Monday, January 19, 2009

Review of "The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island"

The Joy of Operating Manuals

New Kitchen musical celebrates the poetry of instructions for outmoded appliances

An immediate wistfulness permeates the first exchange in Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy's wondrous new musical, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island. Gingin, an adorable, notably unwed Gotham grad student (Mollie Weaver) receives a random call a from long-tressed (but body-hair-inhibited) Kayrolian stevedore, Samson (Mulcahy). But even before their biographical details fall into place,the drolly conversational opening holds an inexplicable ache. When Samson (visible behind a scrim but thousands of miles away) asks how he sounds on his new phone, his perfect-stranger interlocutor answers along a stately, descending melody: "You sound pretty clear/Yeah, you sound pretty clear."

Their words aren't just "the pleasantries surrounding a wrong number," as someone later puts it, but carry a hopeful erotic charge, the absurd longings of anonymity. And the far-flung tale that writer-director-designer Katchor and composer-actor Mulcahy spin in the next two hours, for all its delightful flights of fancy, makes good on this emotional connection. Appropriately, Gingin's would-be swain is Immanuel Lubang (Ryan Mercy), connoisseur of a secret genre of poetry—the instruction manuals of outdated home appliances, literature he dubs the "anonymous productions of the mid 20th century." (The Botulax can opener, the Normelton toaster oven, the Gumsol electric toothbrush: Katchor has great fun crafting the cryptic syllables of faded commerce.) Lubang, whose fresh-faced enthusiasm recalls that of Rushmore's Max Fischer, isn't alone in his love of this fugitive form of prose poetry; aficionados meet regularly to give readings from, say, the translated instructions to a Japanese blender. Such abstractions intimate a "world in which man lives with his machines in peace."

Emotional projection—onto faceless callers, onto useless words—is thus one of the show's dearest themes, illuminated with humor and tenderness. And like a shifting landscape of desire and whimsy, the leisurely drawings of cartoonist Katchor are projected onto a triptych of screens, images that respond antically to create a Manhattan of penthouse suites and Macedonian coffee shops and a Kayrolian tropical limbo of mutated crocodiles, smokestacks, and lonely brothels.

The marquee-meriting "slugs" denote not some viscid gastropod, but the small lead ingots placed inside modern-day devices to give them "the impression of heft and worth" they lack due to miniaturized advanced technology. The lead is mined by third-world robots, and transferred from dock to rail by men on Kayrol Island, who are paid in date nut leaves. Another projection: Western journalists fill the news with stories of their tragedy, but the perception isn't shared by the workers, who are rendered by Katchor in beach-casual and apparently only have to walk 20 feet, one small slug on each shoulder.

Katchor's comic-strip art translates into three dimensions. The clarity of plot points and jokes, of fanciful urban microhistory and cogent reductio ad absurdums, is amazing for such a densely written work. Lubang makes Gingin's acquaintance after getting hit by a glob of ice cream while walking on the sidewalk below her family's penthouse balcony; Gingin's apologetic, well-to-do electrolysist stepfather Dr. Rushower (Tom Buckland) invites him up. When Gingin, mortified by news reports of the slug bearers' poverty, later refuses contact with any appliances, Dr. Rush-ower underwrites a mission to get his daugh- ter out of her slump—and perhaps into the arms of a mate—by sending her and Lubang to Kayrol to spread the joys of "consumer fiction." Slug Bearers doesn't miss a beat as it takes on political commentary that's as deft as it is nonjudgmental, silly as it is serious.

The supple four-piece band moves easily from gonzo calypso to lounge jazz, and keeps the soundscape uncluttered even when cutting loose. Lubang introduces him and his appetite for instructions with a discursive, propulsive song that's like Don McLean's "American Pie" but with the phrase "see figure seven" as a dramatic high point, and his attempt to convert the Kayrol workers has the rumbling energy of a church revival. He and Weaver are sweetly appealing leads, Buckland is sportingly avuncular, and Michael Wiener and Joshua Bishoff provide memorable comic turns in the supporting roles.

As much as the milieu is pure Katchor (brilliantly developed from a "Julius Knipl" story in Metropolis magazine, and later collected in his book The Beauty Supply District), the more surprising achievement may be Mulcahy's—not just his lively and varied score, but also his multiple stage roles. Who could have anticipated such an extroverted and enjoyable second career? Miracle Legion, Mulcahy's old band, had a late-'80s heyday, sounding like a more plangent R.E.M.; his more recent solo albums are at once more confessional and hermetic. But here he proves an avid showman, playing with chameleon relish a cynical industrialist and Gingin's overweening shrink, who semi-sambas as he unreels his diagnosis. And in Mulcahy's main role as Samson, he's a sunnier version of his contemplative recording persona. Explaining the lure of the persuasive radio jingle that brought him to work from a neighboring island, he asks, "How could anyone with ears resist?" As they say in the movies, this one had me at hello.

The Village Voice, March 16, 2004

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Favorite SF/speculative fiction reads of 2008

1 It's not every day you read a lost bit of 19th century science fiction—from New Zealand, no less. "The Great Romance" (University of Nebraska) appeared in the 1880s in two (or more) installments by a writer known only as "The Inhabitant." It's the disjointed yet fascinating chronicle of John Hope, a man of the 1950s who is catapulted first into the 22nd century, and then to Venus. The white-knuckle ending is all the more tantalizing because no conclusion to the story has been discovered. It's a cliffhanger for the ages.

2 Benjamin Rosenbaum's "The Ant King and Other Stories" (Small Beer Press) contains invisible cities and playful deconstructions of the form. In "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum"—yes, his name is part of the title—the author imagines a world whose technologies and philosophies differ wildly from ours. The result is a commentary on the state of the art that is itself the state of the art.

3 In The Next Thing," published in May in Harper's, Steven Millhauser conjures an air-conditioned nightmare of seamless consumerism, a vast subterranean mall that is also a smoothly acquisitive corporate entity—a structure his unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of distress and awe. But "structure" also refers to the unorthodox construction of Millhauser's story, with its uneasy voice of communal anonymity and comfortable claustrophobia. The structure, in short, is the structure.

4 "Other Worlds, Better Lives" (Old Earth) collects Howard Waldrop's long short stories: inspired alternate historical mash-ups in which Thomas Wolfe and a young J.D. Salinger share a zeppelin flight with Fats Waller, or the bright lights of Paris' artistic set (Alfred Jarry, Marcel Proust) help Méliès make a movie about the Dreyfus case. The most satisfying tale, "A Dozen Tough Jobs," transposes the labors of Hercules to 1920s Mississippi.

5 Charles Fort started as a journalist, took a swing at pulp fiction and the social realist novel, and wound up an idiosyncratic interrogator of established wisdom. His books (which Theodore Dreiser championed) can warp one's worldview as much as a library full of science fiction. Jim Steinmeyer's short, fascinating biography, "Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural" (Tarcher/Penguin), is a fine introduction to this American iconoclast.

6 Martin Millar's "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" (Soft Skull) toggles between the narrator's present-day London conversations with his friend Manx and his anxious, embarrassed memories of being 13, when the promise of hearing—and seeing—his heroes perform could make everything right. Awkward Martin and his friend Greg have their own fantasy world—a realm of sorcerers and orcs that the music of Led Zeppelin intensifies. By the end of this entertainingly sad book, Glasgow 1973 shimmers like a lost world, echoing with the strains of "Misty Mountain Hop." —Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7, 2008

Donald E. Westlake

By Donald E. Westlake
Forge/Otto Penzler Presents, 268 pp., $14.95

Fred Fitch, the gullible narrator of Westlake's 1967 novel, receives 300 grand from an uncle he's never met—and then his problems really begin. Sniped at, seduced, and ceaselessly solicited, Fred wises up just enough to keep his life, not to mention his loot. A neighbor fishes for some Fitch funding to self-publish his neglected masterpiece, Veni Vidi Vici Through Air Power, a book that asks one burning question: What if Julius Caesar had had access to a couple of biplanes? Fred himself recalls—or foreshadows—Charles Portis's Dog of the South übernebbish, Ray Midge, prone as he is to wonderfully absurd digressions that you can't help but read aloud: "I wanted to call him Ralph, I really wanted to call him Ralph. I wanted to start my answer with Ralph and end my answer with Ralph and put Ralphs in here and there in the middle of the answer, and answer only in words which were anagrams of Ralph."
—June 29, 2004, Village Voice