#tobyreads: Certain Altered States From Zachary Schomburg, Mary Robison, and Warren Ellis


Sometimes the surreal can be transmitted through bizarre imagery: trees growing inside human bodies; a telephone directly connected to a deity. At others, it can come through a more psychological distancing: the fragmented thoughts of someone besieged by stress; the emotional remove of someone for whom violence is their business.

While in Chicago in July for the Pitchfork Festival, I finally picked up a book of Zachary Schomburg’s poetry. I’d been meaning to — and failing to — ever since I first saw a collection of his work while on a trip to Portland late last year. And thus, at the Black Ocean table, an exchange of currency for goods transpired and I walked away with a copy of his collection The Man Suit. Contained herein are a series of surreal sketches — prose poems would, I believe, be the best description — rotating around everything from anthromorphic landscapes to a series of surreal vignettes on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Some of these work better than others; there’s a humanistic quality to the best of them that I found incredibly moving. Blend this with the stranger aspects of the book and you have something beguiling.

Eve, the narrator of Mary Robison’s One D.O.A., One on the Way, is a location scout living in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Here is a work suffused with regrets: Eve’s halting relationship with her husband and her awkward one with her assistant, whose name she constantly forgets. It’s structured as a series of small interactions, occasionally punctuated with facts and what seem to be found documents — most tellingly, a series of descriptions of gun holsters. It’s the sort of book where it’s clear that something’s going to go wrong, and much of the tensions stems from which of its spinning subplots — familial discord, unpleasant film-industry types, and so on — will go south first. The ending, which brings many of these to a head, plays like a grim punchline to all that’s come before — an unexpected turn, but one which fits the embittered, bleakly funny tone of the book.

Warren Ellis’s novella Dead Pig Collector is a concise chamber piece in which methodical dismemberment plays a role. It follows Mister Sun, newly arrived in Los Angeles to carry out a murder; as with most noir, the best-laid plans go awry. But the thrills in here come from unexpected places: a long conversation between two people, each idiosyncratic, socially flawed, and, in their own way, lethal; in how violence is perceived by the story’s protagonist; and how that sense of detachment becomes essential to the work as a whole. Tone is crucial to a story like this, and Ellis nails it perfectly.

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