Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review: Userlands edited by Dennis Cooper

Dennis Cooper (ed)
Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground

Published by Little House On The Bowery

Reviewed by Bec Chalkley

Userlands is a hefty anthology created by a constellation of writers formed around Dennis Cooper’s blog. In Cooper’s words, his comments section became “something of a virtual workshop full of supportive yet sharp discussions about the writing by the people posting there.”

Editor Cooper notes, “it seemed to me that my creations were less the point than the lure that brought newcomers into the growing artistic community that had formed in the backstage of the blog’s main page.”
Like does however seem to have attracted like, generating a collection that’s almost homage in places – the stories are decidedly Cooper-esque in tone and theme, being bleak and troubling tales of disrupted childhood, malfunctioning domesticity, thrill-seeking teenagers and perilous, messy sexual encounters.

Likewise, reflecting the early demographic of Cooper’s blog, the contributors to Userlands are for the most part male and North American or British, despite a smattering of European and female authors. The editor’s claims towards diversity are most accurately located around the writers’ ages, their limited access to an audience and atypical subject matter. With a nod to the collection’s internet genesis, some of the pieces dismiss conventional syntax and some have an exploratory or experimental style, while others are fully realised short fiction. “There are writers of great sophistication and nerve, writers who have personal truths they need to express in fiction as forcefully as possible,” says Cooper, “I hope writers who might doubt the possibility that their own unusual fiction could find a rightful audience will read Userlands and think again.”

It’s replete with graphic snapshots of violence, fucking, death, abuse and alienation, set against a claustrophobic urban backdrop that’s strewn with broken glass, bare lightbulbs, knives, guns, cigarettes, coffee, drugs, booze, scars and orifices. The pages fairly run with blood, piss, tears, come and sweat. Of the pieces in this vein, Matthew Williams’ devastating hustler epic ‘My Body’s Work’ is especially striking.

Other highlights include Angela Taveres’ atmospheric tale of betrayal ‘Fast Ones’, Jeff Jackson’s disquieting ‘Three Untitled Stories About Smoking’, Jose Alvarado Lopez’s haunting ‘Fake Animals’, and ‘Dear Sybellus’ by Joseph Marcure, which begins whimsically: “Been sad lately, been eating lots of ketchup. Used to suck it out of the bottle but now that I’ve lost my teeth I put it in a bowl and slurp it off a spoon.”

Some of these tales particularly recall the dark early prose of Cooper’s Dream Police, others Rebecca Brown’s unsettling short story collection The Terrible Girls or James Williams’ But I Know What You Want. Userlands is a worthy addition to these works. Emotive and gory, it’s open heart surgery in every sense. A gruelling, if rewarding, read.

Bec Chalkley has contributed to various publications and websites including Chroma. She can be contacted at:


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Review: Chaos by Edmund White

Edmund White

Published by Carroll & Graf

Reviewed by Shaun Frisky
Edmund White has written numerous books including the classic gay coming of age novel - A Boy's Own Story and co-edited a book which charts the queer life and sexual geography of America - The Joy of Gay Sex. Now he offers a new highly revealing book CHAOS. The title novella details a man named Jack's burning need for raunchy cock stroking encounters and his endless quest to realize his sexual fantasies in reality. For this author, gay sex is the vibrant pulsing blood of life whether it can be found sucking off an ex-Mormon with a big dick or rimming a cop in training. Desire doesn’t become any uglier the older we get (though some dismiss it as such); it simply becomes less ashamed of itself. This rampant manly need causes a new set of difficulties in the character’s life as he ages, but it needs no more justification than it ever did. A passion for beauty and a taste for flesh comes naturally for a man like Jack.

White presents a snap-shot of life in New York City as it is today for a man out on the prowl. As this author loves to do in so much of his writing, CHAOS walks the fine line between fiction and autobiography teasingly letting you guess what parts are true and what is fantasy. Did he really pay a man to do THAT to him? The story plunges into the depths of despair and climbs the heights of ecstasy. Only a masterful writer can explore such a diverse terrain over so few pages. In addition to this novella, there’s a magical story contained in this book called “Record Time” which was first released in a beautiful marbled-cover limited edition by Enitharmon Press a few years back (if you were lucky enough to get a copy). This short story is about an adolescent boy trying to scrape together a sense of culture and greatness in his small town life. There's no doubt that when gays rule the earth in a thousand years time they'll look back and view Edmund White and his astoundingly insightful books on homo-life as the pillars upon which queer identity is built. CHAOS is an invigorating and thoughtful gem. Read it in a soapy warm bath while waiting for your man to come home.

Photos by Kurt