I just finished Ken Sparling’s novel Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt. I bought a paperback copy that looks like this one, but apparently, when Sparling first self-published this book, he made every copy by hand, with the help of his wife on the sewing machine and his kids drawing cover art.
I’m still puzzling through this novel. It’s not like any that I’ve read before. To start with, Sparling’s prose style is incredibly unique. The narrative is broken into episodic chunks, just little slices of scenes that he mashes together. Most of the sentences, too, are fragmentary. One. Word. Or just a few. At a time. It makes for a very interesting reading experience. At first, I paused slightly at each period, almost as though I were reading a long poem, but then I realized I’d never finish the book, so I started mentally putting the sentences back together as I read.
I couldn’t figure out why the book is written that way, though, although Broken Pencil says, quite convincingly, “His work is often referred to as experimental anti-narrative pieces that push literary boundaries and confound the reader’s expectations of the very act of reading.” I’ll buy that. Sparling flouts all the conventional ideas of what makes a novel, or a story, or even a sentence, for crying out loud.
In an interview at Big Other, Sparling says of his writing style:
Every sentence has to matter. No sentence can exist as a passage to the sentence beyond it. You can’t keep a sentence because it’s necessary to keep it in order to support the sentence that follows it, or to support the plot, or to bring out the traits in a character. No sentence can be subservient. You can’t afford to entertain a sentence that doesn’t have within it the strength of the entire book, that doesn’t bring with it the full force of who you are, that doesn’t hold within its motion, it’s hinging of one word onto the next, its decision to move this way or that, to add this word or that, to slow with a comma, or stop with a period, or careen past all punctuation, you can’t support any single sentence that doesn’t bring with it in every motion it presents the full force of who you are.
Okay, so I fall into the spell of Sparling’s prose, and I begin to get carried along. The story is about a man named John and his two sons, Sammy and Shortboy. His wife, Ruth, is only barely present in the story, and you can sense the tension between them in every interaction. The boys are hilarious and very real, typical kids. You can see how John loves them passionately and yet still gets insanely frustrated with them. He is constantly giving them baths, reading them stories, teaching them codes for Sega games.
Then I start to wonder: when does something happen? This is nice and all, but it’s getting a bit repetitive.
And then I begin to sense that something is very wrong with John. For instance:
John drove to Kindardine McDonald’s to get the kids some food. He felt the world rushing. Closing down. It was a gesture of such violence. Driving the van. About to purchase Happy Meals. For the kids. Adrift. He tried to count his money as he drove.
And that’s it. That’s the whole scene. Then we shift back to this image of domestic discord:
John went to the fridge. Opened it. Ruth sitting at the table. A bagel. Some milk. “I didn’t do the dishes.”
John looked. The dishes sat. Piled in the sink. His coffee mug. Plastic cups. Stained purple. Grape juice. Forks. Spoons. Things poked out. Various levels. Angles. Descent. Plates. Bowls. Piled. Haphazard. Cresting. Just above the sink.
(There’s a lot of talk of doing dishes in this book. Because I’m not very good at interpreting symbols and so forth, my best guess is that the dishes are a metaphor for John and Ruth’s marriage.)
And then John begins to participate in periodic dialogs with Somebody who seems to be either God or the author, and at first it’s hard to tell, although it resolves into the author as the book progresses. These are very mysterious dialogs, with no speech tags or narration, just this back-and-forth between John and Somebody.
Here’s a conversation they have early on in the book:
“Do you have any notion at all about proper procedure? Can I depend on you at all? Are you an expert? Of all the writers? Why couldn’t I get Grisham? Or King? No one will even know about me. Ever. What the hell is the point? I’ll never be famous. I’ll end in obscurity. What about Pierre Burton? Even Alice Monroe? Michael Ondaatje? I had to wind up with you. You can’t even figure out where a chapter begins.”
“I had in mind to do it differently this time.”
“You don’t seem to be succeeding.”
“I’m not. As far as the chapters go. I’m a total failure.”
There are no chapters, as an aside.
And here is another conversation, much later in the story:
“I’m in the tub.”
“Are you washing yourself? What part of your body are you cleaning”
“I already washed myself. I’m relaxing now. With a book. And a glass of wine. I’m not sure I want to talk to you right now.”
“Don’t go. I’m just picturing you in the tub with nothing on.”
“Well don’t. I’m going now. You shouldn’t be imagining me at all. With clothes or not. I’m supposed to be imagining you.”
“Have you imagined me with no clothes on?”
“Flesh me out.”
“I’m going now.”
Rob McLennan has a great review and an interview with Sparling over at his blog. He says Sparling “writes the way people actually exist, through oddly-shaped experiences, scattered fragments and threads so long, twisted and deep that it becomes impossible sometimes to know or see either end even, sometimes, for the participants. In Hush up and listen stinky poo butt, Sparling writes, seemingly, about events so ordinary they begin to read as a story about nothing at all, and ends up asking some of the most troubling and important questions of existence that have managed to be asked, in a book that deserves not only a larger audience, but repeated readings.”
I think McLennan’s right. I enjoyed the book very much, and I think it needs another go-round, or two, to fully appreciate all its subtlety.
But it’ll have to wait — I’ve already started Julie Orringer’s debut collection How to Breathe Underwater, and it’s so good! More to come.