by Jimmy Chen

Magic Helicopter Press 2009, Paperback
First collection? Yes

Jimmy Chen is a writer, visual artist, humorist and HTMLGIANT contributor, and his fiction, non-fiction and humor pieces appear widely on internet publications and anthologies by small indie presses.

Read an interview with Jimmy Chen

"If anything was literal, it was the instant message. Instantly, they appeared, saying things like “12 noon starbucks,” or “janet is a ho lol.” One had little time to gather their feelings on such matters. One had to simply go to Starbucks at twelve o’clock sharp to wait for their lover. (Despite, or because of war, many people had affairs.) One simply had to deal with Janet differently now that she was a ho. Truth was no longer essential, but only the medium in which it was expressed. If enough people said Janet was a ho, then she became one. If enough people went to Starbucks at twelve o’clock sharp, it would become very crowded lol."

Reviewed by Elaine Chiew

I find it almost impossible to explain what happened to me when I first stumbled upon Jimmy Chen's fiction. A flash in the brainpan, a jolt to the surrealist and sensualist side of any writer, a tectonic shift in fictional framework. And yet, that's not quite it.

This is not the kind of writing I usually like to read – a kind of quirky tongue-in-cheek humorist approach to flash fiction that strips out in most cases a protagonist or a storyline. In the pantheon of writers I've read, I almost want to say a young and less alcohol-addled Charles Bukowski (whom I don't enjoy by the way), but much less bitter and much more inclined to take a piss at himself. I want to say: proceed along this continuum of Bukowski, Palahniuk, Coupland to a new generation of young male writers with derring-do, a definite "I don't care what you think of me as I write this" attitude, like Lee Klein, like Tao Lin, journals like Lamination Colony and Eyeshot and Yankee Pot Roast and Thieves Jargon and very LOL, by the way(laugh out loud).

Take one of the pieces in this collection (I hesitate to say "story" because never has a genre so ill-define what this piece actually does in all its brevity) – An E-Mail From The Amish – in this flash, Amish culture meets the internet and an Amish tries to respond to the 1.2 million emails received by the community in a hotmail account set up for them without their knowledge in 1999. It's old meets new (nothing original about that), but who thunks up questions like "how exactly would an Amish respond or cope with the advent of the internet and Twitter and Facebook?”"Well, Jimmy Chen does. And all of it rendered in stereotype without an actual protagonist. Yet, you fall for it. All over it. I mean, the Amish guy can't figure out how to use the space bar on the typepad, and he still talks about how they use a horseshoe to churn butter. Seriously. It's precisely this ultra-modern, deadpan, wry and disenchanted voice I fall for.

The thirteen pieces in here are all geared around the concept of a typewriter or its progeny – the words or vernacular that spin forth, the down-the-food-chain proliferation of TYPING in an internet world. Most of the pieces center around a funky idea or concept such as the typographer who eats his typos and has to have a colonoscopy in which his proctologist might discover "a novella up his anus" (The Typographer), or the dawning of the apocalypse when we are all set to obliterate each other but find that we revel in the use of "lol" and "lmao" and other means of hyperbole (LOL) (the quote above is taken from this piece) or Garamond meets Malcolm Gladwell and is intimidated by his fro (Garamond).

It's not all quirky hilarics however. Jimmy Chen takes on some big themes in this miniscule collection – e.g. the whole emotionally-ambivalent way in which texting is done, people posting their entire lives in pictures on the internet, legal people doing barely legal things, illegal people doing perfectly legal things, the phenomenon of Youtube, and in a Kafka-esque satire, a man wakes up to 513 comments on his blog post (the Meta-morphosis).

Part of me has taken the giant mushrooming of the social internet phenomenon at face value. I take it for granted. I'm only frustrated when it's down. It gives me great satisfaction to be able to see who's online at the same time as I am. And I haven't really stopped to think how the daily use of it is a gentle grafting of new identity, or depending on your point-of-view, an abrasion of old identity. Without being all Aldous Huxley-like, Typewriter made me pause, take note. And I take note. I take note of how bite-sized chunks of fiction can leave behind lingering tastes of sociological history and satirical commentary. I take note of the quirkiness of today's world, rendered as lateral cut, and how we never think about it. I take note of my own traditionalist story-teller approach to understanding flash fiction and found the form so much more elastic and experimental than I ever thought.

Typewriter itself, as a collection, is not enough to showcase Chen's enormous talent. I didn't get a full sense from this collection of the breadth of his imagination nor the dexterity of his writing chops nor how truly funny he can be, not the way I did from his own website gathering of his prodigious publications in Embassy of Misguided Zen. But it's a good appetizer. I wanted more.

To be sure, he's not everyone's slice of pie. But if you're someone who comes to fiction with an intuition of its madcap and down-the- rabbit-hole potential, if you appreciate how "unexpected fiction" can sometimes broaden your mind, you are someone who enjoys a good chortle along the way, and you don't mind that the prose contains words like "anus", "mindfuck" and "douchebag", Jimmy Chen might be your guy.

Read a story from this collection in Keyhole Magazine

Elaine Chiew lives in Hong Kong. Her work has most recently won First Prize in the Bridport International Short Story Competition, and also appeared in the following anthologies: One World (New Internationalist, 2009), See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming (Better Non Sequitur Media), Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), Hobart (the Games Issue), Alimentum (Issue 6) and a number of online publications such as Wigleaf, Night Train, Summerset Review, Storyglossia, et. al.

Elaine's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"

Nona Caspers "Heavier than Air"

Kevin Barry "There are Little Kingdoms"

ZZ Packer "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"

Tobias Wolff "Our Story Begins"

Nam Le "The Boat

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Author's Recommended Bookseller: Green Apple Books


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