Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Peter Cherches’ LIFT YOUR RIGHT ARM, (March, Pelekenesis)

Peter Cherches is a master of the conundrum, a poet of the nuance that makes nonsense of logic and meaning where it wouldn’t be caught dead.  Imagine the love-child of Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein, or the uneasy marriage of Archibald MacLeish and Harold Pinter and you may have an idea of the singularity of his style.

Mr. Cherches' new book of minimalist prose, LIFT YOUR RIGHT ARM, is a novel with five movements or five novels--as you find it. Coincidentally, Cherches means to search for in French and his humor is found in unlikely places.

Take the opening section with the adventures of Mr.Deadman. Here's an excerpt:

“Life,” Mr.Deadman says, “is a death-defying stunt.” 

And with some chill and much amusement, you accompany Mr. Deadman to a sushi restaurant, a barbecue, keeping up with the Joneses, and on a holiday.  The punch line is, as always, as you knew it would be, that life's different because he is dead. And, in the process you get a chuckle about the farce of it.

Then there’s the metaphysics of love,  the permeable boundaries of identities between lovers. In "Bagatelles,"  it's the up and down of who's in charge and what do the orders signify? A favorite in this section is:

"You take a lot out of me," she said to me. 
"I know," I told her in her own voice.

There's also Cherches' clowns, One, Two, and Three. Again, hard to describe without showing.

Two: Where do you see yourself in five years?
One:  Here, five years older.
Three: What are your qualifications?
One: Time and immobility
Two & Three:  You're hired!

The last section of LIFT YOUR RIGHT ARM is "A Certain Clarence." I developed an Amelia Bedelia affection for this thinking man's fool.

     "Clarence decided to paint his room. It was a small room, and Clarence reasoned that he could create the illusion of more space if he were to paint his room the colors of outside. So he painted his ceiling blue like the sky, with a couple of white clouds for good measure. He painted his floor in patches of green and brown, like grass and earth. And his walls he painted no color at all."

    There are writers you can call prose poets, but Cherches is something else. He makes deadpan humor out of words you thought you knew. But then the meaning is not in the words but somehow cleverly hidden behind them. The joke is on you. The familiar become strange. This perilous reality is Cherches' territory. 

     An adult may want to read some of these twice but I suspect a teen will repeat for fun. The sensibility of LIFT YOUR RIGHT ARM is akin to the way they puzzle out the world with a well-honed hypocrisy meter. 
You finish wanting more of this conversation, this sense of something profound you feel and almost understand.  

SW

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore pits new technologies against old, think Google vs. Name of the Rose


Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, published by Farrar Straus Giroux,
is a very smart novel that pits new technologies against old (think Google vs, Name of the Rose) and in the process, it examines what language tells us about meanings. 
Is our consciousness transformed by the medium? Marshall Mcluhan, sage of communication, believed the medium is the message and that technology is the content. In Don DeLillo’s The Names, clashing languages form a furious Tower of Babel. Sloan has similar questions about the language of technology and how it’s shape shifting us in the 21st century. But that may be his next, darker book.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore is an entertaining mystery wrapped in a love for the miraculous tools of our 21st century technological genius. Language, code, is the heart of this mystery, which begins in a strange bookstore of unreadable books. Clay Jannon, web site designer, is desperate after being laid off from his job. He’s walking San Francisco’s steep streets, when he sees the sign in the bookstore offering work. The owner, Mr. Penumbra, is an ancient-looking wizened man with an inner animation. He gives him the late night shift, shows him a book to record details of customers, and tells him not to read the books.

The narrow cavernous shop has a few dusty regular books below high shelves filled with obscure volumes.  Clay climbs to these on precarious ladders at the request of occasional customers. He has time to wonder why these customers are old eccentric people, who come at odd hours and never pay. Then he learns the store is a kind of lending library for a mysterious club and the books are all in code. Clay can’t imagine what it signifies and begins to construct a computer model of the store. Late one night, working on the model,  he meets Kat a beautiful hacker girl, one of the Google geniuses, who are planning the future on their idyllic campus. 

Clay wants Kat, as much as the visionary and well moneyed Google lifestyle. When he completes the webmodel of the bookstore, the result means he’s solved the mystery of a lifetime in weeks. Penumbra explains that the book borrowers are acolytes of an ancient order, which reads books written in the Founder’s code. Mr.Penumbra enlists Clay, Kat and the Googlers to crack that code and reveal the secret of life. The Googlers bring all their considerable brains and technology to the task.

By doing so, Mr. Penumbra runs afoul of the order's austere establishment. The consequences are huge in the circuitous plot of this clever novel. Clay, the resourceful works with Kat, Matt, one of the last special effects artists to use glue and scissors, and Neal Shah, whose software program for perfect breasts has spawned an industry, to save Mr.Penumbra, the bookstore, in an epic race against time.

Whether he gets the girl or not, I won't reveal. The most fun is to see Google squared off against the dead Founder. And there’s an immortal type face. I look forward to Robin Sloan’s next take on the strange transition between major technological eras in which we find ourselves.

SW