The Condemned by Noah Cicero
The Condemned came to me without any promotional copy and so I did not realize that it was a short story collection. I read it as one loud, scarred novel that cleverly interchanged characters and points of view. At the end, when it did not resolve in any summative way, I took it to be a Mulholland Drive-like decision on the part of the author -- life doesn’t resolve.
I worry about how good it would be if I read it properly. The Condemned comes from a writer, Noah Cicero, who is not only immensely talented but has distinct strategies. This guy knows what he’s doing.
First, he uses one or two sentences per paragraph. His prose reads like the New York Post. From "Love":
Billy Jean came to terms with her freedom.
She was not apprenticed to care about traditions or taboos.
And the ones her parents threw at her, she found silly.
Billy Jean was the antithesis to the American Dream and the American Way of Life.
I found that all very sexy.
Interspersed between the straightforward, working-man sentence-paragraphs are the ones in which blunt philosophical findings are presented, a la Jim Goad. From "Gratuitous Kink -- The Immaculate Cherry Popping":
The impact of an orgasm on the human body and mind is the only experience that can remotely relieve the existence of all the bleak shittiness of human reality.
To counterbalance the drum of the sentence-paragraphs, people speak in insane, coked-up gallops (they also, generally, are on coke). From "Crack Whore and Chicken Strips":
“Somebody was supposed to pick me up. I don’t know where they are. I’m missing a party. I was supposed to dance for these guys. And they were gonna pay me one hundred and fifty dollars. No one has come to pick me. My dude dropped me off. Yeah, one hundred dollars, can you fucking believe it? I should be at that party. If you pay for my food, I’ll give you a blow job.”
Finally, action is indicated by exclamation points (and periods are sometimes optional). From "The Warrior":
Joe stood up
Punched her in the eye!
Kathy hit the floor!
James Frey used stylistic strategies similar in form and purpose and faced a similar challenge: how to keep from falling into gimmickry?
The Condemned answers, with content. From page one, the book continuously demonstrates that its style is the only suitable vehicle for its tales of savage, unyielding physical and mental violence. To themselves, to each other and especially to their immediate relatives, the heroes of these stories are dedicated in blood.
They hail from Youngstown, Ohio, like the author himself. They are addicted to drugs. They have forgettable, interchangeable, middle-of-the-country names. They know that no one sees them or cares about them and in the absence of scrutiny, like children, they play.
Play in The Condemned consists primarily of sexual degradation and release. There is about an even split between heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male encounters, loosely arranged in order of increasing deviance. In “Love,” startlingly, there is new sexual imagery, jarring stuff that argues there is some discovery left in the act.
The most obscene thing that The Condemned does, however, is perform American miscegenation, mixing our dated and ridiculous views about the blue-state/red-state divide.
First, the characters in these stories are smart -- they read the classics, have a keen sense of their place in the world, and can spot a liar or an idiot miles away (although they usually don’t have to; usually it’s their parents). Noah Cicero himself is the sort of talent that East-coast taste-merchants like to hold up as raw hick fire, untouched by refined schooling, when he consistently demonstrates that he is a writer of fierce care and skill.
Secondly, wasn’t it the Least and Left Coasts of America that were supposed to be depraved? Because the dirty futon-hopping of New York’s sex-positive post-feminist literature looks like first base compared with the church sex of “Gratuitous Kink.” If the center of America is the source of its perversion and the coasts are just reflections, where are people not fucked up? Cicero’s answer screams from every page.
Forget the transsexual sex and crack-smoking. What is shocking about The Condemned is its confidence and sense of purpose. Really, really brilliant and readable.
The Condemned by Noah Cicero
Six Gallery Press