Don’t read Benjamin Weissman’s new collection of short fiction, entitled Headless, if you a.) don’t appreciate masturbatory fiction that tries to disguise its stunning lack of discipline as bold experimentation; b.) are troubled by frequent, often silly references to bodily functions and fluids; or c.) actually enjoy reading. A hodgepodge of A.D.D.-addled narratives connected only a by a morbid fascination with bodily excretions and artlessly rendered sexual references, Headless — which is part of Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery series at Akashic — is little more than a series of self-indulgent, self-impressed, self-titillating set pieces of forced weirdness and utter pointlessness.
The 16 “stories,” such as they are, are divided into four sections that explore different aspects of manhood and male sexuality in an endlessly frustrating and facile manner. The first section, Bloodthirsty Man, examines issues of male violence, especially against women: each story features a particularly gruesome mutilation of a woman’s body. “Bloodthirsty Man,” about a gang leader’s rise and fall, reads like something that would end up in Neal Pollack’s office trashcan. In the unimaginatively titled “Hitler Ski Story,” Weissman tries to humanize Hitler by attributing to him the most crass and private vulgarities and a not-very-interesting fixation with his own penis, but the effect is cartoonish, its humor only questionable.
Continuing this enfant terrible act, the second section, entitled Marnie, contains both the collection’s best story and its worst, suggesting that Weissman can write a tolerable, even moving story when he strips away all the scatological pretensions and develops character and emotion. In “Marnie,” the male narrator watches as his best friend Marnie, on whom he harbors a secret crush, suffers a horrible skiing accident. Weissman excels at depicting the acute panic that sets in as the narrator calls for help; he draws out those moments to excruciating length and nicely portrays the narrator’s relationship with Marnie’s parents as they wait for her to wake from her coma.
Surprisingly tender and affecting, “Marnie” doesn’t redeem Headless, but instead makes it all the more unbearable to watch Weissman squander his talent on dreck like “The Fecality of It All.” Based on a purportedly true-life event, the story recounts a morning when the author allows his toilet to overflow, flood the bathroom, and leak down to the office below, where it soaks his laptop and papers in excrement. It’s as good an explanation to the subject matter of Headless as Weissman provides, but the story never rises above the level of anecdote as it pointlessly wallows in shit merely for shit-wallowing’s sake.
This tendency toward anecdote similarly infects the stories in the book’s last two sections, Tips from the Sensual Man and Technically Dadless. “Pink Slip of Wood” is a monologue spoken by an office manager who is firing an employee with an overhuge penis. It shoots for the workplace absurdity of George Saunders, but can’t touch him with a ten-foot, er, pole. “Twins” conjures two God-fearing, lingerie-modeling, sex-obsessed sisters, only to dehumanize them as Weissman follows them into bed. Worst of all, “Dear Aprés-Ski Forum” presents four Penthouse Forum-style letters recounting sex and ski escapades that seem to have no meaning outside the author’s personal obsessions: they are neither titillating nor even all that interesting, but merely grossly self-indulgent.
Weissman intends Headless to be transgressive in the manner of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or, more recently, Stewart Home’s 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess, but he lacks those writers’ exacting prose, their clockwork timing, and even a basic talent for imbuing stories with meaning. Ultimately, Headless is memorable for all the wrong reasons: Readers will be haunted by all the things they could have done instead of reading this waste of ink and paper. They’d be better off using its pages as toilet paper.