We're Getting On
by James Kaelan

First Collection

Website: WereGettingOn.com

"Charles was apolitical, but in the basest sense of the word. He paid no attention unless the disasters, or their potential, threatened him immediately. What Jane had explained just now—this horde of men, swinging machetes, if you will, lighting fires and hacking into uteri, as it were—he assumed was effrontery, for the street below was empty. Some young radical, perhaps even a man Charles knew, had barged into a studio somewhere. He’d sat poised above the board waiting for the lights to come on, pre-paring a speech to traumatize the few people who might stumble upon that frequency during the respite from the void. "

Reviewed by James Murray-White

I was excited when I first heard about this book from a big feature in the US publication Poets and Writers. Author James Kaelan and his publishers, the Seattle-based Flatmancrooked (which he co-founded), got great publicity from the book only being published as an ebook, and Kaelan did a mammoth "zero emission" cycle book tour of the States to publicize it. Then precisely because it was an ebook it got ignored on my desktop along with the thousands of other folders, as well as my general reluctance to read a book on a screen, and then recently I heard that Flatmancrooked had sadly gone bust. So by the time I finally came to review this curious creation, I had run the gamut of excitement and forgetful boredom which I normally hit mid-read, already.

The 65 page story You Must’ve Heard Something is a knockout piece, beautifully enacted on the page between two intriguing and dexterous characters. They exist in a kind of dream world, where something awful has happened outside their windows, down outside on the street, and if only either of them could get across to the other, then some comfort could be offered. It is a masterly telling, with shades of both Beckett and Pinter in the liminal vagueness, roundaboutness and the lapses into deep discursive fictions Jane and Charles spin for and around each other. This story for me read firstly rather like a short film (can I be first in the running to option it, James?) or as a short theatre piece, an atmospheric two-hander which needs little in the way of set or props, but very versatile and talented performers. It's rare I read a short story and instantly see it existing in other forms as well. This one hit that mark.

The two short stories, A Deliberate Life and The Surrogate, while well-constructed, fluid pieces, reek of such relentless disappointment through their failed affairs and sense of loss, that I couldn’t fully warm to them.
The Surrogate, reads like a visceral poem, reminding me of the equally dark The White Hotel by D.M Thomas: a couple starting an affair retreat to a bed, and stay there: "we’d discarded the sheets some weeks before", stewing in their own juice and silence until "the blastocyst was hydrolising". Kaelan continues, relishing in wordplay: "There was nothing childlike about the little tumeral lump. It resembled a frontal lobe, or perhaps an occipital." I’ve been deliberately vague here in describing the scene. Perhaps you’ll enter this fresh hell of words yourself, but mind the man with the knife. Pity the poor rat.

A Deliberate Life the central character is perhaps that rat with the shortened tail. He lunges from bar to bar, hanging on a girl who will take up with anyone else but him, sucking on beers and clinging to his bad time low-down life. Failure and desperation is where Kaelan draws his pen in these sketches, and this skews for me any joy in reading, over and above any artistry in words or plot structure.

Many of Kaelan’s preoccupations come together in the final piece, We’re Moving On. In this one-sided story of a guru and his "congregants" moving out to the remote desert where he wills that they "regress", the small group battle against his harsh and unverbalised will to eke out some sort of existence amongst the dust. We hear the story solely from the guru’s point of view, getting deep and dirty with his philosophical reflections on shit, life, existence and the value of it all.
Hunger functions as a vacuum, sucking the skin toward the center of the body. What is the organ in the middle? The heart? The brain, more likely. When everything implodes you have that spinning neutron star.
This is the rawest story of the bunch. It is bleak like the two mentioned, but told with enough dispassion and alienation that the style becomes fascinating. It didn’t grip me like You Must've Heard Somethingdid, as the narrative arc is clearer and more predictable here, and there are next to no flashes of dry humour. He does use a Beckett quote to introduce this story, which corrals its starting power and mystique. According to Kaelan’s chief character and narrator Dan "sympathy is dangerous". And the links between the stories start to reveal themselves.

I hope Kaelan is still writing and still finding or creating outlets for his stories. He is a major new American talent with a quirky, subversive, low down voice. And maybe we’ll see his work on screen or in theatres too.

Read this collection online at WereGettingOn.com

James Murray-White is a Bristol-based writer & filmmaker, also trying to live a low carbon life, who reluctantly drives a lot due to a p/t job in recycling education.

James' other Short Reviews: "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

"Park Stories"

Peter Wild (ed) "Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths"

"Ox Tales: Earth, Fire, Air and Water"

David Constantine "The Shieling"

John Updike "My Father's Tears"

Thomas Lynch "Apparitions"

Fred McGavran "The Butterfly Collector"
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James Kaelan is a lecturer at Pepperdine University and is the co-founder of Flatmancrooked Publishing. He writes criticism for The Millions, and his works of fiction have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Avery, Opium, and other magazines.