Charlatan: New and Selected Stories, by Cris Mazza

reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

images-2Cris Mazza’s 2017 Charlatan: New and Selected Stories reminded me—in this crazy way—of Waiting for Godot. There’s something both spare and dense about it. I’m left a little hungry, but I feel the import too. It’s weighty. Might it be, like Beckett’s work, of great philosophic import? Perhaps existential anguish is replaced here by the quiet dynamics of sexual dogma and human intimacies?

This collection includes short stories from 1979 to 2013. Mazza, a literary force with seventeen books, is escorted here by the likes of Gina Frangello (editor) and Rick Moody (wrote the foreword). I did, indeed, feel hungry—but that’s a good thing. Even when the stories are lengthy, there were often characters without names—characters existing as pronouns, as he or she. Gender-specific. Or existing like this, from “Dog & Girlfriend”:

“She is trained to stay off the bed. Somehow she understands this rule to mean only her back end. She’s perfectly capable of keeping her little feet on the floor and taking a nap with the rest of her body on the bed.”

The use of pronouns make me wonder if I’m in a room with bare walls (like an empty stage). And yet I’m compelled to get up and give my dog a smack on the snout.

Or there is this, from “Revelation Countdown”:

“The photographer, without any pants, takes a pre-dawn picture of his motel room. But then he winds the film back and re-exposes the frame to destroy the image of the rumbled, soiled sheets. There’s no evidence to suggest that someone’s breath and heartbeat fluttered against his body all night, like holding a sleeping bird in two cupped hands.”

Holding a sleeping bird in two cupped hands . . .

Do you see how this collection might leave one hungry and satiated at the same time?

There is, at once, the sensation of minimalism and of hyper-focus.

The hunger is for further exploration. The satiation is from close scrutiny, an intimacy, a fearless scrounging around the terrain of sexuality.

I’m still haunted by parts of the collection. By first lines: “I remember the first time I saw you” (“Second Person” – which, unlike Lorrie Moore’s self-referential use of the second person, addresses another or a you outside of oneself).

Or wild openings: “She ordered meatball soup. There was one meatball. I said it was a bull testicle. I couldn’t ruin her appetite” (“My Husband’s Best Friend” – a one page story, rich in imagery).

Oddly, perhaps, one of my favorite stories was non-linear, more experimental (and I’m probably not an experimental fiction writer): “Trickle-down Timeline.” This story included dated passages from 1980-1989. For example, Mazza writes the following:

1980

Pac-Man became the first computer game hero. He was originally supposed to be Puck-Man (he was, after all, shaped like a hockey puck), but with the threat that rampaging youth might scratch out the loop of the P to form an F on arcade machines, Pac-Man was born, a name with literally no meaning.

And then we tour the eighties, with hints of Reagan and Princess Diana, of New Coke and Prozac. I am left nostalgic and somber—but there is also an ironic twinkle in the mind’s eye. Recent history, having unfolded as it has, goes under the microscope.

After these selections, a reader will certain crave more by this author.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of three books, The Freak Chronicles (stories),  Love Slave (a novel), and And So We Die, Having First Slept (forthcoming from Five Oaks Press). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.

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