Lindsay Hunter, Daddy's, featherproof books, 2010

Patrick Somerville, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, featherproof books, 2010

Reviewed by Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

Featherproof books early on caught my eye with their MySpace page for the way they navigated around the distribution issues that surround print online. Theirs was an ingenious solution, one that only became obvious when you'd seen it, pdf files that rotated text files so that when you printed them out double-sided and folded and stapled them right, you had a little chapbook, or maybe something that read like a more hip issue of One Story. That was another thing that was striking about featherproof: they published fiction, and did it well, so that you could read the damn thing, instead of thinking about scrolling down endlessly, your eye on the right-hand bar and your brain balancing your patience against how much text was left. The stories were generally good, though there's only one I remember as being incredibly great, and I liked the design aesthetic: if publishing on the web had gone another way, in the direction of the design innovators instead of those who used new technologies of print-on-demand to more cheaply recreate the traditional books, we might be talking about featherproof as having shifted the whole paradigm of publishing.
      Here we are five years or so after I first knew them on MySpace, and featherproof has a traditional print arm, with a dozen or more titles available and still holding onto a quirky and title-specific design sense. Take, for example, Lindsay Hunter's Daddy's (which, if you ask me, should be called Daddy's Bait and Novelties, as the cover has it, but I'll defer the title page and website on this one). The book looks like a tackle box, with printed overflaps that cover the pages and feature the image of a clasp-lock; the effect is that when you're opening the book, you're opening the tackle box to take out a lure, or a hook, maybe. The pages inside, title, contents, and stories themselves, are all printed sideways, so that you're reading long, skinny paragraphs, each one left justified, no indent allowed. It's weird, the way such a simple shift in orientation can change your perception of story, into tactile, concrete chunks of prose: one thinks of Lydia Davis, maybe, or Deb Unferth, someone whose sentences feel like things in the world, solid, substantial, and built word-by-word. The look creates an impression of solidity that the sentences themselves don't quite live up to. Sure, the stories are tough, and made of hard things: sexual abuse, drug abuse, self-abuse more generally. But however much the characters might wear the toll of this violence in their psyches, it doesn't inflect the writing in any significant way, as this sentence demonstrates: "She puts the tray on the floor and scoots closer. I give her my hand and she sucks my fingers clean" (24). I'm not saying these are bad sentences, just that they aren't the kind that make me think it's time to redesign the way the story reads on the page.
      In fact, there isn't a lot new in Hunter's stories at all. It's true that the level of brutality in some of the stories is shocking (though not shocking in a way that's as memorable as, say, something from a Peter Markus story), but the stories rarely do much with the horror aside from cataloguing it, and then we're onto another nasty tale. There's insufficient variety in the stories, and in their bulk, the book bludgeons rather than seduces; too many of the tales here end with the narrator looking up at the night sky and thinking something squishy about the stars. I enjoy being shocked, and a little revulsion sometimes feels appropriate at the end of some days. But the charge doesn't make the nerves jump as much after a while; I might've enjoyed twenty-five, or even fifty pages of Hunter's stories. But by the end, the collection had definitely worn out its welcome.

Patrick Somerville's The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, a more recent release from featherproof, is a collection whose stories also share an offbeat sensibility, but it's one that allows for wider latitude in the stories it touches. If I had to characterize what these stories share, I'd call it self-consciousness: characters in these stories believe, to a striking degree, that they are being watched, even if only by their better natures, and they are somewhat inhibited by this knowledge. So, in the title story and first in the collection, Rosie is one of a trio of young would-be artists who are enrolled in a semi-fantastic school and studying to become avant-garde artists. Rosie's project gives the story, and the collection its title: she constructs models of dads and sons making models of the universe; instead of limiting her recreations to the tennis balls, softballs, and ping pong balls in varied ellipses, she includes figures representing the parent and child making the models, at a variety of different scales. But friend and classmate Lucy is even more invested in investigating how lives fit together, and establishes clandestine round-the-clock surveillance of her ex-boyfriend, who has recently suffered an accident and now lies in a persistent vegetative state in the bedroom of his parent's house (her art project, The Machine of Understanding Other People, shares a title and little else with the last and longest story in the collection). This double-vantage, of acting and of watching yourself act, is present in nearly all the stories, and while this layer of abstraction makes the stories less immediate than Davenport's, I think the distance creates at least the semblance of significance; if someone else is watching this, we as readers assume there must be something here worth watching.

And, for the most part, I think there is. In the story "The Wildlife Biologist," our intrepid narrator, Courtney, finds herself in a position to really understand the loneliness and failure that's the only possible product of her imagined sexual relationship with the young biology teacher, Mr. Carpenter. Somerville/ Courtney's gifts of observation are put to good use here, to not only expose the limits of Courtney's conception of adult sexuality ("He would kiss me, and then we would shampoo each others' hair" (85) is how one fantasy of their lovemaking climaxes). Courtney is able, from her privileged vantage point, to also see what it means to be still-young Mr. Carpenter, to feel idealistic and have that turn to feeling like a failure when he's unable to shame the town into closing down an exotic game hunting ranch. The emphasis in this story, and elsewhere, isn't on the lessons learned, but on the processes required to learn anything at all; Somerville's stories toying with what it'd mean for a character in a story to develop authorial omniscience, and even if that kind of interest is of interest primarily to other writers, it is interesting.

That level of omniscience, more explicitly, becomes the subject of the last story, "The Machine of Understanding Other People," where a machine that accomplishes just that purpose is built by a reclusive bajillionaire and becomes the possession of the more callow of the story's two narrators. The story is a utopian fable, about what it would take to make the world a better place: is this machine of self-consciousness enough, or do we need to act on what we see? Is the perfect knowledge of what other people are thinking enough by itself to make a utopia, or does that awareness require us to act on what we know? But unlike the other stories, the world in this one is poorly defined, and the stakes are so wildly out of whack, that it feels like Somerville is toying with us. The other stories felt, strangely enough, lived in, but this one feels like it's made on a model train set, with little plastic men and women fabricated in low-definition molds. Coming at the end of a collection that is, by that point, a little exhausting in the search for its own navel, this one finally wore out my patience. There's a really good collection in the midst of Somerville's book, but I feel like it's his responsibility, and that of the editors at featherproof, to carve it out of the present volume. To my mind, they so far haven't lived up to that challenge.