Eyeballs, Angst, and Short Fiction: An Interview with Tony Rauch

Tony Rauch is an author of absurdist, whimsical, and Bizarro short fiction. I’ve enjoyed his work a lot. You can read my review of his latest collection, what if i got down on my knees?, over at Medium (originally it was reviewed at the now-defunct Adventures in SciFi Publishing): https://medium.com/@benarz13/book-review-what-if-i-got-down-on-my-knees-by-tony-rauch-b310cd5d8a47

Ben Arzate: Introduce yourself. Who is Tony Rauch?

Tony Rauch: If I’m doing my job correctly as an artist, I am a guide to previously unseen places and also a mirror reflecting the weirdness, confusion, feelings, and wonder running wild in the environment.

At other times I’m just the apple of your eye. A giant, fuzzy bunny in the guise of a man-boy who only wants to be your friend. The last potato in the bag. The electrolysis you can’t afford. That thing on your back that you should have checked out, but you don’t know it’s even there because it’s on your back. A miscellaneous collection of your regrets displayed like items at a garage sale. The dark, tilting, creaking stairway down into your failures. The elongated spore that will work its way into your subconscious to fester and will gradually buzz until you enroll in a low-budget tap dancing class. That little man in the blue suit and little hat who is always peeking at you from a distance. What finally became of Stinky Sullivan from Growing Pains. The burned-out clutch of the rusted-out orange’78 Camaro you’ll soon be living in. The guy behind the guy . . . behind . . . the guy.

I have a lot of hobbies and interests. I get around.

Ben: How would you describe your writing style?

Tony: Depends on the book. The first two were more experimental or odd fairy tale.

The third was whimsical, dreamy, surreal fantasy, sci-fi, and fairy tale adventures full of longing, discovery, escape, eeriness, surprises, and strange happenings in everyday life.

The fourth was tales of wonder and woe about people trying to find meaning and a place in an absurd, indifferent world, and their discoveries, revelations, secrets, failures, struggles, connections, and odd encounters along their way.

I’m more of an absurdist swirling genres into a new gumbo. I do this mostly for the people, and only a little for my own modest megalomania.

Ben: What are some of your biggest influences?

Tony: Rust, mud, gunk, goo, the void, your mother’s secrets, your futility, troubles, the mist, the goombees.

In terms of writing: Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes” for its absurdism. Donald Barthelme for his inventiveness and ability to break out of the box and narrow confines of previously established conventions. Ray Bradbury and other sci-fi for forward thinking ideas. Richard Brautigan for his word craft and sense of play. Salinger and Fitzgerald for their sense of pacing, regret, and heartbreak.

Anything creative, imaginative and different. Anything concise and efficient. Anything that causes a reaction, that makes you think, feel, empathize. Anything that probes new possibilities, sets new boundaries, declares new freedoms from pathetic and obsolete rules.

Ben: Why write fiction?

Tony: I like ideas. Art deals with ideas, therefore I like art. I like playing around with ideas. I aspire to participate in the arts, produce art, share art, advance art. As an artist I need that periodic infusion of newness to keep life fresh and alive, so life doesn’t feel stagnant or stuck in only one thing, one gear, one vibe. Music, literature, and other fine arts infuses and replenishes me with ideas, new thoughts, new combinations. Art moves me along and open doors that I did not realize were there. And a lot of it is free – google, youtube, galleries, free little libraries, the public library, readings. All free. So an interesting diversion and investment in thought for only the cost of your time. Art forces new ideas, new combinations, new blood, new thoughts into the body, refreshing, challenging, building, and adding to your sustenance.

I like writing specifically because literature moves – it is active, not passive, it grows, flows and changes, it’s alive. Literature is not static, where paintings or collage is often just a snapshot in time, even the ones that are vibrating with energy. Also, many people have access to writing, where only a few people might see a painting or other form of physical art. So writing to me is a way to reach a lot more people than I could with painting. Also, a lot of my ideas are fluid, they flow and change, so writing is the best artistic format for me to replicate that sense of movement and progression.

Ben: Does your job as an architect have an influence on how you write?

Tony: Occasionally. I’m lucky because from time to time my job allows for some introspection and contemplation, so I get some time to think about story arcs, ideas, and endings, etc. Writing is just designing with words.

But having free time with no other thoughts is a huge advantage – walking my dog, biking, cleaning, driving (or sitting in traffic), wandering the aisles at the supermarket, or wandering the back alleys with a vacant look in the middle of the night can all afford time to think. I have learned to use the interstitial spaces of the day to my advantage.

Ben: All of your books are short story collections. Why do you favor the short story form? Have you considered writing a novel?

Tony: Like punk rock, I like the burst of color and pungent flavor, condensing, distillation, immediacy, economy, efficiency, the manageable scale to allow for experimentation and exploring the elasticity of the format that shorts allow.

I wrote a novel last year and hope to work on the second part in that series this coming year. It is a short chapter novel, which is similar to a series of stories or linked adventures. I had some left-over material that had similar themes and took place in similar settings, so like a puzzle they seemed to link and fit. I thought it would be a novella – maybe ninety pages, but it ballooned to three hundred pages. That first novel is like a series of linked shorts.

Ben: Do you write your stories with a theme in mind for collections, or do you just focus on them as stand-alone stories?

Tony: Stand-alones. But sitting and thinking and typing, and then walking around thinking, gets me on a vibe. So there are similar themes in each – loss, escape, absurd situations, existential longing, discovery, secrets, identity, strange happenings, endurance, regret, fragility, uncertainty, impermanence, the mysteries hidden in everyday life, discovery, ennui, loneliness, irresponsible behavior, confusion, change, and absurd situations. The stories seem to fall into several templates that then get funneled into each collection.

Ben: You have a few screenplays on your website. Have any been sold or are in the process of being developed by any filmmakers?

Tony: I had some local indie filmmakers interested in “A light in the darkness” but nothing went beyond the initial development stage, which surprised me because it’s a walk-n-talk indie that would take maybe three weeks to film. I have an idea for another film, and notes for it somewhere, but haven’t had time to dig into that one. My books have been more of a priority because they garnered the most fruit. Every once in a while someone will want to try one of my stories out as a short film or play, but so far nothing concrete has ever come of those inquiries.

Ben: Which of your books would you recommend for someone just discovering your work?

Tony: I have 4 story collections published. Samples are on my website – see the link below. It would depend on your personal tastes, but they’re all ripe for the adventurous reader who is looking for something different, creative, imaginative, thought-provoking, hard to classify, and/or a mix or swirl of genres. I would say “eyeballs” or “what if” since they are the latest and thus represent more life experience and more writing under my belt, but any of them would be fine.

Ben: What are you currently working on?

Tony: Probing your demons. Scoping your lobe for leaks. Tripping the light fantastic. Finally living up to lowered expectations. The usual. Finished a mostly YA sci-fi novel late last year and am sending to agents, which is daunting. I’ll start the second book in that series this summer. I have the notes and an outline. Will start to send to some smaller publishers because it doesn’t look like the agent route will work out, which is deflating because the book is righteous.

I also have 3 or 4 other completed story collections I need to find a publisher for. Three of those are strange YA sci-fi, fantasy, fairy tale adventures and one is a more adult absurdist collection. They’re just as interesting and inventive as my last two collections, maybe even better. If anyone knows of anyone out there looking for odd story collections, please let me know.

Ben: Any links or anything else to plug?

Tony: Book and story samples can be found on my website at https://trauch.wordpress.com/

Hopefully I’ll be able to find a suitable publisher for the books mentioned above, and then will have more wares to pitch in the near future.

Wartime ‘Toons: Ben Schneider’s Airman Artless

Ben Schneider has been an active duty maintainer in the military for 15 years. At 41, he has seen his fair share of the world, having traveled to Italy, Japan and Korea, among others. The exposure to various people and cultures has inspired the ideas behind his comic strips.

Airman Artless is a series of cartoons which Schneider recently began rolling out on Amazon and via social media. The strips concerns the comic mishaps of America’s troops.

The ideas behind each strip were largely influenced by exchanges that he had with the indigenous people of the countries he’s stayed in or his fellow military personnel. “Sometimes by working with them, sometimes by exchanging stories with them.”

Schneider explained the impetus behind his comics. As he explains, “The reason I created Airman Artless cartoons is so the best moments in my life are never forgotten.”

Although he hasn’t yet decided on whether or not the Airman Artless saga is on-going, his existing body of work is enough to keep people chuckling for some time to come. As Schneider is quick to point out, “Prospective buyers should know they don’t have to be in the military to get the jokes. Therefore, they will appeal to average people. Also, I made it a point to include my funniest work in the books. Plus, I stress quality over quantity.”

The series is a far cry from the sort of humor typical of the 21st century, stressing safety and other military concerns rather than wallowing in cynicism or acerbic barbs. “It is not intended to disparage the military,” Schneider says.

Check out Airman Artless here. For more from Ben Schneider, give his book Chrome Mountain a read.

Kindle Crack: Ebook Deals from Bret Easton Ellis, Philip K Dick, Italo Calvino, and More

Bret Easton Ellis sales are pretty rare, but here’s one that features what is possibly his most famous work. American Psycho is a complete nightmare, and entirely required reading for anyone who likes dark and strange fiction.

PKD was one of my favorite authors for quite a span, and this book is still one of my favorites by him. If you don’t have this already, now is your chance to change that for less than the price of a coffee.

I’ve been meaning to check out Duncan Ralston’s work for some time, and this sale is a perfect excuse to pick up his widely-praised collection, Video Nasties. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this, and I can’t wait to dive in.

This book has generated a lot of noise since its release, and it’s currently going for a good price. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be a worthy purchase for weird fiction fans.

This collection by Borges (one of two of my longest-standing favorite authors–the other is Kafka)  has appeared here before, but this magnificent sale isn’t bound to last long. If you love mind-bending fiction, you really need this. Grab it while it lasts!

Like Borges, Calvino is widely known for his brilliant and imaginative fiction. Here, Calvino tries his hand at retelling folk tales, and the result is absolutely stunning. For less than three bucks, this sale is a guaranteed success.

Xiu Xiu’s Girl with Basket of Fruit, a Review

Few albums will hurt you this bad.

After the release of Daughter’s masterpiece, You Won’t Get What You Want, which stole the album of the year slot for “The 20 Best Albums of 2018” on this site, it would be reasonable to suspect that the world of experimental and dark music might take a while to muster something to contend with the last leviathan. Truly devastatingly dark albums, after all, don’t come around too often–at least if we consider only the few that are undeniably great. Albums like Sunn o)))’s Black One, Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch, and, yes, Daughter’s You Won’t Get What You Want, are rare treats for treasuring, and often must satisfy us for long dry stretches. I was expected quite a wait. I was wrong.

Enter Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart’s experimental band birthed way back in 2002.

Some people said that listening to You Won’t Get What You Want was a fright. I can concede that there were some hair-raising moments, such as Alexis Marshall’s convincing “let me in!” on the track “Guest House,” but something reaches up to stop me before I can call the album truly “frightening.” Bish Bosch is frightening. “Shaking Hell” from Sonic Youth’s Confusion is Sex is frightening. Allan Pettersson’s sixth symphony is frightening. You Won’t Get What You Want is dense, emotional, and harrowingly gorgeous, but it isn’t frightening.

Xiu Xiu’s 2019 release, Girl with Basket of Fruit, is fucking frightening.

Every track on this album (minus only the last one, “Normal Love,”) leaves splatter patterns sure to perplex even the keenest of forensic investigators. Xiu Xiu pushes the increasingly popular glitched-and-grimed aesthetic well past ten without sounding like Death Grips, and that alone would something to celebrate were this album not a moving experience in its own right. Girl with Basket of Fruit reaches in with both arms up to the elbows and walks away dripping, leaving you behind to writhe with your wounds in the dirt.

While, in retrospect, one can impose a sort of narrative leading up to this moment in Xiu Xiu’s career based on their previous albums–particularly in considering 2014’s Angel Guts–there really is nothing in 2017’s Forget that could’ve prepared you for this. In short, if you’re familiar with the glitchy pop Xiu Xiu of the past, beware. You’re in for something closer to a Swans album than a pop album with Girl with Basket of Fruit, and dark music fanatics certainly couldn’t be happier with the new direction.

While all the tracks are pummeling, disorienting, surreal, and deeply unsettling, “Mary Turner Mary Turner” manages to stand out as an experience sure to become a benchmark in dark music, much like “SDSS1416=13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)” from Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch. It retells the story of Mary Turner, a black woman lynched in Lowndes County, Georgia for protesting the lynching of her own husband. Stewart’s wild, drunken, and distorted spoken-word reenactment of this harrowing bit of history blasts fearsomely over wild percussion and groaning industrial bass drones sure to shock even seasoned weird music fans.

“Mary Turner Mary Turner” is striking example of dramatized atrocity. It’s a lynching-gone-horror-film, and it won’t sit comfortably with most listeners. Luckily, it isn’t supposed to. While on one hand, given the excessively melodramatic presentation, this track may come across as somewhat calloused and tasteless, it is the closest you can come to witnessing something so horrible yourself. History is a Wikipedia article, a bookmark that serves to coldly remind us of what’s already transpired. “Mary Turner Mary Turner” lends flesh and blood to the event, reanimating it in a way that places listeners squarely before the sheer evil in their own heritage. Yes, that may sound a bit Hawthornian, but it’s rare and worth celebration indeed when music can enact such a towering psychic image.

Of course, not everything on Girl with Basket of Fruit is as strong as “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” (which would be thoroughly impossible) but the album is certainly a must-have for anyone who enjoys truly dark and forward-thinking music. Unless 2019 miraculously turns into a more musically fruitful year than 2018, this album is bound to stand at the forefront of the throng. Get this thing.

5/5 stars.

-Justin A. Burnett

The Unreprinted: Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami

by Ben Arzate

Before there was Tao Lin’s Taipei, before there was Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, before there was Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, there was Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue.

“’A lot of things happened awhile back, right, but now I’m empty, can’t do anything, you know? And because I’m empty I want to look around some more, I want to see a lot of things.’”

Ryu Murakami, best known to Western audiences as the author of Audition, had his first novel published in 1976. It was a semi-autobiographical novel about a group of young Japanese friends living near a US Air Force base. The book is a haze of sex, violence, drug abuse, and rock music as their lives spiral out of control and all of them are left empty and unsatisfied.

The book is narrated by Ryu, a disaffected university student and aspiring musician. Although his aspirations aren’t very well pursued. At a couple points, his friends encourage him to play the flute for them, but he brushes them off.

He seems to have few interests beyond sex and drugs, despite coming off as incredibly bored by them, especially towards the end. He is, however, very observant of his surroundings and describes them in often very poetic ways.

The rain made a variety of sounds in different places. As it was sucked down into the grass and pebbles and earth, it sounded like tiny musical instruments. The tinkle of a toy piano, small enough to hold in palm of the hand, blended with the ringing in my ears, the aftermath of heroin.”

One of the early scenes in the book is an orgy between Ryu, his friends, and several black soldiers at the American air base. The way the orgy is described is far away from erotic; it is both disturbing and hilarious.

Despite their claims of enjoying the orgies, many of Ryu’s friends spout racial epithets in reference to the men at the air base when not there. There is also obvious jealousy among the men for their girlfriends having sex with the American airmen.

Ryu is surprised when one female friend, a heroin addict, states she wants to get married someday. A conflict between the traditions of pre-war Japan and the new zeitgeist of international post-war Japan is a subtle theme here.

Ryu’s best friend and sort-of girlfriend is named Lilly, an American girl living in Japan and making money as a prostitute. She seems to be the only person that Ryu actually cares about.

His relationship with her, however, is strained by his inability to communicate his feelings to her until it’s too late. The “epilogue” of the book is a letter to Lilly where he expresses his desire to see her again four years later.

It’s clear that Ryu and his friends’ lifestyles are tearing them apart. Much of the friction between Lilly and Ryu begins when they get in their car on mescaline and drive without a purpose. This takes them to the runway at an airport where their drug-induced hallucinations nearly get them both killed. This results in the police showing up at Ryu’s home and dragging him and his friends to the station, though they’re let off without charges because the police can’t find their drugs.

The two end up departing for good when, later, Ryu has a psychotic breakdown, hallucinating a giant bird looming over him and preparing to crush him. Lilly runs away in fear and Ryu stabs himself with glass and has to go to the hospital.

It’s easy to see why this is regarded as a classic in its home country of Japan. It made a huge splash when it was released and it’s still in print there and, as far as I know, has never gone out of print. In the United States, the English translation only recently went out of print and there’s a good chance it will come back into print soon.

I can only hope it does. It’s a short book at only around 130 pages, but it fits a lot into those pages. It’s an intense, beautifully written (even in translation), and engaging coming of age book.

Almost Transparent Blue transcends cultural boundaries in its existential themes while also retaining uniquely Japanese ones. I believe this is a much better book than Audition (the only other Ryu Murakami book I’ve read so far) and I look forward to reading his other ones.