The Austin Chronicle

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Roger Gathman, October 15, 1999, Books

In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader

edited by Ronald Sukenick and Curtis White

FC2, $13.95 paper

The art of fiction, in this country, has often depended on the heroic efforts of small presses. If it hadn't been for New Directions, the scope of international modernism would still remain a mystery to American readers. In the Sixties, Grove Press mixed salacity and elegance, publishing Nabokov, Miller, and a hundred and one one-handed erotic novels. Recently, the small press scene has diverged and diversified, so that you can choose Seal to get your lesbian experimental experience, or Dalkey Archive to catch up on those authors like Joseph McElroy and Rikki Ducornet whose first publishers have allowed their books to go out of print. Or you can go to FC2 books, which makes its case with this collection of 29 authors.

FC2 started as the Fiction Collective in the early Seventies, and it published people like Ronald Sukenick, Steven Katz, and Peter Spielberg, who all seem to have undergone agonies of sexual repression in the Fifties, and intend ever afterwards to get revenge on us for it. This emerges in the constant theme of excess, distorted landscapes filled with grotesque authority figures, and a lot of groping and groaning erotica. Misogyny is the keynote to this attitude -- as in Norman Mailer and John Updike, the typical male figure in these narratives alternately desires and resents the women he encounters. Sukenick's last novel, Mosaic Man, shows he's never gotten over that double bind. Unfortunately, the same kind of libidinous energy which fueled underground comix and rock & roll gets awkward over the course of a 200-page or so narrative. There are a few figures like Robert Coover who make that kind of thing work, but his novels, such as The Public Burning, were published by establishment presses.

The Fiction Collective was supposed to let the producers take control of the means of production -- the writers themselves would choose what manuscripts to publish. Although this is a groovy idea, the anthology's pieces from this era do not stack up against the writers (Pynchon, for example, or Delillo) who were published by mainstream houses. Typical is Raymond Federman's "Take It or Leave It," which is about a soldier writing love letters for other soldiers. Federman seems absolutely uninterested in other people, which is fatal to a novelist, but he has a knack for linguistic doodling. That knack (which is now curable with a carefully prescribed cocktail of meds) just isn't enough. Steve Katz's story, "Death of the Band," is about a musician who incorporates assassinating musicians into his pieces -- but this is the kind of Barthelme story Barthelme does better, and he was doing it in that arch-establishment organ, The New Yorker.

In the Eighties, the communal control of the press was junked in favor of a directorate manned by Sukenick and Curtis White. Like other avant-garde operations, in its death throes the press turned to academia, first at the University of Colorado, then at the University of Illinois, and now at the University of Florida. They also started an imprint: Back Ice Press. As Sukenick and Curtis White portentously write, "We sought out the radicals of form and content in "genre' fiction" -- meaning they discovered the kind of sci-fi and detective fiction that the much-lambasted "establishment" press has been publishing for the last 50 years. In 1997, the press received a grant from the NEA. When Jesse Helms found out that they were publishing filth and debauchery, he tried to get them shut down. For a while, it looked like the press would be genuinely martyred.

Now, filth and debauchery are always exciting, so I looked forward to the writers from this period. But don't get your hopes (or anything else) up. Jeffrey Dushell, who was one of the writers to cause Jesse to jam, apparently, writes in the unpunctuated style that is popularly associated with stream of consciousness, although it really resembles the polyphonic narrative favored by Garcia Marquez in Autumn of the Patriarch. It is a bedtime tale of lesbian seduction, with a lot of sucking of nipples and such. Somebody should tell Jesse: It isn't up to Grove Press standards. Richard Grossman's short excerpt from The Alphabet Man (which mixes up disembowelment and orgasm) and Eurudice (whose F/32 is about female domination) are the last sad shake of the romantic agony, poseurs of the whip, clueless children of the divine Marquis. Where de Sade built, out of his own felonious perversities, the mad castle of gothic literature, these authors are merely bunglers in the bungalow of buggery. And any Hollywood horror flick does it better. As for the book by Doug Rice that started the whole NEA flap, it isn't featured.

To be fair, FC2 has given unheralded writers (like Judy Lopatin, whose excerpt is the most interesting in the anthology) a start, as well as publishing Mark Leyner, Harold Jaffe, and other "experimental" writers. Unfortunately, the publishers too often get bogged down in a martyrdom complex. Giving Jesse Helms the joy buzzer doesn't entail that the writing, often, displays anything more than a lot of incoherence spiced with a lot of smut, satisfying neither our higher nor our lower faculties. Besides, better small presses (Black Sparrow Press, Permanent Press, Four Walls Eight Windows, among others) simply abound, without being on the academic tit. FC2 should get over the idea that they are some embattled remnant in Amerika -- they aren't.

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