Literary realism, like most literary classifications, is vague and ambiguous and difficult to define. In some capacity, it can be characterized as a reaction against, or an answer to, literary romanticism. The current state of affairs is such that panic ensues with every newspaper that closes its doors and Armageddon is exclaimed when new ideas like Twitter proliferate. Killings are over- or under-aggrandized, depending. Wars are either heroic or dastardly; even having no stance is a taking a stance. The Mayan calendar is coming to a close. Movies suck. We will perish. Everything is at our fingertips, but it all seems to be slipping out of reach anyway. Hands down, we love to romanticize the State of Things.
Last year, New York writer Tao Lin started a publishing label called Muumuu House. So far, two books of poetry have been released: Ellen Kennedy’s Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs and Brandon Scott Gorrell’s During My Nervous Breakdown, I Want to Have a Biographer Present.
“I am excited,” Lin wrote on his blog, “to publish the two books described above. I also feel like I will ‘do whatever it takes’ to have the books be high-quality in terms of paper and things. I feel like I would almost rather kill myself or hit myself a lot or something that ‘fail’ and create situations and objects of disappointment for people (including myself, and those involved) in the world to encounter and think about and not feel excited about.”
Lin, whose work New York Magazine described as “deadpan realism garnished casually with absurdity,” often uses quotation marks to separate words and phrases. Perhaps these ironical quotation marks are a distancing vehicle, one of self-protection, a reaction against earnestness or overused phrases and literary labels. Or perhaps it’s a recognition of the absurdity of such perceived earnestness (which would make his words truly earnest). Lin himself both loves and hates the spotlight. His online antics are attention grabbing; he has at the very least a blog, a Twitter, and a Facebook, all of which he updates industriously.
In Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs, Ellen Kennedy wavers between such “deadpan realism” and “absurdity.” She mentions animals in many of her poems; their feral temperaments are adequate tropes for our supremely basic human tendencies—sadness, alienation, joyousness—which contrast, often darkly, with the state of society and the increasingly isolating nature of our technologically drench universe (which consequently becomes more and more “crowded” every second). A particular highlight is the offhandedly percipient “Ants Can Never Die by Falling.” One gets the feeling, though, that “real life” is what’s “absurd.” Maybe, in fact, it’s “absurd” that we “label” anything at all.
In During My Nervous Breakdown, I Want to Have a Biographer Present, Brandon Scott Gorrell highlights the compulsion that’s sprouted from “the rise of social networking” to record, record, record. Scott Gorrell craves both isolation and acceptance. Such a dichotomy could prove troublesome. In “haiku,” Scott Gorrell writes “i want to buy love/ on ebay and bury my/ worried face in it.” Other poem titles include “i’ve been looking at the screen for a long time” and “i feel kind of alienated somebody transport me to tokyo.” gchat, firefox, myspace, and blogs make him who he is, but hold him back from something else entirely. The poem “*” ends with two pages of a repeating line: “there is nothing in my reality that i feel i want enough to try.”
Lin’s hermit-like characteristics and appreciation for online forms overflow into his publishing project. Muumuu House meticulously self-defines itself in ironic terms. This obsession with self – and with the ubiquitous “online presence” – is a foundation upon which Muumuu House contributors and Tao Lin steady themselves. (And it’s supremely romantic in its painful self-awareness, but wholly “realist” in presentation: at once a critique and a mea culpa.) Recording, presenting, preserving. If I don’t review this book did I ever really read it? With this penchant for and near-obsession with subdued self-awareness and deliberate melancholia, Muumuu House and Lin present us with a modern-day, solipsistic transmutation of the age-old philosophical riddle “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” If I don’t tweet my feelings on the cupcake I had for breakfast, does the perceived absurdity of such an event even matter? It’s as if, with the proliferation of Tweets, Updates and Diggs, our species’ authoritative quandary on observation and reality has suddenly become more complex. Because now, in order to exist on land or sea, it is absurd that we must also exist in the stratosphere bouncing between satellites in space, and immediately thereafter between MacBooks in coffee shops.
Perhaps Tao Lin and his contributors at Muumuu House are just reacting to the romanticized “State of Things.”