Swallowdown Press, 188 pages, paperback, $10.95
Though there isn’t a genre of fiction out there that couldn’t be unjustly pigeonholed by an ignorant critic, it could be argued that Bizarro fiction is the easiest target of them all. Often criticized as being “weird for the sake of weird,” the value of Bizarro can be a challenging idea to convey to those who have only glanced at the subversive titles and cover art common to Bizarro books. But if your preconceived notion of Bizarro is limited by paperbacks entitled The Nipple Rings of Neverland or Lucifer’s Liposuction, with cover images of Uncle Sam defecating Easter eggs under a Christmas tree, then I can only assume one thing: you’ve never read Jeremy Robert Johnson.
Johnson’s latest collection, We Live Inside You, continues to showcase the author’s staggering ability to craft stories as poignant as they are strange. The gamut of emotion conjured between the first and last page provides a workout for practically every muscle in a reader’s mind. The collection’s suggestive parasitic title is entirely appropriate — from suspense, to contemplation, to downright horror, Johnson’s objective is to coax out all the different (and often nasty) sentiments dwelling within your own brain.
Personal favorites include “Trigger Variation,” which proudly wears its Chuck Palahniuk influence like a badge of honor. Taking its cues from Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, the story’s cult-like gang, the EndLiners, provide the reader an even more outlandish agenda than “Project Mayhem.” And, of course, Johnson doesn’t let you off the hook with simple entertaining violence — the final blow of the story’s conclusion isn’t a punch to the face but a stab in the heart.
“When Sussurus Stirs” is another that will stay with you longer than the story’s titular parasite. In the collection’s endnotes, the author dares the reader to research the actual organism and say if he was exaggerating with his descriptions of its symptoms. My personal challenge is to find another writer who can convey such stomach-turning scenes with such contradicting elegance. Perhaps my only criticism of this one is how similar its plot structure is to another parasite story in the collection, “Cathedral Mother,” (specifically, the protagonist’s final actions.) However, the setting of “Catherdral Mother” is so different and well-constructed that the story does not suffer for a restated theme.
We Live Inside You also contains four stories that make up a writing exercise called “Symmetrina.” If you are not familiar with this rather newer storytelling form, I would suggest looking up the medium’s strict laws before delving into these particular stories. Still, even by themselves, the stories are powerful little jabs to the gut, proving that Johnson deserves the gold medal for flash fiction if nothing else. As with “Branded” and “Priapism” from Johnson’s first collection, Angel Dust Apocalypse, the author continues to demonstrate how the fewest words can sometimes leave the darkest scars.
The collection is a generous helping of 17 stories, and even offers a “B-Sides & Rarities” section, which includes a non-fiction essay on the popular independent musical act The Mars Volta. Like I said: this collection is all over the map, as Johnson has been exploring every corner of his writing atlas in the six long years since ADA.
The Bizarro crowd should feel immensely fortunate to have Johnson around, seeing that the writer may be their finest champion to prove that the genre is weird for the sake of being meaningful. Read either of Johnson’s collections and I think you’ll agree.