Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Two Reviews: Del Suelo and Jonathan A. Allan

“I Am Free”
by Del Suelo
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-50-8
When I began I Am Free - Saskatchewan writer, wanderer, and musician Del Suelo’s “slow-art” project that combines text and an audio CD in a compact hardcover package - I was perplexed. What was this? Autobiography, I surmised. But by the second essay - or chapter, or linked story - a plot evolved and it began to read more like a novella. Knowing the genre of a text isn’t critical to its enjoyment, but as both a writer and reviewer I’m perhaps unfairly keen to “name that genre”. I quickly came to appreciate the blurred lines and the vagueness (ie: we never learn which Saskatchewan city the story’s set in), especially as they emulate the dream-like text.

I turned to the author’s own website ( for explication, and learned that Del Suelo (aka Eric Mehlsen) describes the text portion of his mesmerizing book\CD combo as a novel. The CD’s ten songs correspond to their same-named chapters. In Del Suelo’s words: “The songs and prose lean on each other in a way that together create a sense of depth that I’ve never been able to formulate with either medium.” Well said, young man.

The first chapter, “By Myself,” introduces Del Suelo’s narrator and protagonist – an urban office worker dissatisfied with his white collar career and uninspired life – meditating on the tiny cactus he bought on impulse. “It took thousands of years for it to become a resilient, symmetrical masterpiece – and now it sits on display as an ornament in my office.” He walks home through the snowy streets beneath a low-lying sun and observes his surroundings. “There’s a pile of snow-covered leaves in the front yard of one of the houses I pass …” It’s non-dramatic, everyday stuff.  

Like many of us who live alone, the narrator makes simple meals and plops on the sofa before settling into whatever’s caught his attention on Netflix. He’s lonely, and wades into melancholy. And then there’s an all-night supermarket; a papaya; and a girl with a “vintage lavender jacket with a cheap faux-fur collar,” a lip ring, and a counter-culture lifestyle. Hello!
By the end of chapter two I’m tempted to play the CD to discover what the author’s created to accompany this text, but no, reading first, then listening.

Del Suelo’s penned a compelling story. His work’s often poetic (ie: deep melancholy is “like the blackened forest after a fire, or the ruins of a village after a storm”) and frequently insightful (ie: the narrator smokes because he likes “the mild comfort of having something to with [his] hands.”). The book quietly makes a case against accepting the status quo – degree, job, home, materialism. It promotes living solely as “a human with a heartbeat.”

Then there’s the music. I played the CD, then played it twice more. Sublime. The author wrote most of the songs, sings them, and plays all but drums on each. He also produced the recordings. I Am Free is some kind of masterpiece. I’m illumined, Del Suelo. More, please. 

“*Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus”
By Jonathan A. Allan
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95  ISBN 9-780889-773844
I’m going to take a leap here and suggest that the asterisk that appears on the cover and in the title of writer and academic Jonathan A. Allan’s provocative new book – the first in a series of books about the body by University of Regina Press - is not by chance. *Reading from Behind pokes fun and slings puns at that most base of body parts, the anus, while also situating it – in all seriousness - within a cultural and literary context. In his ballsy, er, assiduous text, Allan laments how society’s historically been phallic-centric, and he attempts to get to the bottom (it’s impossible to help myself) of why the anus gets short shrift.

True to his scholarly quest, Allan addresses the anus “head on”: there are sixty pages of comprehensive notes and references here - plus an index - following the eight chapters (with delightful names, ie: “Topping from the Bottom: Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy” and “Spanking Colonialism”). Clearly, this book was not written without significant research.  
So why the in-depth study? Allan - the Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University explains that “It truly is everywhere, the ass,” and it “captivates us”. He asks us to consider it beyond popular cultural references, ie: Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez’s “iconic behinds,” and question what is both said and unsaid about this “governing symbol”. What, for example, might an “anal theory” look like re: discussions about literature, film, and visual texts? What’s brought to light when it’s disassociated from its most prevalent sexual association: male homosexuality? Allan looks at myth, masculinity, and much more as he probes (see?) his subject, and he “works to relieve the burden of [anal] paranoia”.

This impassioned text gives readers much to consider, whether it’s the “innocent homosexuality” in books including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, male-male romance novels (“The ass, like the romance novel, is not nearly as simple as we might imagine …”), the shame suffered by male virgins past late-adolescence, or how Brokeback Mountain “swung the closet doors wide open” to expose the “radical queerness of American literature. In the chapter titled “Spanking Colonialism” he analyzes the power-inverting paintings of Cree artist Kent Monkman.

Non-academic readers might well find this a particularly dense book, but the author’s frequent tongue-in-cheekness (ie: “We shall come to see, by the book’s end, that [the anus] is a remarkably complex organ, sign, and symbol that appears repeatedly in literature and culture” helps lighten the critical load, and aids accessibility and enjoyment.

Allan is currently working on another body-part book - Uncut: The Foreskin Archive (“a cultural study of the foreskin that brings together literary criticism, religious studies, the biomedical sciences, and critical theory”) – and he is both contributing to and editing Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen. Clearly, this is not a writer who shies away from “taboo” subjects, and bottom’s up to that.

No comments:

Post a Comment