by Daniel Evan Weiss
(Serpent's Tail) $14
Electromagnetic, strong and weak, gravitational, mythological: Myth is one of the fundamental forces in the human universe. Mythology is a process as vital to human understanding as photosynthesis is to plants. The heat of human interactions is converted by myth into archetypes, whose light illuminates our own lives, renders us understandable to ourselves.
Daniel Evan Weiss is playing with big toys: His new novel, Honk If You Love Aphrodite, appropriates Homeric verse and Greek gods to tell the story of everyman Stanley Short-Sleeves, who is mysteriously thwarting his own love life. Weiss attempts to create a modern odyssey in the streets of New York, as Stanley and an Olympian friend are harassed, cajoled, misled, threatened, and smothered by lurid New Yorkers who would shipwreck their desperate journey home.
But Weiss cannot separate archetype from stereotype, and his cheeky take on modern myth dissolves like wet cardboard into a shambles of broad cultural slurs. There is Dr. Singh ("they call me very much Dr. Singh"), the East Indian cab driver who can't be bothered to take them to their destination (in a chapter called "The Krishna Captivity"); there is Mendel, Tzippi, Shloimi, Channah, Lieb, etc. (in a chapter called "Curse of the Foreskin"); and there is "The Boss of Bed-Stuy," whose drug sales Stanley has interrupted. Worse, each race receives, from the Olympian narrator, a denunciatory myth to explain their humble condition today. It's tough to write directly about race; Weiss' myth of the Nubian alone is enough to convince another writer not to try it. There is no sense of satire or underlying self-awareness to leaven the blow or explain the author's motive. He has failed to harness the power of mythology. And for this the gods will surely punish him. Weiss reads Sat Oct 9 at 2:30 pm, at Elliott Bay Books, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, free. EVAN SULT
TAKING THE WALL
by Jonis Agee
(Coffee House Press) $14.95
If an author wants to create art out of the sometimes cluttered lives of the working class, he or she had better come up with more than pink trailers, maple-flavored syrup, and junked-out cars. Whereas authors like Dorothy Allison, Richard Hugo, or Raymond Carver attain this goal, Jonis Agee in his latest collection of short stories, Taking the Wall, fails.
This book has changed my life, though. Let me admit something: The author's subject matter and writing style is so similar to my own that upon reading the first story, I expected to look into the mirror and see the words "third-rate writer" printed boldly across my forehead in a small (but readable) font. You see, my partner is a mechanic, and so it follows that salvage yards, demolition derbies, and hands covered in grime would enter into my fiction. Agee's short stories use the same fodder, and probably with a similar degree of success -- that is, little. It isn't enough to use car terminology, or have characters who constantly want to tell you the story of their lives with drawled "I guesses" and "Let me tell yous"; something must be given to the reader: a character that expands a cliché, moments of insight or beauty, commentary on the human condition. Taking the Wall does none of these things, and asks the reader to slog through obvious metaphors about car crashes and ruined relationships and melancholy tales of car racers' glory days now past.
It's hard to see the error in our ways, until it taps you on the shoulder, like this collection did for me. Thank you, and all apologies. NOVELLA CARPENTER
by Iain Sinclair, photos by Marc Atkins
(Reaktion Books) $29.95
Liquid City is a heavy book -- a handsome book -- with a cover depicting decaying brick structures, the surface of water, and shadowy images of lonely human forms crossing a bridge. It is the sort of book you want to be seen reading on the bus or in a café, and it would complement an ensemble of a well-worn dark-blue sweater, black corduroy pants, and a pair of those thick-soled, secondhand shoes to be found in the display window of Le Frock.
Liquid City is also a great title -- meant, according to the sleeve, to "evoke the Thames," and its movement through contemporary London. This is an excellent theme. Who wouldn't want to read a book about how the flow and rhythm of this great river informs the cultural life of London, or about the varying ways that it is seen and interpreted from near and far away windows, balconies, and roof tops?
According to author Iain Sinclair, the way he and photographer Marc Atkins approached this grand subject was to simply walk around London with a camera and notepad, gathering and piecing together their impressions of this river and the old and once-glorious city. The result, however, is surprisingly disappointing, and it's Mr. Sinclair who is to blame. Though many of Marc Atkins' photographs are provoking, Mr. Sinclair completely fails to deliver the promise of substance. The weight of the book is only an illusion; there is no depth here, no meaty matter for the mind to chew on. There is no excavation, proper exploration, or analysis of the Thames, which seems a little ridiculous as the river is rich in history and information. Remember, this is the river down which Michael Jackson sent a giant statue of himself, and yet all we get out of Mr. Sinclair is some simple ramble about how cool he and his half-baked half-artist friends are!
Near the end of the book, there are some glimpses of Kathy Acker's superior London world, but don't bother with Liquid City if you are an Acker fan -- you'll only feel cheated. What a waste of a perfectly good title. CHARLES MUDEDE