RAIN TAXI, Summer 2018
Reviewed by Stephen Beachey
Excerpt from "Abandon All Expectations"
An Afterword for the re-release of The Other Planet
About forty years ago, stories and poetry began to appear from a composite-entity, a "collective" formed by Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus and publishing as Ascher/Straus....
...Ascher/Straus's oddly structured and quietly surreal novels have been interspersed with even more oddly structured and loudly experimental novels or novel-like things; it isn't surprising, therefore, the degree to which they remain unknown, despite the intelligence and vision that crackle from every page. they've resisted the primary mechanisms of corporate publishing, which are not so different form those of most indie publishing: the creation of a recognizable stylistic and marketing niche. Instead of capitulating to the cult of personality that drives literary production in America, they have obscured and undermined the idea of themselves. Their experimentalism has been playful and evolving, depending on the shifts in their own interests more than on the requirement to be consistently "experimental enough."...
Their most recent books are the two volumes of ABC Street (ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party), released by Green Integer and placing Ascher/Straus where they belong, alongside Stein, Wilde, Poe, Celine, and Michaux, in a line publishing "Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least." ABC Street combines the journal with the novel, a chronicle that isn't about the self that produces it but about the context that surrounds that self and about the act of chronicling itself. Its author, "Monica," is re-creating conversations that happen among constellations of characters who surround her, strictly realistic New Yorkers who seem only slightly less surreal than the characters of the previous books. Their dark sense of humor is familiar. Yvonne, herself the mother of a baby who's sucking up her life energy, confronts her destiny with words that say life stinks, a voice that says it doesn't matter: "Yvonne wants to know if Monica can figure Janey Hedges out. Janey's little one Joe Andy's not even a year old but she's got another one due in June! Janey's not stupid so why'd she need two nooses to kill herself?" Simultaneously, ABC Street sends out ripples that change our reading of the other Ascher/Straus books, blurring lines of memory and realism and imagination, while it forces us to confront the way writing itself, and the sorts of perception that drive writing, is a medium conducive only to very particular ways of understanding. Monica discovers that "what interest her as a chronicler has as little to do with what's ordinarily meant by realism as it does with what's called imagination." Chronicling is a form of editing, creating order and meaning out of disorderly experience. "But another path eludes both reader and editor, arriving in every text as if of its own free will." The chronicler's intentions go awry. Thinking and intending to write about one family, she ends up starting a book about people she hadn't thought about at all -- a collection of stories titled Red Moon/Red Lake. As much as the chronicles are about writing, however, they are even more about remembering, remembering through writing or at the edges of writing, and about the vast sea of unremembered, unchronicled, unknown events or non-events that surround the thin little stream of meaning we create with language. The two volumes of ABC Street explicitly raise questions about the function and intent of fiction and present themselves as models of something else: "a necessary aesthetic argument for a radically different basis for fiction, even more so than in the sense that every work of art is an argument for itself and against everything else."
Despite all the thinking that goes on in these books, they are never pretentious, boring, or incomprehensible, and are consistently funny. Ascher/Straus have chosen their own canon and manifested that subjective history as a unique constellation; they are a crossroads where Doctor X, Shadow of a Doubt, The Damned Don't Cry, and Lola Montes come together with the sort of "European" fiction that involves a devastating intellectual engagement with the world....