4/30/14

Nanni Balestrini - You cannot read this novel, unless I lend it to you, as each of the copies contain different iterations of the same text


Nanni Balestrini, Tristano: A Novel, Trans. by Mike Harakis, Verso Books, 2014.

This book is unique as no other novel can claim to be: one of 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations of the same work of fiction.
Inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Tristano  was first published in 1966 in Italian. But only recently has digital technology made it possible to realise the author’s original vision. The novel comprises ten chapters, and the fifteen pairs of paragraphs in each of these are shuffled anew for each published copy. No two versions are the same. The random variations between copies enact the variegations of the human heart, as exemplified by the lovers at the centre of the story.

The copies of the English translation of Tristano  are individually numbered, starting from 10,000 (running sequentially from the Italian and German editions). Included is a foreword by Umberto Eco explaining how Balestrini’s experiment with the physical medium of the novel demonstrates ‘that originality and creativity are nothing more than the chance handling of a combination’.

Literature does not get written in a technological void where its material conditions of production would be irrelevant.  Quite the opposite actually, as the long tradition of writers and poets who enthusiastically engaged with the material texture of the book suggests: think of Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a flipbook presentation of 10 sonnets where the 14 lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems; or think of BS Johnson’s idiosyncratically experimental The Unfortunates, a “book in a box”, without any binding, so that the reader can assemble the book any way she likes. Nanni Balestrini’s Tristano directly comes out of this vibrant tradition of avant-garde, experimental literature.
Inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Tristano was first published in 1966 in Italian. But only recently has digital technology made it possible to realise the author’s original vision. The novel comprises ten chapters, and the fifteen pairs of paragraphs in each of these are shuffled anew for each published copy. No two versions are the same.
This radical testing of the limits of the novel both as a genre and a physical object did not fail to sparkle what might very much look like the harbingers of a fierce literary debate – or will it be a storm? Very recently, The Guardian ran two articles that evinced starkly opposed reactions to the book.- Clement Petitjean

“Balestrini's experiment focuses on attacking the twin myths of the creative genius and culture as property.”– Rhizome

“Goodbye Gutenberg. Many alternative ways of spreading the adventure of literature are emerging. This exercise by Balestrini is absolutely central.”– La Stampa

“Finally the historical impasse between literature and new media … turns into an opportunity to create something radically new.”– Aldo Nove

“Balestrini has created with Tristano a kind of poetry of the language … promoting language to the role of protagonist, that is of hero, and where in traditional novels language voices the hero’s thoughts and actions, in this new Tristano language voices itself and celebrates its wide number of opportunities and movements.”– Angelo Guglielmi

“The most impressive feat of publishing in ages.”– Blackwell's Oxford

Tristano in some way answers the question: What kind of book would a computer write? The major thing here is that each copy is totally unique. The text of Tristano consists of ten chapters, each of which consists of 15 pairs of paragraphs, two per page, and for every single edition of the book, a new combination of the order of those paragraphs within each chapter is shuffled, changing the story with each printing of the book. The number of possible paragraph combinations is 109,027,350,432,000, meaning no copy of the book will ever be the same, and every reader will have his or her own edition, to be read in that way by no one else before.
I will admit that it does sound a bit gimmicky, but there’s an odd feeling in reading something designed to belong to you alone. My copy bears the number 10738, and I felt strangely attracted to the idea that this was a private exhibit, my own iteration of a thing being spread quietly throughout the world. It made me think about who might be holding another copy with another variation, and how that version would feel to read, what they would understand that I didn’t, and what that meant.
Aside from the interesting concept, the writing in Tristano is beautiful, and intricately rendered, if also supposedly hodgepodged from many different places. Balestrini, an important face in Italian avant-garde literature alongside Umberto Eco and Edoardo Sanguineti, has a magnetic knack for stringing together musical phrases with cryptic comments and everyday sounding speech, like, on page 22 in my version:
“There were some flowers in a vase and a long sofa in front of the fireplace. My husband came toward me I was scared he was going to beat me I covered my face with my hands. Then he got into his car parked by the kerb a white car. At the end of the narrow street the traffic lights are stuck on red.”
While the plot, on its face, pretends to be a love story, it does so much more with the ground it stands on that you soon forget you’re in a story at all. Because the text from sentence to sentence within the paragraphs is the same, it is the transitions between each page that vary, and then mutate and disappear, and later reappear again and come together in strange ways, ways that exist only for you, at times seeming so perfect in its formation you forget how it came on totally by chance, not the relic of a product of another doting human, but something stranger.- Blake Butler

Nanni Balestrini’s Tristano is a project realized, though sixty years after its inception. When this experimental novel was first published in 1966, the author was able to get only one version of it printed. He had wanted 109,027,350,432,000 different versions.
Now, the flexibilities of digital printing technology have enabled his project to finally see the light of day. Each version contains the same parts, but the novel’s various sections—ten chapters, housing twenty paragraphs each (of a possible thirty)— appear in a random order predetermined by a computer algorithm, making each copy unique. The English-language copies from Verso’s print run of 4,000 are individually numbered, starting from 10,000, continuing sequentially from where the Italian and German editions left off. Mine is number 10,789. Though the words in it are the same as those in other copies, the book in my hands is entirely different.
But is the story still the same?
Herein lies the beautiful problem. In a manner of speaking, yes. A playful homage to the classic story of Tristan and Iseult—that oft-told, many-versioned tale of the Middle Ages wherein a knight and a maiden with magical healing powers drink a potion that turns things passionate, then deadly—Tristano is not plot-driven, though the recognizable elements of a love story do surface here and there: hair is stroked, clothes are shed, stairs are climbed. Balestrini, a founding member of the Italian avant-garde literary movement Gruppo 63, whose work has often rejected the narrative tradition, here plays the role of author-builder: if the paragraph is his building block, the sum of them puzzled together constitutes the greater form.
Within each paragraph we see strands of narrative, interconnected with strands in other paragraphs. Each tells a fragment of a tale, often involving a character named C, who (in a delightfully infuriating twist that presages the inconsistency of the story itself) is sometimes male, sometimes female. But the reader must not grow too fond; the next paragraph could relate events taking place one day after or three weeks before. This unpredictability enhances our perception of passing time, even as it strips chronology entirely away. In the love-story canon, it is only after he leans in to kiss her that he can smell her perfume. Not so here.
There is, for instance, a teasing quality to the early appearance of this line: “One of the wardrobe doors was open and C noticed that there were fewer women’s clothes hanging there than the other time.” The phrase “the other time” is tantalizing, a chronological marker thrown in without any antecedent. In a later paragraph within the same chapter, we read: “Near the end of October he found sleep again, but at the price of terrible dreams.” Again, the phrase “Near the end of October” bothers us: We feel we must use this piece of information—these cues are signs on the narrative trail. But would it matter if these lines were reversed (as is surely the case in a different copy of the book)—with C finding sleep again and dreaming terrible dreams before he sees the open wardrobe with fewer women’s clothes hanging there than the other time? What then?
In forcing a non-hierarchical, non-chronological reading of a love story, Balestrini would seem to be gently mocking the carnal, whimsical narratives of courtship we carry with us, chiding them as tender and foolish, as marked by our petty need to pin meaningful developments to passing time. And then she said, I don’t want to see anybody else. Have we not all, upon hearing such words, silently rejoiced in a threshold crossed and a curtain raised on romance’s second act?
The use of algorithms in writing is, of course, a long-standing tradition, one that includes the work of the Oulipo, whose members wrote poems and novels guided by experimental constraints. The literary product of such a process, whether in the 1960s or today, always runs the risk of being denounced as unreadable, or a perversion of some purer form. But these criticisms miss out on the playfulness that tends to undergird such constraints.
Take Balestrini’s coy communications with the reader. Like an architect who builds some personal touch, some subtle flourish or telling detail into the walls of his building, Balestrini slyly inserts his thoughts on the limits of standard narrative throughout the novel: “It was often difficult for her to understand if they were moving normally. They can follow a spatial trajectory while usually only temporal trajectories can be followed.”
With such gentle gibing, the reader may very well be tempted to skip around and play God, as it were. If each paragraph could just as easily have appeared on a different page, why read in such a plain, rote, sequential way? And yet, the reader would do well to resist this impulse, because another interesting possibility of the book is that it puts the weight of authority on the reading of the text, rather than on its writing. The reader might hold, if she so chose, as much authority as Balestrini himself. The book she reads is not just one version of many possible versions. It can be the authoritative version of Tristano, if she, now a co-author of sorts, has the nerve to dub it such. Balestrini, surely, would not mind. In fact, he would be delighted.
Ironically, though Balestrini is a self-proclaimed foe of “the stiff determinism of Gutenberg mechanical typography,” the technological scaffolding behind Tristano might find its impetus in, or at least echo, the sublime flaws of just such a printing process. After all, though impressions left by the bite of metal type on paper were indelible, slight differences in the height of worn type or the pressure of the human hand could create rather unique versions of the same composition. So, we might paradoxically catch a glimpse of sympathy for the technologies of yore in a project predicated on, or at least fulfilled by, the technologies of the twenty-first century—minute flaws spurring on an extreme form of narrative innovation.
As Umberto Eco writes in his introduction, Balestrini “does not aim to celebrate fortuity so much as the possibility of an elevated number of possible outcomes.” There is in this parsing a desire to both fête and poke fun at the obsessive human need for singularity. Perhaps because of this need, we lose out on a different kind of story altogether that would continue undaunted, before and after us, if we let it build of its own accord, in whatever order it wished. - Jane Yong Kim



In order to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the beginning—or at least a good piece of it.— Stanislaw Lem [1]
"All directions are of equal importance." This is the second sentence in the second paragraph on page 88 of my copy of Nanni Balestrini's 1966 novel Tristano, #10750. You cannot read this novel, unless I lend it to you, as each of the 10,000 copies Verso publish this month contain different iterations of the same text.
When composing Tristano, Balestrini used a computer algorithm to shuffle the sentences of the ten paragraphs which comprise each of the ten chapters. The exact methodology is not clear, but it was likely similar to the process he used for an earlier computer-manipulated text, Tape Mark 1 (1961). For that work, snippets of Lao Tzu, Michihito Hachiya, and Paul Goldwin were divided into fifteen short phrases and then remixed combinatorially by an IBM 7070 and a program comprising 322 punched cards to create short texts, each a unique sequence of ten elements.
Nanni Balestrini, flow chart for Tape Mark I (1961). Published in Jasia Reichardt, ed. Cybernetic Serendipity: The computer and the arts (Studio International, 1968).
In the case of Tristano, his process allowed for 109,027,350,432,000 different possible variations. A single variation of Tristano was published in Italian in 1966, its text "a mixture of original prose and text borrowed from guidebooks, atlases, newspapers and other artistically marginal sources," according to the publisher. For the text to make any sense at all post-scramble, it had to be, as Balestrini’s neoavanguardia comrade Umberto Eco writes in his forward, "'prepared,' like pieces of lego, each already designed to fit together with other pieces in multiple ways." As a result, there are a limited number of set-pieces, and all proper names are "C," leading to such delirious formulations as, "In the month of July C went on a trip up the river on the ship as far as C and on his return he decided to abandon C." This sentence also serves as a neat summing up, as near as I can tell, of Tristano's "plot," which is ostensibly based on the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isode.
The "plot" isn't really the point, but the most readable and pleasurable outcome of Balestrini's game, at least for #10750, are its accidental mini-narratives. Some examples:  
This being done we hoisted jib and mainsail kept full and we start boldly out to sea. Twenty minutes later we climbed on board. Vomiting over the side leaning on the ropes. Dark blue of the panorama. Ten seconds.
A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not.
Languidly undulating surfaces lack of watercourses the frequent outcrops of rocks that emerge from the fine layer of red earth which nonetheless supports rich crops. The scar on her stomach was visible in the faint dusk light. I'm so happy you came. Let's try another position.
Each mini-narrative dissolves back into the overarching form, usually quite quickly, although #10750 features one which lasts as long as a single paragraph save one sentence. The frustration this generates highlights formless chaos as the pre-history of every narrative, as well as the unholy formal dance of writer and reader required to create meaning.
Other moments of coherence take the form of meta-commentary interspersed throughout, such as:
You could even start from another episode and obtain a slightly different story. Though the question is rather irrelevant.
The provisional nature of the assemblage of the materials from different sources not connected together by integration but by association.
The other possible interpretations are endless but at the moment this is the only reality that belongs to us.
Tristano is still, at least nominally, a novel, one where the voice and temporality can change not only every line but within every line. Thus, ascribing these gnomic pronouncements to some "authorial voice," or taking them to be "statements of intent" or "ironic self-criticism," would be inadvisable. It is tempting to compare Tristano to hypertext fiction, which seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence with Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories. And both do indeed seem to be interested in extracting and making visible the "rules" which govern modern and post-modern lit, breaking narrative down into its consituent elements. However, hypertext fictions places great value on "exploring" the possible sequences of these elements, while each iteration of Tristano is fixed, concrete. The computer has already explored; we merely have the path.
Instead, Balestrini's experiment focuses on attacking the twin myths of the creative genius and culture as property. As Eco writes, "The creative man will not, then, be he who has deduced something new ex nihilo, but he who has identified it, by intuition, by trial and error, by chance…" Balestrini's algorithm might limit the scope, but this work of creative identification is still shared between the author and his readers. - Brendan C. Byrne                                                                         


First published in Italy in 1966, it has only been in the last decade that digital technology has made it possible for Tristano to be printed as its author Nanni Balestrini intended. Each of its ten chapters has fifteen pairs of paragraphs, arranged differently by an algorithm in each published copy. These are numbered on their covers by Verso Books, who have issued four thousand of its possible 109,027,350,432,000 variations in English for the first time.
In his foreword, Umberto Eco – a member of Italy’s Neoavanguardia movement with Balestrini and others, founded in 1963 – suggests that “originality and creativity are nothing more than the chance handling of a combination”. Eco provides a potted history of the literary idea of infinite possibilities of letters and words, particularly fashionable during the seventeenth century. Eco suggests several ways to approach Tristano: by reading a single copy and treating it as “unique, unrepeatable and unchangeable”; or “considering it to be the best … possible” version; or by reading several and comparing the outcomes.
Eco doesn’t discuss post-war attempts to use modern printing techniques to allow readers to create their own variations of texts. B S Johnson’s famous “book in a box”, The Unfortunates, where the loose chapters (besides the first and last) could be read in any order, remains best known in Britain, but it was preceded by Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1(1962), with its 150 unbound pages aiming to demonstrate that what matters most in life stories is not the events themselves but their order. Saporta’s book recently became available as an app, which sends readers a page on demand; the appearance of Tristano in its intended form adds to the sense, explored in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011), that digital technology could radically change the way that authors construct texts and how readers receive them, and the relationship between the two.
Balestrini’s note explains that he first experimented with the “combining possibilities of an IBM calculator” in 1961 for Tape Mark I, where fragments of poetry were sequenced according to primitive computer algorithms. His use of the same method for Tristano has already generated considerable controversy – but it would be facile to judge it purely by the means of its construction. What of the text itself?
The story is very simple – it is based on the medieval tragedy of adulterous lovers Tristan and Isolde, rewritten numerous times since the twelfth century with differing details but the same structure, its familiarity giving Balestrini more licence to play with its formation. The opening chapters develop the central characters – confusingly, both called C – and their relationship, but important details will emerge at different times for each reader: in my copy, edition 10625, the man’s inability to handle money was revealed at the very end of chapter one, and my conception of his character and its likely development would almost certainly have been different if I’d learned this within the first few paragraphs.
The disjointed narrative puts greater focus on Balestrini’s poetic prose, which feels very much of its time: the detached observation of the nameless central characters and the uncertainty about who is narrating owes a considerable debt to nouveau roman pioneer Alain Robbe-Grillet, particularly his Jealousy (1957). There are many subtle nods to Jacques Prévert’s quietly heart-breaking poem Dejeuner du matin, and if I had not known that Balestrini was Italian, I would have assumed he was French: intertwining the failing relationship and the collapse of Resistance and revolutionary ideals, his style and tone frequently recall the ecstatic monologue used as a voiceover in French artist Gil J Wolman’s film L’Anti-concept (1952).
At points, Balestrini makes his disdain for story-telling conventions explicit, with mixed results – one paragraph in chapter five offers a forensic, Robbe-Grillet-style description of the surroundings, closing amusingly with “All this does not have very much to do with our story but it doesn’t matter”. Sometimes, this is overly didactic: we already know from Balestrini’s composition that “We are not obliged to read everything that it is possible to read. A book is endless books and each of them is a slightly different version of you.” At times, the text feels like it was not just arranged but written by a computer. Lines such as “Autism that is the conviction of being a superman who is not subject to the laws of society” could easily have come from RACTER, the English prose generator program that produced The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed in 1984, with empty aphorisms such as “My desire to incite myself in my dreaming is also a reflection of ambiguity”.
These are only occasional, and the emotional highs and lows of the story are all the more touching for being framed within Balestrini’s subtle, understated language. It’s sad that Tristano’s central device may lead critics to judge it by unfair standards, making the perfect the enemy of the interesting, or exploratory, as if any experiment that does not induce a total revolution of the form is worthless. Endless novels present fixed versions of events, and it’s baffling that those few to challenge this should attract opprobrium, as did Johnson in particular, purely for doing so – Tristano is particularly successful in raising the idea that the structures that authors choose are not always necessarily the best possible.
Although I’m not sure that Tristano makes its reader “the co-author” – surely that’s the algorithm – but it provokes plenty of thought about how to read, obliging people to form opinions after covering each chapter, rather than as they go along, and to think about the nature of the novel’s conclusion. I always linger over a final paragraph, re-reading it several times, feeling that it will cement a book’s meaning in my mind, but here, as throughout, Tristano raises more questions than it answers. Should an ending always be definitive? Why? And what does it mean if it isn’t? - Juliet Jacques

Still searching for the perfect Valentine's Day gift? Holding out for something truly unique? Salvation may just have come courtesy of Nanni Balestrini, experimental poet, onetime left-wing activist and self-declared foe of "the stiff determinism of Gutenbergian mechanical typography". For he has created a novel that is more than one in a million. To be precise, it is one in 109, 027, 350, 432, 000.
Branded "a love story that tests the limits of the novel" by its British publishers Verso, Tristano goes on sale in the UK on Friday, almost half a century after its author published its original version in Italian in 1966. But the 4,000 books that have been ordered by Verso are more than simple translations of that work.
In the realisation of Balestrini's original, long-unfulfilled dream, each book is a slightly different telling of the story - a jumbled, randomised mixture of the original generated by a computer algorithm and intended to transform the unsuspecting reader into what fellow Italian Umberto Eco describes as a 'co-author'.
"With mechanical reproduction and typography, everything is made the same. This goes for [the production of] objects, too: these chairs were made in a factory which makes all of them exactly the same," says Balestrini, 78, tapping the seat on which he is perched in his Rome studio.
"And this is unnatural," he says. "Because here we have a tree on which there are leaves which are a bit similar but are all different. The same goes for us: we are a bit similar, we have two arms, two eyes, but we are different people. And I think art should be thus; indeed, it is thus … So for me this mechanical business, which makes all things boring, identical, is very irksome."
Leo Hollis, an editor at independent publishers Verso, said they had decided to bring Tristano to English-language readers because of its position on the cutting edge of technology-transformed story-telling, which Balestrini began experimenting with in the early 1960s.
"I think this is one of the most engaged experiments in the format and in what fiction can be," said Hollis. "Not only is it an extraordinary object but also it can, depending on the edition you get, obviously, be an extraordinary read as well."
When Balestrini realised that digital printing technology had advanced to the stage where his dream of a novel with a huge number of possible variations was now feasible, he and his son came up with a system which would regulate the dismantling and re-ordering of the original Tristano, every time producing a different novel with its own individually-numbered cover.
The first versions were published in Italy in 2007, and subsequently in Germany. Before the English-language editions, 10,000 copies were in circulation. Each has 10 chapters with 20 of a possible 30 paragraphs in different orders, with the paragraphs within the chapters also shuffled. "And from these two rules," says Balestrini, "comes this number of millions, millions, millions of possible copies."
When it was published in 1966, Tristano - named in an ironic homage to the hero of the Tristan and Iseult legend - was already an experimental hodgepodge. Needless to say, its digitally-reordered descendants are not novels- let alone love stories- in any traditional sense. Verso describe the book, in fact, as a "radical assault on the novel"; for Balestrini, it is a literary work- but also "a game" into the spirit of which the reader, if he is to appreciate it, must enter.
At least one appeared to be struggling with this, however; a message posted on Twitter on Saturday read simply: "Reading Balestrini's Tristano. My head hurts."
The writer- whose early work in the 1960s rejected almost all linguistic and narrative tradition- acknowledges that reader frustration "is a risk" and admits he is curious to see how the anglophone world reacts. What he would like is for each person to interact playfully and imaginatively to the words and in so doing perhaps weave a story of their own- "a story which is completely different from that which anyone else could invent."
"I don't know if you've ever gone on the metro and the tram and heard snippets of people's conversation, and you've thought 'but what is this story?'," he says. "And you invent a story; from small fragments of language you create a story out of curiosity."
In an introduction to the book, Umberto Eco, one of the foremost members of Italy's Neoavanguardia movement alongside Balestrini, says he sees three options for potential readers of Tristano: to acquire a single copy and read it "as a unique, unrepeatable and unchangeable text"; to acquire many and "have fun following the unexpected outcomes of the combination", or pick just one they consider to be the best.
Balestrini says the reader should decide for himself how many copies he wants, though suggests comparing two versions for a fruitful analysis. Not that he is perhaps the best person to judge. Since the original of 1966, how many versions of Tristano has he himself read? "None," he says, and chuckles. -

Let’s start with some facts:
Nanni Balestrini originally composed Tristano in the 1960s with the aid of an algorithm supplied to an IBM computer.
There are ten chapters in the novel.
Each chapter is comprised of twenty paragraphs.
Balestrini’s algorithm shuffles fifteen of those paragraphs within each chapter.
There are thus 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions of Tristano.
Tristano was published in 1966 by the Italian press Feltrinelli, but in only one of those 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions.
Now, Verso Books has published 4,000 different versions of Tristano in English.
They sent me #10786 to review.
Maybe a few more facts, and then some opinions—and citations from the novel—no?
Umberto Eco spends the first five pages of his six page introduction to Tristano situating Balestrini’s project in its proper literary-historical context. (He names some names: Pascal, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Christopher Clavius, Pierre Guldin, Mersenne, Leibniz, Borges, Queneau, Mallarmé, Manzoni, Joyce. There is no mention of Cortázar’s Hopscotch or Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series).
Mike Harakis translated Tristano into English.
Harakis preserves Balestrini’s spare (and often confusing) style of punctuation.
The book is exactly 120 pages.
In his contemporary “Note on the Text” of Tristano, Balestrini says that the book is “an ironic homage to the archetype of the love story.”
The title of course alludes to the legend of Tristan and Iseult.
In his note, Balestrini uses the term “experiment” at least three times, suggesting that “to experiment with a new way of conceiving literature and novels” can make it more “possible to represent effectively the complexities and unpredictability of contemporary reality.”
Balestrini’s 2004 novel Sandokan is in my estimation one of the finest books of the past decade: A poetic examination of criminal brutality told in a bold voice, its syntactical experiments not experiments at all, but rather the base of a strong, strange tone that perfectly synthesizes plot and voice.
Okay. Opinions and citations:
In chapter 2 of my edition of Tristano—on page 19 of version #10786—we get a paragraph that begins: “To be one-sided means not to look at problems all-sidedly.”
Does Tristano, through its formal, discursive, algorithmic structure seek to approach an all-sided perspective? Significantly, we can’t be sure who says the line. There are two characters, male and female, both named C (an algebraic variable?).
There seems to be an argument here, an investigation. A crime, a love affair. But Tristano is a dialectic without synthesis. Or maybe that failure is mine. Maybe I’ve failed as the reader. Neglected my part. “Treat life as if it were a game,” we’re told in the aforementioned paragraph (page 19 of version #10786, if you’re keeping score). Or maybe we’re not told. Maybe C is telling C to treat life as a game (and not just telling the reader), but the context is not (cannot) be clear.
But again, that’s probably maybe almost certainly but okay maybe not quite the point of Tristano. From paragraph 18 of chapter 6 (page 71 of version #10786): “First of all one must have a fairly clear idea of the content of the text.” And a few lines down: “Her story weaves and unweaves like the tapestry she was working on.” And: “It’s the unconditional loss of language that starts.” And: “It might never have an end.” Freeing these lines from the sentences around them ironically stabilizes them.
Tristano isn’t just line after line of Postmodernism 101 though. There is actual imagery here, content. In fairness, let me share entire paragraph (from page 69  of version #10786):
In the internal part of the cave along with an abundance of Pleistocene fauna a human Neanderthaloid tooth was recovered. You’ve already told me this story. The cave is divided into two levels one upper and one lower that host a subterranean lake which can be visited by boat. It might even be another story. They had warned him it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Inside you can go down into a great cavern in the centre of which there is a rock surmounted by a giant stalagmite. We’ll stay and look for another thirty seconds then we’ll leave. All the stories are different one from the other. On returning he found that C had bought herself a new blue silk dress. C remained standing while he explained to her how it had gone. She ran a finger over his lips to wipe the lipstick off them. I have to go. It’s still early. I’ll be away all day perhaps tomorrow too. He gave her a long kiss on the lips.
This paragraph is maybe almost kind of sort of a synecdoche of the entire book—sentences that seem to belong to other paragraphs, story threads that seem part of another tapestry. Let us pull a thread from another paragraph, another chapter (chapter 9, paragaph 8, page 102 of  of version #10786):
All imaginable pathways of the line that represents a direct connexion to the objective are equally impracticable and no adjustment of the shape of the body to the spatial forms of the surrounding objects can allow the objective to be reached.
Do you believe that? Did Balestrini? Or did it just allow him a neat little piece of rhetoric to gel with the concept of his experiment? The verbal force, dexterity, and dare I claim truth of Sandokan, composed a few decades later, suggests that yes, language can be shaped to mean.
And this, I think, is the big failure of Tristano—it’s a text afraid to mean, to even take a shot at meaning. Content to be simply an experiment, its sections adding up to nothing more than the suggestion that its sections could never add up to anything, Tristano offers little beyond its concept and a few observations on storytelling that dwell on paralysis instead of freedom. The whole experiment strikes me as the set up for a joke played on the reader: Look at all this possibility, look at all these iterations—and what’s at the core? Nothing.
I hate to end on such a negative note. I’m thankful that Verso published Tristano, which I think shows courage as well as a commitment to literature that you just aren’t going to see from a corporate house.  I’m thankful that I got to read (version #10786 of) Tristano, and I plan to order his novel The Unseen via my local bookstore. The expectations that I brought to the book were huge: Loved the concept, loved the last book I’d read by the author—and I want to read more by the author. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that failed Tristano’s experiment. But I would’ve been happier to learn something or feel something from that failure other than disappointment. - Edwin Turner

Bear with me as I use a paragraph to go through what I think is a problem with global leftist thought.
When equality is the ultimate aim of a movement, whether it be economic, social, gender, or any other form, and said equality never historically existed in those areas, the notion of it has to have been constructed in the ideal realm, as opposed to the observable—some might say objective realm (but let’s not go into that)—and could only have come as a reaction against what is actually happening in the real world. So far there is no sign that equality will ever grace us with its presence in the social world in any form, at least not on a large scale, but that’s not to say that the idea doesn’t sell. When movements like the Occupy one fail not as a result of energetic potential, but because of a lack of concise probing into problems with feasible resolutions, this says that a disillusioned segment of the population has the impetus to change economic disparity, but not the means to effectively do so. In other words they’re stuck in ideals, sifting through Verso books, with no reason to believe that these ideals could possibly move into observational reality. But that last part typically gets left out because the most horrifying thought to a progressive movement is the idea that our only real options are stasis or continued decay, that the option of equality is a completely delusional invention used to string us along.
Whether intentional or not (and how, with this book, could I be sure?), reading Tristano, or at least my version of it, numbered 10,672, conjured these thoughts through the annoyed trudge that was the experience of reading this book. The novel is broken up into ten chapters with fifteen paragraphs. The fifteen paragraphs of each chapter are interchangeable and each edition of the book is presented in a different narrative order, making for different possibilities of reading experiences number at 109,027,350,432,000. And like ideas of equality, the expectations are promising and exciting, but the result is disappointing, and precisely for the same reasons. When an idea like equality is stuck in the ideal realm, each individual has a different experience with it, has different notions of how to execute it and different notions what it should be. If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many different strains of Marxism, or ongoing arguments over precise meanings of his texts, or what should be followed and what not, or even if they should be followed at all. Tristano, too, is individualized for your consumption, but I can guarantee that all versions lead the reader nowhere, that each subjective experience with this text would be similar to the one I had, as equal in their failed executions.
Aside from the numerous possibilities of ordered narratives, there are also uncertainties with the number of characters, what their genders actually are, where a comma should go to make sense of a sentence, where quotations should go and who would be speaking, ultimately placing the most amount of importance on the reader as the most essential character in, and creator of the book. Since the initial readthrough was wrought with indecision and uncertainty, it seems that ideally you’d need to read the novel once so that you would know what decisions you’d need to make for the next time. I’d be surprised if I found anyone who would want to do this, though. As he says near the beginning of my version: “It looks like a very complicated story but with a little patience you manage to unravel the problem. The question is not so much the story itself but rather what effects it might produce what developments it might have what dynamics it might set in motion.” Although this makes sense, and effects are produced, nothing could possibly be set in motion afterwards because all the elements in the story are simply too loose and too vague. I think the intention was to make an experience resembling a Rorschach test, where the reader would input his or her own projections to fill in the empty spaces and cover up the discrepancies. What happened though, at least in my experience, was that I wasn’t concerned with the story. I got lost thinking about what other structures of this book would be like, and the only reason my mind wandered this way resulted from a lack of intriguing themes or narrative or characters to string me along. Loosely the book is a love story, vaguely involving infidelity. With the interchangeable set up presented, nothing winds up getting invested in the reading, and the story reads like a mess of pointless interactions between people or ideas I didn’t care about, like brainstorm scribblings of a bad romance novel.
Even Umberto Eco in his introduction spent more time giving a history lesson on the different uses of combinations instead of discussing the merits of the book. While the mathematical feat is awe inspiring, and the idea one of the most original to come to literature in maybe its entire history, interacting with this text just isn’t interesting. The novel embodies the paralysis of the left, and this failure toward action concerned Balestrini when writing the book. As a member of both Italy’s Gruppo 63 avant-garde collective, along with the Autonomia movement, among other leftist cliques, Balestrini knew first hand the power of state forces against subversive elements, and felt distraught with the lack of effective leftist action. Even if the intention were to expose the inherent powerlessness in the left, is reading this short book—one so overwhelming it’s underwhelming—worth such a simple message that could be illustrated by more stimulating means?
The one thing that I will grant this book is that it is very aware of itself, and by the last chapter, I was somewhat glad that I didn’t give up on it all the times I wanted to. My second to last paragraph went like this:
Everything is false from here on. I want to show you the construction technique uses well-polished stones without mortar. On his right he saw a strip of land where the cave opened up. A huge pile of sentences that don’t mean anything. There’s too much stuff. Nothing worth talking about. Everyone has a personal story of their own. A very simple almost banal story that could be summarized in a few lines. They look like flies trapped in a web of some big spider. He wandered amongst the rubble in a daze. He had the feeling of having already been in that place. Look down there. Stretching out in front of them as far as the eye could see expanding without any apparent limit. What’s wrong. C rested a hand on his shoulder and smiled invitingly at him. You don’t need to explain anything. It was a very hot night. You can say whatever you want she said and kissed him.
Even by the end of the book I couldn’t be sure if C was male, female, or if there were multiple Cs, so the romantic aspect, the story at the forefront, just went ignored and the only things left worth concerning myself with were the metafictional aspects and the inactive leftist ideals aware of themselves as inactive that popped up throughout. Tristano, in the end, acts as a fractional artifact of a great idea that just didn’t transfer over into reality well, and it’s sole value lies there. When communism emerged in its initial worldly form as the Soviet Union, it resembled its antithesis—fascism—more than the ideals that spawned it. Perhaps the only message Tristano wanted to get out was this discrepancy between ideals and reality, and that no matter how many combinations we use, none will be the right ones given the tools we’re using. If so, Ballestrini succeeded, but much to my indifference. -

Myfanwy Collins - Is there hope within even the darkest hearts? A woman has sex with her dead mother's husband. A child sleeps in a makeshift nest. A sister betrays a sister. A woman takes on the persona of a dead prostitute

Myfanwy Collins’s debut story collection is a gargantuan accomplishment, stuffing thirty-seven stories into under two-hundred pages. Many of the pieces found in I Am Holding Your Hand span no more than a few pages, and given the likelihood that readers will digest a handful of stories at a time, it might be best to equate Collins’s collection to the old maxim concerning one’s preference towards weather—if you don’t like one story, wait for the next one or the one after that. But even a fickle reader shouldn’t skip too far ahead; if the collection sags at any point, it doesn’t for very long as Collins mines a variety of scenarios that frequently involve women exploring sexuality, maturity, and the relationship bonds between family and friends. Flash pieces dominate I Am Holding Your Hand, and while some work better than others, the strongest stories illustrate what makes the form so unique and inventive. Generally speaking, flash pieces work best when an author manages to merge narrative continuity with a sense of poetic finesse, and quite often, Collins demonstrates an ability to do just this. Elsewhere, the longer pieces in I Am Holding Your Hand share a similar scope seen in Collins’s excellent debut novel, Echolocation, and reveal a writer capable of stretching her generosity and empathy for the sake of a more rounded story.
The collection begins with a trio of flash fictions, the most noteworthy of them being the first and third stories—both of them center on young, female children finding themselves ushered into adult worlds. The title story finds ten-year-old Jessie suffering from infected tonsils during the Christmas holidays, and rather than having them surgically removed and reaping the post-op rewards of ice cream, she’s stuck in her mother’s home taking antibiotics. It’s the first Christmas since her father moved out, and as she contemplates all of these things, she recalls hearing of her mother’s bout with tonsillitis:
Jessie’s mother had her tonsils removed as a girl, but they grew back, a fact Jessie found both disturbing and titillating. That humans might have body parts which grew back. Could this mean there was a cure for death?”
The idea of absence and the possibility of renewal linger over the remainder of the story, as Jessie’s father appears quickly in flashback before readers are told he dies alone five months later. Collins subtly links the image of infected tonsils to that of an infected marriage, and readers are left to decide if Collins’s ten-year-old protagonist is capable of drawing a connection between the re-growth of her mother’s tonsils to the possibility of reconciliation between her parents. The “cure for death” Jessie seeks may not only be in the sense of literal death but also the death of a marriage, and as the piece concludes, Jessie recalls a story her father once told her of his own youth, and she invites the idea of him to hold her hand, an invitation that suggests acceptance—that certain things cannot grow back, that there is no cure for death—and a growing sense of maturity.
Likewise, “The Daughters” hints at the idea of growth and maturity, albeit in a completely different manner. Collins tells the story in four brief sections and illustrates scenes of impoverished living in a household with three young girls:
Their mother never teaches them to wipe front to back or to brush their teeth before bed. One of the daughters goes for weeks without washing her hair until the teacher complains that she smells of their father’s cigarette smoke.
Their mother does teach them that if they wear their underpants two days in a row they will get sick.
The effectiveness of the story comes in Collins’s ability to paint these kinds of images; the simple language emphasizes the severity of the conditions and allows the reader to witness the scene without any kind of sentimentality. In fact, the briefness of the entire story allows Collins to avoid any sentimentality whatsoever.
The final section of the story reveals how the daughter’s father clean their ears by way of paperclip or the cap of a Bic pen, and although the practice is dangerous and cruel, the daughters mostly come away unscathed, but Collins ends the story by again hinting at the theme of maturity:
When he is done and the daughters are free to go the inside of their ears tingle red. The sounds of the world seem muted to them, seem dense.
The lines speak immediately to the physical agony the daughters may feel, but in a larger context, Collins seems to be suggesting something of the daughter’s emergence into the world outside the home, a world where conditions may in fact be no less severe than what’s existed in their childhood—a fact that, if true, would offer the potential to exhibit fortitude in another sort of world that’s just as “muted” and as “dense” as the one in which the girls grow up.
The transition between adolescence and adulthood doesn’t just come through pain, however. In “What He Told Me,” one of the better long pieces in I Am Holding Your Hand, the lingering promise of sex forces Paula to accept the approaching changes without much of a choice. After the funeral of his wife, the father of Paula’s best friend invites her to drive around town, drinking beer. Back at his house, he makes a pass at Paula, and somewhat surprised, Paula isn’t quite sure how to proceed: “I wanted it to go no further or to never stop.” The uncertainty of such a moment indicates Paula’s unwillingness to dive completely into the adult world and recalls the advice she received from her father, years before, as they hiked in the woods: “Take your time. Observe. Once you’ve figured out what you’re dealing with, you’re safe to move on down the path.” The story concludes with Paula still not quite ready to figuratively move down that path, but given the appearance of a young farmhand, she’s certainly willing to consider it.
A suggestion like the one Paula hears from her father echoes throughout much of the collection but certainly through one of the collection’s most challenging stories. Jeannie, the narrator of “Verbatim,” moves to a new town, and after a prostitute in the neighborhood is murdered, she begins sleeping with a college student she’s working with as a speech pathologist, takes on the guise of the dead prostitute (in the process of this she gives a blowjob to an unsuspecting barber), considers becoming a prostitute, and encounters trouble when she picks up her first customer. Jeannie’s destructive behavior is fascinating to watch unfold, but some readers will wonder where such behavior originates. Collins puts her character through a lot, and in the fragmented style through which the story is told, it’s sometimes difficult to piece together motivation. Jeannie’s decisions seem rather impulsive, and while they certainly propel the story forward, the lengths to which Jeannie plunges into the lifestyle will either have readers accepting such jumps or rejecting such a premise. Ultimately, the story succeeds due to such questions, and the challenging aspects of “Verbatim” only confirm Myfanwy Collins to be a challenging yet rewarding author.
Daunting as it may be to work through the thirty-seven stories found inside I Am Holding Your Hand, the flexibility on display offers enough evidence of the sort of talent Collins possesses. The work is always provocative, engaging, and entertaining, and in addition to the fantastic novel Echolocation, the oeuvre of Myfanwy Collins continues to grow, and so too should her readership. - Brian Seemann



Myfanwy Collins, Echolocation, Engine Books, 2012.

Sometimes the voices that call you home lead you astray...

Cheri and Geneva grew up on "a little patch of nothing made up of dairy farms in the valleys and boarded up iron-ore mines in the mountains, a town of old folks waiting to die and young people dying to leave." Now, Cheri has fled that life for the city, leaving Geneva behind to care for their aunt as she succumbs to cancer. Her death draws them together, forcing them to face their past-and each other. When Cheri's mother turns up with a strange baby and a dangerous secret close behind, the choices that follow will push all of them beyond boundaries they never thought they'd cross.
In this stunning debut novel, Myfanwy Collins lays bare the hearts of three lost women called together by their own homing instincts in a season that will change their lives-and the place they call home-forever.
 "Myfanwy Collins tells a deep and resonant story about people she loves, and along the way shows us how to love them as well." -Dorothy Allison
"Myfanwy Collins' debut novel calls to mind the grim and radiant work of Daniel Woodrell. From page one, I was chilled by the landscape, caught up in the trouble, and riveted by these women of northernmost New York who slam back together and figure out how to live with what's missing." -Pia Z. Ehrhardt

"Fearless, elegant, and accessible, Echolocation is literary fiction at its best. With heartbreakingly beautiful prose, Myfanwy Collins tells a gripping and tender tale of broken souls yearning for wholeness. These are characters who will stay with you long after you turn the last page. It's a dazzling debut!" -Ellen Meister
"Myfanwy Collins has the goods. It's that simple. Echolocation is about love in all its magnificent slipperiness; it's about how secrets bind us rather than rend us; it's about the endless series of personal reinventions we call a lifetime. And these are things we had all better be thinking-and reading-about, if we plan to try and get out of this alive." -Ron Currie Jr.
"A moving and delicate novel, tracing the poignant destinies of women who long for a home they never had." -Laila Lalami
"Get ready to fall madly, sadly in love with the fiction of Myfanwy Collins." -Benjamin Percy
 
 
The Book of Laney, 2015.
 
 
Here and now I am in this place far away from my home. Here, with the cold wind blowing down from the north and the stars piercing through the cloudless sky. Here I am.
But my story does not start here.
My story starts months ago and hundreds of miles south of where I am now. My story starts in the place I used to call home. My story starts with violence and heartbreak.

After her brother is involved in a grisly murder-suicide, fifteen-year-old Laney is sent to live with her grandmother in the Adirondack Mountains. Laney gradually warms to her new home—especially her relationship with a mysterious neighbor—but before she can appreciate her new life, she must uncover the secrets that have haunted her family for decades
 

4/29/14

Megan Milks invokes and employs the genre conventions of fan fiction on, for example, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and teen comedies, then mixes in young adult novels, video games, choose-your-own adventure tales, epistolary novels, gothic tales, family romances, and “traumarama” entries, until this melee of genres interrupt each other, parasite each other, distort each other

Kill-Marguerite-Megan-Milks-web

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite and Other Stories. Emergency Press, March 2014.

Kill Marguerite and Other Stories collects thirteen risk-taking stories obsessed with crossing boundaries, whether formal or corporeal. Narrative genres are giddily mongrelized: the Sweet Valley twins get stuck in a choose-your-own-adventure story; Mean Girls-like violence gets embedded within a classic video game. Protagonists cycle through a series of startling, sometimes violent, changes in gender, physiology, and even species, occasionally blurring into other characters or swapping identities entirely. One woman metamorphoses into a giant slug; another quite literally eats her heart out; a wasp falls in love with an orchid; and a Greek god impregnates a man’s thigh with a sword. More than just a straightforward celebration of the carnivalesque, though, these fictions are deeply engaged, both critically and politically, with the ways that social power operates on, and through, queer bodies.

The stories in Megan Milks’s Kill Marguerite are pure force: they norm deviance, make violence effulgent, ungender and regender sexualities. Each story is a kitsch throwback to back in the day when reading was a fun choose your own adventure, or, these stories are not just carnal, not just animalistic, not just girly: they’re amphibian, our full corporeal tenderized to satisfaction, which is to say—hot.- Lily Hoang
Genre conventions are commonly thought of as restrictive rules, but in these stories Megan Milks shows that these conventions can be agents of perversion, both glaringly porous and ridiculously invasive. Over the course of the book, Milks invokes and employs the genre conventions of fan fiction on, for example, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and teen comedies, then mixes in young adult novels, video games, choose-your-own adventure tales, epistolary novels, gothic tales, family romances, and “traumarama” entries, until this melee of genres interrupt each other, parasite each other, distort each other. The result of this romp is absurd, grotesque, parapornographic, violent, gurlesque, but most of all hilarious in a dead-pan kind of way. - Johannes Göransson
Wittig’s Lesbian Body goes superfreak in this celebration of excess, this inquiry into boundarylessness, this exercise in genre-fuck, this slug-and/or-be-slugged fest.  In a collection whose voices range from hard-boiled to hyperbolic to hysterical, Milks seriously probes the implications of social constructionism: we’ve made a monster (albeit sometimes hot, albeit sometimes queer) of the sexed body, individual and politic.  Somehow, happily, Milks keep it comic too.  Lots of parts and effluvia, no gratuitous grossness! - Alexandra Chasin
Megan Milks’ debut collection is a fearless romp through the post-avant wasteland of fictions both Lynchian and Homeric. Milks puts Shelley Jackson’s The Melancholy of Anatomy through a cement mixer, grinding out tales as sure to delight as they radically defamiliarize. Here, Sweet Valley Twins gets a reboot finally worthy of the world their YA books helped to make weird. Milks is a master of the absurd grotesque, and Kill Marguerite is her powerful annunciation. - Davis Schneiderman
Kill Marguerite and Other Stories mixes pop culture, Greek myth, queer feminism and childhood nostalgia into a gory and gorgeous mess. I got my hands dirty digging into Megan Milks’ sanguine collection of short stories. This prose oozes. This prose dripped perversely into my consciousness and stuck. Only a steady and sagacious writer like Milks can make paddling through this kind of muck so absolutely pleasurable.- Amber Dawn

I read the title story of this totally awesome experimental collection last night, drunk before bed, and fell in love. The premise of the story, which writes middle-school like a violent video game, sounds much flatter than the execution, which is full of throbbing hearts in plates of brownies, rope swings, jet-packs, sarcastic chime usages and successive deaths and resurrections of the main character. The key is to live hugely into every second of the cleverness, using the synthetic-reality premise to amplify the true and real, and that's just what Milks does.- Valerie Stivers-Isakova

The possibility of Sweet Valley High twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield having incestuous sister-sex with each other never occurred to me when I was a kid and living for those books, even though half the joy of reading them was a desire for violation when faced with all that phony perfection. I always wanted something sexual or terrible to happen, more than a kiss or someone having her bikini top untied in the pool. (The other half of the appeal was jealousy—oh to be 5’6”, blond, and have sparkling aquamarine eyes and a twin sister! Pulchritude amplified.)
So, I am grateful to author Megan Milks, who in her debut story collection, Kill Marguerite and Other Stories, writes in a letter from Elizabeth to Jessica, “I want to spend the evening watching you get yourself clean. I want to shave my head and lie in bed with you all day long. I want you to tell me you love me more each time you look into my eyes. Tell me I’m what your hands were made for, what your mouth was made for.” It’s hilarious, wonderful, mixed-up, and just how I–and probably all the other dirty-Barbie-players out there–feel about these icons. Do we want to be them, fuck them, destroy them? All at once?
Decades after being obsessed with the books, all I had to do was see the story title “Twins” and read the first words “Dear Jessica,” to know just who it was about. The letter ends with Elizabeth entreating Jessica to break down the wall between their bedrooms and collapse the distinction between them, ends on the word “collapse,” actually, a nice touch that’s been kicking around in my head since reading the story last week. The Sweet Valley girls are collapsed into all of us, a bit of gender-identity DNA that, in the second Sweet Valley story in the collection (“Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”), runs amok in brainless automated loops.
Milks’s debut from Emergency Press is full of such lovely, thought-provoking arrangements of form and content. These are genderqueer girl stories of the most awesome kind, taking the basic narrative of boys, youth, sex and identity, scrambling them with their influences (pop music, porn, sexual fantasy, teen magazines and books, even video games), and then destroying them in gory pornographic explosions.
For example, the story where a young woman has sex with a giant slug, after going on what seems like a bad internet date. It’s hard to tell what the date is like, since the narration shows us primarily her violent S/M fantasies while the date drones on. (“It is a good thing she wore her bitch boots tonight. It is a good thing she dressed prepared. She will take out her pocketknife and flip up the knife part and she will tickle him with the blade slowly, deliberately…. At her command he will get on his hands and knees and enjoy the rug burn, you pathetic motherfucker. Patty is a vicious cunt in bondage gear, with a whip and not afraid to use it, slave.”). She secretly orgasms while kissing him (his tongue is described as being like a slug) and then goes home, where the narrative takes an unapologetic turn into the ero-guro, and she fucks a real slug.
Repulsive, hilarious, hard-to-read, not-hot, yet I keep thinking about it.
“As he moves forward, he shoves her camisole down, the thin straps breaking, and flattens both breasts with his weight, his belly gripping and releasing her nipples rhythmically.”
“Slug kisses Patty until Patty can’t breath. Slug is in her nostrils and in her mouth. Slug’s mucous drips down her throat and fills her lungs.”
Finally Patty turns into a slug and they fuck with two cocks, slug-style, hanging from a tree.
I am of the sensibility to think that the awesomeness of this needs no explanation or further justification. But as someone who writes some ero-guro myself, I think/suspect that there will be an American renaissance of this weird-o Japanese genre, probably is already, and that contemporary ero-guro is a response to the pornification of sex. Displacing sex into someplace unusual is a way to make it visible without falling into the conventions of porn, which, through sheer weight of cliché, now make so much about sex invisible. Also, in another sense, even when it’s sexy, porn is gross. A masturbatory foray onto Google brings up the equivalent of a face-full of slug, once you click the image button, before you find the photos you like. We’re all doing it, so why not take the slug and work it in?
On the most basic level, though, I love this story because everything about it undermines the norms of dating and heterosexual sex.
Every story in the collection has some similar innovation, usually a structural or formal way to present the familiar in a new light. In “Kill Marguerite,” the title story, heroine Caty is in a middle-school-hell of BFFs, mean girls, and bullying, along with rope swings, sucking face, spelling bees and “fat little blubbery boobies.” The surprise is that it’s written like a video game, where on successive screens Caty is killed by a neighbor’s mini-van while she’s riding her bike, dropped into a reservoir where she “hits her head on a rock and there she goes, one of her hearts explodes,” and so on. The usual social mayhem is much improved by jet-packs, grenade launchers and the humorous use of chimes.
The premise reminds me, slightly, of Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge which, as compendium of her yearly suicide notes, is another book where the heroine dies at the end of every chapter. If this is something bubbling around in the collective unconscious, it feels like an accurate representation of identity for the fragmented, multiple-incarnation lifestyles of Internet-age humans. The video-game violence in “Kill Marguerite” also gets at the emotional reality of middle school, where a humiliation in front of popular kids can truly feel like a death sentence. (Not that any such thing ever happened to me, or like I’d know).
Another way Milks realistically ruptures identity or, to put it another way, messes with the rules of fictional narrative, is the authorial intrusions in some story lines. Milks plays fast and loose with the third wall, addressing the reader, lying, writing dreams. In “The Girl With the Expectorating Orifices,” she says, “One night the woman whose body was a citadel did not text me back. Then the woman whose body was a citadel texted me back. I write this to make it happen. She has not texted me back but I want her to. To make the story real. And it worked. She has texted me back and I have texted her back and so on.” The story is the real thing, maybe the only thing, and by making it up, we make it true. We also speak more honestly to our reader (or achieve the illusion thereof) when we admit there’s an author back there, telling stories.
No one could realistically rupture anything, or speak meaningfully about modern identity, without sampling—narrative, myth, plays, other books, pop songs, video games, popular media, fiction, friends’ stories, memoir—and Milks uses all of these forms. In addition to her wonderful destruction of Sweet Valley High, there’s a collection of queer-culture vignettes from friends based on the Seventeen magazine Traumarama column (with an extreme tampon anecdote so revolting I might never forget it), that again reinvents the original. As a Seventeen reader, I found the column to be generic and conservative in its predictable hetero dilemmas (eeek! a boy! I’m embarrassed! what if I menstruate near him!?), but seen in the light that gay kids are just as goofy and body-phobic as straight kids, the column becomes the reassuring and equalizing presence it was meant to be.
The sampling is part of a deliberate strategy of genre-mashing, a bold ploy to collapse the walls between everything, not just Elizabeth and Jessica’s rooms. Can you put Seventeen and Sweet Valley High in the same collection as a story about slug-fucking, and a play starring Odysseus (the story “Circe”)? Can you go allegorical and unreal in one story, and just plain normal in another? (“Floaters” about an asshole comedian picking on his girlfriend, was the only story that seemed to be set in plain-old-reality.) I liked the concept, but wasn’t convinced that all the mash-ups worked. As a fan of rule-breaking, I hate to say that there are rules–there aren’t, really–but there is a point at which dropped threads stop resonating at other levels, and you’ve just got a mess. Some of the outliers, like “Circe”, “Floaters” and a story with an anthropomorphized wasp and and orchid, didn’t feel coherent with the whole, or incoherently-coherent, either, and I felt like I was being asked to read everything she’d written that she liked, rather than a collection of themed stories. It’s a small point, but one that’s stopping me from raving about the sheer unstoppable genius of the collection as a whole, which was where I thought I was going a few stories in. Basically, though, she had me at “Dear Jessica.” - Valerie Stivers

Kill Marguerite by Megan Milks is a genre-bender that fuses gaming, pop culture, social dysfunction, and identity crises, all while exploring nostalgic forms of narrative in ways that’ll make your heart explode. Literally, into a tomato, as in “Tomato Heart,” a story that allegorizes love and relationships into a ripe red fruit:
“My heart burst out of my chest. It popped through its arterial fence, it surged through my lungs and my rib cage, and ejected itself through various nervous tissues and muscle fibers with a final rip through the hole I had made in my skin… I was more fascinated than alarmed- fascinated because my heart, now visible to the world, looked remarkably like a tomato.”
tomatocity
Every story has immediate impact and her prose will make you tremble, quiver, then laugh out loud. She writes one of the most incredibly unique love stories in “Earl and Ed,” a relationship between a wasp and an orchid, deftly balancing the boundary between the visceral violence of physicality and the chaotic juggernaut of desire- a theme that resonates through many of the stories. One of my favorites is the eponymous “Kill Marguerite” where she tackles high school angst through the structure of a videogame narrative. Caty must Kill Marguerite or die herself, and she has three lives to achieve her goal. There’s bonus levels, icons, extra lives, a jetpack, a Super Pitfall like rope swing. But the impetus isn’t a high score or rescuing some lame prisoner. It’s to navigate her way through the turbulence of youth and friendships, her desire to assert herself versus the peer pressure of real-life Goombas and Bowsers. There is no princess in another castle. It’s a dichotomy of philosophies in that life isn’t a game, even though it is. Caty’s voice feels authentic; confused, confident, conflicted; a splurge of thoughts warring within her. A feeling we’d like to relegate to high school, when in fact, it hounds and haunts us into maturity. Milks’s reminds us of our jealousies, our defeats, and our attempts at triumph, stirring those together against the backdrop of retro-gaming.
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If there is one story was stole my retro-tomato-heart, it had to be “Twins.” On the surface, it’s a struggle between two sisters trying to distinguish themselves. “The book says you do these things because creating chaos in the relationship gives you a sense of freedom from the stifling confinement of intimacy.” But then, things take on a sinister turn as the narrative shifts to a second person “you,” and you see their teacher, Mr. Bowman, “reach up to his head, grab his ears, and peel off his face! You are Elizabeth Wakefield. And your English teacher is an alien.” The book then breaks out into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that, seriously, is worth the price of admission on the entire collection. I used to be obsessed with the Choose Adventures and went through every permutation of every book I could get my hands on. This case was no different as I kept on making different choices that either left me dead or as a savior in paradoxical victory that could be reverted with one wrong decision. - 

The other day, I Googled “slug sex.” It was and wasn’t my fault—wasn’t, because I was reading Megan Milks‘s debut collection, Kill Marguerite, and I wanted to check some facts. But, also, I should have known: of course Milks got all the slimy biological details right. Throughout these phylum-hopping tales, truth is consistently stranger than the fictions we typically construct around desire—perhaps even as strange as desire itself.
Take Patty, the protagonist of “Slug” and apparently a quiet woman being driven home from a bad date. As we come to see, however, the guy is really just bland prey for her gender-bending S&M daydreams—fantasies so increasingly graphic and grisly that they become humorous before they can become truly horrible. There might not be a man on earth who can fulfill them, but fortunately her room is soon entered by the ultimate phallic figure: a giant slug, “six feet of pure muscle.” Their violent romance suggests that proclivities denounced as unnatural might in fact be perfectly so, in another part of the animal kingdom.
Full of barely-double entendre, “Slug” takes the conventions of erotica and supersizes them. The microscope zooms too far in; the mechanics of genre are pushed into view, blurred and set wriggling. Milks repurposes a number of familiar forms this way throughout Kill Marguerite, including young-adult serials, choose-your-own-adventure books, and the anonymous confessionals of teen magazines.
The title piece begins as a tale of bullying among ordinary exurban preteens, although there are some weird interruptions: “The sky opens and flashes red” when protagonist Caty senses her tormentor’s presence, and later “one of her hearts explodes.” We’re not just in a young-adult novel, we’re also in a video game, and the heroine must gulp down frog hearts in science class and collect weapons hidden in trees if she is to conquer mean-girl Marguerite.
The figure of the teenage girl focuses many of Kill Marguerite‘s preoccupations: the good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy, the sudden emergence of strange desires, and, especially, the unstable, changeable body. Elsewhere in the book we meet, for instance a wasp and an orchid who fall in love, contrary to the habitual promiscuity of their ecosystem. We meet a sort of Swamp Thing-as-Freudian-analysand, saddled with a stern father who is also a lover, friend, and infant. We meet a woman with a tomato for a heart, a girl with a talent for producing various effluvia in bulk, and even Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield of Sweet Valley, CA, who merge into each other in various ways depending on which forking path the reader sends them down.
There’s something classical about these often-incestuous metamorphoses; certainly, there was something queer about that Greco-Roman world of myth in which the boundaries between god and human and animal and plant were so slippery. So it’s hardly surprising when the Greek gods themselves drop into several stories.  In one short piece, Hephaestus attacks a bickering father and daughter with his sword; naturally, the two get stitched up and head home to dinner, before realizing that the god has impregnated both of them. All this highlights a family dynamic that may seem quite close to queer readers’ own experience: “My father has always been a homophobe. The knowledge that his immortal child was born with the sword of another man, and the ugliest of gods to boot, is simply too humiliating. This is what we had been arguing about in the first place: why I was so unfeminine, and couldn’t I be normal. I had said I don’t like being penetrated. He had claimed to dislike it as well.”
After all the carefully wrought grotesquerie, it’s almost a surprise how well Milks works in a more traditionally naturalistic mode, analyzing relationships between mortals. The allure of the title character in “Dionysus” is clear even if you just take her as the hard-partying bike kid the more straitlaced narrator falls for: “Around bars and in streets, in alleys, Dionysus swirls, administering the night. She blurs the edges of people, her own borders smeared. I tend to maintain myself. So we were in love.”
It’s also surprising, given the vast range of modes on display, how very well Kill Marguerite maintains itself as a unified work; tracing the veins that run from piece to piece is part of the fun. The consistently disciplined prose does nearly as much to this end as the shared themes, sometimes calling to mind the similarly wry and precise Lydia Davis. This collection establishes Milks as a writer who can do just about anything but who will, one expects, keep doing the bidding of her macabre but humane imagination.- Daphne Sidor

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite” 
photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.
Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations.
Many of the stories in “Kill Marguerite” play with structure—what draws you to changing the short story as a form in ways that often incorporate pop culture and genre conventions anew?The short story is my playground [...] My interest in popular forms and genres derives from this interest in constraint and revision. Popular narratives are of course typically very limited in the kinds of identities and experiences they produce. At the same time they are malleable and subject to revision (see fan fiction). In repurposing forms like teen mag columns and video games, one motivation is the desire to queer these forms. (I mean “queer” as a method of challenging both compulsory gender and heterosexuality.) “Kill Marguerite” implants a feminized mean-girls narrative into a masculinized video game structure, refusing the gender-specific presumptions of both genres.
Are you trying to rewrite the narrative of the young girl?Oh—sure! That’s a really terrific synopsis of the book, actually. Like so many of us, I grew up internalizing the dominant narrative of the young girl as the pretty girl, the skinny girl, the good-sometimes-bad girl, the ideal reader of Seventeen magazine. (Of course all of these girls are white and affluent, too.) Even though I was also listening to Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos and Hole, it was like I just couldn’t recognize alternative ways of existing as a girl-assigned person in my environment. So yes, I suppose rewriting these young-girl narratives of the eighties and nineties is one way of producing an alternative adolescence that more readily accommodates queerness, masculinity, fatness, violence and the grotesque.
What literary influences were significant to you as a teen reader? Which do you still hold dear now?I love this question—absolutely, all of these genre/YA influences have informed my work. When I was a teen (and younger), I read everything that was available at my public library. I would bring home thirty books a week (I think that was the limit) and read read read. I read a ton of YA series books, alongside horror and fantasy, and— how could I forget—V.C. Andrews. So many lurid narratives! A ton of Stephen King and Clive Barker, as well as Christopher Pike, Piers Anthony, “The Baby-sitters Club,” “Sweet Valley,” “Nancy Drew.” As part of the Tori Amos fan community, I was introduced to Neil Gaiman and the world of comics. I went through a Michael Crichton phase, too—I remember being made fun of for nerdily reading ”Jurassic Park” while walking the half-mile to and from the bus stop. I was also reading Joyce, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Poe—very few women writers, sadly, though I did love Jane Austen. Faulkner was my number one—especially “The Sound and the Fury,” which blew my mind.
Your characters’ bodies emit slime, vomit, tears, feces, blood and more. It seems that the stories revel in the woman’s body as leaky vessel—at times grotesque, at others aroused. Why this obsession with fluids?I’m obsessed with fluids because I’m obsessed with shame, and the body is often a site of great shame—while at the same time rejecting shame. There is something very threatening still about the grotesque leaky “feminine” body, especially as opposed to the closed, impenetrable “masculine” body. Many of the stories are interested in the transgressive, heroic properties of the grotesque female body. Others actually cut against the feminization of the grotesque. Some of the leaky (and penetrable) bodies are (hetero) masculine bodies—the figure of the father, for instance, gives birth, is impaled, etcetera, in a number of ways.
Sexuality in this collection crosses all boundaries of incest, S&M, masturbation and hermaphrodism—can you explain the sexual polymorphism throughout these stories?Sure! I’m interested in producing new queer forms of sexuality by thinking about sex away from identity categories, and away from the limitations of the sexed human body. Like, I want to re-biologize the human body, creating new bodies that exist outside of the binary-sex/gender system. One of my characters gives birth from their esophagus, another turns into a giant slug. Fiction is magic!
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Megan Milks: The TNB Self-Interview

“Milks.” That’s a funny name. Are you a funny person?
Nope. Not even going to deliver an anti-joke here. But I’m interested in comedy, for sure, especially the comedic grotesque and “stupid” writing. My fiction definitely has a sly side. Lots of deadpan humor, the occasional very bad pun. Plus talking insects, acts of gods, and winkingly insincere morals. 
You claim to be a feminist but your book title’s all like….kill this girl. Whyyyyy?
I am a feminist AND my book’s title is all like kill this girl. The title story is nonrealist, and Marguerite (the story’s antagonist) is really a Mean Girl caricature. “Kill Marguerite” adopts a video game reality in order to legitimate physical violence (among other things). It’s kind of a corrective to fat-girl-gets-bullied narratives in which compassion and the moral high ground win out in the end. In this story, Caty (the fat-girl hero) doesn’t get compassion or the moral high ground, she gets weapons and extra lives.
A lot of my fiction, “Kill Marguerite” in particular, explores gender anxiety, internalized misogyny, and female-female competition, etc. I think most critical explorations of gender and power can be considered feminist. 
Kill Marguerite is a carnival of forms: the book contains a choose-your-own-adventure story, a video game narrative, an unstageable play, a story that appropriates Seventeen magazine’s “Traumarama” section, a slam poem (that’s not really a slam poem), an illustrated children’s tale (that’s not really an illustrated children’s tale)…other stories involve stand-up comedy, body horror, Greek myth. Tell us about your relationship to form and genre.
I’m a genre fiend and a thief, and a formalist at heart. To a certain extent, all of the stories in Kill Marguerite tackle the same goddamned things (compulsory gender! compulsory heterosexuality! the limitations of the sexed/gendered human body! freedom v. constraint! sameness and difference in binary relationships!) over and over again, approached through different narrative structures.
One formal approach that pops up a couple of times is combining forms/genres that are typically gendered “masculine” and “feminine,” in order to destabilize those categories. “Kill Marguerite” does this by importing this more “feminine” or “feminized” standard YA problem novel storyline into a video game structure (a genre that largely presumes male players). Similarly, “Sweet Valley Twins # 119: Abducted!” brings together choose-your-own-adventure novels, which, back in the day, presumed a male reader, and the Sweet Valley Twins franchise (designed for girls). But why must space travel and Jessica Wakefield’s keen fashion sense be mutually exclusive? So I wrote a CYOA starring Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, as a way to defy these genderings. The twin to that piece, “Elizabeth’s Lament,” is an uncomfortable love letter/monologue in which Elizabeth expresses her ugly feelings for Jessica using lyrics from Tegan and Sara songs. I think those pieces are the pop-iest of the book. There are also some stories that stage a war between myth and reality; that adopt surrealist or fabulist modes; and so on. 
Looks like you’ve got a couple of collaborative pieces in here, too. Tell us about those.
I wrote “Floaters” with my great friend Leeyanne Moore—this is the second story we’ve written collaboratively. The first, “Alma, Age Twelve: Assistant Babysitter and Future Failed Suicide” (published elsewhere), was originally Leeyanne’s abandoned story that we developed and revised together a couple of years ago. “Floaters” (published in Kill Marguerite) grew out of a story I started in the first/only workshop Leeyanne and I took together way back in 2003. Amazingly Leeyanne remembered it and suggested we take it up as our second collaboration. So we did. Leeyanne and I have amazing collaborative energy and I’m very grateful to her for co-writing this story with me—it’s about a stand-up comic who is using his sets to vent about his bulimic girlfriend. It’s a mean, mean, very painful story and I think it scared us both as we were writing it.
“Traumarama” is a more expansively collaborative piece, in that it emerged largely from conversations with friends and partners who helped shape the concept of the piece—a few of them actually contributed their own experiences in their own language. That piece takes up the form of Seventeen Magazine’s “Traumarama” section, which collects “real girls’” most humiliating experiences. My version stretches the form to accommodate a broader diversity of genders and sexualities, and a wider range of experiences, some much more intense and, frankly, traumatic, than what you would find in Seventeen. 
And then there’s all the bodily fluids and effluvia. Can you just not get enough?
Can’t seem to. Shlurp. 
What’s next for you?
I’m very excited about a new literary blog venture that I’m involved with, Entropy, masterminded by Janice Lee and Peter Tieryas Liu, which is going to cover all sorts of lit/culture stuff, including video games, scifi and fantasy, graphic novels and other paraliterary modes as well as experimental and indie lit, really all over the place. Launching soon! Also at work on a novel.


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