In Memory of Lord Sluk

A friend of mine, whom I admire deeply, who taught me a lot, and who wouldn’t want me to say very many kind things about him, has passed. He also wouldn’t want me to use euphemisms. He died. Though I wouldn’t try to be him, and couldn’t, I wanted to express something of how he influenced me. So, here are some things I wrote for him.

Sluk Bodhisattva
Late-night Zen happens
as shreds from e-Roshi’s axe
Pure Land welcomes you

For a Friend
Roses are red and
violets are blue, right?, but
this haiku is terrible

Jest
No doubt
You’re laughing right now
seeing how your death
has slowed my heart.
You see the joke in my tears,
the punchline of mourning,
for your grin has become the sky.

I love you, Sluk. I’ll see you around.

Book Review: “False Confessions, False Alarms”

False Confessions, False Alarms: Short Stories
by Jeremy Puma
Strange Animal Publications, 2013
175 pg paperback

It could be tempting, coming in blindly, to call Jeremy Puma’s fiction pretentious. His lush prose and extravagant narratives might strike the eye of some a bit askew. Pretense, however, depends upon pretending, and Jeremy Puma isn’t faking a thing. He doesn’t need to. He’s proven it. Like a demon lord from a medieval book of sorcery, Puma takes his readers on a short tour of a believable hell, a world in which everything happens “for a reason”, each life planned out by a mysterious entity, a god who makes no sense. Scraps of poetry weave in and out of prosody, leading the reader on a chase through multiple universes — not parallel, but flowing around and through one another.

Puma uses the form of short fiction to good effect. The weird and uncanny reveals itself in the midst of perfect banality — just the way it happens in real life — and, very often, we are left wondering exactly where we have ended up. The author isn’t kind enough to give us a neat wrap-up at the end of each story. Though, as with most short fiction, the stories are punchy and do not deviate much from their paths, in this case the rising action occurs just outside the reader’s view; we cannot know with precision where the action began, where it ends, or who is really shaping it.

Theoretically, Jeremy Puma places himself safely in company with Philip K. Dick The pieces present layered satire — sometimes bluntly displayed, and sometimes framed with care. I say that the satire is layered because it is not all addressed to the same place of human experience, and can often be read in reference to several such realms at once: political commentary carries a spiritual message, and religious imagery says something about the place and state of art in culture.

Setting is often as important in these stories as the characters in establishing mood and movement. Several of the pieces included in this volume explicitly share a world, while others would fit in that place, but do not tell us if they are there. Only one — the short play, “Gods and Famous People” — stands entirely aloof of place (and, in fact, of time). This general emphasis on setting is an attractive feature, for me. Speculative fiction which gives too much attention to an individual’s impact on his environment without delving far into the environment’s impact on the individual often comes off as merely trivial — fun, at best, but usually a bit insubstantial.

There are some problems, here. Mostly, these are formal and have to do with the fact of Strange Animal being a new, boutique publisher. For one, the book definitely could have used another round of editing. Though Puma’s style is naturally pretty solid, every writer sometimes leaves in repeated words (like the words “again” or “maybe” both before and after the effected clause, etc.), slightly clumsy phrases, and so forth. Still, all of these can be easily corrected in later printings.

As an artifact, my biggest problem with the book is a simple one, but it really does make a difference: the text is all aligned left rather than justified. In a printed book, this very quickly tires the eyes. Again, not a big deal, and easy to fix, but worth a mention for the sake of the well-being of a small publisher whose success I would love to see.

Quite literally the only bad thing I have to say about Puma’s stories themselves is that the first story of the book, “Delivery”, ends very abruptly; the message of the narrative still comes through with clarity, but it almost feels as if, in this instance, the author wasn’t quite sure what to do to wrap-up once the point had been made. But, really, for only one story in a collection of eight, being a first (fiction) outing for both publisher and author, this is a minor gripe, at most.

If you enjoy tales of the weird, combining realism with the ethereal, you’ll feel right at home in False Confessions, False Alarms. If you like your fiction to acknowledge that there are no easy answers, and that nothing is less obvious than the way out of your private prison cell, you’ll be pleasantly unsettled by a kindred spirit’s wry urban demonology. I, for one, look forward to much more of Puma’s fiction.