Monday, July 21, 2014

BLACK CLOUD by Juliet Escoria

I was fortunate to hear Juliet Escoria read "Trouble and Troubledness" at a July 11th reading called Maritial Problems, hosted by Rachel Bell, in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. I remember really liking the story she read, especially the parts where the narrator cuts herself, because those moments where written and read so vividly they stuck in my mind. I also liked the part where she had sex with two boys at the same time because they were dating her two friends and her two friends were mean to her. Another thing I liked was that the story was segmented into sections marked by roman numerals. I like the structural implications of doing things like that in written art forms. This may be one reason why I really like Stephen King: Just about all of his novels are segmented into "Parts," "Chapters," and sections. After the reading ended, I saw Escoria selling a copy of her book to Nathan Masserang and I decided to buy a copy, too. So I thanked her for her reading and asked to buy a copy and so bought a copy of BLACK CLOUD (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014).
Later that night, while I stood on the platform of the State/Lake Red Line stop, I read the back cover's promotional review statements. I recognized names like "Beach Sloth," "Mira Gonzalez," "Electric Literature," "San Diego." I enjoyed the promotional review statements, finding Sloth's to be the most enticing: "brutal, honest, dark, and incredibly real." Perhaps that's why it was placed as the last of the reviews, so people would finish reading the promotional review statements feeling excited and pumped for Juliet Escoria. I must say, it had that effect on me, so when I entered the Red Line and sat down, I eagerly began reading BLACK CLOUD.
I think, first, I really appreciated the fact that each story was further made into a separate and individual thing by the pictures and theme-guiding phrases that accompany each story. I think every picture-word combo is probably related to the companion videos which are the stories being read (by the author, i think), but, having not seen them, I'm not sure. I've only read the book.
Remember being surprised by "Fuck California," like when you drive past a car crash on the highway, it came and went so quickly I reeled, but in an exciting, albeit dark, way. Confusion's "The Other Kind of Magic" really blew me away. I thought it was so accurate, so true to life. I have friends who go through similar situations and I feel as though the casual way in which twenty-first century affairs occur has never been as accurately portrayed as in Escoria's skilled hands. Not only that, but I felt a connection to the main character in this story, particularly when Escoria wrote, "and because you're bad at lying, you stare out the window," which is something I do because I'm also bad at lying. I took out my pen on the Red Line and underlined that sentence. "Reduction" made me sad near the end, given the way the man in the story reacted to learning about the woman's miscarriage. Felt bad, sad, guilty, disgust that men react so pigheadedly towards women and that women put up with it or are forced to put up with it and I wish it weren't so, which I think Escoria was trying to point out: Women, don't put up with shitty men.
Guilt's "Heroin Story" was both funny and poignant, light and dark, insightful and shallow, which is, of course, the entire point, wherein the narrator of that story is self-involved, further proving Escoria's superior mastery of effectively assuming different tones of voice throughout the stories. All of the main characters may seem to be the same in each of these twelve stories (unhappy, troubled, messed-up young women), but each main character is distinctly different, an individual woman with separate flaws, separate strengths, and wholly human. Whoever edited the arrangement of the stories should be commended for selecting "The Sharpest Part of Her" as the next story. This was the last story I read on the Red Line before I arrived at the Morse stop. I remember thinking how incredibly real and mundanely fucked up the abuse seemed. Brilliantly written such that the narrator, while wise and resigned, balances for us the love and hate, sympathy and caution, her childhood self experienced growing up under the rule of a drug addicted and mentally unstable mother. After I read this story, I went back to the preceding picture-and-a-word page and wrote "truly moving" next to DISGUST W/R/T the story's final sentences.


The next day, July 12, I made my way to Pilsen to fulfill an obligation before going to a reading located somewhere off the Brown Line. My beginning travels consisted of riding the Red Line to State/Lake where I transferred to the Pink Line(!) for 18th. I remember reading "Glass, Distilled" and thinking, 'wtf?' re: reading the feeding of mice to fish while strangers sat on the train around me; they had no idea what I was reading and I felt that they would find it disturbing if they did know what I was reading, but I liked the story and I liked it all the more for the fact that people would probably be alienated from me if they knew what sort of things I was reading. Sick. Vivid. But also deeply interconnected and is an example of Escoria's beautifully elliptical thematic style. "Hurricane Season" was quite good. I liked the clearcut realization the narrator has while seeing the man desiring her as much as he used to love alcohol. I remember thinking the ending was abrupt, but I liked that, reading it as an intentional technique to show the finality of the narrator's choice to walk away.
Shortly after graduating university, mid-May 2011, I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" while in a waiting room. As I sat there, I'm sure the receptionists thought I was odd because if, like me, you really get sucked into stories and experience feelings and sensations by the words on the page, you'll get sucked into "The Yellow Wallpaper." Which is what happened to me: the further I got into the story, the more I associated with the main character and felt fear & terror & suspense & paranoia and experienced physiological changes (increased heart rate, quicker breathing, widening eyes) that made me feel like my mind was crazy. Juliet Escoria's "Mental Illness on a Weekday" had the same effect on me. It is quite short (perhaps it and some or all of the other stores are flash fiction?), but Escoria's keen writing produced within me similar results: I began associating with the narrator and I have felt feelings as is described by the narrator, though not for prolonged periods of time. The piece culminates frighteningly and excitedly into a rallying poem that demands all people give into their manic impulses so as to free themselves. I also remember underlining and really liking the line, "I want to kiss you on the cheek and punch your quiet mouth." I think it is a beautiful line for a beautiful story.
"I Do Not Question It" was fuller; more history for the narrator to explain to us, making it a good followup story to "Mental Illness on a Weekday." After the rapidity of both "Mental Illness on a Weekday" and "Hurricane Season," the story of Powerlessness gave me something bigger to hold on to, to care about for a longer amount of time. I really liked the advice and lines, "'Stop thinking,' he would tell me, so I stopped. It worked. It's harder than it sounds but it's easier than you might think." I liked the progression of the words in these lines and the sentiments which they contain. It is similar to how I sometimes write things. I also like it because I often over-think situations/everything, so I was able to connect with these lines. "Grunion Run" startled me, both for the sudden fate of the characters in the story and for the sudden way Escoria brought about their fate, hiding it from us until the final possible moment. I was pleasantly shocked and wrote "holy shit!" next to the Self-Loathing picture. Upon a second reading 3 days later, I noticed foreshadowing/thematic words peppered throughout. Pleasant enough to read at first, their weight and importance doesn't become known until the ending opens up beneath you. Escoria's softly thematic words are used so skillfully that her stories demand/necessitate a second reading. Envy's "Here Is a Ghost Story" is a prime example of a story that thematically and choice-of-diction-ly employs an elliptical structure. Little bits from here and there throughout the story are recycled in the story's dream ending. I liked that while the dead fiance is dead, she is not really dead; in the mind of the narrator, she still lives and breathes and taunts.
After Pilsen and aboard a Brown Line for Paulina, I quickly read the last story, "Trouble and Troubledness," which Escoria had read the night before. I liked it even more while reading it because I was familiar with the story. I took out my pen to bracket and star a paragraph that I remembered very clearly from the night before; the paragraph where the narrator bites down on the plastic head of a razor to get the blade out and then cuts her arm quite deeply. I also remembered/loved the parts where a boyfriend chases her around the house with a knife and the part where she really gets into crop circles and aliens. I remembered loving the final lines of VII, so I underlined them: "sometimes you just want to make something on yourself that will never go away, something you shaped, something that will be there forever: a sign for someone else to find." Another thing I liked about this story was that it is a perfect story to end with; for, while the narrator is telling us her dark past, she scatters hints that she is better now and stronger and free of addictions, which ultimately gives this story, and the book, a happy ending of sorts, which I find is fitting for the book as a whole.
There are bad places and dark themes in Juliet Escoria's BLACK CLOUD, but there are also glimmers of hope, of happiness, of redemption. Often they are presented in such offhand ways that the silver lining for the characters in this book can be easily overlooked. But those silver linings are there, provided sometimes as beautiful insights spun off almost as afterthoughts amidst the heartbreak and broken lives of the characters. Juliet Escoria's BLACK CLOUD, while available for free as videos online, is, as a physical book, absolutely worth it; it is worth reading, worth sharing with others, worth your time and money and deeply invested attention.

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