Any reader or writer interested in the boundary waters of fiction should know Steve Katz; whatever bay you are paddling, he has probably paddled through it before. An original founder of Fiction Collective—which, with its spawn FC2, has published a tremendous cross-section of America's experimental fiction of the past three decades—he has maintained since The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (1968) a well-deserved reputation as one of our most innovative writers. Kissssss, his first collection of completely new shorts since Stolen Stories (1977), follows from Katz's earlier work and explores, as always, new territory in the prose narrative.
Although subtitled "A Miscellany," Kissssss has some strong thematic links at work. Most apparent is the give and take between technology and pop culture on the one hand, and nature and human compulsion on the other; this exchange shows up in many of the stories, but it's particularly evident in "The Information Highway" and "Hollywood Novelette." In the former, a busy executive pulls off her lover's head during an extended bout of oral pleasure. Then:
Suddenly, rather like a mudball some kid splats against the window, she is hit by the recognition that she has forgotten how many letters there are in the alphabet. She thinks it's an even number—twenty-two, or twenty-six, or twenty-four. It's in the twenties. Maybe twenty-eight. […] She isn't so sure about the J. Maybe she put in too early. It comes after the O, before T. O J T P, then she can't remember if M comes first, or N.
In "Hollywood Novelette," teenagers in the fictionalized showbiz enclave Monisantaca (Santa Monica) are enmeshed in the relentless pursuit of uniqueness and pleasure; meanwhile their parents struggle with pünkscheit, an overwhelming urge to cannibalize their firstborn son in the prime of his teens. The scrambled names of famous actors—Dojie Resoft and Eukan Severe for Jodie Foster and Keanu Reeves—give the story both a pop culture gloss and an intense sense of mythos. When Eukan builds a boat to escape Monisantaca by following the instructions of Onatint Taruda (Antonin Artaud), we could be reading from some other culture's creation myth—a strategy Katz has utilized before in Creamy and Delicious (1970).
Such stories display Katz's sense of humor at its most bawdy and ribald, and he has more than a hint of Rabelais to him; one of his characters, Joe Gargantus in "Nellie Helps Joe," can even be seen as a direct homage. "Date Biting" riffs again on cannibalism, and the language play of "Three Conflations Extemporized" confirms Katz as the literary spawn of Gertude Stein. But the gem of the collection is "Nowadays and Hereafter: The True Animated Fable," a soaring the beautiful tale of a man who, in trying to rebuild his life after his seaside paradise has been flooded by a tidal wave, falls into a magical world in which the not-quite-dead live in trees. The story covers similar mythical territory as "Hollywood Novelette," and contains the most beautiful, haunting writing of the collection:
Tignee lost his wife. Tignee lost his baby. Everything connected with his livelihood, Tignee lost. Tignee lost his house. Tignee lost his boy. Tignee lost his business. Tignee lost all his whalebone netting needles. Tignee lost his spindles. Tignee lost a recently sharpened set of scissors. Tignee lost his village. Tignee lost his nets. Tignee lost the box of jewelry his wife asked him to keep for her: a gold ring, a ruby bracelet.
Later in his travels, Tignee encounters a massive, supernatural army prepared for an all-out assault on human life:
Throughout the ranks of men and women moved every chimera that the sun sucks up. The lion's head roared the decrees into the mob, while from its tail, a serpent hissed a litany of penalties, and from its back the head of a goat bleated in an exultation of pain. They demanded obedience. Creatures from mythologies yet to be written deployed among the humans, whipping them into closer order.
Katz is not merely flexing his muscles in passages like these, and it is a mistake to dismiss his work merely as a linguistic tour de force. His territory is the deep cusp between what we call the avant-garde and what we call the classical, where the ultimate form of experiment is not playing with language, but closing your authorial eyes and following with language where the imagination takes you. Few writers have done this as fearlessly as Katz has over the past forty years, and Kissssss is no exception.