a balloon, I Have Touched You stretches a small bit of material wide over what appears to the naked eye to be absolutely nothing." - Tom DeBeauchamp
"Dark Sky Books, 2011 The “linked stories” in Gregory Sherl’s collection, I Have Touched You, actually lie somewhere between confessional thought fragment and prose poetry, but they come together to create a mosaic of Sherl’s vision of contemporary intimacy in shades of gray.
Gray because the voice of Sherl’s narrator comes to the reader from within his own private shadowland—a place of longing, frustrated apathy, numbness and sorrow, and, sometimes, the merest sliver of wonder. That sliver is where Sherl’s poetic voice expands and transcends, where it scratches against the reader’s skin, managing to raise a hairline welt. When Sherl dares wonder against his otherwise endless landscape of distress, this is the moment in which his narrator is truly brave. Take three unconnected lines from “Memoir”:
I sit in the tub with the showerhead spraying until I feel old. The water feels stale. This is one of seven times I am ready to die.
There is a poem in everything her neck might have said…
I haven’t met Girl #7 yet, thank God. When I do, she will punch walls while I am away. I will watch most of her skin leave her, but fuck if she won’t rebuild my heart on a canvas. Around these lines are other thoughts and observations, some touching or interesting or provocative, but in these three short moments, Sherl allows his narrator to risk admitting a sense of awe with respect to his own feelings and understanding. These moments take the narrator’s fragility and turn it into an object of astonished wonder, and in that shift they suddenly become universal.
The other universalizing feature of these otherwise intensely personal fragments is the narrator himself. Whether the I of I Have Touched You is Sherl (despite the autobiographical expectation coming from the form, several pieces subtly tease the reader with the idea that this is all pure fiction) or an imagined first person narrator doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the access to this narrator proves unsettling. At first the reader is struck by the almost ordinariness of this voice—the apparent simplicity of his observations, the ubiquitous nature of his pain, his repeated material focus on couches, pillows, beds, drugs, bodies, conversations.
I like nature only when I’m leaving it. By the sixth track of Our Endless Numbered Days, I am asleep. I haven’t slept in my bed in over a year. On Xanax, my couch is a cloud. When I wake up, there are impressions of Girl #1 through Girl #4 in the couch cushions. I haven’t seen a woman I have touched in months. Girl #1 lived here once. Before her, before me, other people lived here. There is a ghost in every room. I don’t feed them.
There is a mournful tone to these lines which renders them heartfelt, but one is still tempted to make a judgment about the commonplace nature of his brokenness. Yet that very idea is where the collection takes much of its power. This sorrowful narrator could be anyone. He could be everyone. He could represent an entire generation of “stuck” young men.
Sherl invites this adjective by dedicating his collection to “everyone who has ever felt stuck.” This is a useful lens for filtering I Have Touched You, a reminder that these pieces are united not only by their attention to the narrator’s sexual and emotional experiences but also by their confinement to the narrator’s particular mental landscape. That landscape is definitely poised and immobile, bound to the narrator’s demonstrated feeling of stasis. That Sherl manages to create poetic reflection out of this mood is worth celebrating.
Despite the collection’s overall mood of “being stuck,” Sherl’s prose is not stagnant. His pieces have movement; they often feel like a stacking of interconnected bridges, one sentence crossed with a parallel thought, intersected by a tangent, re-lifted onto a previous platform, winding back to an earlier reflection. This is untidy scaffolding but it helps fight against a mood with a dangerous potential for monotony. The last piece of the collection, the final fragment of a connected “essay,” is a good example of this chaotic construction:
Stuffy. The room looks like it was swallowed by paint chips. Shitty acoustics. I am making this up. We crouch next to lava lamps to keep warm. Girl #4 says I liked you better when you were crazy. I say I liked you better when your name was _______________. We don’t talk when we fuck. We count the blemishes on our skin. We watch MTV. Someone stole all the music videos, carried them away in their bellies or something. They even swallowed the credits. Our hands cry together. There are puddles between the couch cushions. The microfiber will smell soon. Then what? Will we watch each other bathe in the sink? Will we scrub all the hands until they’re clean? Aside from the construction, there are two elements of this excerpt also worth noting. First, how those last three questions open this fragment up with that feeling of wonder again, of bewildered awe, taking the entire piece further than the beginning suggests it may go. And second, that last mention of hand scrubbing. If the mood of the collection is about being stuck, then its theme can be expressed in an image of the narrator’s outstretched and hovering hand. Wanting to touch but frozen in fear. Sherl isn’t overly explicit about this hesitancy, but there are multiple nods to the narrator’s psychic fragility in this direction. With this in mind, the titular I Have Touched You becomes no longer just a reference to sexual contact but also a subtle confession of what it means for the narrator to even contemplate engaging his sense of touch." - Michelle Bailat-Jones
“Girl #1 has made her Facebook page private,” says the intimate voice of Gregory Sherl’s I Have Touched You, a voice that is often at once vulnerable and numbed, or desperate to be numbed, feigning numbness. This is a voice that claims “I’d rather pass out than fall asleep,” that says “Sometimes I want to fuck but then I realize I have to use both hands to open the condom wrapper and I don’t think it’s worth it”—apathy, in these pages, is a kind of defense, a withdrawal.
Alone, I play the same Modest Mouse record on repeat. It goes And I miss you when you’re around. I start it over, and it goes And I miss you when you’re around. I think Girl #1 thought about answering her phone last night, but maybe she was stuck under an anvil, a baby grand piano, piles of firewood not yet lit. Whimsy, too, is a way to shrug off that urgent but ultimately inexpressible ache (“She is contemplating marrying a boy who never made her come”), that absence that is always around, lurking (“I haven’t thought of Girl #1 in like 38 minutes”). Our narrator, when he’s not staring at the ceiling or scamming scripts from doctors, contemplates the memories cell phones hold and wishes for hand sanitizer and shuffles from girl to girl, touch to touch, without ever really being present for the scene. “We make out above the covers,” he says once, or, another time, “She moans in my mouth, and I haven’t even tried yet. I’d rather smoke a cigarette.” With one girl, listening “to Iron & Wine in our underwear,” the narrator relays the fact that “My acne medication has stained her pillowcase, so she flips it onto the other side.” That stain, that banality of source, that response, that flipping over—everything in these pages resonates with emotion.
Music is a frequent reference, and, it would seem, a kind of template for this prose-poem work. Elliot Smith is central, not only in terms of lyrical style, linking the broken exteriors of the world to something too an unnamable interior pain, but also that sound, that rhythm, which runs under and through this book. “This is a soundtrack: a hi-hat coupled with a low groan,” and this is a piece about Googling the name of the girl you are in love with, not that such a prepositional phrase does anything like convey what you feel. The narrator sends an email to Girl #1: “I write I would pay to cook food with you.” Lyricism, like I said: not a word wasted, not a syllable put down that’s false. The soggy burritos, the semi-flaccid dicks, the lips that “are just enough red” but aren’t those of the woman you want—Sherl offers all of this to us, and “This goes on until it doesn’t,” at which point you will likely then immediately re-read the thing, play it in your head like an album on repeat." - Spencer Dew
Excerpt: Smile, My Mind I have to put my ear to the carpet to hear the music. There is a thumping in my chest, and I understand that the goodness left once and forgot where it was headed. Girl #8 calls, and says I feel like a drawbridge every time I think about you thinking about me. We have phone sex even when it’s light out. Girl #3 is making a documentary about her heart. In it I say Do you need some water? Three weeks later I’m sleeping on the floor. I don’t remember how Girl #5 tastes; I just remember counting the cigarette butts. I listen to a song, and it goes But if you’re worried about the weather, then you picked the wrong place to stay. You can see my pores open when I yawn. Have you ever been stuck in a sun shower? So confusing. Memoir Girl #3 says Be my boyfriend? On top of me her breath smells like nothing. I look at the remote control. I look at the ceiling fan, it’s spinning. I imagine cold against her back. There is always sweat on her brow when we kiss. Girl #1 has made her Facebook page private. I am quiet when she doesn’t call. I am always quiet. Girl #4 takes Xanax on my doorstep. When I come home I see her socks first. We smoke cigarettes all over Tallahassee. After Art Brut at Club Downunder, I sit in my tub with the showerhead spraying until my skin is old. The water feels stale. This is one of seven times I am ready to die. Before that I was in a cemetery with Cecilia. I thought about kissing her only once. There is a poem in everything her neck might’ve said, but I didn’t get close enough to find out. Girl #6 pulls my hair when she comes. She is always on top or bent over. There is an impression of her face in the pillow when we finish. I haven’t met Girl #7 yet, thank God. When I do she will punch walls when I am away. I will watch most of her skin leave her, but fuck if she won’t rebuild my heart on a canvas. Girl #3 fucks Dan because I tell her to. Dan buys me cigarettes so I don’t care. Girl #3 gives me two Bukowski paperbacks, still tries to sit next to me at the movies. She says It’s over, he does too much coke. I think about Girl #1 while most girls talk. There are so many miles between us I am dizzy. If she is dizzy, I don’t know. She is contemplating marrying a boy who never made her come. I am contemplating marrying a bottle of Vicodin, a pack of Turkish Silvers, a patch of skin that won’t bruise. At All Saints Café a girl says I like your computer. I say You can scratch your keys across it and your ears will hurt. Before she leaves she gives me her number written on a torn piece of paper. I call her a month later and we bake a Funfetti cake. We sit on my couch for an hour and I think about kissing her 19 times. Her jeans are dark. I touch her stomach. Her lips are just enough red but I don’t kiss her because she’s not Girl #1. Tomorrow, I don’t even know. Next week, I can’t imagine. Of Montreal plays at Club Downunder. Kevin Barnes comes out in a wedding dress. He says Marry me, Tallahassee and everyone says Fuck yeah and then there are good songs. I am wearing a knit beanie with a bill. Girl #3 shows up late and I don’t know what to focus on: her hips or the cigarettes I’m fingering in my jean pocket or Kevin Barnes singing Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica, let’s pretend we don’t exist. A year later I see Of Montreal at The Moon. Before the set I take three Percocet in the smoking room. I am not able to move till the encore. Girl #4 stands next to me but I don’t fuck her after the show. I don’t even touch her wrist even though it’s a soft wrist and she keeps it close to me. After, we go to All Saints Café and drink black coffee. I swallow pills from her fingers. I am too stoned to play Scrabble so we draw each other licking things. I draw her doing a handstand in a dumpster. She draws me between her legs. Amanda comes back from NYU. In my car, she says I love you. You know that, right? She runs her hand through my hair and everything burns. So many minutes I’ve spent trying to sleep. This is the only time Amanda touches me. There’s a couch and it’s clean and that’s all I want, but right now Girl #5 is telling me to fuck her on her balcony. There are fireworks and she’s in heels. Her dress is pushed up to her waist. Cars honk. I am only slightly hard. Nothing Happened When You Looked Away Sometimes I want to fuck but then I realize I have to use both hands to open the condom wrapper and I don’t think it’s worth it. Florida State University has its own strand of syphilis. That might not be true. I can’t talk to women with cold sores. I can’t talk to women who look at their hands when they think about their exes. Girl #3 is making a documentary about her heart. She’s editing it right now. Your cameo might get cut she says. Maybe it’ll make it into the special features on the DVD. I understand. There are too many people who know how her thighs smell, and I only tried twice. I miss the way you kiss I tell her. Like a rocket ship. I can’t talk to women who don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze, those who talk like fizzled out fireworks. I wonder how many people are touching themselves at this exact moment. This morning I thought about Girl #1 in the shower but nothing happened. Notes on a Candy Cane Tree What did I think about before you touched my thigh? Let me say this: I’m going to touch you until my fingers fall off. If my fingers don’t fall off, I will hold your hand even if it’s sweaty. And let me say this: You are lovelier than clouds that look like lovely things. I have only loved a few times and the last time was when you rubbed my neck under the monkey bars. We weren’t much younger than we are now. I still have the same haircut. You still have only one dimple. It’s on your left cheek and it looks like you fell on a pebble. I love that it looks like you fell on a pebble. Let me say this: You taste like candy canes. There was a candy cane tree in my old neighborhood. My neighbor hung candy canes on the branches of the willow and I snatched them in the middle of the night. It was December when I rode my bike the quickest, like I was going somewhere to meet you. I like you more than the candy cane tree. Let me say this: I am uncomfortable in my own skin, so I hold your face. I hold your face and your hips but mostly your face. You have a lovely face. Let me say this: I love you like monsters like scaring little kids. I make a list of words I can use to diagram your body: petite, mellifluous, comely, milk, necessary. Please, forgive the humming; you see I rarely taste candy canes in March. When I don’t taste you I taste sweat. Not good sweat, mind you, sweaty sweat from the men’s locker room. Sometimes I taste pizza, but that’s only because I loved pizza first. Let me say this: My love for pizza was fleeting. I was young and naive and thought that extra toppings meant something. These are fine days because they end with you. Let me just say this: I’m going to kiss you until my lips fall off. If my lips don’t fall off, I will kiss up your spine until I run out of spine. Then I’ll start over. Tampa I go to Tampa because the meds stopped working. It’s not what you think—it’s probably much worse. I go to Tampa to sit on mall benches. I go to Tampa and I finger the fifth pocket of my jeans and that’s where my lighter would be but there’s no lighter so my finger just sticks in halfway. I go to Tampa and I can’t find her even though she lives in Tampa and that’s the only reason I’m in Tampa. I go to Tampa and I want to punch myself in the face for going to Tampa. I sweat through my cardigan because it’s hot in Tampa and I’m the only person wearing a cardigan. I go to Tampa because I heard she ran into an old boyfriend. I don’t know if she fell in love with him or if she checked his medicine cabinet and saw that he didn’t have to take a pill to feel okay and thought that was enough, but within a year she was engaged. I go to Tampa and order a Cinnabun. The Cinnabun is too big. I go to Tampa and I don’t finish a Cinnabun. I go to Tampa because the last thing she said was not even if your mother dies. I go to Tampa because my mother did not die. I go to Tampa because my father still puts his hand in my mother’s back pocket. I go to Tampa from Virginia and by the time I get there my face itches. I go to Tampa and I call my friends and they say you’re crazy and I nod my head but they can’t hear me nod my head through the telephone.
Gregory Sherl: The Good Men Project
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