Joe Meno takes an artful turn with his new book.
In Joe Meno’s newest collection, even the table of contents reads like a story, each title an evocative verbal starburst. With handles like “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” (following the blissful torture of an office romance) and “People Are Becoming Clouds” (examining the effects on a marriage of the wife’s tendency to literally dissolve into a cloud), the stories don’t disappoint. They pop and bristle with the tender, with the weird and with great appreciation for the limitless resources of storytelling.
The collection’s title, Demons in the Spring (Akashic, $24.95), refers to the original need for fireworks: to scare away ghosts and demons, the carriers of bad luck. Meno says that when he put the book together, “the thing that kept coming up was catastrophe. From small, really intimate ones to these big, absurd ones.”
The book’s mosaic of personal and national disasters is “a kind of portrait of the past seven years, of the country and the world at large.” Bright, burning and brief, the stories are meant to dispel some of that accumulated darkness.
Since 1999, Meno has steadily produced an array of very different books, including 2007’s achingly melancholy The Boy Detective Fails and punk-rock bildungsroman Hairstyles of the Damned, a surprise best-seller. That book also marked his departure, in 2004, from mainstream publishing, announced via a strongly worded shout-out (“Be ready, the end is nigh”) to “bad publishing corporations” in its acknowledgements. Demons in the Spring is Meno’s second release with indie publisher Akashic Books.
The stories move through spaces quotidian and fantastic, from airports to dolphin tanks to the surface of the moon. The most moving tale, “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” ends in a young couple’s miscarriage; its most surreal, “The Boy Who Was a Chirping Oriole,” takes the form of a fireworks catalog written by a grieving father, whose lost son is visible only in the sparks of fading Roman candles and firecrackers. It’s not the only story that challenges standard narrative: “What A Schoolgirl You Are,” following the development from nerd to cheerleader of a passively suicidal teen, apes the format of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel; and “Iceland Today” plays out like a dreamy country study.
Each of the 20 stories is illustrated by a different artist, an idea born when Meno and Cody Hudson, a Chicago-based artist, collaborated on an illustrated zine for the 2006 Version Media Festival. Hudson helped Meno gather artists, many of them local, and designed the book. Bound in textured maroon cloth with pressed-foil writing, it has the heft and presence of a storybook.
“We wanted to make this book a book,” says Meno. “Instead of trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, we’re just kind of celebrating this archaic form.”
In one of the most effective couplings of art and text, Ivan Brunetti’s bubble-headed figures highlight the sad comedy of “It Is Romance,” the story of a desperately lonely faculty adviser and his damaging, heedless passion for the high-school Model U.N. under his care. Caroline Hwang’s stacked textiles evoke a sharply intimate moment in “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” and Steph Davidson’s notebook-style sketches perfectly capture the undergrad despair of “Art School Is Boring So.” The only photos in the collection, wonderfully composed shots by Todd Baxter, accompany “Miniature Elephants Are Popular,” the tale of a lonely widower and his tiny, hypersensitive pet elephant.
Meno, a writing professor at Columbia College, has also taught writing workshops at 826CHICAGO, the Dave Eggers–founded tutoring institution on Chicago’s West Side, and he’s donating part of the proceeds from the book to its programming.
It’s a move Meno claims is a selfish one: “I just want to ensure that people will be reading in ten years,” he says, because “I’ll still be writing.”
For Meno, the appeal of the short story lies not only in the sense of freedom and fun allowed by its brevity, but in its fading popularity. “It seems like it’s moving in the direction of poetry, where it’s becoming harder and harder to publish,” he says. “It’s like a vinyl record. Whether it’s popular or not, it’s not going to disappear.”
Joe Meno is one of TOC's Cultural Heroes. Find out why here.
Meno reads from Demons Thursday 25.