[Muumuu House; 2022]
Last night, I dreamt I returned to my old job. It was the kind of job that took up at least 65 hours of my week, both sleeping and awake. In the dream, one of my current students comes to me and says she’s got a new job, working 13 hour days on Fridays. She’s wearing her signature plaid mini skirt that is both serious and a throwback to the golden age of Britney. A second student comes to me, also looking for a job; we climb over a chain-link fence for free pizza. We walk the fence line eating our greasy Domino’s talking about his job prospects. I turn a corner and find a spinning bowl. I crouch on the ground and drip pizza grease into the bowl until it turns to paint and my boss finds me hiding from my work. In this dream, despite each person’s work-related perturbations, everything is totally fine. Which, of course, also means it isn’t.
Everything is Totally Fine, a collection of stories by Zac Smith, begins with a tired lie. I tear open the package on a normal day in which nothing really is fine — it’s an unseasonably warm day in January in late-stage capitalism and current-stage COVID — yet something about the cover (designed by Giacomo Pope), the title hand-scrawled in Sharpie with a few mistakes crossed out, makes me believe that perhaps, in this instant, everything is totally fine — how often are we given permission to print mistakes with purpose? I sigh with relief, opening to the title page, in which “Everything is Totally Fine” breaks across the page, ending in thirteen bold exclamation points. Okay. I get it. NOTHING IS FINE! We’re only pretending.
Zac Smith’s collection of surreal stories of 21st-century American life is Muumuu House’s first book released in over a decade. That gesture alone gives the book a sense of meaning. Through 69 vignettes, some eight lines, others eight pages, Zac Smith pulls back the curtain on what it means in modern America “to be fine.” I’ll use the metaphor of an egg — each vignette feels like an egg waiting to crack open on one of those giant Costo flats of chicken eggs. It’s as if Smith opens the fridge, the fridge of our imaged and real American kitchens and pulls out an egg. The egg seems fine. Maybe he tells us it’s expired and then cracks it into the pan where it transforms into an octopus (see the story, The Octopus), or a teenage bird (Trees). Maybe he tells us it’s expired, cracks it into the pan and makes an omelet with wilted spinach and moldy cheese. And then we eat the omelet because we trust Smith, who tells us time and again in this collection that human behavior is repeated, often daily, with the same mind-numbing results unless we intentionally change course. Either way, the egg, whether cooked, raw, scrambled, or sunny side up, becomes this collection of what Smith terms “smallies”, micro tales that are both mundane and extraordinary.
In 147 pages, these smallies elicit the kind of humor that moves to discomfort, each a mirror to the painful realities of modern American life. In many ways, Smith’s short quips remind me of American Animals (the film and true life story) of the uncanny exploits of four teenagers who did almost everything right while making the most absurd mistakes in an attempt to steal a rare Audubon manuscript from their Kentucky college library in the early 2000s. It’s a story so ridiculous, it can only be the product of deep boredom and empty social pressures that plague a large percentage of our psyches. Like Everything is Totally Fine, the story behind American Animals points to the existential dread synonymous with 21st century Americana and the fatal flaws of the American Dream. Boredom plays an underlying score of numbing depression throughout Smith’s smallies often leading to the bank, pizza, alcohol, and the internet — America’s comfort foods. It is through this repetition that readers might just find the tune they need to change course.
At the same time, Smith manages a sleight of hand, transforming the mundane rat race of American anxiety into the fantastic, mirroring the absurdity of social expectation in the animal world. A dog abandoned in a cardboard car (Dog in the World), a mouse puppeteering a man into a kind, ecologically conscious human (Freedom is an Abstract Entity…), a breaching whale (Everything is Totally Fucked 3) reveal our absurd behavior and mindset through animal acts. In doing so, Everything is Totally Fine oscillates between on-the-nose anxiety dreams and animal melodies that more gently suggest we’re going about this whole 21st century incorrectly.
Smith allows readers to become both human and animal. In I’m Not Here to Commit Any Crimes Smith becomes a dog, or is he really a person pretending to be a dog, hoping a nice family will adopt him? The smallie is cleverly followed by stories of increased impatience and anger as the book becomes more politically revealing. The political edge of Everything is Totally Fine is, I think, one of the book’s greatest strengths. Through his imaginative vignettes, Everything is Totally Fucked, The Octopus, The First Millennial President, he processes rage, fear, discontent, and apathetic government. Through these sad, surreal stories, both the writer and the reader can find catharsis and a way to process the last several years of life in the United States without inflicting violence or posting something we will later regret on Twitter.
Perhaps the most harrowing and on the nose tale, The Literary Agent is the first in the collection’s last section Everything is Normal Life. In the story, the literary agent goes from a millionaire to a near pauper fighting aggressive cancer. At first, it seems it’s not the cancer that’s killing him, but the nightmares he has about the cancer pushing through his skin, destroying him and everything around him. The Literary Agent considers himself a “destroyer” and his life destroyed not only by dreams, but the dreams of cancer. In the end, he imagines himself a statue of glass, his cancer a toddler “tearing through the room.” Like many of these smallies, The Literary Agent ends with silence. The reader is left with scrambled thoughts and emotions knowing the literary agent is both dying of cancer and is an emblem of the larger cancer — a way of living that tries to evade what our dreams tell us rather than use them to create change. I think if there is one thing Smith’s time capsule of Americana can teach us is to listen to our dreams and nightmares and allow them to prompt new ways of living.
Were all our dreams written into smallies like Smith’s surrealist musings, we might begin to change course in our waking days to avoid the literary agent’s fate. Or, at least uncrack the egg of our unconscious the way surrealists intended. Before Everything is Totally Fine, I thought my dream about my students was a run-of-the-mill stress dream. After reading Smith’s work I realized, like these smallies, the dream could prompt a shift in my daily life. I met with the student who dresses like Britney (she wore a chenille blouse circa 1998) and talked about job transitions that might leave more time for her art. I wandered the Denver Museum with the second student, getting lost between each room’s vibrant colors. We talked about the fact that nothing is fine. We sat and stared at the painting of the lost surrealist Lenona Carrington and her lover Max Ernst. In those moments, everything was more than fine.
Amy holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics where she founded Wisdom Body Collective. She is an editor of More Revolutionary Letters: A Tribute to Diane di Prima. Her work can be read/is forthcoming in Entropy, Vol1 Brooklyn, Denver Quarterly, TYPO, and elsewhere. @amybobeda on twitter.