Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.
Monday, December 4, 2017
Bronwyn Reviews: The Protester Has Been Released
Publisher: C&R Press
The Protester Has Been Released is a smart, hilarious collection of ten stories and a novella by Janet Sarbanes. I’m going to tackle this review in two parts, as the content dictates.
A central theme in Sarbanes’ stories is miscommunication. An American couple with a young child think the housekeeper and chauffer in their Mexico City house are being intentionally unhelpful, when in fact they’re trying to save their lives. An earnest arts collective negotiates a museum residency via email with a half-interested curator. Koko the guerrilla, it seems, has been misunderstood all along by her teacher and the rest of us.
Sometimes the miscommunication is willful. In Meet Koko, for example, we discover she knows far more language than she’s letting on:
“I called my new kitty All Ball because I enjoyed the rhyme. Also, there was an absurdist quality to my Manx cat, with its missing tail and squeaky little voice that put me in mind of the Dadaist sound poet Hugo Ball. But according to Penny in this video, I named it All Ball because I thought it looked like a ball.”
Sarbanes’ sense of humor is dry and razor-sharp. She teaches in the Creative Writing program at CalArts, so her sideways swipes at academia (The Tragedy of Ayapaneco) and at the formal arts world (Sunshine Collective) particularly pack a punch.
Reviewers have made much of the animals that narrate Sarbanes’ stories: Laika the first mammal to orbit the Earth, Koko the signing gorilla, and Rosie the sheep who provided the DNA for the first mammal to be cloned. They’re all real animals who contributed to the development of human knowledge, but never had the opportunity to tell their own stories. Sarbanes gives them voice in these stories, if not agency.
Her narrators, both animal and human, are witty, biting, and bittersweet. An undercurrent of hope runs through the stories, often focused on art. Dolly the cloned sheep brings the flock together with her poetry in Rosie the Ruminant. In Ars Longa, when literally everyone gets cancer, a family is brought together through an arts institute they create in the hospital. Their dead mother offers encouragement:
“As you get older, your powers will diminish, but your wisdom will increase. There’s a sweet spot where your powers and wisdom are just about equal, but usually you can only identify it in retrospect, and have squandered it on getting your teenagers into college. Be on the lookout for your sweet spot. Do something big with it.”
Even Laika, despite her inevitable tragedy, hears the music of the spheres.
The novella that closes this volume, The First Daughter Finds her Way, is a more challenging read. That’s partly because of The Times We Live In. It has become almost impossible to read fictional bad presidents; reality has surpassed the unimaginable. Whatever a writer might imagine is simultaneously too nefarious and not nefarious enough, while also being too ridiculous and not ridiculous enough. Sarbanes’ president is a well-dressed buffoon who’s easily manipulated by stronger personalities around him. He reads like George W. Bush, a president from our more innocent past.
Her fictional first daughter, like the protagonists of the shorts in this collection, is too smart and insightful for the people who surround her. The tone of her narrative verges on young adult fiction, but then she breaks into oulipan list-making and takes the story in unexpected directions. One of Sarbanes’ most deft rhetorical moves comes from the fact that Afghanistan, the first country the US attacked after 9/11, is also the first country in an English-language alphabetical list of all countries in the world. She carries this concept ad absurdum, to great effect, reminding us that the Bush years were not as innocent as we might wish to remember.
The Protester Has Been Released will make you laugh and it will make you think. It is fiction for our times.