The Beautifully Worthless by Ali Liebegott
I have repeatedly had the following experience and forgotten about it in such a way as to make each occasion of it dumbly new to me: Asshole is a drinking game that centers on card play. Several rounds can be played quickly, depending on the beverage supplies and the stretch of the evening. Winners are declared “President” and “Vice President.” The loser is deemed “Asshole,” of course. In theory, each round yields a new winner, or at least, the possibility of such. But because the rounds following the first one privilege the “President” and “Vice President” and punish the “Asshole” through perks and rules, the system never truly allows for fair game (outside of the first round, which is based on mere and flimsy luck). And then there is an excessive and forced consumption of booze, usually most by those in the “lower ranks.” Inevitably, the group of drunks around the card pile (at least in the case of petty Liberal Arts co-eds with the luxury of time and money) comes to realize the mirror effect of this game. Oh, man. This game totally shows how our society is structured. The poor stay poor, man, because the rich just keep gaining power. You can imagine how the conversation strays from there -- probing the pressing concerns of a culture gone wrong through the bloodshot-eyed mimicry acted out in frivolously inane dorm-room dramatics. It’s silly. And sophomoric. But it’s also true. And fun.
Ali Liebegott’s book, The Beautifully Worthless, enters the same sort of notion. The title alone is indicative of her light-hearted (yet earnest) tone and poetic disposition. This “novel in verse about a runaway waitress and her Dalmatian, Rorschach, who leave Brooklyn to find hope in a town named Camus, Idaho” is told through letters to an estranged girlfriend (rather charmingly referred to as “lamby”) and corroborative poems. Where Liebegott is truly at her best is in the aforementioned tone and disposition. The world is at once hilarious and cruel. At once a place of possibility and a dead-end. At once beautiful and worthless. Liebegott troubles over how one might “turn the insignificant into significant,/ change the blank inside of a matchbook/ into the most sacred diary and a dirty penny,/ into a tool to count the dead.” Five moves later, the runaway waitress is Camus-bound, following a dream telling her to go to “a place where sadness could be ripped in half, and sickness tied idly in knots all day” and crying, pulled over, in the middle of nowhere. When a state trooper insists that she move her car, as parking on the shoulder is against the law, she asks, “Even if you’re crying, it’s against the law?” And since we have seen the neurotic waitress fret over pennies, newspaper clips about deadly rats and cures for gay dogs, and dreams of an afterlife public city pool, we are charmed by such nonsense. Truly charmed.
The narrative unfolds in plain, linear fashion. The waitress travels. Observes. Travels some more. Reflects. Comes undone. Then, things get weird. Not only does Liebegott’s narrator become less and less reliable or cogent, but the language itself unravels. So much of the first portion of the book demands corruption, a little spill of the hand. It is about halfway through the book when Liebegott manages that trick. Prostitutes drink orange soda on the street. Certainty is a prison, twice. Rorschach (the Dalmatian companion) eats “an entire pineapple upside down cake that... Aunt Lucrezia made while everyone was at church.” The narrator says:
I was looking for a sign
and there were many to choose from:
EXIT 12, THE LAND OF MAKE BELIEVE
(CHRISTIAN CAMPGROUND WITH BARKING DOGS)
MALONE’S RV (GOOD MOTHER/BAD DAUGHTER) SUPER CENTER
DENNY’S (BAD MOTHER/GOOD DAUGHTER) NEXT EXIT
ALL YOU CAN EAT (BAD DAUGHTER/GOOD MOTHER) $3.99
The most engaging elements of The Beautifully Worthless are Liebegott’s knack for sweetly crooked detail, the voyeuristic-feeling letters to lamby and to the very odd Peter, and the funny, mad sensibilities of the narrator. Ultimately, though, it’s really just the letters I want to read. The prose is warmer, more interesting, and subtler than the poetic lines. Liebegott makes some strange moves grammatically and her line breaks often misplace the heart of a line. (This might be due, in part, to a running interest in Emily Dickinson.) It is a real challenge, I think, to make a “poetic document” of an experience (embellished, imagined, or otherwise) and Liebegott surely had trouble editing and cutting. In order to make the work more weighty in common reality, Liebegott needed to consider where to leave something behind. She assumes that the world of the self accurately reflects universal themes. The error in this thinking is that is ignores the complexities of perception and experience, though it does so honestly and with the best of intentions. “You will mourn the loss of lunatic love/ whether or not you miss the lunatic or the lunatic misses you.”
The Beautifully Worthless by Ali Liebegott
Suspect Thoughts Press