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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Frog City Updike


Frog-City-Updike

Frog City Updike never would’ve been without Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, the book that showed me just how loose I could get with form. – Arthur Graham, Big Al’s Books and Pals




One of the words I use too often in reviews is ‘interesting’ but I never really make it clear whether a particular word piques my interest or holds it. It’s the same with ‘nice’, which I also overuse; nice can have negative connotations; the last thing your wife wants to hear when she walks in wearing a new outfit is, “You look nice, dear.” Even more confusing I would expect is when something gets referred to as ‘nice and interesting’. Frog City Updike—the place, not the book—sounds like a nice, interesting place. I’m not sure I’d want to live there but if I did I can see myself running across interesting things and saying, “Oh, that’s nice,” or vice versa.

Short story collections are a bugger to review. The problem usually is finding the common thread. Why does the author think that these particular stories, in this particular order, work? The ones I find I enjoy best are books like The Next Stop is Croy and other stories where the stories all revolve around a single family or Ugly to Start With where the stories are all set in a particular town and retain the same narrator. Arthur Graham’s Frog City Updike works because all the stories bar two are set within the borders of the fictional town of Frog City Updike. As for the two exceptions, one is set in Ireland and another in Frog City Updike Heaven. Some have first person points of views, others third; there’s even a couple of letters employing a second person narrative; the protagonists vary but they all are Frog City Updike-ites and that is what binds them together; their idiosyncratic take on life. The closest comparison I can think of is the quirky American TV series Portlandia. Anyway, this collection works.

Astute readers will have noticed in the last paragraph that I mentioned that Frog City Updike was a town. This is not a typo. I’ll let the author explain:

[W]eighing in with just 7,886 yearlong residents, it would be more accurate to call the place Frog Town Updike. But, as is the case with all such misnomers, the fact of the inaccuracy is not as important as the truth of it. Whenever the place was first referred to as Frog City Updike, or whoever first referred to it that way – these questions are purely academic. For those who call it home, Frog City Updike simply is what it is. Frog City Updike is just what the town has always been called, and since the name stuck as well as it did, no one really sees much point in trying to change it on a technicality now.

The Updike connection also requires some explanation:

[T]here has never been any family, business, or public office with the name Updike listed anywhere in the local phone book. One can imagine how hard this has made it to look up the local post office, or anything else for that matter!

Okay it’s not much of an explanation. But it is a fact. However bizarre. There are frogs, just not as many as one might expect to warrant the inclusion of their existence in the name of the place.

To be perfectly honest, there are only about two hundred or so in the entire area, and most if not all of them are concentrated around the small pond at the shady heart of Frog City Updike City Park. Quite rare is it to see a frog anywhere beyond this pond or its immediate environs – at least one that hasn’t been flattened by a car or carried off and pecked apart by a bird somewhere. But the frogs of Frog City Updike – confined as they are to their pond at the centre of Frog City Updike City Park – they don’t much complain about their lot in life.

So that’s Frog City Updike. Having read no Updike I can’t say that the writing style reminded me in any way of John Updike although Wikipedia tells me that he also wrote a great deal about American small towns and probably published far more WSBshort story collections than most winners of the Pulitzer Prize have. The author bio at the back of the book says that Arthur Graham works “in a slipstream, surrealist style that has been compared to that of William S. Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” but as I’ve managed to get through the last fifty-three years without reading either of them I can’t comment on any similarities to their work either. (Note to self: need to read more American writers.) Having only read the three quotes above, although not in the order in which I presented them, the author I thought about was Richard Brautigan (which shows that I have read at least one American writer) and one particular book came to mind: In Watermelon Sugar. In an old post on Arthur’s blog I was pleased to see that he’d also realised that this was the kind of book “Brautigan might’ve enjoyed if he hadn’t blown his brains out all those years ago.” Which is a very Brautigan-esque way of putting it, don’t you think?

Now having read the above, which, as I’ve said was all that I’d read when I reached that conclusion, you may or may not agree with that assessment, assuming, of course, that you’re familiar with Brautigan’s work, but as I pressed through the collection I only found more evidence to underline that initial determination. Brautigan’s naïve style of writing is not something one comes across very often. Indeed the last book that reminded me of him was called Naïve. Super by the Norwegian author Erlend Loe which I enjoyed immensely.

The majority of the stories in Frog City Updike could be described as flash fiction; many only last for a couple of pages and as the paragraphs are mostly short and the font is on the generous side (I was working from a PDF mind) there is certainly more white space than most short stories contain resulting in proportionately fewer words per page that one might expect. The net effect is that it is a nice book to read. This is not a thing I tend to say about most books of flash fiction where the stories jump all over the shop but since all the stores are set in Frog City Updike or involve Frog City Updike-ites you feel as if you’re getting to know the town a little at a time. It’s an interesting town. Needless to say it’s not a real town. The title came from Arthur’s wife:

Frog City T-ShirtMy wife suggested Frog City Updike as a nonsensical title for the novella I was working on last year. Though completely inappropriate for that particular book, it was far too good a title to just throw away! Frog City Updike basically wrote itself around these three words, which is why it’s dedicated to Jayna, who provided that initial spark.

[…]

For Frog City Updike … whenever I felt like working I would imagine this nondescript town, theoretically in rural America somewhere – a place that served as a sort of microcosm for the larger world, along with all of the people, places, and things in it. From there, I would cast about for interesting characters and situations, transporting them to this rather amorphous locale and infusing them with my own observations and experiences. In so doing, I found it easy to incorporate a wide variety of unpublished material I’d been sitting on for a while, stuff that likely never would’ve seen the light of day if I hadn’t taken such an essentially open approach. – The Indie Spotlight

I can see the total sense in this because a number of the stories don’t work especially well on their own but gain strength from being incorporated in a group like this.

A number of the stories in Frog City Updike come from a group whose connection to Frog City Updike is tenuous to say the least. The first, entitled ‘Hitler’s Bad Day’ begins as follows:

Hello. My name is Arthur Graham. If you’re reading my book, Frog City Updike, then you can call me Frog City Updike Arthur Graham.

Incidentally, how are you liking my little book so far? I hope you are liking it well!

If you like this book, then you may like this other thing I wrote – a short story entitled “Hitler’s Bad Day.”

HITLER’S BAD DAY
By Arthur Graham

A short man paced aimlessly around the small underground room, stopping here and there to straighten a wall hanging or rearrange the items on a table. Each time he passed the ornamental mirror above the fireplace, which he did with some frequency, he paused for a moment to examine his moustache and frown at it. The barber had cut it too short, he thought.

Hitler was having a bad day.

The others are ‘TV and the Internet’, ‘Nice Description’, ‘And So It Came to Be’ and the longest story in the collection, ‘No One Drinks Tea Anymore’ which, if I’d read any books by Tom Robbins I might say reminded me of Tom Robbins in that the protagonist in the story is a teacup. (Note to self: add Tom Robbins to the list of American authors you need to get round to.) None of the other stories in the book Lochnessmonsterinvolve sentient inanimate objects although to be fair to the teacup she does not remain immobile and indeed makes her big bid for freedom juiced up on nicotine of all things towards the end of the story. There is a talking frog and a chatty Loch Ness Monster in the story which is set in Ireland although he does explain what the Loch Ness Monster isn’t doing in his native Scotland. For me, though, the standout story was the one about the teacup. I suspect its length was the reason. It has time to develop the characters. An extract:

Teacup wasn’t dumb. She was fairly smart as far as inanimate objects went, but her knowledge of current fashion trends was sadly lacking. In any event, she was used to having her suggestions ignored.

What she did know about the world outside the diner was largely limited to what people around her let slip. Other objects were rarely much help at filling in the gaps because each had their own geographic blinders. For example, in the kitchen, Whisk had no idea what a chicken was. He could tell you every minute detail about an individual chicken egg, but for all he knew they grew on vines.

The problem was actually quite simple: Most of them simply lacked any general context in which to place their very specific knowledge. That’s what happens when you spend the majority of your time stuck in a sink, in a drawer, or in a cupboard. These days Teacup was spending more and more of her time in the cupboard.

No one drinks tea anymore, she would often lament.

There is some attempt at continuity and characters from one story do reappear in another, especially Frog City Updike Arthur Graham. Frog City Updike Sheila and Tony appear in ‘The Jean Jacket’, ‘On Your Side’, ‘It Was Just that Kind of Vacation’ (for me the weakest story in the book as it’s set in Ireland and having written a book set in Ireland and also not being Irish—Arthur hails from the north woods of Michigan; I hail from Glasgow city centre—I know just how hard it is to get those telltale details right), ‘A Scene From Frog City Updike Tony’s Deathbed’ and the last story, ‘Heaven’, in which everyone has a cameo and I nearly missed her because her name is spelled ‘Shelia’. (Considering Arthur pays his bills editing medical textbooks for a small publishing company in Salt Lake City, tsk, tsk.)

Some of the stories have a surreal edge to them. In ‘Making Relationships Work’ the unnamed narrator is sitting in Frog City Updike Public Library when he sees a “young hip couple” come in:

I could tell they were young due to their solid, slender physiques, smooth skin, and overall lively demeanour. They were hip obviously because they were dressed in the latest fashions of the time, which at that time consisted of an all-black winter ensemble accentuated by bright pastel accessories. As for how I could tell they were a couple, well, there were two of them present.

But the next time he notices them they’ve mysteriously aged and their relationship also seems to have, well, depreciated. And they smell:

I tried to pretend that I hadn’t been thinking intently about their personal lives, which was easy now that I noticed their combined effluvium of French fry grease, cigarette smoke, and mildewed undergarments.

No explanation is forthcoming but the narrator notices the book the woman is carrying: MAKING RELATIONSHIPS WORK and he proceeds to mull over in his mind what he might learn from this pair. He realises that the experience has taught him valuable lessons:

1) It takes more than the latest styles to make a person hip,
2) it takes more than hipness to make a person young, and
3) it takes more than two persons present to make a couple.

Others stories have a profound simplicity. In ‘Bruised Bananas and Broken Bones’ we learn what has happened to reduce Frog City Updike Dr. Robertson from being a successful and wealthy medical practitioner to having to spend his nights under a Frog City Updike bridge “with nothing but a sleeping bag, a rucksack, and a small wooden crate he’d turned upside down to use as a table.” But rather than being a tale of failure the story ends on a surprising positive note:

It had given the former Mrs. Robertson great pleasure to see her former husband left penniless, but what she didn’t know was how well an old hobo doctor could live in exchange for giving free medical advice and setting the occasional broken bone.

A new young doctor now taken over the practice but he still hadn’t taken down the sign that reads “Frog City Updike Dr. Robertson’s Family Clinic.”

Whenever the young doctor finally takes down his old sign, Dr. Robertson decides, he will reclaim it from the Frog City Updike municipal dump and set it up beneath his bridge.

None of the stories are especially heavy. Not even the one about Hitler. In fact the political correctness of writing stories about someone like Hitler is addressed in a later story:

I am not nor have I ever been a Nazi sympathizer, Hitler lover, or Holocaust denier/apologist. I’ll tell you a few other things that I’m not: 1) Simple-minded to the point where I am unable to conceptualize on multiple levels. After all, it is not hard to image Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tossing a paper cup out the window of a moving vehicle, or Mahatma Gandhi verbally abusing his wife, so why is it so hard to imagine Adolph Hitler doing anything other than incinerating Jews, gypsies, blacks, homosexuals and intellectuals? 2) Ignorant to the point where I equate the mere reference of a word/name with the wholehearted support of everything associated with it, and 3) Sensitive to the point where I allow my ignorance in these basic matters to upset me to such a degree that I feel compelled to write asinine letters to anyone who will read them and possibly respond.

We have a grandmother and granddaughter exchanging letters, there’s a woman who can’t sleep for her husband snoring, an overly-forthright drama coach, a boxer who becomes a legend because of his glass jaw, a group of gypsies who seem to pass around the same kid while they beg for money, there’s some debate about why bunnies don’t lay eggs (personally I’ve never understood what either eggs or rabbits have to do with Easter) and there’s even a story where you can decide what happens next; remember those?

All in all it adds up to a rather charming read. As Arthur puts it himself:

It won’t keep your children or grandchildren nearly as riveted as the average Disney film, but you could probably read it aloud to them without overly censoring the material. It retains a lot of the same quirks that made its predecessor such a mixed bag, but it’s executed with virtually no sex, violence, or dark, demented broodings to speak of. Very whimsical in both structure and tone. – Big Al’s Books and Pals

I have nothing to add.

You can read a lengthy extract from the book here.

***

The biography on his Facebook page reads as follows:

Arthur_GrahamGraham currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and her cat. He writes his books alone in the dark, usually nude, surrounded by empty bottles and loaded guns. Occasionally, he prefers to work nude while astride a rainbow.

His style is one that willingly loses itself in the false dichotomy between "genre" and "literary" fiction, with much of it cleaving towards satire and surrealism. His work has been called "clever", "tacky", and "even a bit obscene", and one reviewer was kind enough to label it "Burroughs-lite".

His novella Editorial was recently picked up by Bizarro Press, and his short story ‘Zeitgeist’ is set to appear in an upcoming anthology from the same imprint. One day, he hopes to sell enough books to supplement his drinking habit, but not so many that he's forced to claim the income on his taxes.

‘Zeitgeist’ appears in the anthology Tall Tales with Short Cocks and his latest book, Non/Fictions, a “healthy mix of fiction, nonfiction, nonfictional fiction, and fictional nonfiction” is just out.

This review originally appeared in Dactyl Review.

6 comments:

Kikka said...

The cover of the book is very "impressive" ! ;)
Hugs
Kikka

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, Kikka, if only every book could have a frog on its cover.

Kass said...

I am happy he lives in Salt Lake City. We need more folk like him. I'm trotting off two blocks to the last independent book store in SLC (The King's English)to see if they have his book. I'll let you know.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, I’m sure he’ll be pleased to learn that, Kass, but if they don’t have it it’s still available on Amazon.com. I’m just jealous you’ve got a bookshop that close. I heard a while back that there isn’t a single bookshop in the whole of West Dunbartonshire and that’s just sad. The only place you can buy books locally are in the charity shops which I’m not averse to but there’s something about a shop wholly devoted to books, isn’t there? There’re plenty of bookshops in the west end of Glasgow but that’s an hour’s travel just to get there so I stick with the Internet for all its faults. But I do miss browsing.

Dave King said...

The Short Story is much under-rated, I think, though coming into its own according to some. This would seem a good one for starters for those who have not indulged before.

Speaking of the word "nice", I do recall an English lesson in which it was offered to us as a meaningless word. The teacher gave as example Nice day, nice dinner, nice hat and then challenged us to define a "nice dress". One boy offered "One that's long enough to cover the point and short enough to be interesting." The teacher opened his blackboard compasses to form a bayonet and leaped over his desk in a mock attack - which is perhaps why I remember it so vividly.

Jim Murdoch said...

As you may have noted, Dave, I’ve been reading a lot of short stories of late. I didn’t particularly plan to do so and we’re back onto novels come next review but I’ve nothing against the short story format even though I’m only rarely drawn to it. The bulk of my stories were written twelve years ago and I’ve only written a handful of flash pieces since. My problem is that I’m not really a storyteller. I’ve just finished my final run through on my own collection though and once Carrie’s caught up on my blogs she’ll get stuck into that. I’m aiming for the start of May but we’ll see.

As far as ‘nice’ goes I think all of us have these words that we gravitate to. My dad had two—a word and a question actually—the first was ‘love’ and he called everyone love (even men on occasion). With me it’s ‘pet’ which I caught from my last wife and’ve never been able to shake it; only one woman has ever objected and, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve only ever called one bloke pet. The second thing my dad was guilty of was interjecting the question ‘Do you see what I’m driving at?’ into sentences. With most people they simply add a ‘Right?’ or an ‘Okay?’ at the end of a sentence but not my dad. He finally weaned himself off both pretty much once he realised no thought or meaning was attached to the words and they were just—what shall we call them?—verbal ticks will probably do, one step up from the ‘word whiskers’ we all use: eh, ah, uh-huh, mmm and so on.

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