Friday, November 7, 2008

Pete Lit reviews Richard Grayson's HIGHLY IRREGULAR STORIES

Thanks to Pete Anderson for reviewing Richard Grayson's Highly Irregular Stories on his blog, Pete Lit. An excerpt:
Highly Irregular Stories. . .is a collection of four chapbooks from early in [Grayson's] career which show a young writer who was fearless in experimenting with form while never forgetting about storytelling. Much of the book is metafictional, with many stories cleverly being about the stories themselves. (And one story, "Narcissism and Me", even has the story's reader be its narrator – I can’t really explain it, so you’ll just have to read it.) His stories are funny, minimalist, and sometimes fantastical in nature. . .

The "Eating at Arby's" chapbook hilariously relates the primitive, childlike conversations (described by one reviewer as “equidistant between Hemingway's short stories and Dick and Jane”) of Zelda and Manny, an old Jewish married couple who relentlessly praise their South Florida home, their sunny dispositions desperately but never quite disguising many dark undercurrents - suffocating heat, racial tension, drug trafficking, murder - to life in the Sunshine State. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp" is a rollicking, episodic satire on corporate and government life, set in an absurd Manhattan where the chairman of the Federal Reserve faces down a balky ATM, his mother frets over him at their Trump Tower apartment while repeatedly watching an old videotape of her deceased husband, and the Comptroller of the Currency on a flight from LaGuardia struggles to figure out how he'll explain to his wife how the bag of bagels he brought home to D.C. for her is now half-empty, without bringing up the touchy subject of the cute teenage girl in the next seat who spent their flight obliviously enjoying both his attention and his bagel-generosity.

The strongest story of all is "My Twelfth Twelfth Story Story", in which the narrator tells of writing the twelfth and final story of his collection, all of which involve characters who live on various twelfth stories. The writer is a widower who is raising a young daughter, and struggles to write and earn a living while also being a good father as the girl lives in a fantasy world to avoid the reality and pain of the loss of her mother. [Grayson] he perfectly captures the joys and fears of every parent as well as the inner life of a young girl, showing a remarkable bit of empathy in doing so.

Highly Irregular Stories
is another fine collection of stories from one very prolific and inventive author.

The book was also reviewed in August 2007 by Marie Mundaca at the Hipster Book Club. Excerpts:
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.

The book also was reviewed by Kirkus Discoveries in July 2006:
An audacious and wickedly smart comedic writer brings his full weight to bear in a collection of his early work.

Grayson, no stranger to experimentation, here assembles four of his most engaging chapbooks, which merge nicely as an eclectic anthology of intriguing short stories. The author, who breaks nearly every literary rule in an obsessive effort to be unique, is both maddeningly and hilariously self-aware. "Narcissism and Me" leaps dizzyingly between the author's presence and the actual story like a snake eating its tail, while "Sixteen Attempts to Justify My Existence" reads like a blog from another planet, and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp" waxes poetic on the rise and fall of 1980s greed. No business is safe, either, as Grayson mocks traditional publishing's buzzed-based marketing with caustic sarcasm in "The Greatest Short Story
That Absolutely Ever Was." In "The Facts Are Always Friendly," the action is narrated through a series of terse, date-stamped factual statements. Grayson opens up in the meatier "Eating at Arby's," a clever spoof written in childlike prose. It details the absurd dichotomies of South Florida as a pair of retirees fall prey to consumerism, political exiles and even gunplay on their way to the mall. With a keen eye for highlighting the high anxieties of the modern world, and many of the sensibilities of a sensitive urban writer, Grayson is occasionally compared to Woody Allen. But Grayson's stories here recall no one so much as Richard Brautigan, who walked a similar line between wit and warmth in his more eccentric novels. Though certainly unconventional, Highly Irregular Stories are refreshing because of their aloofness, which allows the author to indulge his peculiar point of view.

An iconoclast sways to his own beat, making beautiful music along the way.

The book was also reviewed by Ken Davis at Bookgasm in August 2006. An excerpt:
With HIGHLY IRREGULAR STORIES, I can’t think of adjectives that more accurately describe this collection of Richard Grayson’s writings than the first two of his title, although unorthodox, quirky, peculiar and highly entertaining also come to mind.

This book is purportedly an accumulation of stories originally published in the 1970s and ’80s in four separate chapbooks (DISJOINTED FICTIONS, EATING AT ARBY’S, THE GREATEST SHORT STORY THAT ABSOLUTELY EVER WAS and NARCISSISM AND ME), all long been out of print. I wouldn’t exactly describe the contents as stories, at least in the traditional sense anyway. Many of them might be better described as vignettes or sometimes as just snippets of a fictional conversation. Heck, “Some Sad News” is a mere 180 words. By comparison, this review is roughly 450. I didn’t find any exquisite plots or character development, but I was too busy enjoying myself to care.

Grayson is a literary performance artist. His words are avant-garde and so uniquely different than anything else I’ve ever read., as the book is chock full of the offbeat. Take the narrator in the 147-word “Ordinary Peepholes,” who spies the scrawled message on a subway “FOR A GOOD LAY CALL 969-9970.” He recognizes the phone number as his sister’s and the handwriting as his father’s. Or how about the very subtle but delicious irony in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp,” in which the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who oversees the ebb and flow of cash in this nation has trouble with an ATM and can’t withdraw $200.

The entries from EATING AT ARBY’S were by far the most entertaining, written in the style of the old Dick and Jane readers, but updated to feature the liberal thinkers Manny and Zelda. These two don’t discuss how fast Spot can run, opting instead for more adult subject matter. For example, in “Strange Experience,” Zelda comes home and announces, “Look what I have got, Manny. I have some cocaine.” Manny replies, “So that white powder is cocaine. I have heard a lot about it from many people.”

Manny and Zelda are taken to a gun range by their friend José in “Fun with a Gun.” Zelda warms to the idea of firearms and says, “Manny, I want to shoot that gun. That gun will become our friend, just like José is our friend.” The topics of murder, homosexuality and outrageous electric bills also are tackled by the pair. Sasson Jeans and the Arby’s salad bar at Arby’s also make hilarious repeat appearances.

I highly recommend this book and reading in general. So do Manny and Zelda. In “Shopping in the Mall,” Zelda says, “I read a book once. It made me think.” Manny replies “Thinking is fun. I like to think.”

If you like to think, too, you can get a copy of Highly Irregular Stories from Dumbo Books.

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