I guess there are certain things that one is obligated not to talk about in a book review, like one’s personal relationship to the authors of those books one is reviewing, or really, any personal details about oneself. But for the purposes of this review, honestly let’s just fuck it.
I, Trisha Low, am friends with the authors of the two books I have elected to review – Steven Zultanski’s Bribery and Brandon Brown’s Top 40. To clarify – Steve Zultanski and I had a minor, but sordid affair in the mid-moments of 2012 in New York City, a city from which I moved away in 2014. Brandon Brown headed up the 2014 campaign for the relocation of Trisha Low to Oakland, California, the city in which I currently live. I raise both of these facts not, as you might think, as some kind of strange exhibitionism but rather selfishly to have my own petulantly confessional moment as the only woman in this triangulation.
Weird, I know, but you see, both books are, to use a key word, “multifaceted” works that deal with a lot of the other boring stuff too like I don’t know, patriotism, surveillance, pop culture, community vs. love, revolution vs. human nature. Sure, they get in some interesting formal tangles as well. However, rather unfortunately for everyone involved, this review has chosen to basically focus on literally the shittiest part of both books, the fact that both concern themselves explicitly with the inner thoughts and desires of two red-blooded (mostly) straight American males. Which is to say, these books are confessional. Indeed, with the anti-subjectivity wars of conceptual writing post-Goldsmith, wherein the notion of sobjectivity was introduced, adopted, resisted, criticized, the fact remains—whether one takes the position where the subject is no longer distinct from the aesthetic object, or that contrary to this, some form of the lyric subject is critical to any aesthetic endeavour—that the speaker, and its complex relation to the authorial self as a human in the real world, stubbornly remains. Rather than concern itself with the necessity or formulation of the subject, this review will instead focus on the confessional as a genre, which is to say – let’s make things simple – if one says a piece of writing is confessional, then we are inclined to say that the speaker is, in fact, necessarily the author. Even if it isn’t really, it just has to be, because it says so – right?
Notably, Steve’s book, by nature of it being self-genred as ‘confessional’, insists that the speaker is himself, meaning the confessional here becomes a modality of manipulation. Conversely, the speaker in Brandon’s book straightforwardly bears an uncanny resemblance to himself, from the friends he names, to the little pleasures he enjoys, and the kinds of belief-related statements he makes. Which is really a complicated way of saying, in Steve’s self-designated confessional book, Steve is by design, supposed to be Steve, whereas in Brandon’s book, the speaker simply coheres with what we know to be true of the life of Brandon Brown and therefore is confessional.
Historically, focus on the confessional has mainly confined itself to the feminine. In recent years, from Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick to Sylvia Plath’s oeuvre, to Anaïs Nin’s diaries, critical reception of women’s confessional writing have been deeply gendered, either dismissing or lauding the work for its vulnerability, exposure, its sense of scandal or its abject nature to the point of fetishism. Narcissism is a common accusation, or in someone like Ariana Reines or Marie Calloway’s work, a crucial point of critical inquiry. It’s worth mentioning that those mentioned here have all to some degree used an arbitrary confessional label as a mode of feminist critique, from articulating ‘the personal is political’ to using it as means of interrogating compulsory femininity, even at the very level of form. However, less attention has been paid to the ‘confessional’ in men’s writing. In fact, very few books by straight male authors have been referred to as ‘confessional’ at all. Much like the way the male body became the medical standard for ‘human body’, men’s writing about the minutiae of life, their thoughts on love, the world, law, and time have simply been considered ‘writing’ – the universal literary standard. So just as those writing about women’s writing so obstinately refer to much feminine writing as confessional, this review will obstinately focus on the confessional aspects of both Bribery and Top 40 in an effort to interrogate what ‘confessional’ could really mean, or perhaps what male confessional writing can really do, I mean, if it could do anything at all.
Bribery, Steven Zultanski (Ugly Duckling Press, 2014)
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
– Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Steve Zultanski’s Bribery is the second book in a self-proclaimed confessional series beginning with Agony (Bookthug, 2012), in which Steve tries to quantify life experiences in a series of impossible mathematical formulas. In Bribery, book two, Steve, the speaker, commits multiple crimes and strives to be literally “the worst creature that ever existed” (20). From mutilating women and chopping up bodies, to committing a bank robbery, to insulting the American President and fucking his girlfriend in perversely enjoyable ways, Steve, the speaker in the book, is, as he says himself, “a freak of nature that never should have been born. Of course, nothing’s worse than an American man, for all the reasons / that everyone already knows: the stupidity, the nationalism, the militarism; the ideological attachment to ideas of independence and comfort; the / donut-headed ignorance of our own unimaginably violent and coercive geopolitical power” (20).
Hey man, I don’t disagree, I mean I’ll even say it: Steve is a piece of shit. The Steve in this book catalogues his crimes in a traditional admission of guilt, each iteration of “I did that too, by the way,” suggesting less of the hair-tearing, tear-streaming contrition that one might expect of such a terrible person and more of, as Blake Butler notes, “both apologizing for being a piece of shit and reveling in it”. As Steve writes, “But if a / murder were truly random, it would also be more easily forgiven, because the blame would turn / impersonal. And this is very personal. I did it, alone” (10). Contrary to the clipped mathematical formulation of Agony, Bribery is an ornate and baroque, overwrought and multidirectional sprint into an abyss of violence, doom and destruction. Carcinogenically lurid, every action becomes a crime, not because it is, a crime, that is, but because it dares to exist in the very world that created this white male personage as a symptomatic afterthought of its own bubonic plague.
Joey tells me over gchat that Steve has written an irrationally insane monologue in the classic tradition of an unreliable narrator, an amalgam of different generic characteristics that shift and expand to include the conditions of ‘now’. You can’t trust Steve. Even when he said he did it or how he did it doesn’t necessarily matter, he’s just a symptom of a universal literature dedicated to fooling everyone into a kind of docile belief in whatever he’s espousing, no matter how bizarre or implausible. Ed Steck writes that Steve the character exemplifies a criminality that is painted as banal as the next man on the street. That might be true. Steve is systems of state terror, government surveillance and a history of American violence personified in all his testosterone-fuelled, clit-eating, cruel, and yet still self-indulgently crying, sensitive new male glory that refuses to end. Steve relentlessly showers himself upon you in snaking sentences like the stench of Axe body spray – they linger. Even Bribery’s line breaks seem arbitrary, serving no purpose but to illustrate how even at each forced breaking point, this is a pattern that refuses to end, refuses to stall itself for anything, in this awful world, let alone poetry.
You see, sure, like any embittered ex, maybe I get some vindictive enjoyment from watching Steve describe himself as a cruel piece of shit – the worst of humanity. But my glee is pretty short lived. Steve is a piece of shit in this book, I guess, but not because of any of the reasons mentioned above. Steve is a piece of shit because every crime he commits isn’t his own. Aaron Kunin writes in a complex and brilliant article, Decoration, Modernism, Cruelty that “the function of decoration is to conceal—and by concealing, paradoxically, to mark— instances of cruelty” (89). I’m reducing significantly here, but Kunin writes in part about how historically ornamentation obtained through victorious wars, looting, conquering, became aesthetic evidence of violence that then became banal because of its aesthetic function, forcing a history of cruelty on a beautiful surface that simply became part of an ambience or atmosphere. Like the floral French flaps on Steve’s book, Bribery is this exactly: an aestheticization of systemized cruelty, patterned ornately and as glorious to read as it is banal, just as any confession of crime in a straight white narrator might be banal. But it’s not really good enough for me.
The problem is that Steve Zultanski is not a murderer, or an awful person. The speaker in Steve’s confessional novella isn’t even a murderer or a rapist, no matter how hard or how gleefully he tries. In fact, neither of them are criminals, even if the purpose of Steve’s book is to invalidate, expose, critique the primacy of a white male narrator and his actions. And that’s because it is exactly this fancy prose, the coherence of this overwrought, claustrophobic, ornately cruel style that makes Steve, or his character, so good at what he does– the writing itself has a civilizing function. Reviews of this work have winkingly referred to Steve as having “prurient interests” , that “reading Bribery made me do it”, and it is these good humoured jokes that suggest the exact opposite – that Steve, in writing Bribery, has done a laudable thing, written a good book (that is).
And he has! I’m not arguing with that. I’m not arguing that perhaps this book might have the brilliance bordering on what straight white men writers are so often named when they shed light on their agonized existence—which is to say that this work might be the mad work of a genius. But this also means that unlike other female writers, this work of confession, or confessional writing, will come at no cost to Steve at all. Steve will not be called melodramatic, or attention-seeking or narcissistic. Rather, Steve exemplifies exactly what is so problematic about white male subjectivity in a literary context – that no exculpatory evidence is required so long as his writing is virtuosic, elegantly crafted, redemptive. Steve, the writer, is no longer a shitty person. Unlike Josef Kaplan’s work, such as How I Think it Happens wherein he depicts overblown, misogynistic accounts of how he thinks lesbians have sex, there is no collapse between Steve, the speaker in the book, and Steve, the author. Unlike Josef, no one will call Steve a misogynist or threaten him with castration at a reading. Josef’s ‘bad’ can and will fuck up his life. For Steve, one has to be as bad as one can be, but it has to be badness done recognizably well rather than threateningly, actually bad. Steve, or his speaker, or whatever, in this book, is impossible to incriminate. Steve and all variations of Steve have become, like the President, unimpeachable.
It’s important to note here that it’s possible, much like other conceptual projects such as Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts, that Steve is simply reproducing and thus exposing conditions of oppression even at the level of readerly reception. Because white male authors tend to be lauded as geniuses – they tend to win because of their beautiful crimes. Like a tradition of male narrators such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Holden in Catcher in the Rye, style redeems characterization. We become complicit, winkingly, as we tell Steve how naughty he’s been. We giggle like schoolgirls swooning as we sympathize with him, we excuse his crimes. And this mode is impossible to escape; Steve’s accomplishment of what he sets out to do – write the worst person ever – is so complete that it goes so far as to implicate our conception of an entire male literary canon. Bribery’s whole exhibitionist exercise in criminal ornamentation is the expansion of wallpaper in The Shining as the camera caresses the hallway and it takes over the frame. It sucks you in, forcing the reader into its hypnotic sprawl. When we cackle at his crimes, when we think Steve’s speaker is so awful that the book is good, the book ceases to be damaging to both Steve, the speaker, and Steve the author. It means that, as he writes, “Your crimes are already there. You’ve already committed them all. You’ve already repented. You’ve already been forgiven and then done it again, whatever it is that you’ve done” (31). Step and repeat. Wallpaper, like surveillance, is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Steve wins because his book is good and we think he is an unquestionable genius. Just like the straight white men who came before him have always done – something else that is also invisible. And I don’t hate this book – in fact, I love it – but I fucking hate him for that.
Top 40, Brandon Brown (Roof Books, 2014)
“I am sufficiently proud of my knowing something to be modest about my not knowing all.”
– Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Brandon Brown’s Top 40, is a floaty, flirty jaunt through his psyche and the minutia of daily activity. Each poem-chapter titled after a pop song, Brandon Brown’s life is mildly sifted through the apparatus of the top 40 pop songs on the chart of September 14th, 2013. Laid over work events and boozy vacations, trips on the BART and to the bathroom, pop music becomes the minorly escapist descant to a drudgy morning hymn. In a world where everyone knows the words to their routine and mouths them uselessly, senselessly without a thought to their particular meaning, pop is the fugitive melody that flees but doesn’t escape the frame, instead bouncing around in the cold cave of the CVS as you’re browsing for nail polish or buying paper towels. It’s just, well, you get to dance while you’re doing it. “People really love to sing together,” Brandon writes (22), the sporadic refrain that recurs in and amidst each chapter. For Brandon, singing is the emotionally recognizable network that binds people together. Even if you can’t find love in a hopeless place, at least you can feel how much you want it, all together —“People can be blasé about driving, they can be blasé about love, but not in America’s Top 40, which is one reason it is better than us”(19).
Unlike Steve’s guiltless, guileful crime spree, Brandon is shameful. I mean, let’s face it – liking pop music is a guilty pleasure. I feel shame about it as I’m biking up a hill to Avril Lavigne’s Complicated or typing out a grant application to the dulcet tones of Taylor Swift. The sweetly searing reverberations amidst the yes ma’am, no ma’ams of the daily demand. But unlike the aggressive insistence on the expanse, melodrama and universal awfulness a la Bribery, every crime Brandon commits is a coy, gentle shame. The entire book is embarrassed about Brandon’s very existence. Brandon doesn’t know how to drive, to Alli’s consternation, and recalls a moment in a driving lesson where his eyes meet a 16 year old’s and he feels the teen’s pity for him, a grown man who can’t check this simple marker of adulthood off his list. Brandon finds toilet paper wadded on the floor of the bathroom at work. He also almost gets explosive diarrhea on the BART. I can’t help but equate the guilty pleasure of pop music to the guilty pleasure of disclosure in these weird moments. When Brandon writes “Why can’t I write a valentine that doesn’t have shit in it? I am slime I will always be your baby,” (31) there’s only a sinking sense that there is nothing romantic about pop music, and that its utopia is entirely fictional – there is no redemption in its promise, only the lazy haze of a dead-end daydream, one that helps us get through a boring as fuck day. Nothing really prevails in Top 40 even if it’s rife with desire, like how Brandon writes – “Rihanna’s predicament in Stay is an inability to reconcile how to feel about her desire, a desire that trumps ambivalence but can’t destroy it” (13). If something has to prevail, it’s not the banal, and certainly not pop — but significantly, it’s not Brandon either. Where one finds a focus is in just that subtle glaze, the gloss of imagining how something is slightly better than it actually is, that one tries to divorce half-heartedly from the truthful glass. We know we can, we just don’t really want to. Because who would take and excel spreadsheet over Teagan and Sara’s boundless love?
If the confessional is at some level about dramatizing oneself, being able to produce a version of oneself that is manipulative in its very slight untruth, then it is either about producing an entirely unreliable personage, as Steve has done in Bribery, or about collapsing a self and a fantasy of self, something Josef Kaplan does when he suffers the wrath of a thousand Facebook comments that can no longer tell the difference between speaker and author. But in Brandon’s case, there is little dramatization at all. I don’t think we can argue that Brandon in this book is not Brandon – I mean, if we are doing comparisons, he has the right lover, the correct friends, he likes the same things (Chardonnay and Oxy), he is pretty terrible at quitting smoking. But Brandon is really just weak glue that keeps everything he is writing about together, pulling together its narrative strands. In this book, you could kind of take or leave Brandon, to be honest. And yet, Top 40 has the vague discomfort of an auto-tune or the strange doubling of karaoke because of Brandon’s presence. Even when it talks about tenderness, revolution, or utopia Top 40 refuses to transcend this world and its awkwardly gross bodily fluids; it refuses a fantasy for an insistent materiality of being-out-of-it, or not-really-in-it. Just like Brandon’s ‘there’, but not really there either. When he talks about how “It’s fine to flash, but if we really want 2 give it 2 each other there has to be more than shook foil between us,” (17) we can see the paradise that can be had, the promising world that we’re all made to want, that would let us leave this world once and for all, but dreams aren’t made to be had. Dreams, specifically daydreams, that one can have while listening to Pink or Charli XCX on the commute to work, are by nature ephemeral and disappear in a flash. The joy they provide is delusional and will always be woefully inadequate. And yet even if the desire felt for them, in them, although already compromised, is always significant—it is perhaps the only reason one can sustain a personal ,even political life.
Here’s the thing about pop music. It doesn’t really talk about anything casual even if it becomes casual by nature of its repetition. Everything is semiotically inclined – love is not just love, it represents something to die for. A promise isn’t just a promise, it represents a commitment until you decide to walk into burning flames. Each symbol is only a deferral into a symbol of something else into an extreme eternity. “Blasé is contagious, addictive, and pop is the rehab clinic at which it is not okay to dabble” (19). If Top 40 is a confessional text, it doesn’t, as so many confessional texts do, mythologize the author so much as dissipate him into the apparatus of sentimental symbols and small shames. Even if, like your favourite pop song, the refrain is always affectively recurring in different historical, cultural, personal, moments – “people really like to sing together” – its actual effects are modest, though charmingly persistent. To know these poems, to sing along to these songs, as it turns out, is not really to know Brandon at all.
Ok, so it’s true, it’s not like the embarrassing details in Brandon’s book are like, shameful enough to really be incriminating, not in the way that Steve’s book is. In fact, the book is not really incriminating at all, only awkward, slightly out-of-it, like when you have your earphones in and someone is trying to tell you something serious. But the truth is that Top 40 is an expiring daydream, a beautiful one being tugged in 40 different directions by Brandon’s own bodily functions, his little shames and fantasies, the songs that take the edge off or turn them on. And in this top 40 world, symbols are cheap. Everyone cares about what Usher’s confessions are. Until the next top 40 come along.
This review is probably not very good at all. Maybe in reality, it is just the incoherent ravings of a jilted ex, or the gentle teasing of a friend. But that’s okay I think because I actually believe that critical writing, an unconscious appraisal of one’s own self and interest through placing oneself in someone else’s poetry, is probably the truest confessionalism there is. Probably neither of these books has to do very much with the exact genre of confessional that I have identified above – one in which the conflation of the self and a fantasy or assumption of the self is exploited to manipulate audiences, and which I’m talking about in pretty fucked up binary gendered terms. Because I mean, who cares if these books are really confessional, or if they are a good kind of confessional or a bad kind or whatever? They are good books concerned with a multitude of other topics. On the other hand, I have stakes in the confessional too, and they’re sharp. Like it or not, the feminine confessional has transmutated itself from male fascination to a mode of transgression, revenge, cold-blooded violence, out of necessity – because the fetishism surrounding this genre has always at least ensured that the work is even read. The feminine confessional can do. But this has always come at a higher cost to the author. We are weak, or vulnerable and sexy because of it, we are nuts, or narcissistic, or should drown ourselves à la Virginia Woolf. We are cute but talentless.
When I began this review, I wanted to think, conversely, about what a masculine confessional text could really do. Both Steve and Brandon have written great books – ones that perform and manipulate and unstructure themselves through their very formal apparatus, ones that interrupt our conception of the subject to make eloquent critiques of their gendered positions as straight white men. But perhaps the conclusion I have come to is something quite the opposite. Until straight white men suffer, if not in quality then in quantity, the consequences feminine subjects endure for risking to write confessionally, until men are accused of actually possessing essential character flaws because of the kinds of work they are making, until something is risked that penetrates the impenetrable shell of craft, genius and awe that surrounds their personal apprehension of the universal, until men are physically threatened and apprehended about the socialized, and therefore ultimately fucked-up entireties of their subjectivities, then the male confessional can do nothing at all. But what do I know? I’m just another crazy lady, hell-bent on revenge.
This review is indebted to the thoughts of, and conversations with Josef Kaplan and Joey Yearous-Algozin, although both would probably prefer I clarify that as fellow straight white men they do not espouse or endorse anything I have said above.