Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“Always look for the ‘W,’ the letter that catches more water, the letter that can hold liquid, that looks upward, looks hopeful. Upside down, ‘M,’ is the one to avoid. Menacing. Men. Maddening,” reads a selection from Laskowski’s instructions for coping with illiteracy, lumped in this hodge-podge collection with advice regarding other “demons” of contemporary life such as arson and insomnia, adultery and obesity, the cleaning of bloodstains from clothes. This chapter (unevenly aimed at a Polish speaker, though one able to understand the prose) begins with the suggestion to “Recognize the cross. Jesus died on the cross, but the kind of cross he died on is like another letter of the alphabet and means something different. The cross, or the ‘X,’ is usually found at the bottom of documents where you need to sign your name. It is also often used when signaling that something is no good or not allowed.” I’m tempted to put an X over this slim book, visually jarring with its heavy double-spacing and the little bits of clip art that introduce each chapter (the one on eloping has a cartoon man holding an umbrella over a cartoon woman), but the absurdity of this sort of “advice” is precisely the point here. This collection, celebrating simple surrealisms and everyday madness, stretches analogies and offers flights of fantasy as a temporary fix to the problems of life identified here as ubiquitous.
But “uneven” remains this book’s watchword: The content stumbles from being as banal to the “problems” it attempts to treat to, at best, a simple pleasures, themselves unevenly expressed. Advice for male masturbation: “Wear socks to bed. Use one of them to catch the mess. Ball up said sock and toss just under the bed. Use the other sock on one foot to remind you to pick up the soiled one in the morning.” Advice for an overweight person who, in lieu of exercise or as a mild form of exercise, has been told to get a dog, to take the dog out for exercise, and “When your legs tire of standing, take a seat on the park bench but do not let your dog out of your sight. Unwrap the package of powdered donuts you brought—five tiny perfect white powdered circles of fried dough. Eat them one by one, slowly, enjoying every moment of flavor bursts.” There’s nothing much worth reading in either of these passages, but “enjoying every moment of flavor bursts” illustrates how flat some of Laskowski’s high notes can be. On the other hand, consider this advice for sex: “Remember your husband does not want to be reminded of your basal body temperature or progesterone level when he is kissing your stomach. Try varied poses to spice things up and keep it all from becoming a business transaction—scented oils, massages, feathers on sticks that look more like cat toys, dirty talk, role playing.” The first sentence has some real promise, and the cat toy analogy could head somewhere, but by the end it isn’t “progesterone” or “basal body temperature” that carries the scene, but banal “dirty talk, role playing,” which is followed by no ironic or warped examples. In short, perhaps these advice columns are too much like advice columns, emphasizing unpleasantness and offering only lukewarm and fairly practical suggestions. On adultery: “Never say, ‘Am I better in bed than your wife?’ Instead, try, ‘God, you are so hot I could have sex with you three or four times a day.’” Yawn. Then: “Don’t say, ‘Do I cook better than she does?’ Try, ‘Once I had this boyfriend in college who loved French cooking so much I took a class in it just to be able to make him special meals all the time.’ Even though you actually only bought a French cookbook and got frustrated when you wanted to make cassoulet and couldn’t figure out where to buy duck fat.” A spark of wit, of backstory, of character, of drama, but it falls as flat as a failed soufflé.
The best moments are those only occasionally foreshadowed by the bulk of this book. While most passages that get close to the fantastic—whether this is the verbal play of “basal body temperature” or the allusion to a quest for duck fat—pull back, drowning us again in the anxious white noise of the problem (there’s real allure here, but then it passes: “Try patting a cold, wet paper towel on the back of your neck, your wrists and forehead. If that doesn’t work, open the bathroom window and look out into the cold, dark quiet air, listen to the soft chirp of the crickets and contemplate climbing out and escaping into the woods and living with the little chipmunks who don’t really care if you are going to have a Head Table or not.”) in rare cases the “advice” transcends rationality and thus becomes striking, even haunting. For bad dreams, for instance, we are told to “Remember there is no God,” and to forget about our childhood in New Jersey, “where all the houses squat sat and droopy and falling apart and fuck that, all that.” The inversion of “sat” and “squat,” the sudden force of the verbal chain, dragging the speaker somewhere shadowy but real: this is what the book could have used throughout. And finally, an act of something like magic, which is certainly magical for the reader. Rather than telling us what to do with socks or feathered toys, we are told, to treat our guilt and fear, “burn a fifty-dollar bill in the sunken marble tub” and “When the fire dies out, eat the ashes.”
Official Tara Laskowski Web Site
Official Matter Press Web Site