reviewed by Simon A. Thalmann | Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Raw Dog Screaming Press, 140 pages, hardcover/trade paperback, $12.95

The stories in Bradley Sands’ latest collection, My Heart Said No, But the Camera Crew Said Yes!, released in April by Raw Dog Screaming Press, fall into the class of pop culture populated by movies directed by guys like Wes Anderson, and the plotlines to television shows like “Lost”: When it comes right down to it, they’ll either hook you or they won’t.

While the stories may lack the cutesy, intellectual snobbery inherent in the works of Anderson, or the addictive, why-are-we-here mystique of “Lost,” they share a certain uniqueness of vision with both, a subtle flare that serves both to stoke the fire within their diehard fan bases and, at the same time, suffocate the interest of the casual observers.

Sands writes within the “bizarro” genre of fiction, a kind of absurdist fiction which unabashedly celebrates weirdness, the prose of which, at its best, often seems to flow like a dream, with one elaborately — often ridiculously — staged situation flowing seamlessly into another. In most cases, Sands’ writing in “My Heart Said No” does just that.

Yet if bizarro writing at its best seems fluid and dreamlike, the antithesis of that is writing where the consecutive images and situations seems forced, and there are a few examples of this herein. One of these is the story “Abusing My Interests,” which, while it may win the award for one of the most enticing first lines (“Sock puppets have a limitless capacity for cruelty”), felt jarring in its transitions.

However, even at the low points of the collection, there are pinpricks of light. In the aforementioned story, for instance, when describing a bouncer outside a nightclub, Sands makes reference to him both as a “Bicep-O-Matic machine” and “exercise equipment,” two memorable descriptive labels that immediately burn the appropriate image on the reader’s psyche.

Sands is a developing master of this type of subtle-yet-blaring description, which surfaces throughout the collection, as in “Outside,” when he refers to a woman with a stroller as “an ovulation machine pushing a stroller full of her darling accomplishments.” It’s a bizarre way of stating the ordinary, which is what Sands — and his genre –is striving for, and Sands, throughout, commands an effective presentation of this style.

Yet it’s difficult not to note while reading the collection that the type of writing it consists of — which is more limited perhaps than more or less “literary” fare when it comes to accessibility — and the commercial success of the collection will possibly hinge on the reader’s familiarity with the bizarro genre going in. The writing often reads like a kind of odd poetry, the strength of which lies in individual lines. And Sands, whose literary talents seem to fall somewhere between those of Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, isn’t immune from what those not “into” the genre might see as its weaknesses.

Many of the best stories in My Heart Says No — such as “The Heist,” “Croatan,” “The Two-Toed Sapsucker” — are also the shortest, if only because the writing is so exhausting to read that shorter segments are that much easier to digest. It isn’t hard to imagine that to readers unaccustomed to the style, anything in the genre at length would border on the unreadable.

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Yet even at length, Sands’ stories bleed enough potential symbolism to rival a Bob Dylan song. They are the kind of stories where you always almost have a handle on what’s going on, but only just almost, as in the previously noted case of the bouncer: Is the label “Bicep-O-Matic machine” just a clever description, or does Sands mean for us to take the bouncer as a literal robot? At times in the collection, it’s difficult to tell what’s meant to be taken at face value, if anything. The grotesque nature of some of the stories may turn some readers off — there are perhaps more references to digestion than necessary, and at one point in “Outside” a character “erupts” from a package “like the contents of a pimple” –but more outstanding are the more acutely insightful, and comedic, lines which expose Sands’ wit, as in “Terror in the Haunted House,” when the protagonist can’t produce monetary change for another character because he only has “singles.”

“For authenticity,” Sands writes, “he searches his pocket dimension and grabs a handful of men and women, dripping with loneliness and astronomical bar tabs.”

In “Jonathan Seabreeze Upward,” Sands writes, “The magicians have initiated all the ridiculous things humanity has ever done throughout history in order to acquire a joystick for controlling our lives. Other examples include working in an office between the hours of nine to five and dating.”

Observations like these pop up throughout My Heart Said No, and make it worth at least a cursory glance. Those who already are fans of the bizarro genre likely will love the collection, though for others it may take some time to get accustomed to Sands’ style. For the latter, beginning with the shorter pieces in the collection or a more accessible story more toward the middle or end — “Gen Papa-Georgio,” “Jared Brukheiny,” or “A Visitor’s Guide to Lawn Guyland” –may increase their chances of sticking with it.

Sands is a bizzarro devotee — he edits the absurdist literary journal Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens — and My Heart Said No makes no bones about it. Yet it’s entirely possible that label of the genre Sands writes in is meaningless. After all, “It is not the composition of the doors that is mysterious,” he writes in “Terror in the Haunted House,” “but what lies beyond them.”

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