Excessive excess

Me, myself and rye

I never thought I’d find myself reading an anthology of stories and actually missing the presence of an overly enthusiastic introductory essay. But there’s a first time for everything and it’s finally happened. About one third of the way into Pills, Thrills, Chills And Heartache: Adventures In The First Person, I was longing for some editorial guidance.

It’s not that it’s hard to figure out what the deal is; the title is descriptive enough. The collection is devoted to first-person narratives (fiction or non, there’s no way of knowing) and the other entrance requirement is that the pieces must involve some combination of drugs, alcohol or sex, preferably to a point of excess. Excess, of course, is a highly relative concept but in most of the pieces here it’s beyond debate. The thing that is less clear has more to do with vision and purpose.

It’s appropriate to make noises about the tradition of excess or the tradition of marginality; perhaps it’s all an homage to William S Burroughs or Kathy Acker. Or perhaps it’s best to think of it as a kind of lament for being born too late to have been part of a much- mythologized scene or even a revival of that scene. A significant number of pieces are set in California, either in San Francisco, where editor Michelle Tea is based, or in Los Angeles, where co-editor Clint Catalyst lives. Tea is having a busy year in terms of publication – she’s just published a book of poetry, and Pills, Thrills, Chills is one of two collections she’s edited, the other being Without A Net, stories about working-class experiences.

In terms of the stories, there’s an aggressive edge to most. There’s such an explicit emphasis on the shocking or the seedy side of things: a lot of bodily fluids being expressed in one way or another, the obligatory lesbian orgy scenes, the biker version of the circle jerk on acid, the sex-trade workers who date clients and the positively mundane scenario of getting picked up in a club.

The problem is, of course, like most drug-induced stories, the telling of the tale is never as interesting to the audience as it is to the teller. How many times have you sat and listened to morning-after stories featuring this drug combination or that or involving serious consumption of alcohol? And then we did lines of coke and how funny it was or how strange it was that so-and-so couldn’t stand up because she thought her legs had turned into concrete or how about the time that someone threw up in the cab and the cab driver threw everybody out or maybe the cab driver lit up a joint and everybody had sex in the park. Okay, so I’m going on here, but such tales are never as interesting as the substance-enhanced experience is to the subject of that experience.


Not all the stories turn on that kind of alienating positioning of reader and writer. Some of the pieces are less caught up in the anecdotal and attempt to explore something else. For instance, Daniel Cartier’s “Every Time I See Me Falling” is a carefully crafted story that works on two levels; it’s about being a gay teenager in New Hampshire and it’s about the long-term effects of partner abuse. It’s explicit but not at all preachy and it quite beautifully captures the nature of obsessive adolescent longing.

Also interesting is “The Blessed” by Chris Kraus, a very full story that covers an amazing amount of ground in a relatively short space. This is the sort of story that seems to start moving in one direction but is anything but linear in its ultimate trajectory.

It’s hard to fully engage in the celebration of excess that seems to be the point in this collection. And certainly, there are cautionary tales presented, including an interesting turn by Kevin Killian that features the older Kevin having a conversation with his 20-year-old self that is a little too wry to be fully enjoyable but resonates nonetheless. But the pace, particularly in the first third of the book, is gruelling.

It seems completely geeky to suggest that the best way to approach the collection is in small doses; that only reveals my own predisposition to moderation. At the same time, it could be the only way.

* The Toronto launch of Pills, Thrills, Chills And Heartache features readings by Clint Catalyst, Michelle Tea, RM Vaughan, Scott Treleaven, Kristyn Dunnion, Sky Gilbert and Kathe Izzo, plus film screenings by Vaughan and Treleaven. The event is free and starts at 7pm on Tue, Apr 13 at The Drake Hotel (1150 Queen St W); call (416) 961-4161.

* Maureen Phillips writes on books in every other issue.


Edited by Clint Catalyst and Michelle Tea.

Alyson Books.

366 pages. $23.95.

Read More About:
Culture, Books, Literature, Toronto

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