book review

Pee On Water
by Rachel B. Glaser
Publishing Genius Press
Fall 2010

I really like Rachel Glaser's writing. I first read her story "Butt Teen" after Tao Lin mentioned it in 2007, then at some point I read her story "The Kid" in Elimae, then a few more stories in several other journals. "The Kid" and the others are included in her collection Pee On Water, which is coming out this fall from Publishing Genius Press. I have been excited about Rachel's book for a long time and got a copy of the early-release edition recently from Adam. I enjoyed reading it in the way that I had definitely expected to enjoy reading it and then in many other ways as well. Rachel does a lot of small, amazing things with her writing. The stories all seem simple and enjoyable but then somewhere inside of them there's something else happening that feels outrageous and sort of painfully new. I think Rachel has maybe perfected (or at least pioneered) a style of flattening out narration, in the sense that compared to the narration of a conventional short story Rachel's narrative voice begins to seem affected and somehow shuttered from the normal world. Instead of building story-depth in the traditional way, the stories sort of ripple out and reverberate from this new, unfamiliar place of narration and I think it is in this starting location where Rachel Glaser's stories really become vastly and strangely original.

Several of the stories share the same technique in their particular achievement of this "expansive narrative flatness" (I guess that is a way to put it). In "Butt Teen" (which is not included in the collection but can be read online at Muumuu House Press) the narration is literally altered along with the progression of the story, as if the narration itself is not in charge but is instead being moved along and educated by the content of the story. The effect is to make a seemingly flat narration into a masterfully broad and intelligent one, achieving the knowledge and depth of the fiction in a way that, at least while reading it, feels like no one else has ever done before. “Butt Teen” is I think a clear and simple example of what makes Rachel's writing amazing, and the same technique can be found throughout Pee On Water, especially in stories like “The Kid” and “The Sad Girlfriend” (the latter of which has a narration that morphs several times into a craigslist missed connection listing).

Other stories in the collection share different manifestations of this same basic idea about how a narrative can come into existence in a fundamentally different way than normal. Or, I guess that is not an entirely accurate way to think about it because a lot of stories do a lot to exist in a different way than normal. Authors are doing this all the time, taking a narrative and shaping the content of it in some amazing way. I think the difference with Pee On Water is that Rachel is shaping the narrative idea itself in a new, amazing way and then using that to get to a completely new fictional place. She’s sort of moving up the location for where the story is becoming original and then in doing so ending up ultimately in a place so strange that I think it’s almost uncomfortable to be there as a reader (especially when you start to see the harsh and dazzling way that this place begins to sort of skew our world back into existence).

The most extreme example of all this comes I think with a group of stories that are maybe the most difficult to place in terms of what they are and how they exist alongside other fiction. The first story “The Magic Umbrella” and the religious art theory story “Iconographic Conventions” and the final title story “Pee On Water” all do the most work in terms of creating new kinds of fiction-knowledge. All three are variations on a kind of overarching historical perspective made simultaneously flat and strangely, compellingly personal. They are sweeping, sort of magnificent stories, sometimes sharing that same characterless/everything-is-a-character quality found in “Butt Teen” but maybe on a higher order of magnitude, and in a way that is emotional and convincing and a little intense in the context of the crazy expansiveness of the stories. This is a short passage from “Pee On Water” (a story sort of about the history of the earth): Ants amble on, self-consciously changing direction. Rain makes them flinch, makes them happy. The monkeys make faces. The monkeys get smart. Two monkeys look at each other with knowing eyes. The trees sway. The birds chat. The knowing eyes are locked in a gaze. They look away. They look back. They have sophisticated children. The story, like a lot of the collection, is sad and poignant and meaningless and ultimately kind of grand in a way. Near the beginning there is a line that reads “Earth is round and open, whole and beating in its early years” and this same intensely massive narration is something that carries on throughout the book, making it at moments a staggeringly beautiful thing to read.

I had already read and liked a lot of the stories before getting the book, and I think I was a little surprised when my favorites ended up being ones I hadn’t read. “The Jon Lennin Xperience” and “The Monkey Handler” are both stories I feel like I have been sincerely wanting to read for a long time without knowing it. Reading them made me feel a little pulsing and kind of hyperaware I think, like maybe there was an excessive level of oxygen going into my brain. “The Jon Lennin Experience” is a little like a cross between something that could have been in Bed and a really great, successful George Saunders story. It has a strange cinematic quality that is amazing and a dramatic, kind of agonizing momentum through the entire ending half of the story. “The Monkey Handler” is a story about long-range space travel and is quite possibly the most satisfying story I have ever read, in a literal sense, since I have maybe been obsessed with long-range space travel for a long time, the way that its symbolism is sort of blissfully appealing and terrifying and achingly accurate. It is a story that I have been subconsciously seeking out and I think it seems perfect to have found it here in this book. Pee On Water is another great, important independent press story collection. Having it feels like having another Bed or Big World. Rachel Glaser is a scientist and she wrote this book.