Fantagraphics has one of the best design departments in the history of publishing. Their willingness to work the form to the content, rather than the other way around, pays great dividends for book lovers. Often overlooked because the content they are publishing is super-graphic in of itself (comics), their design is eye-catching and functional, while often elevating the text; their materials, paper, binding, and just the feel of their books in your hand is always considered.
Which is why local writer Ryan Boudinot approached them about his new book The Octopus Rises. It was a smart move: Boudinot is partnering with Fantagraphics to create a new literary imprint. Also, it’s smart because this, the first book released by the duo, is good fun. It’s a small hardbound landscape book with clever graphic flourishes throughout. I recommend you pick it up.
SRoB co-founder Paul Constant couldn’t review this book, because he was, briefly, on the board of the Seattle City of Literature, Boudinot’s bid to make Seattle a UNESCO city of literature. There was drama about this, mostly from a gun made out of words that Boudinot repeatedly pointed at his own foot.
SRoB currently is an endorser of the bid, but Boudinot has stepped aside to an advisory role. This is all very inside-wordball, but it needs to be disclosed, and maybe the point we could put on it is that, perhaps, Boudinot isn't a politician.
I met Boudinot once — I took a writing class from him at Hugo House, since I enjoyed his expansive and delightfully weird Blueprints of the Afterlife. The class walked around Capitol Hill and I was supposed to observe only red things. It was fun. But, then I got a text-alert from Breaking News (nested disclosure: my day job) that a bridge had collapsed on I-5 in Mount Vernon, where Boudinot is from — where his parents, he had mentioned, still lived. This seemed like news he’d want to know, but I didn’t want to interrupt the class. I did tell him, when we were back in the room after our walk and had written about what we had seen. I read my little piece, and included the news about the bridge because the alert from Breaking News was red, it was fair game.
Speaking of Mount Vernon, I’m from Bellingham, and Boudinot is about three years younger than me. When I was eighteen, my band (one reviewer: “they sounded like Green River before everybody else did”) played these weird skate-farm festivals in Mount Vernon. One of them ended up being in a huge unfinished house. It’s possible Boudinot was there.
In fact, culturally, we’re not dissimilar. Maybe it’s a bit of a canard, but I feel like I understand Boudinot, his influences, and where he’s coming from. Maybe that explains the affection I feel for him and his writing, and maybe colors my reading of the book.
Because the dude can write. I use the word ‘dude’ advisedly. All of Boudinot’s characters are dudes or bros. When women appear, they are usually set-piece wives to be inconvenient in the life of the dude, or to randomly ruin their pants with their first periods (making the dudes uncomfortable), or to make an appearance only to cook Mötley Crüe and their roadies dinner. None of the twelve stories have a woman as a primary character.
Most of them involve the dude (or dudes) being forced into some bureaucratic nightmare of one sort of another, and being observed while doing it. There are systems, but not managers. There are processes, but no humans or humanity. Boudinot has a deeply felt paranoia about offices — which is nothing you haven’t seen before, and has always struck me as a weird affectation. It’s a paranoia that feels grounded in an adolescent’s idea of what an office is like. To an office worker, it comes off sounding like an arachnophobe warning an arachnologist about how horrible spiders are.
But, dude’s got chops, and he has the mastery of language to make those chops do something unique, and unique is rare and should be applauded.
Then, like your genius physicist nephew who goes to work for a gambling machine company, you feel that his talents are sometimes carelessly applied. There is great ironic distance in his work. If the heart beats underneath, then it is the heart that the Hipster Handbook talked about when it said “to the hipster, irony carries more weight than reason.”
So that, yes, he’s trying to say something here (I think), but the saying something gets buried like a weird sound masked by the car engine so that you’re not sure if it is a problem or an anomaly.
And look, not every book needs to say something grand. I believe Boudinot is working for authenticity, singularity, and craft. I think he is earnestly following his subconscious cues, like David Lynch does. I think his heart is right, despite some of his more egregious public statements.
Is it even fair to talk about that public stuff here? Can’t we just straight-up review the book? Well, no. How can we not pay attention to it? It’s wires and spaghetti mixed together, and I’d really rather not bite the metal. When Franzen talks about the stupidity of digital culture and the sublimeness of birding, every review about him needs to address those things. It’s all part of his public persona.
So either we ignore Boudinot’s book — a mistake, I think, because it’s quite good and Fantagraphics working with him is likely to be a remarkably cool venture — or we address it head on.
And really, the book is delightful. There are many clever touches that make it a joy to hold, both in the design (hat tip to Jacob Covey, the designer, who was truly a collaborator on this endeavor) and in the text. There are little humors and wonders, and the stories made me laugh, and some made me sad.
My favorite was probably "Readers and Writers", a sharp little story in which a man reading Team of Rivals meets another man reading the same book on the bus.
Then, over the course of a long weekend, I finished the book. I prowled the bookshelves in my study for an acceptable volume to follow Keans Goodwin, settling on one of the DeLillo novels I hadn’t read yet, The Names.
Here’s where it got weird.
When I stepped on the bus the following Tuesday, I spotted Marty right away, sitting in one of the higher seats above the wheel well, absorbed in The Names by Don DeLillo. Same edition even.
Boudinot loves taking a probable real moment, and drawing from it radical absurdity. Many of the stories are fantastical, where you are asked to accept a premise while he runs with it. Many of the premises have to do with the folly of humans over nature, but some of them are seemingly about humans undoing themselves. Sometimes, there is blood, or giant hearts that power an entire city of people. They are small nightmares brought to life, with the characters offering a sort of ‘huh’ that one regards a dream weirdness, accepting it without question. There are robots and talking animals, there is a bleeding man awkwardly hitting on a doe during a convention.
Maybe the least successful story was "Monitors", where two dudes (check) are in a room with a bunch of monitors (check) watching people in other rooms watching monitors, and reporting when they break the arbitrary corporate rules (check). But then, (short story spoiler alert!):
I finally figured out the secret zoom command, Andy says. See? just a few keystrokes and I can zoom in even closer.
Ross says nothing, riveted by the image he sees on one of the subject’s monitors. He raises his left arm to test his hypothesis and realizes that it’s true. He and Andy are the subjects of these subjects’ monitors.
Get it? The watchers are watching the watchers and nobody really knows what’s going on!
The short "The End of Bert and Ernie" would have been amazing and revelatory in 1992, but in 2015 it is simply good and entertaining. It parodies well the American Northeast family dramatic short story™; emotionally, it harkens back to the time when every indie band made t-shirts with their name displayed as a famous corporate logo.
And, then, you finish a story and remember some of the things Boudinot has said in public. It’s like his stories are a roller coaster ride that’s really scary, but only because the bars that hold you in don’t seem to latch, and that bar is the public thing we’re grappling with.
My hope: as he publishes more work, the work will become the main topic when we talk about him. I can’t wait to see the other books coming from this partnership with Fantagraphics. And yes, if you, like us, are a bit gun shy around Boudinot, maybe it’s wise to watch where the gun is pointed; those words are unpredictable.