Sometimes, I will wake up from a dream, and it will take a long time to shake off the emotion or realize it wasn't real. The second night I was in Tanzania, I suddenly woke up with a sobbing, shuddering gasp from a dream in which I was mourning the deaths of two of my favorite people. I remember lying in bed thinking that such an evil world, where those people didn't exist, couldn't be real, but I was still so inside of the dream that I couldn't escape it. It took a long time to come back to reality. It strikes me that writing these stories might have had something of that feel for the author. There is a lot of residue of feeling here, filtered through purposeful weirdness. The shadow of evil unreality crossing into something real.
I read this on the planes, and at the gates during layovers. Apparently, according to my notes, I finished it just after I arrived at the Mövenpick Hotel in Dar es Salaam
. We had traveled for something like two days. The day before we left, the woman coordinating the winter study abroad program for which I was leaving contacted me saying that, according to the handlers in Tanzania, my flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, (weird thing: when you're there, they pronounce it "Addis Abiba." Why is it spelled differently?) didn't exist. Lufthansa, however, assured me that it did, so we continued with plans. Sure enough, when we got to Ethiopia, the flight didn't exist. This didn't seem to bother the Ethiopian Airlines people, though. They just hand-wrote us boarding passes for the next flight to Dar es Salaam. Hakuna matata, I guess. Even though they don't speak Swahili in Ethiopia. Whatever.
Anyway, it was a little surreal. Then, when we got to Dar es Salaam, we were, like, totally set up. Fancy hotel. Crazy good food. We slept for an entire day, which you might say was a waste of time, but I say was very necessary. The only thing we woke up for was breakfast. So, we went downstairs to this fancy breakfast, and we looked outside of the restaurant, and there was this huge bouncy house. It was so incongruous set against the pool and immaculately manicured lawn that you couldn't stop staring at it. The student assistants for the program were sitting at another table, and they were staring at it, too. One of them was this assholey Jersey dude, who I got along with, but who objectively is kind of an asshole. He is a cross-eyed, light-haired, man, and he climbed Kilimanjaro last week. So, this guy stood up, went outside, stood in front of the bouncy house for a minute, and then reached his hand straight out with his fingers flat and extended and poked the bouncy house. He stood there for a minute more and then came back inside. Later, this became more funny when we realized that this guy is a pretty serious, cynical dude.
Coming back yesterday and the day before (fifty hours of travel this time, if you want to know), I met a woman from Tanzania who now lives in Boston. She had gone to Tanzania to search for her father, who got her mom pregnant when she was fifteen and then took off. While searching for her father, this woman stayed at her uncle's palatial villa on the coast of Tanzania (fully furnished with antiques and stuffed animals and elephant tusks), attended two weddings, and had a miscarriage. She had recently broken up with a long-term boyfriend because it turned out he had a wife in Haiti, who he decided to bring to the US. Her new boyfriend is living in DC, but he's from the same village that her father's family comes from, so he helped her coordinate the trip. She has five kids, one of whom is autistic. She didn't find her dad. It was kind of exhausting to listen to her story.
The way I'm pretending to incorporate these stories into my review of this book, is that these people, these circumstances, are really weird to me. Life is weird; people are weird. I don't understand creating weirdness for the sake of itself, so I have to say that I don't think this here bizarro genre is really for me as a rule. For example, I think most people are weird in one way or another (unless they are extremely normal, which itself is weird), so it kind of bothers me when someone brags about being weird. I think very few people are notably weird or notably normal, and when people try to be one or another, it's awkward. Like middle-school kids going through fashion fads. I mean, usually when we self-evaluate, we just look silly. Maybe it just stands out to me when people self-evaluate as weird because I don't know whether they are intending to compliment or insult themselves. I prefer people to just say what they have to say without a lot of self-consciousness.
Generally, I think Jeremy Shipp walks the line on this. Sometimes, his message is forcefully clear; other times I'm totally lost. Probably, that was intentional within each story, but it created a sort of static feeling to me. With very few exceptions, the relationships in these stories did not develop. The characters, likewise, did not develop with much complexity. Mostly, these stories are a pageant of the carnivalesque with a background of worldbuilding. The weirdness is in the costuming and the set design, and the characters and events are less important. People decide to be evil or not in the stories, but plot and characters are secondary to situational shock. This doesn't really groove with me, but it might with you. Many of the stories are about characters working through some kind of psychological healing, and the weirdness is some kind of corporeal embodiment of their pain. You might like that, but for whatever reason it was a little alienating to me.
Ultimately, I feel indifferent about this collection. There are vivid images here, but even their vividness didn't resonate with me. They were very direct, but still managed to talk past me somehow. I have a feeling that if you care a great deal for the Lord of the Rings, this collection will be more meaningful to you than it was to me. There is something Gollum/Smeagol about many of the characters, and the static atmosphere here reminds me of how I feel about Tolkein. I can't find fault with either collection of stories, but I don't have the gene necessary to appreciate them.
I think usually when you find weirdness in life, there is some kind of functionality to it that informs the person or event that is being weird. Like how the student assistant is someone who mostly bitches about things, but sometimes he pokes a bouncy house. Like how so far my experience with Africa is that it is a place where things won't necessarily happen when you expect them, but where people will get you where you need to go and not be bureaucratic about it. Like how all of our family histories are unique and painful and weird. I don't get how the purposeful weirdness that I think is the bulk of the bizarro genre helps tell stories. There are obviously exceptions to this, but this collection of stories is not one of them. Again, though, I think there is probably a substantial audience for this book. Maybe you are part of it, even though I am not.