Ben Segal - From an oceanic bedroom to a restaurant overrun by hedgehogs, a man who stumbles across strewn—about human—limbed planters to four people in an enclosed room where their every action is prescribed by cards drawn from a slot, Pool Party Trap Loop perambulates space and potential and in so doing plots a humanizing intersection
Ben Segal, Pool Party Trap Loop, Queen's Ferry Press, 2015.bensegal.blogspot.hr/
If space determines the contours of possibility, Ben Segal’s domain delineates limitlessness. From an oceanic bedroom to a restaurant overrun by hedgehogs, a man who stumbles across strewn—about human—limbed planters to four people in an enclosed room where their every action is prescribed by cards drawn from a slot, Pool Party Trap Loop perambulates space and potential and in so doing plots a humanizing intersection. For the human condition—as revealed in these short yet shapely fictions—is dislocated, and dangerously so; repositioning requires the daring elasticity in language and form that pushes against the surreal sides of this boundless collection.
Ben Segal’s Pool Party Trap Loop is a collection of captivating stories sheathed in grammatical glitz. In each of these narrative nuggets Segal exploits form and conceit while simultaneously tightrope walking the excitingly dangerous arena of the artful sentence. A recent graduate of the prestigious cross-genre UCSD MFA program, Segal came of literary age editing his fiction with input from poets (and vice versa) and it shows in his prose in ways that should convince everyone that there is no better method. Admitted to the program by National Book Award finalist Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and mentored by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout, it is no wonder that Segal’s collection debut is such a dazzler. One could find traces of both Armantrout and Bynum in his stories, but Segal’s work stands alone in its strange, winding, sudden candor.
Perhaps the most distinctive experience that Pool Party Trap Loop elicits is the feeling of being exposed to a compendium of transposed photographs. Reading sentence by sentence, story to story, one gains the repeated feeling that there are other narratives stuck in between the pages, other narratives overlaying the stories on the page one can readily see. This transposed story sensation is most present in “I Would Kiss Him Back All Over Too,” which has an extremely innovative form, with the image of a tiger placed over that of a male lover whose female counterpart has mysteriously disappeared. The story is structured in dualities, alternating between tiger phylum reportage and this couple’s existence or (horrifically) possible lack thereof. Through describing the tiger and then the couple and then the tiger and then the couple again the descriptions begin to creep in on each other and overlay in the reader’s mind. We start the story thinking the tiger and the couple are separate entities, but as we read on they become closer and closer together, each separate description bolstering and implying the other until the two stories collide and the reader is forced to conclude that these two separate images the story started with are, in fact, inseparably intertwined. The way Segal deliberately delivers a glut of information (both about the tiger and the lovers) to get at his subjects’ separate, and, later, synonymous reality is reminiscent of Anne Carson’s “Short Talks” and Lydia Davis’ Almost No Memory.
In addition to his formally innovative structures Segal also, in many of his stories, takes on the tool of the fantastical conceit. In “A Room That Is and Or Is Not Past Tense” a group of prisoners exist contained in a felt chamber that has a “soft spot” in the center that shoots out daily tasks and instructions. For a moment, while reading, I thought I was in another wing of George Saunders’ Spiderhead, but the room of Segal’s imagination was far too surreal and pliable, too other world, other mind to be a Saunder’s story, and thus much more like how I would imagine a George Saunders fever dream, some conceit pushed through at high heat till it melts over the edges and burns at the fringe. Similarly, in “Bright Paper/Blood Sand” Segal builds a pyramid of corpses atop which people play volleyball and keep score by slashing tallies on their hands. And again, in “Childpainter,” Segal reveals his vast imagination through Arnold, a failed landscape painter, who found fame by painting portraits of children. Segal explains:
[Arnold] had a way of pulling out the perfection of children that faded in his pictures of teenagers and was gone entirely for any subjects beyond their early twenties. The adult portraits didn’t lack for competence, but they lacked for something else, something more important and less easy to define.
In this story Segal takes his conceit and walks it all the way to the end of the diving board. By the middle of the story Arnold has evolved from painting portraits of children to painting directly on children, and by the end Arnold has taken to “[painting] lost childhoods back on adults.”
But beyond the innovative conceits and the transposed narrative trickery, Segal makes the most immaculate sentences. Gary Lutz, literary leader of the cult of the beautiful sentence, says of Pool Party Trap Loop, “The fresh, previously unheard notes of Ben Segal’s brain-feverish surrealism arrive in the reader’s mind with an audaciously hyper-compact lyricism.”
And there are ample examples to support Lutz’s “hyper-compact lyric” claim. Take the below sentence from “Mrs. Van Pelt’s Class Is Not Coming to the Assembly”:
Allison’s all covered already in those black and purple welts that make you fear her father.
And then this sentence from “Halfingers”:
She took a hold of his little wet hand (a thick and difficult wet, slicked out of her), and she took him by it towards the room that was all light and fuzz.
One of the effects of these lyric sentences is the blurring of the borders between the stories. Although each story is presented as its own world, the consistent sentence-level style in which Segal writes all his stories links them to each other and causes the reader to question exactly where one world ends and another begins. Thus Segal’s narrative gifts don’t only give us ear candy, but, through their lyricism, also lead us to a questioning of our own mind’s compartmentalization. Why did I view these two stories as separate when they may be connected? Why have I separated this world into rooms when it may be an anti-gravity sphere? Although Segal attacks boundaries throughout his collection, the blurring of body and borders and story is most overt in “The Reason I Get So Many Parking Tickets,” when the narrator is stuck in a jail cell and a cop’s little sister says the below to the narrator who is behind bars:
She was saying to someone that she didn’t really know what virginity meant because as far as she could tell, it was impossible to determine where the interior ended and the exterior began and so then how do you ever know if and when penetration has occurred?
This idea is so startling it might be considered violent. It raises the stakes of the story and takes you outside the story. It makes the reader question their own borders, what they are and why they need them to exist.
In this way, Pool Party Trap Loop is a collection for the intellectually adventurous and the unafraid. The sentence level beauty and large-scale conceit ingenuity make it a serious read that requires, between stories, even more serious pause. Reading Pool Party Trap Loop is wounding to the memory — it’s a collection that will pull you in, swirl you around, and spit you out mangled and changed. - Rita Bullwinkel
Ben Segal, 78 Stories, No Record Press, 2008.
As the price of oil skyrockets to heaven, NASA flights plummet back to earth, contemporary philosophy runs on dualistic fumes and the National Football League all but forbids end zone dance fiestas, you decided that humanity was officially out of good ideas. But you were thinking in terms of "left" and "right." 78 Stories, unlike the vast majority of the Western hemisphere's chirographic offerings, conceived of the world in terms of "across" and "down." Challenging our core assumptions of textual linearity while tickling our funny bones, Ben Segal's astonishingly original debut pirouettes from the Mayan Long Count, ghost/human romances, seedy Native American hotels, pie-creamed art critics, bears transfixed by cellular phone ringers, and much more. As in an American crossword puzzle, the text is readable in two directions.
This book is a giant fold-out with multiple puzzles and blocks of text, an experimental text in the form of a crossword puzzle:
Ben Segal's 78 stories are the interleaved answers to non-existent crossword clues, stories composed a paragraph at a time in the successive boxes of a giant crossword puzzle printed on one side of a large sheet paper, folded accordion style like a road map. Read the paragraphs in the five squares that might ordinarily contain the letters to be an answer to the clue "DIAGRAM Reviews Editor," and you've read a story. The same paragraphs, of course, are part of stories that must be read vertically as well, to answer a hypothetical "down" clue.
The space at the bottom of the sheet of paper typically reserved for clues is taken up with interesting but inessential material about the development of the crossword puzzle and its European cousins—but there are so many we don't miss the clues, ones that feature a homicidal mouse crossed in love, a pet psychic named Sandra's experiences during the end of the Mayan long-count, and an overweight bear with a taste for human flesh. It's a broad panoply of possible experiences, and while the range of experience required to finish the Sunday Times crossword might be broader (I wouldn't know; it's beyond my experience), a wide ranging and not-too-serious cross sample of contemporary narrative possibilities jostle for space on the page.
Segal doesn't play entirely fair with his structural conceit: in a traditional crossword puzzle, you are limited to one letter per square, yet Segal doesn't limit himself to a single sentence, or even a set number of sentences or words per square. Instead, the rule seems something like "include enough information to move the two stories, across and down, forward one measure." So one square, selected at random, captures a character investigating his relationship with his father, and acting to understand it by writing a letter. The adjacent squares, then, follow the letter or the reflection, depending. And as far as that goes, Segal's process works—the stories have an almost serial effect, as if each chapter is a frozen moment (if not a cliffhanger) like the panel in a comic strip, recording a significant exchange, something to advance the stories.
With very few exceptions, Segal succeeds; there's one part of the collection where I found myself a little bit confused, unsure if the Carl I was reading about is a mouse who is in love with a man named Paul, or else the ghost of Paul's father. And in another section, the resolution of certain stories is conclusively unsatisfying: what exactly is going on with the invisible pit Paul is knocked into by some errant elk? A collection that stakes so much on structural ingenuity invites structural scrutiny, and on occasion, I felt as if I'd opened the wrong door in the funhouse and found myself in a custodian's closet, or some narrative engine room where a belt had slipped. But in almost all the stories, the experiment with branching narratives works to show Segal in control of whole swathes of experience, human and animal.
Of course, it's worth asking about the value of a project like this. What passes for back matter positions 78 Stories alongside Cortazar's Hopscotch, Abish's Alphabetical Africa, and George Perec's Life: A User's Manual (I had to look that last one up). The idea that the form guides content isn't a new one, really, but the mechanical experiments of writers like Perec and his OULIPO peers gave them the means to investigate the workings of arbitrary state power. Stripped of a similar context, Segal's project will be read differently. 78 Stories reveals the writer, his quirks and particularities in a way that A Void or Exercises in Style maybe doesn't. Segal is a witty observer of people's awkward foibles, as the following sentence shows: "Paul and Sandra had only brought a small amount of food with them for their honeymoon because they had planned to eat out for the most part." It's funny because the situation is recognizable to me and most of Segal's likely readers—erudite, cosmopolitan people who enjoy the challenge of a crossword as much as we enjoy finishing one. Segal's stories build downward and rightward toward an apocalypse in the puzzle's final squares, and humans play a smaller and smaller role as history winds down. What is perhaps less immediately noticeable is that the collection starts with a death, too, that of Dennis Winston, a fifty-three year old architect, husband and father. Maybe it's just a desire to conclusively end so many stories, but Segal's presence shadows the collection; instead of obscuring the author, Segal's scrupulous arrangement becomes the clue that needs to be solved for: who is Ben Segal? I suspect he is like his readers, worldly enough to recognize when a coincidence is nothing more than that, but ultimately drawn up short by the way lives–ours and those of others–end so suddenly, whether we did them justice or not. - Matt Dube
Ben Segal: Wearing ThinSo much is made of Simone Weil having starved herself to death. The Nazis, you know. I could starve myself to death for a thousand good reasons and none of them would be good reasons after all. I would still lack the saintliness for righteous starvation. I would only be bodily dysmorphic.
Or maybe saintliness has been pathologized.
Maybe what was good about the Nazis was that they wore those stupid signs that read EVIL with such semiotic boldness. You could starve against them without question.
Some of my friends are photoshopping a hunger strike. You can watch them turn to wraiths. Limp skinned, bonesome. It’s too much competition for the real. I stare and feel obese. That dysmorphic thing again.
What I don’t mean to say is that hunger is always saintly.
Knut Hamsun, of course.
Simone Weil wrote a book called Gravity and Grace. Can we set grace apart from weight? Can we place it only in the image-body, in the body at a remove? My friends are fasting electronically.
When a person doesn’t eat, the body eats itself. Starvation is the activation of different kind of eating, a total eating. A phone call, concerned: Are you eating? An honest answer: Of course I am.
Simone Weil tried to be an anarchist freedom fighter in the Spanish Civil War but her comrades would not let her into battle because she was so clumsy and such a terrible shot.
She had to get picked up from the war by her parents.
She failed also, several times, to become a spy.
That is to say, she was trying to disappear into her self. She succeeded by way of starvation. To spy, though, is a dissociation of the self from the body, to starve a dissociation of the body from the self.
I am on a train right now. I did not say that before. I am draped in baggy clothing on a train.
If you starve to death, quietly, on a train, that will cause quite the to-do. But you have to time it right. It’s important not to only almost starve. God forbid some rough Samaritan snatches you up and deposits you in an ambulance. Those I.V. fluids, those feeding tubes.
There are so many ways to eat besides by mouth!
If I were a saint, my miracle would be some new kind of eating. A pure eating, through the eyes or the air. Nothing to get stuck in the depths of my teeth, the mounded valleys of my throat. Nothing to coat my tongue in untonguely color.
On their website, my friends are so devastatingly skinny. They’re getting attention too. The news. Such tiny bodies eclipsing whatever cause they’ve claimed.
And those bodies of course, not even theirs. But theirs indisputably. So I’m wondering who’s pulling off miracles now? My stomach is growling its mouthless language, my body is eating my body. Then there are my friends, saintly, on the internet.
I do like the trees that are passing my window. I am always happy for my friends and acquaintances. It is pleasant, these days, to ride on American trains.
OnlineJelly Bodies- Lamination Colony (forthcoming)
Halfingers- Elimae, June/July 2009
Over Dinner, The Life Story of the Wandering Jew- 3AM Magazine, 2009
Youth and Beauty (Short Version)- Abjective, February 2009
Mrs. Van Pelt's Class is Not Coming to the Assembly- Corduroy Mtn, 2009
The Pork Shunter's Fingers- Eyeshot, May 2009
Switzerland, 1471- For Every Year, 2009
Tender is a Nice Way of Describing Meat- Willows Wept Review, Spring 2009
Underground, in a Cave, in a Shallow Bed of Freezing Water- Pequin, 2009
The Wrestling Bear- Wigleaf, 2009
Reunion- Why Vandalism?, December 2008
Underwater- Hotel St. George, Fall 2008
Shaving- Lamination Colony, 2008
Glue- Elimae, 2008
The Thing about Elephants- Johnny America, 2008
Sometimes Girls- Dogmatika, 2008
Mr. Pibb, etc.- Dogzplot, 2008
Perfection- Flatman Crooked, 2008
Henry- Holy Cuspidor, March 2008
June Bug- 55 Words, 2007
Donny- Monkey Bicycle, 2007
The Old Man- Zygote in my Coffee, 2007
Towards A Dead Father- Word Riot, 2006
Tell It (Again From Your Mouth)- Text installed on site as part of the exhibition 'In The Light Cone' at the Department of Saferty art space on Anacortes, Washington, July 2009. Painted in black and glow-in-the-dark paint on on the gallery wall. See the website.
Frequent contributor at Ghost Island- www.ghostisland.wordpress.com
Dear Wigleaf- Wigleaf, 2009
From Batailles to Christ in 4 Moves- Diet Soap, 2007 (Print Journal)
Worm Organ Transit
Hair Land Instructional
Eight Paragraphs Involving an Ouroboros
Flash Fiction by Ben Segal
The Happy-Enough Family on the Day of the Sorrows-Weighing
The Beards and Chair Legs are Not in the Frame
You are Today a Man
Feliz Lucia Molina and Ben Segal: from THE MIDDLE
"The Darkest Inevitable Logical Conclusion": An Interview with Ben Segal
Ben Segal is the author of 78 Stories (No Record Press), co-author of The Wes Letters (Outpost 19), and co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature. His short fiction has been published by Tin House (Online), The Collagist, Gigantic, Puerto del Sol, and many other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA from UCSD, an MA from the European Graduate School and a BA from Hampshire College, and has been a visiting scholar or writer at the University of Pennsylvania, the Haisyakkei residency in Toride, Japan, and Mustarinda House in eastern Finland. He currently lives in Los Angeles.