IF THE AIM of a traditional writer is to keep the various threads of her work (characters and subplots, themes and narrative) spinning like plates in the air, and the aim of a so-called experimental writer is to smash them, Padgett Powell’s aim would seem to be to clutch the plates to his chest, or theatrically lick them, or wear them as a teetering crown, all while making direct and uncomfortable eye contact with the reader. If that doesn’t make sense to you, or if you find my meaning a little obscure, well then, join the club: I have just come off of reading Cries for Help, Various, and I am changed. I am indoctrinated. I am a disciple. I am an earnest, resignedly bewildered, fan.
In brilliant and bizarre sentences, Cries for Help unfolds as a series of insane sprints across the dark side of the imagination, written in a tone of barely controlled mania that retunes the tenor of your thoughts. I defy anyone not to sound like Powell, at least in her own head, after she reads it. In fact, when sitting down to write, I tried to produce a review in his style. I failed. No matter how infectious, his prose is inimitable; but if it weren’t? A review of Cries for Help in the style of Cries for Help would begin without qualms, diverge on a tangent, contradict itself, and end by telling you that it doesn’t matter whether or not you read the book, because, sorry, sweetheart, nothing can save you, some day we’re all gonna die. By Powell’s own account,
We are not in the zone of logic, we are in the zone of […] deadbeats and indecision racking our entire mortal coil and time, what little we have of it, on earth. If you do not already divine what I am talking about, there’s nothing for it, no explaining this. It would take poetry, or religion, to get through. I don’t have those. I don’t want those.
Plates aside, I can offer no better metaphor for this collection, or for the experience of reading it, than the on-the-go tornado-body of the cartoon Tasmanian devil. It buzzes through your conscious thought to land on those bone-deep anxieties that you otherwise only let yourself glance at sidelong.
This would all be dismal, insufferable, probably, if weren’t for the simple fact that the guy is hilarious: absurdist humor does not get more absurd than the short stories here. In one notable example, Janis Joplin and Charles Dickens meet as third graders and nearly dry hump; another story offers this madcap riff on the classic yo mama joke: “dumber than God on the day he made incense.” There is a flavor of Barthelme here, but also a bit of Beckett. (“Gift,” and “Sisters,” which consist solely of unassigned dialogue, immediately come to mind. From the latter: “When will it ever end?” “What?” “Life, I guess.” “Has it begun?” “I think it has.”) A few of these pieces are the kind of ecstatic exercise that some will decry as decidedly not short stories in the classical sense, and others, if you deign to peer beneath the frenetic lunacy, are built with such steel-forged structures that even narrative purists will find them sound. (Still others, it’s important to admit, are totally incomprehensible — many a penciled-in margin note reads simply “Huh?” — and I suspect that another kind of reader might have little patience for muddling through.) Either way, what makes many of these selections great is something beyond humor or cleverness. This is not kooky for kooky’s sake. These pieces are kooky because life is complex and flooded and terrifying.
Take the diminutive story with the ambitious title “Love,” which jarringly begins, “I walk around picking up raw bits of meat in the soles of my shoes.” We’re launched straight into the weirdness: Powell offers no context, no setting, only follows this seemingly inexplicable thread for almost — almost — the remainder of the story. We learn some interesting specifics about raw meat and shoe soles, delivered with gleeful diction, such as the observation that “Converse high-tops pick up the meat and apparently mold it into these rather blunted pyramid-shaped nougats,” while “Docksiders with a wavy razor-cut tread […] picks the meat up into the thin voids of the tread and presses it into ribbons that suggest tapeworms.” Never mind where this meat is coming from, or why this unnamed narrator is walking in it. Really: never mind. He is “going with the flow mostly here […] mostly going with the flow here,” a maddening stop-start-and-start-again rant that finally blindsides the reader with the statement “I know a poet named Rachel.” Just like that, just as the story ends, the title zooms into focus: “I am not going to mention her again,” writes Powell, “at the request of one of my friends.” It’s a devastating line, and it functions like a reverse-engineered telescope through which to read everything that’s come before. What better metaphor for longing, for our own bloodied hearts and those that we have bloodied, than a pile of raw meat, which we’re ineffectually trying to scrape off the bottoms of our sneakers?
This story is not atypical of the collection in strategy or length. Most of them clock in at a mere few pages: quick enough to read during a stolen moment in your cubicle, long enough to make you forget, momentarily, that you’re there — until a knockout last sentence reminds you that the meter’s running out on your life again. “Not Much Is Known,” another defiantly titled story, begins with what sounds like a middle school math problem (“There are people one wants to know, and people one does not want to know […]. A few people know a lot of people, many people know a few people, and some people know just some people”), ramps up into a disturbing tale about a young boy and his dead dog, and ends with the line, “It is not known why we become more frightened or saddened by things as we age rather than less.” As readers, we are prompted to look back toward our own early wounds as if through a tunnel, or else the barrel of a gun. Similarly, in the title story, in a vignette titled “Cry for Help from Home,” the narrator admits, “I have had the urge to have bees myself but so far have not procured a single bee.” Tongue in cheek, perhaps — having to do with the wrongheadedness of procuring “a single bee” — but this is a story about cowardice and inaction, and the vignette ends with the lament, “I have never gambled on a thing in my life.”
In fact, hilarity aside, a story titled “The Imperative Mood” reads like a manifesto, or perhaps a how-to manual, which, by some witchcraft, has been written from inside the Plato’s cave of your own skull. The imperatives are practical, conspicuous, bizarre, and, often, profound; the limited form works for Powell; limitations in general, from the length of the super-short story, to the constraint of a syntactical strategy, somehow allow him to encompass a vast range of experience. He has used this method to great effect in previous work: his 2009 novel, The Interrogative Mood, was written entirely in questions, and reads like the summation of a lifetime of wondering, the runaway train of a curious, conscious mind. And yet somehow a third foray, “The Indicative Mood,” also in the new collection, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle. Perhaps Powell, with his proclivity to boomerang between uncertainties and contradictions, is not on his A-game in the plainly declarative, or maybe the indicative mood itself is less interesting than the inherent instability of questioning. What made The Interrogative Mood so compelling is also what succeeds in “The Imperative Mood”: underlying the hypnotic drill of commands is a lack of hierarchy, of differentiation between the so-called pedestrian moments and the philosophical “big” ones, between the humorous and the tragic or the profound and the mundane. “Try to recall the person you thought you were and the moment you began to realize you are not that person, and try to grasp and appreciate the high quality of lunacy required for you to have ever thought you were that person,” one paragraph begins, and you are quavering in the face of your finest long-buried aspirations, only to be whipped around to the quotidian again with the suggestion that you “procure […] some good hard cooked cheese and eschew, as you do, raw soft cheese.” There is tenderness in that pairing, in the way it mimics the topography of thought — not quite stream of consciousness so much as a flood of disparate observations jostling for our daily attention.
Cries for Help, Various is an excellent collection. I don’t always get it, but not entirely getting it is sort of the point. Peppered throughout these pages are countless thinly veiled disclosures to this effect. “I have trouble meaning what I mean these days. I have trouble meaning anything at all.” It’s refreshing, and comes as somewhat of a relief, that Powell invites us to, if not exactly befriend the uncertainty and contradictions, at least give ourselves over to them. These nods to the inscrutability of some of his passages offer us the freedom and permission to enjoy sentences like this one (which I may work out one day): “They hunkered down within the castle walls of their particular potency, whatever it was, and did not send loose emissary of themselves about the uncharted ground of their purlieu.” (From the word “hunkered” — homey, content-to-be clunky — to the alliteration of “particular potency,” to the fancy-because-it’s-French-sounding “purlieu,” though Powell claims this isn’t poetry, it does perhaps function in much the same way.) Moreover, alternating between seeing the cogs at work behind some of these stories and feeling utterly baffled by others is its own pleasure; there is something humbling, and comforting, in resigning yourself to the stop-start rhythm of experiencing this book. “One step is knowing, the next step not knowing […]. This tiny pendulum is the engine of your heart, the motor of man.” Again, Padgett Powell’s got our number. This is a book that cannot be pinned down; it scurries out from under your thumb, language scattershot in a million directions. From the man himself, a challenge: “If you are the sort who must care, and must know things, we would politely suggest that this entertainment, if that is what this is, is not for you.”