stories for the famous dead
Craig Calhoun & Cat Belshaw, 9 pages
Calhoun and Belshaw have a knack for coming up with weirdzo high concept zines. At the autumn Zine Off their Where They Will Sit: Prophecies in Modern Office Furniture Design, a satirical primer for destroying free will via cubicle layouts, was one of my favourites, and I was quite taken with the similarly creative short prose collection they brought this time. stories for the famous dead is a set of six flash fictions (and one nonfiction), each dedicated to a famous person or persons who died during the week of Feb. 2 – 8 (the Zine Off was Feb. 5).
The connections between the stories and their dead celebrities are not always readily apparent; what does the death of Liberace have to do with alien invasion, for instance, or a dispute over child custody with Jack Kirby? The key is in the index on the first page, which provides a one line microbio and informs us that each of these celebrities died bearing a name other than that which they were born with:
Take “Interview with Smile,” a deeply disturbing depiction of a multiple-murder as told by an oddly serene witness. This grisly story is matched with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose bio states was one who “believed that under all circumstances, one should always be happy.” This is probably a fairly superficial reading of the Yogi’s philosophy, but the way the man’s benevolent smile shares space with the blunt ugliness of the story is unsettling nonetheless. There’s a similar juxtaposition at work in matching the infamous Josef Mengele, “who was given permission to choose who lived and who died and whistled during the task,” with a non-fiction piece about visiting a military proving ground as a teen and learning about (then-speculative) drone warfare technology from a jolly engineer:
“‘A pilot can sit right here and he can see his targets ten thousand miles away. They won’t even know the UAV is up there. The pilot can decide who is a target and who isn’t. And he can neutralize that target and then go home. With these instruments he can decide. Pretty cool, huh?’
I was meant to be an engineer so I agreed with the man.”
The thing I’ve always admired about Calhoun’s writing is that it manages to be both blackly humorous and emotionally committed. Irony and satire tend to be distancing, but Calhoun’s work revolves around moments of pained empathy. My favourite story here is “Combining,” dedicated to Anna Nicole Smith, she who “would raise up her arms and ask if the audience liked her body.” Rather like Brian Mihok’s very good recent novel The Quantum Manual of Style, “Combining” helixes between a cosmic awareness of “elements drift[ing] through space” and a single incident in the life of a future trophy wife as she accepts an unceremonious marriage proposal. The two threads culminate in a lovely passage:
“Her body was all that she had and the drive of the universe is to combine itself with itself. The elements drift and we tell one another stories about why we feel the way we feel.
In the dark, she turned her mind off and let him touch her.”
JM’s JaM: Black Flag – My War