Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Spring 2004

Sick: An Anthology of Illness, Edited by John Edward Lawson

Sick: An Anthology of Illness
Edited by John Edward Lawson
Raw Dog Screaming Press
Hyattsville, MD
296 pp. $15.95


Any work like Sick: An Anthology of Illness is bound to carry with it the onerous and almost stereotypical burden of experimental fiction: how does one depart from the norm (plot, language, theory) while still functioning within the norm (the necessary comprehensibility of the written word as communication vehicle). The weakness of most modern experimental fiction springs from its nouvelle appeal to young and disenfranchised writers who embrace the "approach" for its promise of novelty while lacking the tools to execute it to any effective end. A more important and related weakness stems from the stultifying effect of academic and market forces that force those seasoned writers with the best chance of succeeding in this difficult pursuit into narrow and unimaginative prose patterns—patterns set and sanctified by a growing generation of editors, publishers, agents, and other literary professionals genuinely incapable of reading anything more difficult than plot-heavy, third person minimalist fare. (If you can't sell the movie rights, why sell the book?) For the most part, those who should depart from industry dogma don't have the guts or verve, and those who do don't have the skills or experience. 

Sick shows this phenomenon in moderate relief. Strong individual works are sewn in next to inconsistent passes of bright-eyed shock fancy. When judging the quality of such visceral work one must remain highly attuned to voice and consistency—especially in stories where the voice is intentionally inconsistent. If a writer is going to depart from a strict attention to tense or toy with redundancy of word and phrase or string together a series of irritating adverbs, he/she must have a compelling theory-based reason, and this reason must be applied with a consistent and assured hand. Using lumpen conversational voice in a narrative phrase like "others didn't do nothing but stare ... " a few paragraphs from a stilted permutation like "he was but two blocks from the hospital ..." can work, but only when applied evenly. In the story bearing this example, little consideration of this nature seems to have been in play, either in the compositional or editorial phase. This smacks of an "I write what I write, and my genius shit don't stink, so fuck you" mentality.

I've smelled a lot of shit. Trust me: shit stinks. Even in rose gardens when placed next to wild, colorful, and intoxicating outgrowths (like much of the writing in the story from which the above example was taken). 

This comparison extends to much of the book: the sweet odor of some fine experimental fiction marred by the occasional whiff of unintentional excrement, perhaps carried into the house on the soles of the writer’s shoe from indiscriminate steps. It is of course the editor's job to scrape away these offending particles and dung balls, and to be fair, this phenomenon is only present in a third to half of the stories in this collection—and in such limited quantity in those as to merit only a few vague demerits. Almost all the stories have some redeeming features, and several are effective beyond expectation. Stories by Harold Jaffe, Greg Beatty, Earl Javorsky, Brandi Bell, Kevin L. Donihe and satan165 (hilarious stuff), all display the combination of inventiveness and professionalism needed for success in this gray area of prose. Many of the other authors show outright genius, but a genius hampered by lack of attention to tools of the craft. Though few budding authors are aware of the fact, this lack of attention constitutes the most insidious and often mortal threat to any potential literary career.

Despite these inconsistencies, we can recommend Sick. Younger, more impressionable readers will be floored by it and think it a monstrous leap forward while more experienced and educated readers may be able to excuse the occasional weakness and appreciate the breathtaking, exhilarating and often diabolical machinations of the human mind. Many tenure trackers and those even remotely familiar with Strunk and White will undoubtedly squirm now and then, but there's a fair chunk of meat in this nut. Tease it out.