The Prominent Penis

Jessica Zafra, my very good, true and trusted amiga (!!!), published my book review of The Virgin of Flames in Jessica Rules the Universe and I’m here right now to immortalize the moment because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside:

abani

You may not be familiar with the people in Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, but they are the sort of personalities you would love to gossip about. Instead of figuring what this novel is all about, you may be better off marveling at the oddities of the characters.

The novel follows its protagonist, Black, around Los Angeles as he tries to come to terms with his hauntingly ugly childhood through his art. He is a 30-something muralist on a quest to find himself in the vibrant city. He is introduced to the reader while trying on face paint, doing things with his face and basically being odd because he is An Artiste and a true weirdo. And nothing validates a weirdo more than a set of equally strange friends. He is surrounded by so much weirdness, sometimes you wish this were about them instead.

Black, to some readers, may seem too weird and foreign. He is a multiracial artist who likes a transsexual stripper, likes his Johnny Walker, and in his spare time dresses like the Virgin Mary. Is he gay? Is he a conventional weirdo? Two-hundred odd pages on and you still may not have figured him out. He keeps building the mystery. Towards the end of the novel, he even tries to learn how to tuck his penis in his butt the way a transvestite does—a real treat for guy readers. But if this were about his quest to discover his true sexuality, it may have been over in the first hundred pages. Besides, those who are not in the habit of wearing tanga to make a living would attest that dick-tucking is something you do exclusively for fun. Clearly, Black should make for an interesting read. But maybe you’d rather hang out with his penis or the sidekicks.

Bomboy Dickens is the primary sidekick. He spouts the novel’s most interesting bits of dialogue, but he’s sadly relegated to the role of comic relief. If it crosses your mind that The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is getting a worthy successor, it is due to the snappy retorts of Bomboy and his conversations with Black. Alas, Abani’s aim is not to appeal to your funny bones.

Also there is Iggy, Black’s landlady. She’s bald and she keeps a tattoo parlor and bar called The Ugly Store that has a mural filled with racist, politically-incorrect inscriptions. She keeps a midget servant who loves to quote Raymond Chandler. Iggy, she is also not like you and me.

Black’s penis, on the other hand, does not speak; nor does it have idiosyncrasies like Bomboy and Iggy. Its appearance is infrequent but its presence is major. It’s also sort of a plot-mover. Sometimes it alone drives him forward and mostly towards Sweet Girl, the immigrant Thai transsexual he’s inexplicably drawn to. Inexplicably because Black, who gives off a strong heterosexual vibe, is aware that the person he finds hopelessly alluring is also a man. Yet he persists. He is mightily attracted to Sweet Girl the lap-dancer, and that’s going to be the way it is. The intensity of Black junior’s erections dictates where this attraction is supposed to go. But this is not a love story, and Abani is resolute about not having any resolution.

Our hero obviously has Big Issues That Need Addressing rooted in his childhood traumas. If he hasn’t tired you out yet, maybe the flashbacks to his childhood will spring you back to life. His AIDS-afflicted mother is vicious—she makes the young Black perform self-flagellation in front of an altar, while his father is a confounding, ghostly presence—there, not quite there and finally, not there at all. Suddenly you think you know what this freak’s real issue is. You think you can finally feel satisfied with Black’s coming to terms with his misfortunes because he’s dealing with his feelings at last and working toward straightening out his life! But no.

If you’re exactly the kind of person who enjoys sneering at artist types, being unable to relate to them, this book may serve as an eye-opener or an entertainment featuring a gallery of freaks. You may not find anything to relate to, but its strangeness is a thing to behold. I don’t think I could trust anyone else to describe for me the rituals of strip-dancing and the art of tucking balls and shaft in one’s butt other than the seemingly demented Chris Abani.

The Virgin of Flames is a different kind of tale of self-discovery, one that doesn’t care much about reaching any discernible discovery. If you’re tired of tales of ditzy young girls and boys trying to find their luck in Hollywood, New York, or some other glamorous city, try this and have a balls-clutching experience. If you’re exasperated with small-town persons finding their way in the big, mean city, you may find a trip to Black’s lap-dance and alcohol-addled junction wildly entertaining. If anything, you’ll learn how to tuck your balls in your butt should the need for that ever arise in your boring life.

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Brightest Shining Moment of 2012

Jessica Zafra published a book review I wrote and it’s one of my year’s brightest moments.

Since I’m predictable and constantly shifting between shallow and paranoid, a condition that saddles the bearer with the thought of having to consider the ick factor of talking about things such as this, I will tell all about it because as I’ve said it’s one of my year’s brightest moments and sometimes I just can not be stopped.

It was just like the time Mariah found my joke funny. What happened with Mariah was she was asking the fans to guess the name of her newborn twin to which the entire Twitter universe went into a frenzy coming up with names. I offered ‘Regina’ and ‘George’ after Rachel McAdams’ iconic character in one of the greatest movies of our time, Mean Girls, a movie really close to Mariah’s heart and mine. After tweeting that, she said to me: ‘LOL! C’mon guys!’ I was so delirious I almost ditched work to distribute printed copies of Mariah’s direct tweet to me along Ayala Avenue Regina George in the hallway distributing photocopies of the burnbook-style. That was one of 2011’s brightest shining moments.

It was a euphoria unmatched until the morning of September 5.

In an uneventful Sunday afternoon, September 4, I convulsed with joy upon reading her email which basically intimated that she was pleased with my review. I jumped and victory danced when I read her two-sentence glowing (my impression) assessment. I was jumping high because Jessica mother*****g Zafra gave the distinct impression of having found my book review acceptable and worthy of a Jessica Rules the Universe publication.

I could not ask for more in this life. Or this year only. Except for maybe more book review assignments from her, eternal friendship, more chances of associations, of get-togethers with the person responsible for putting The Catcher in the Rye in to my life. And of course, more. And of having any of your ‘major work’ edited by her, what a feeling!

Coco Fluff

 

I don’t understand Chuck Klosterman’s need to call In Utero a bad album because it’s not. Maybe I misread his feelings about the album but I’m sure he made clear claims about it being a bad album. If not, okay! But as a bonus here are some Chuck Klosterman thoughts for you:

I’ve been a fan of CK’s work for such a long time. I was hypnotized by his loopy thoughts on pop culture and most especially his rock things that I failed to see how annoying he can be. I mean, have you read Sex Drugs & Cocoa Puffs lately? Tell me that’s not one of the most irritating, pa-profound, hippie book you’ve ever read. Regardless, I love Killing Yourself to Live with a passion (that kind that drove me to recommend the book to my Sydney Sheldon, Dan Brown-loving brother. I know, I know!) and no amount of Sex Drugs & Cocoa Puffs recent realizations will diminish the love. It is through CK too that I had my first taste of in-depth Britney Spears analysis that I feel I have a need for. Sometimes I just can’t stand the sight of Chuck Klosterman’s pop culture philosophizing. Sometimes I get the feeling of ‘whatever he’s sniffing, I want to be having’. I have a stormy relationship with him, it’s safe to say.

Gorgeous gore

Blood Meridian is a depressing book that’s so gorgeously written, I forgive myself for getting into it anyway. Rest assured, self, we will never again read another Cormac McCarthy epic for as long as we live. In the first place, I would never have picked up anything that has to do with Western USA because it is for me one of the most unappealing aspects of their history. I did not care for pieces of entertainment/pop culture phenomenons as True Grit, Indiana Jones and Wild Wild West, although it is not these pieces of entertainments’ fault that I find no interest in them.

I participated in Jessica Zafra’s reading session of it thinking fun will be had in what I was certain would be a gorefest. I approached the book as sort of a torture porn. I was expecting slashing, gutting, shooting, and cussing, all of which were aplenty. But Cormac McCarthy is quite the writer. I’m saying I dislike him now, but maybe it will be like the time I swore off Bret Easton Ellis and Lauryn Hill, now two of my most beloved entertainers.

Blood Meridian is about a group of ragtag Texans sent to the wilderness to do certain vicious things on Indians’ heads and then some. Never mind what for, what matters is the how. Book is so bleak, you’d want to wish it upon the life of an enemy. That is really all you need to know to want (or need) to consume such a book. That’s all I needed. To entertain myself, I imagined the guys to be of porn-star build, Glanton mainly, and the kid. And although I have difficulty imagining Judge Holden to be a hot young (or old) stud, I perk up every time he says something deceptively wise yet nasty.

It’s the kind of fiction that encourages you to emote out all of your pessimistic views of the world. The presumably few who enjoyed and relished this type of horror would not disagree with the pessimism, I think. If you finished this and came to the conclusion that the world is harsh, you will be met with approving nods, and maybe even congratulated. In the reading group, it was agreed that after reading this, you feel a surge of gratitude that your life (or your scalp) is not someone else to take and sell, and that you have wi-fi connections, cakes and all the pleasurable things a human is supposed to have. But maybe the Indians’ scalping is the civilized person’s everyday stress. Other things you will be congratulated for is for finishing. For forging ahead and not giving up on the torrent of ugliness. One of the reading buddies in the group felt like showering herself thoroughly and the other one experienced a soul draining-like sensation that I could only attempt to imagine. Mostly, I felt my impatience grow stronger with every page. And as usual, the nagging feelings of inadequacy, brains-wise.

But more than the reading experience, it is meeting Jessica that made it worthwhile. I had a Jessica Zafra phase. In college, I sacrificed an accounting class (Very Big Deal) to had my Twisted 6 copy signed (she iced me – totally expected and deserved), which in my tackiness I kind of showed off to some of my block mates. What better way to meet her than through experiencing a Cormac McCarthy horror show. I told Momel about my reservations, mainly that she might not actually like me, that she might find my lack of opinion subversive to what she specifically required for a reading group participant to have: opinions. I was worried that I might come off boring which is truly like me worrying about having lungs or having a nose. If you know your Jessica Zafra, you’ll know better than to worry about such silly things. She turned out to be an affable mediator of a gory book reading group. I’m glad I went to the meeting because it would have been a waste of a Cormac McCarthy reading if I hadn’t. I’m just sorry I gave her the impression that my reading habits are dictated by a book’s cheapness which is not 100% true (‘What books do you scour for?’, ‘Yung mura’). My reading habit is actually heavily influenced by the amount of discipline I’m willing to impose myself to pry myself away from all my online things. Thanks, Jessica, for sitting me down to read and finish an actual, physical novel.