Ben Arzate is something of an enigmatic figure in that he is fairly prominent within edgy alternative political and literary circles but almost never expresses opinions on anything other than his analysis of people’s books. What does he actually believe? Who knows. If we are to follow the clues in his own books, we come no closer to unraveling the mystery except to infer that he might believe that nothing really matters, and one is better served in these turbulent times by taking refuge in the world of transgressive fiction, quietly amusing ourselves with the everyday horrors of contemporary life.
A while back I reviewed Ben Arzate’s brief poetry chapbook, which I found to be rather promising. So I was excited to read his new book of short stories, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye (published by NihilismRevised, 2018) because I knew it would be longer and have more meat to it (insert that’s what SHE said joke here.) What he excels at brilliantly in this book is in creating characters which behave and communicate realistically within the ridiculously absurd, exaggerated and often sci-fi situations they are placed in. He subtly shatters our idealistic and romantic notions by revealing just how mundane, unremarkable and pathetic our lives really are…in any context.
A prime example of this is the story, The Arranged Marriage. In recent years, arranged marriages have gained a resurgence of support and idealization among fringe reactionaries of the “trad” variety, which view them as a solution to “the incel problem” among many other so-called societal ills. Yet in Arzate’s The Arranged Marriage he depicts what I believe a contemporary arranged marriage would actually be like. Lisa and Michael are forced into an arranged marriage by their respective enthusiastic parents. The young couple agree to go along with it without much in the way of protest or enthusiasm. The couple’s conversations are filled with apathetic, intentionally uninspired strings of dialog such as the following:
“Are you looking forward to going to the
carnival?” I asked Lisa.
“I guess,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
This is the way people in forced relationships really do talk to one another, regardless of whether the “forced” relationship itself is literally due to familial setup or it’s just two people that happen to be dating but aren’t emotionally invested in one another. They’re just going through the motions.
A relatable story for me is The Country Musician, which relays a tale of a struggling country music artist named Hank in rather realistic, unromantic and less than heroic terms. This isn’t That Thing Called Love.
Hank put the five songs on the Internet.
After a year, each has less than 300 plays. None of
them have gotten any plays in the past month.
This is what being a contemporary indie music artist is actually like. You release an album. A handful of people buy it, but ultimately no one cares except for maybe a few weirdos and lonely e-girls that have crushes on you. You put songs on Soundcloud and sort of promote them in a half-assed way, but they barely get any plays. You mail copies out to important people and record companies, and occasionally someone is interested but nothing happens. At some point someone important will express some interest in your music and offer you something, but only on the condition that you radically change it in ways which are incompatible with who you are and antithetical to your artistic vision. In Hank’s case, a record executive offers him a record deal but wants Hank to record a reggae album instead of country:
The executive tells Hank that he liked his
demo, but country is out. He says that reggae is
the next big thing.
Hank tells the executive that he likes
reggae, but he does not play reggae. He plays
country. He also says he is not black and not
The executive tells him that it does not
matter that he is not black. There are white
Jamaicans. In a voice that sounds like Santa
Claus, he says that Hank just has to do a fake
Almost all of the stories are written in this style of dry, deadpan prose. It’s clearly by design and emphasizes our drab, mechanical, stop-motion animated lives in clownworld. Most of the stories in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye have a weird horror/scifi component to them. The story with the same name as the book’s title concerns a house that physically gets cancer. Admittedly, this was one of the more horrifying and grotesque stories for a hypochondriac like me to read. The best way I could describe the stories in this book is that they remind me of the vignettes in 80s-90′s shows like Tales From the Darkside and Monsters, minus any preachy moralizing, important life lessons or poetic justice. I chose those shows to compare the book to specifically rather The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, which were often trying to lecture or teach us something about how to make the world a better place. Shows like Monsters only did that to a lesser extent and mostly just aimed to creep out the viewer.
Despite their intentionally uninspiring form and low-charisma characters, these short stories are surprisingly engaging. I didn’t find any of them to be boring or lackluster. The objects and “living” physical backgrounds often take up the slack themselves morphing into lively characterizations. There is plenty of imagination here and some stories may have a life outside this book. The Arranged Marriage in particular I feel has the potential to be developed into a novella or short film. The stories in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye often end abruptly and without a satisfactory resolution, much like our lives usually do: A man makes a plate of chips and salsa. He sits down on the couch to watch the football game. The game is a blowout, and the team he is cheering for is losing. He is not enjoying the game. During the third quarter, he suffers a heart attack and dies. There are a few chips left on the plate, but most of the salsa got on his shirt. A neighbor finds the man’s body the next day and calls the morgue to tell them there’s a dead body. While he is waiting for someone to arrive, he sees the plate of chips and decides they might not be too stale, so he eats one. (This is not an actual story in the book. I just made it up by the way.)
That’s how our lives actually are though and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye both horrifies and entertains by briefly taking us out of our depraved world of delusions so that we may cringe and laugh at ourselves and everything around us.