The small press is alive and well as evidenced by two particularly delightful and tonally inventive “fictions” that I read this past weekend. Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot is her long awaited second novel. She has moved out of what I call the “first novelists who I love” club. These are the kinds of writers that I constantly am checking on amazon.com for their second novel’s publication date. I still recall the thrill of seeing Fae Myenne Ng’s Steer Toward Rock get its listing. In any case, I digress. Ambient Parking Lot is much more about postmodern ennui. This novel could have been a version of musical artists in the land of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, but behind the lethargy of the avant-garde musicians that populate this novel is yet still the search for a kind of life’s meaning. This goal was already explored to a certain extent in Pamela Lu’s debut, Pamela: A Novel, but this work feels very different in terms of its aims. There was a sense in Pamela of a nonlinear trajectory, but this novel actually has a much firmer ending and some might even say a very appropriate conclusion. The title of the novel, “Ambient Parking Lot,” refers to the music that the artists record. They are constantly looking for the perfect locations from which to glean the best ambient sounds, whether in parking garages, in malls, on the side of highways, in front of grocery stores. The “ambient parkers” stage various concerts and shows replete with performance artists and occasionally achieve fame. They face depression and exhilaration; they seek affirmation but are often disappointed. Two huge narrative interruptions occur in the novel that are executed with much aplomb and shift the narrative into different registers. These two sections are extremely vital in keeping readerly attention because Lu has got the postmodern thing down pat, but it only works because Lu continually uses abstractions. We often don’t know when or where we are and we rarely ever get character names. The sections that interrupt the main narrative flow are more detailed and specific and get into a single character interiority. They really are welcome breaks. Ambient Parking Lot is a really enjoyable read; a funky novel with a lot of unexpected surprises.
Insomnia and the Aunt was another spritely read. I have always enjoyed Tan Lin’s work. Like Lu, you can tell Lin is always having a fun time with English as a kind of illogical language. On the one hand, insomnia and the aunt has a definite point: it’s an elegiac narrative devoted to a young Chinese American man’s love of a dearly departed relative, the titular aunt, but on the other, it reveals the complicated ways we tend to remember. Much of this text unfolds in the space of a motel, one run by the protagonist’s aunt in Seattle. The protagonist occasionally comes to visit from Ohio. It is difficult to tell what genre this work actually is in; buying it from amazon leaves you with the parenthetical description that it’s a pamphlet and the book comes in a plastic sleeve. It’s relatively short and is too short to be a novella. There is also the question of whether it is fiction or nonfiction. There are no identifying markers with respect to that; and finally, the pamphlet isn’t paginated. When the protagonist visits the Aunt, they spend quite a bit of time watching television and much of the narrative revolves around the way that the protagonist remembers how they watched television, how they understand authenticity or performance through television watching, and whether or not they could ever be more American than when they were a part of their television in some way. What I thought especially elegiac about the piece was the way that the protagonist understood that certain television shows would always remind him of his Aunt, not necessarily for their content, but for the way that the Aunt would uniquely interface with them. It wasn’t always clear for instance whether or not the Aunt would completely understand certain humorous jokes being rendered, but she did understand how essentially American it was to have the television be a part of one’s life. In this respect, the elegy works doubly, as at one point, the protagonist points out that more and more the internet is replacing the television. Thus, the television like the Aunt is moving ever more into memory. Since the television was this apparatus that actually encouraged the protagonist and the Aunt to sit in the same space and time, there is the sense that the internet does not necessarily work in the same way. I wonder about Lin’s potential sequel, surely to come out half a century from now, when the internet has given way to some other visual interface. I’ll admit I wasn’t always sure I understood the functionality of many of the postcards and images and links that are included as part of the work, but there is one moment toward the end where I desperately wanted one piece of the scrapbook that the protagonist seems to be unmaking, a picture of a very unique vending machine.
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