[21 January 2004]
Jagged, flowing in spurts, sometimes fragmented—Charles Blackstone’s narrative flows more like the Rio Grande than the Mississippi. In Blackstone’s debut novel The Week You Weren’t Here, readers attempt to unravel the jagged, skewed thoughts of Hunter Flanagan. This novel is like a cross-pollinated kumquat—derived from a new crop of experimental fruit—difficult to taste and sometimes hard to chew. Blackstone uses no punctuation other than the period and an occasional paragraph indent or dash. As the reader gets farther and farther into the book, one of two things will happen. Either the rambling incoherent phrases will begin to congeal and become an apparent whole or they will just keep going on and on in an endless progression leading nowhere.
Hunter Flanagan is looking for true love. It eludes him. He examines everything. His e- mails, t-shirts, and conversations. His dreams. Hunter is a mass of contradictions his thoughts are contradictions of loathing and affection laughing and living of what is called a juggernaut of a young life.
As a critic, I have to confess, I got nowhere. I tried three times to get farther into Blackstone’s book than the first 60 pages but honestly, I could not. To tell you otherwise would be pandering. That said—in the hands of another critic, perhaps a fan of experimental fiction, or a devotee whose taste include writers who go for typographical and linguistic tricks, and perhaps a bit of non-linear storytelling—this book might just rock. Critics must be fair in their evaluation of a book and they must explain their disappointment or their joy. They should, from time to time, recommend that others give a book a try—that their analysis is not the final word. This is my take on Charles Blackstone’s The Week You Weren’t Here. I challenge some of you (just some, because it is not for everyone) to order this book and try it. To find the thread of conversation and follow it through to its conclusion. And for those not convinced they should try, a sample:
What he did in fact tell her in the dream was that he had something really important to say and that he hadn’t told anyone yet and that wasn’t a lie.
What she asked gently probing her in her sort of insistent charming sort of way.
I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing he said.
You can tell me she said so fucking persuasive practically detasseling his stupid pride right there and wait he thought maybe she’ll want to sleep with me ditch the slab if I tell. She’ll be so fucking moved by how totally depressing sad ruined dejected trampled upon I am that she’ll want to—no she’ll definitely think what a loser couldn’t even didn’t have what it took to—.
And by reading Blackstone’s book, you will follow the mind of Hunter Flanagan “on his journey from living in side his head into the outside world.” Or, to quote the book jacket, “Through postmodern prose that unravels jaggedly like a spool of live wire, the narrative seeks to make sense out of his landscape, as it reveals it to be a fragmented, overlapping, entangled juggernaut of a young life” and maybe you, the reader, is that someone out there who can unravel it. It’s worth trying.
About the publisher:
Like Altoids, Matthew Ward and his new Flame Books publishing company are curiously strong. This new small press in the UK offers its authors 10% of the book sales, a direct contract with no agent needed, and promises to premiere books by “new” writers every two months. Titles are sold through the publisher’s website. And it’s not just the publisher and the author who benefit from sales—a portion of the proceeds go to various literary and human rights causes.
What sort of causes would a publisher support? Well, The “Living Rights: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Stories and Poems for one. Flame Books, in association with PeaceLit, will “publish a three-volume collection where each article of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) will be illustrated by a piece of creative writing. By presenting the Declaration in a variety of artistic forms we not only want to create a beautiful work of art but also hope to draw attention to, support and highlight Human Rights.” Another project, the magazine “Who Cares? A National Magazine for Young People in the Care System” is centered on the improving public care for children in foster homes or separated from their families, and is written for 10 - 18 year old readers. Flame Books is currently sponsoring a creative contest to help raise funds for Who Cares?.
Ethical publishing. In a recent email conversation with Ward, I asked him about his vision for Flame Books and the ideas behind his unique publishing company.
Ward told me ethical means Flame publishes new writers, offers them fair contracts and supported various causes through their books sales. “So, on the one side we don’t see any point in working against authors, i.e. by offering a strangling and unfair contract—they are the creators of the work after all! On the other hand, we want to support creativity at all levels by putting money into various projects after sales on the site,” he said.
When asked why Flame sold their titles only through their website and not a mega-store like Amazon or Barnes and Nobles he responded, “By selling on the Internet, we are trying to shorten the long chain in book distribution, not just transferring a normal business model onto the Internet as most companies do. By creating a new relationship between reader-writer, the reader gets great new fiction from talented new writers and the author gets higher royalties (at least 10% of the RRP). We can also put some money aside for different projects after every sale. As the sales increase, we hope to publish more writers and create projects of our own—fingers crossed!”
Virtual companies seem commonplace in 2003. Writers meet online, administrators administrate from far away offices, never really having a face-to-face. I’ve been writing for PopMatters since the beginning, working with literally hundreds of writers who contribute to the site, and I’ve yet to meet anyone personally. Matthew Ward’s attempt to create a publishing company through the Internet, not of e-books but of paper and print, is in keeping with what we have come to expect from business. One of the biggest problems, as I see it, is the office party. I asked Ward how he planned to have everyone get together for the holidays. “Good question! It’s very hard as everybody is in different places!—for example, I live in Stockholm, our designer in Italy, and the authors in the UK, Spain and Chicago! So although the parties are postponed for the moment, once we sell a few books and win a few prizes, everybody will be flown in for one big party!”
So, looks like we’ll have to wait a while for the throw-down, but hopefully Flame Books and its authors will get together soon. An amazing new attempt at collaboration—publisher and author—and no one in between. Another interesting Internet experiment.