Out from the “DIY” American indie press Civil Coping Mechanisms, 40 Likely to Die Before 40 proclaims itself “an introduction to alt lit”. On the heels of several mainstream-media articles covering the blossoming Internet artistic community, this straight-faced label seems at once both brazen and totally to-be-appreciated. The book takes an initial couple of jabs at the mainstream literary establishment (and its tendency to celebrate/market lists of writers organized by age) before launching into 400+ pages of writers and writing that feel quintessential to the literary movement in name, form, and content – Tao Lin, Gabby Bess, Mira Gonzalez, pseudonyms, single-sentence paragraphs, the Internet, drugs, alienation. Despite accusations of narcissism and artlessness, the anthology’s editors and the writers they’ve chosen clearly take what they’re doing seriously, and from one angle, 40 Most Likely to Die Before 40 can be read as a peace offering: you don’t have to like it, but you can at least understand it.
“A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALT LIT”
The book begins with what in title seems to be a standard sort of anthology-introduction essay, but in practice plays on literary conventions, setting the tone for what follows: absurd imagery, self-awareness, humor, but never so removed that it lacks relateability or heart.
“LITTLE ROCK" BY MEGAN BOYLE
Originally appearing in the literary/art magazine Pop Serial, “Little Rock” is one of the more “traditional” pieces in the anthology and is appropriate for testing the alt lit waters – there are definite characters definitely interacting with each other in definite paragraphs and dialogue. Boyle’s observational skill is apparent, and her ability to evoke emotion from strained scenes and dialogue drives the narrative.
“THE GUY FROM SACRAMENTO" BY MICHAEL HEALD
“It seems…embarrassing to finally be here, to be standing in a dungeon, wearing nothing but two nipple clamps and a condom which, despite Miss Ophelia’s frequent reminder that safety is the first rule of play, seems to serve the purpose of mocking my state of complete unarousal.” In alt lit writing, things often “seem” or are “seeming” to be a certain way, but Heald’s essay about the failure of his relationship with a dominatrix-in-training, taken from his collection Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, is verifiably sharp, surprising, and funny.
“IN RETROSPECT, THE DAYS WERE FRESH AND EASY" BY JEREME DEAN
Time flies when it’s recounted in bullet points. And because they come in flat-toned dispatches that put things like “Rode the Greyhound bus to California again. Read Stephen King novels and X-Men comic books” and “First time homeless, I slept in a playground fort in a park. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt" on the same level. Dean’s sketch of a life ends up feeling like a very detailed painting.
“BLACKHOLE GOSPEL" BY MIKE BUSHNELL
A lyrical mix of the natural, the technological, the large, and the insignificant, Bushnell’s 11-page poem is both energetic and visceral, risky and intelligent. Reminiscent of Ginsburg (seriously), his voice is totally believably conversational and intensely emotional, and the piece flows.
“SERIOUS EUROPEAN ART FILM” BY STEPHEN TULLY DIERKS
“Sven lies frozen to death in a ditch by the side of a road” would be a great beginning to a lot of things, but it’s a description of a film the narrator is watching, co-opted by Dierks in a play-within-a-play sort of rhetorical strategy. As he tells us what’s happening on screen, his narrative deftly blends with that of the film’s so that our experience of the movie mirrors his, and as with the anthology itself and the mention of Hopscotch at the end of the story, the title does a lot of work to guide the reader here.
POEMS BY LUNA MIGUEL
We’re big fans of the Barcelona-based poet Luna Miguel, and it’s because of her small-but-mighty economy of language and bloody metaphors. “Youth” is bitter yet triumphant, “Poem and Cigarette” is dreamy and evocative, and the imagery throughout is surprising but always right.
POEMS BY SARAH JEAN ALEXANDER
The “and then I did this and then I did that and then I thought about this and then I felt that” narrative technique is often what gives alt lit work its momentum, and this is definitely true of Alexander’s “Remember To”, which, in a display of typically bleak optimism, subverts the trope by including to-do lists among the action taking place.
"THREE-DAY CRUISE" BY TAO LIN
Lin is most often cited as the prophet of the alt-lit aesthetic, and the inclusion of his story “Three-Day Cruise,” originally published in his collection Bed, is likely at least partially a familiar buoy in the ocean of new, young, and exciting. That’s not to say it isn’t good; like Boyle’s “Little Rock” – and you probably knew they were married – it’s a quietly voiced, straightforward narrative about relationships, in this case a family’s, told with dry humor and insight.
“LOVE LETTER" BY MIRA GONZALEZ
The second-to-last of the titular “40 Likely to Die Before 40” is the poet/essayist Mira Gonzalez, who’s known as much for her sardonic, self-loathing social media presence as much as for her work. Those who only know her from Twitter, though, are in for a treat: Gonzalez’s clear voice takes you from a snapshot of a daily routine to the darker thoughts and behaviors and relationships that lurk behind it, though it can’t be said that it doesn’t end with a hint of hope.
Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter here @laurenoyler