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Sometimes You Just Don’t Want To Know and The Artistic Life by Mark SaFranko | Word Riot
Reviews

July 21, 2016      

Sometimes You Just Don’t Want To Know and The Artistic Life by Mark SaFranko

Sometimes You Just Don’t Want To Know (Murder Slim Press 2016)
The Artistic Life (Murder Slim Press 2016)

Reviewed by Christopher Brownsword

We humans are indeed weird animals. Too feeble to confront reality in the raw, we instead create illusions to help us get through the futile struggles – and general monotony – of existence. Published simultaneously, Sometimes You Just Don’t Want To Know and The Artistic Life herald the return in short story form of Mark SaFranko’s alter-ego, Max Zajack, as he stumbles between revelation and damnation in New York and New Jersey. If any unifying thread could be said to hold these pieces together, it may be the point at which illusion breaks down, or sometimes where illusion is knowingly embraced in order to chase away some hideous realisation, which regardless corrodes the protective film: ‘And that’s the way it is,’ Zajack reflects, ‘the present and the past, the hidden and the visible, the unspoken and the spoken. We live eternally between the two. Paradoxes – paradoxes everywhere. It’s senseless, but what makes sense in life?’
      Given that SaFranko has also penned a series of crime novels, it’s hardly surprising that the atmosphere of his stories recalls that of the best hard-boiled narratives of the 1930s. Often compared to Charles Bukowski, his prose, sharp and precise as surgical tools, strays closer to James M. Cain. It’s a world in which corruption is endemic not to society but to the human organism itself. No redemption is possible. The universe damaged goods. We do the best we can, and fail: ‘Some days you win. Most you lose.’
      In parallel with SaFranko’s own life, Zajack after years of struggle has become a published writer whose works are met with critical acclaim and respectable sales both in England and France, while continuing to remain all but unknown in his native America. He has now entered middle-age and is married with a young son. But with these new responsibilities, his urge to sacrifice material comforts for his art is intensified rather than diminished.
      If the theme of an author struggling to strike a balance between the compromises of family life and the impulse towards unfettered creativity sounds familiar to readers of Karl Ove Knausgard, it should be noted that SaFranko staked out this territory more than a decade ago with the publication of his breakaway novel, Hating Olivia. SaFranko is more succinct. Yet fans of Knausgard will no doubt be at home with his unvarnished confessional manner: ‘I’m nothing but a mass of confusion, doubt and fear. And this is why, probably, I ended up a writer. When you’ve got such a combination of flawed character traits, what else is there?’
      Drained of his youthful excesses, or forced to live in the shadow of them, both regretting them and missing them, Zajack’s has become a voice of calm reason and stoic endurance. ‘Sometimes there’s just no explanation. Like life – completely irrational.’ The stories have no apparent message, no meaning, and are all the better for it. As if caught up in the purposeless drift of evolution, they go nowhere. In the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, SaFranko charts a world of chaos in which humans are unimportant. But whereas Lovecraft retreated into fantasy, SaFranko sticks to everyday commonplace reality: ‘Two middle-aged women in red and white supermarket uniforms were leaning on a row of silver carts puffing on their cigarettes. There was nothing in the sky now – no stars, no moon…Just blackness.’ Indeed, at times the two books read like the reflections of some medieval mystic turning away in disgust from the stars and instead seeking divination in the dirt.
      Although the pieces can be read in any order, Two Oceans (the final story in Sometimes…) and The Trip (the first story in The Artistic Life) seem to wink across the covers at one another. Responding to an editor’s request for him to write about getting drunk and taking drugs in Two Oceans, Zajack scoffs at the idea and adopts a refreshing stance by replying: ‘Drugs and alcohol are clichés, and bad clichés at that…’ Still, The Trip goes on to recount just one such experience. In keeping with his previous statement, however, Zajack presents to the reader a cautionary tale about a bad acid trip, the ominous tone of which is closer to Poe than Leary: ‘All I knew was that if the full horror of that long-ago summer night overtook me again, I would have to escape somehow. The fear that I might not be able to drove me into a near-suicidal depression.’ Zajack is utterly annihilated by the experience, and it’s as if he has to construct a gigantic ego so as to return to the greater madness of the world and survive intact. At the same time, the vulnerability the drug exposes him to remains forever below the surface. Thrown into the howling chasm, Zajack seems to exist in the interplay between the two, ego and vulnerability, while maintaining a refined sense of humour – when someone in the street refers to him both as ‘a great writer’ and ‘a fucking prick,’ Zajack admits: ‘Well, this stopped me dead in my tracks, especially the part about being a great writer.’
      Resembling a gallery exhibition of charred-black hearts, these stories still needn’t be read as gospels of doom. After all, everybody knows the Devil has all the best tunes, and if these two slim collections are anything to go by, it would appear the mean old bastard also has a few damn fine books.

PHOTO (1)About the author:

Christopher Brownsword was born in Sheffield, England. His reviews have appeared in Word Riot and 3 AM Magazine.

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