GMR’s “Slow Burn” review series looks back at titles that continue to smolder, still, beneath the embers of last year or even the year before, or that simply burn brighter with time. –The Editors

Tyrant Books. 2012.

Tyrant Books. 2012.

Life Is with People by Atticus Lish is a collection of black and white captioned drawings unconnected by plot and printed on lined notebook paper. These drawings sear across a spectrum of black humor—from the repulsively crude and the delightfully clever to the delightfully crude and the repulsively clever. Depending on the taste and constitution of the reader, Life Is with People may or may not induce a maniacal cycle of laughter, grimaces, and grimace-laughter. This book has guts. On every page it slits and spills them.

At literary blog HTMLIGANT, Tyrant Books editor Giancarlo DiTrapano says of Life Is with People:

This isn’t something I can really try to sell to you. You either like it, or you do not. You either get it, or you do not. I am not saying one is better than the other. Personally, I see each page as a poem that takes awhile to sink in. I can’t really look at too many of them in one sitting. I once looked at a stack of 300 of them in one sitting and felt mental and ill for ten hours afterward.

The cover foretells the content: behind the wheel of a parked car sits a screaming driver, his hands clutching the back of his head, his face spattered in blood. Outside the car stand three men. The first, closest to the driver, casually raises a knife. The second, beside the first, watches, his expression somewhere between boredom and menace. The third stands a short distance behind the car and captures this event on a camcorder strapped to his hand. These three assailants are distinct in ordinary ways—they look like everyday folk, their faces mundanely unique. Only the driver howls from a horrifying place of pain, anger, and madness.

This collision—of the common and the fiendish—provides the book’s panicked heartbeat.

In his introduction, Lish notes, “It will be obvious that the book is mainly drawn from life, though there is an element of wish-fulfillment—not everything you see is real. Some material is imagined.”

Here the reader will find hairy hands and necks and faces, sneers and screams and cries for help, sex and murder and self-mutilation. Hoary naked crones address Tony Danza. An enthusiastic man is willfully shat upon by a suspended woman. A mother berates a father for not playing Nintendo with their son. A passerby is mocked by a pack of wretched boys. A damaged man with a beer and a bucket declares that he can direct better movies than Guy Richie.

A strange thing might happen: the reader may begin to regard the more “ordinary” images as actually more disturbing than those that are “conventionally disturbing.” After all, aren’t these mundane events more likely to be happening, right now, somewhere in our world?

An even stranger thing might happen: the reader may begin to regard the conventionally disturbing drawings as no less mundane than those that are more ordinary. After all, aren’t these disturbing events just as likely to be happening, right now, somewhere in our world?

A still stranger thing: the possibility that Lish’s introduction, which comes across as tongue-in-cheek, may in fact be profoundly sincere.

To say it another way: Lish’s world is our world. That he slowly shocks the reader into this realization is no small feat.

                                                                         *

A brutishly-built shouting man is assaulted—one man holds his arms while another gamely stabs his chest. The caption reads, “Around the world, Christmas is celebrated by different people in different ways.”

*

Some of Lish’s captions endow the drawings with new dimensions, some underscore dimensions already present, and many provide humor—sometimes with severe understatement (“Chances are he would never be the same again”), and sometimes with shifts in register (“It thrilled Julian to think that, years from now, after he and the beautiful stranger were celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, they would look back and smile remembering the night they met behind the Autozone”). In every case, the captions and drawings converse.

“I am a romantic,” says Lish in his introduction. “My primary goal in producing this book is to meet people with similar interests.”

I handed Life Is with People to my friend JG. He grimaced and did not laugh. He said, “This can get published?”

“This guy can’t even draw,” he said, handing it back.

I handed Life Is with People to my brother. He laughed, grimaced, and grimace-laughed. He pointed to intricate shading on a furious knot of intestinal tentacles blasting out of a man’s rear. “This guy can really draw,” he said.

I handed Life Is with People to my friend MM, who’s adept at telling jokes that are as spectacularly clever as they are offensive. He laughed, then laughed harder, then laughed hard at how hard he was laughing. He said, “I wonder if he does the pictures drunk and the captions sober.”

“This is—wow,” he said more than once, laughing, flipping through it.

He pointed to a drawing of a man chopping off his own hand with a cleaver. The caption reads, “It’s just how I feel at the moment.”

He said, “This belongs above a desk. At work.”

*

One of the only recurring characters is a daring man with a feather in his cap. Near the end he delivers a monologue that, to me, captures Lish’s goals as an artist:

Today, we’re making popovers. As you can see, I’m using cake flour, not the baking flour used by ordinary people. This is what science involves—a departure from ordinary grains and powders. A rebellious swerve. When I powder my feet, that’s when I use the baking flour—see? Not before. My jacket is covered in more butter than the tray with the popovers on it. That’s why it shines like this. I could go on. It’s about repelling water as well as conventional thinking. Everything is dual-use. The popovers contain a high-explosive core. You don’t get this on the normal cooking shows. You want to know about the feather? Don’t ask! The feather is so I can be identified by friendly forces. The kicker is: there are no friendly forces. I’m alone out here, unfettered. That’s the paradox of a feather. Let me [go] back to baking. So this is what we do: whisk-whisk-whisk, we knead, press, form, form the popover, it goes on the tray—this is all familiar. What’s unfamiliar is—[when] it’s time to bake, you slide yourself into the oven with the tray. That’s what no one expects.

DiTrapano argues that you either get this book or you don’t. I’d like to make a case for a reader getting that he or she won’t always get it, that such a state is desirable, not to mention difficult for an artist to evoke. In Life Is with People, the expectation is that Lish will reach with word and image for “what no one expects”—before, after, or during the detonation.

 

Joseph Scapellato

JOSEPH SCAPELLATO was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His work appears in Kenyon Review Online, Third Coast, Unsaid, Harper Perennial’s anthology Forty Stories, and other places.