Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hipster Book Club Reviews HIGHLY IRREGULAR STORIES by Richard Grayson

Marie Mundaca has reviewed Highly Irregular Stories at the Hipster Book Club:

Richard Grayson is a meta-fictionalist of the old school, where structure is often as important as narrative, where the story is sometimes hidden in structural tricks like diary entries, lists, and jokes. Grayson revels in finding stories in ephemera—descriptions of what happened to groups of people on dates throughout a year, a list of traits, stories about writing stories.

The stories in Highly Irregular Stories were originally published in the 1970s and 1980s, but Grayson has such a fresh approach to writing that these stories don't seem dated. In some ways, Grayson may remind readers of a younger Woody Allen—an intellectual who ponders the nature of existence yet is remarkably funny while discussing life, death, and capitalism.

Like much of the meta-fiction oeuvre, Grayson often writes stories about writing stories—he'll describe a story he wrote, or wants to write, or is in the process of writing. The trick with this genre is to make sure the reader can find the story. There is a narrative somewhere; It's not all jokes and lists. Grayson succeeds here—the lists and diary entries reveal his passion for finding new ways to tell a story. "The Facts Are Always Friendly" is a series of calendar entries that explore the complicated relationships among a group of friends who are at once affable and duplicitous. "My Twelfth Twelfth Story Story," a tale about a seemingly upright citizen writing a book of stories about living on the 12 floor, reveals that the protagonist has a preoccupation with gruesome murders. "Progress" is a tale of a young man who goes home with a very friendly clothing salesman and ends up alone, trapped in the salesman's circular apartment, afraid to leave.

The funny stuff in Highly Irregular Stories is not just mildly amusing but actually laugh-out-loud funny. Take these lines, from "A Disjointed Fiction":
My eye catches an unauthorized advertisement scrawled on the subway map across from my seat:
It's bad enough that this is my sister's phone number, but what really hurts is that the handwriting is unmistakably my father's.

"Eating at Arby's" humorously explores the lives of two Southern Florida residents, Manny and Zelda, through a series of Dick and Jane-style stories. For Manny and Zelda, a trip to a mall becomes an analysis of the wastefulness of the middle classes, a visit to the chiropractor, and an examination of race relations. What sometimes seem like stand-up routines on the outset reveal stories about the deep struggles of creativity and identity in the late twentieth century.

In the story "Innovations," Grayson takes revenge on a more successful writer by making him a character in a story and leaving him trapped in Miami Beach during the 1950s, specifically because the successful writer called Miami Beach America's armpit. However, "Innovations" is not about the successful writer, identified as D.L., being trapped in Miami. Rather, it is about some of the things he does that seem to annoy Grayson's character and how these annoyances lead to Grayson's character trapping him in Miami. "Innovations" is very typical of the tales in Highly Irregular Stories — there are stories within stories within stories that spiral inward or spiral outward towards their conclusions.

There is nothing lazy or superfluous in Grayson's prose. Every word is called into service. What seem like digressions are insights into the story or the characters. For example, Grayson starts "The Governor of the State of Depression" by writing, "The Governor likes to be treated like a baby. . . He has taken to eating baby food. His especial favorite is Gerber's Strained Vanilla Custard Pudding." The pudding is not only pudding, it's custard, and it's strained. It's practically pre-digested. Later, when the Governor is reading an editorial condemning his policies, he's eating the pudding in an obvious attempt to comfort himself.

Sometimes Grayson's self-effacing humor seems almost Vonnegut-esque, as in "Escape from the Planet of the Humans," where he writes,
If I were to write wonderful books and grow old gracefully and become a member of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, the headline on page 11 of The New York Post might read WRITER HONORED AT FORUM, but I doubt it.

For all the similarities to more mainstream writers, Grayson is firmly seated in the experimental realm and is much closer to writers like Donald Barthelme, Raymond Federman and Steve Katz. Readers in search of realistic plots and characters will not find what they're looking for here, but for the more adventurous reader who enjoys satirical and experimental fiction, Highly Irregular Stories is highly recommended.

(August 2007)

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