Thursday, March 10, 2016

A familiar dread

Squirm With Me

By Andersen Prunty

Publisher: Atlatl Press

Pub Date: March 19, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

With Squirm With Me Andersen Prunty has taken a big step away from the Bizarro label he endures and maybe even from the horror classification that dark books like The Sorrow King and Fuckness has given him. His new novel has nothing bizarrely impossible about it nor is there anything that makes you go "eww" or "eek!". Yet the author is still obsessed in a nihilistic universe with characters designed to make the reader do what the title promises. Squirm With Me may be his most mature and personal novel yet. It also may be his best.

Mason Becker is a writer who self-published his first and only book and is doing well enough to quit his job and live on the royalties with help from his cashed in 401(K). Yet both are finally wearing out He recently experienced the death of his girlfriend and is questioning his worsening relationship with his daughter from his first wife. Now three people are coming into, and in one case back into, his life; A woman he meets in a bar, his brother Doug and a "hate reader" named Dargonslayer who is trolling him with stalker type messages and perhaps more devious tricks. Doug convinces Mason to go to a fantasy convention to seek revenge and "punch him in the dick". But before they leave for the convention, Mason is wondering why his brother has shown up at this time, a person he seems to hold contempt for yet follows his lead as though he is seeking his approval. This leads to a series of events that only heightens the sense that everything is going wrong in his life.

Squirm With Me is bleak. It tends to wander excessively in some places. There seems to be a pointlessness in Doug's action like he has forsaken his will to thrive even before his brother re-enters his life. Even sex with the new girl he meets is awkward and meaningless. Yet , in walking in a park, he comes across a trail that never seems to end. it becomes a mystery and a wonder. It is something different than the meaninglessness and disappointment he is finding in his life. It feels magical. The scenes of him exploring this trail is a respite for him. It appears to give him a queer source of hope.

Why would this bleak novel feel so real to the reader? Maybe it is because for me, in the character of Doug, the author seems to have created a reasonable if scary version of my own brother. A person who has a strange source of charisma with others but is toxic in our own interactions. Is this coincidence? I think not, since we all have our unhealthy issues in our family and do not have to dig that deep to find them. Is there an obsession to fail in our main character Mason? Have we not all been afraid of success and occasionally sabotaged ourselves? Feelgood novels may be essential and motivating for some but it takes a serious and talented writer to evoke our darker nature and make it feel real enough to be both uncomfortable, revealing and insightful. I think Prunty does that. He does it with a haunting style that is easy to read yet doesn't spell it all out for you. Prunty has shown several literary influences in his past works but this and his last novel, Sociopaths in Love, seems to owe much to the dark nihilism so loved by Chuck Palahniuk. Yet the style is all different and Prunty seems to hit more of a familiar and emotional tone for this reader. Whatever literary influence leaps out at you, Prunty is unique.

But can this novel be considered autobiographical in any way? That isn't really for the reader to decide even if the titling of the fictional author's work bears a teasing resemblance to one of Prunty's own novel and is just as full of dread and existential angst as this one.. Yet Squirm with Me works because, if the scenario is unfamiliar, the emotions and fears are not. Squirm With Me. may indeed be a horror novel but it is a horror novel we have all experienced in one way or another.

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