Commit to the Bit: A Review of Jon Paul Fiorentino’s I’m Not Scared of You or Anything (Illustrated by Maryanna Hardy)

by Roxanna Bennett

Roxanna Bennett is a Canadian poet, writer, and artist educator. Born in Ontario, she spent much of her childhood in Newfoundland. She attended the Ontario College of Art and Design and studied Creative Writing at The University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Her poems and reviews have appeared in CV2, Descant, Existere, vallum, the National Post, Bitch Magazine, Boxx Magazine, VenusZine, Gender Focus, and others. Her first collection of poetry, The Uncertainty Principle, is forthcoming in 2014 from Tightrope Books.

I’m Not Scared of You or Anything
Anvil Press Publishers
278 East First Avenue
Vancouver, BC V5T 1A6

2014, 176 pp., $20, ISBN 978.1.927380.94.9


I never told a joke in my life
—Andy Kaufman

Jon Paul Fiorentino’s prefacing of his newest book, I’m Not Scared of You or Anything, with an Andy Kaufman epigraph is suspect. Is he setting the reader up for a Kaufman-esque prank, preparing to push us to the edge of patience? Is he alerting the reader that what comes next will be part performance art, part impression?

Kaufman was famous for giving incredibly lousy celebrity imitations that were funny because they were so bad. He was also known for doing a dead-on Elvis impression that The King himself said was his favourite. Commitment to character and the bit were what earned Kaufman a cult following. In Im Not Scared of You or Anything, Fiorentino warns the reader from the first page that what they’re reading is going to be funny, but maybe not funny in a predictably safe sense. He commits at the outset to the bit: a cast of characters who calculatedly lack self-awareness. He leads the reader to an uncomfortable place because his stories mirror our own experiences so closely. Fiorentino has said that Im Not Scared of You or Anything is “a very playful, silly book.” And while this funhouse mirror is definitely playful, it is less silly than unsettling.

Fiorentino is fantastically funny, and not just in his work. He reliably gives patently false, tongue-in-cheek answers to interview questions. If you aren’t paying attention, you might miss the ongoing prank he’s has been playing in public for years, portraying himself as a Writer with a capital W to lampoon the stuffy landscape of literature. For instance, when asked what advice he would give to aspiring young poets, Fiorentino said: “Get an agent, buy some power suits, schmooze your fucking brains out, and then sit back, collect the cheques and prepare for a lifetime of financial security and worldwide recognition.”

Fiorentino characterizes himself as “sometimes a little sappy and sometimes a little obscure. I am also very disturbed.” After years of following Fiorentino on social media, I can attest to the “sometimes sappy” (ask Fiorentino about his daughter and he is instantly transformed) and “a little obscure” (you had better love Morrissey if you plan on following him on Twitter). What he will do is call out writers and critics who defend the old-guard ramparts of literature against an influx of younger writers with smaller catalogues, while at the same time engaging in sincere conversations about taboo topics such as mental illness, bullying, clinical depression, and loneliness.

Fiorentino has carefully crafted a version of himself as both a character and unreliable narrator, often breaking the fourth wall with quirky self-deprecation. In Stripmalling (ECW, 2010), Fiorentino’s work of illustrated prose released, the first-person narratives shift between a present day Jonny (a writer reporting on the middling success of his novel and the progress of his current project), a that-was-then Jonny living in a crappy car in a strip-mall parking lot, and Jonny’s love interest, who is quick to tell the reader that everything Jonny says is a lie.

Fiorentino’s body of work thrives in the hairline fracture between hurt and hilarity. As such, it would be remiss not to mention Fiorentino’s most recent book of poetry, Needs Improvement (Coach House Books, 2013), which is thematically similar to Im Not Scared of You or Anything. In Needs Improvement, Fiorentino uses fake report cards to build a dialogue between parents and teachers about an unfortunate child named Leslie Mackie. Mackie is never given a voice, but his flaws are contemptuously documented and displayed. The report cards are darkly funny and grow progressively more hurtful as Leslie ages.

“The drunken fluidity of a night spent chasing the idea of the idea of someone you might have loved is both repellent and familiar …”

As a professor at Concordia University, Fiorentino has stressed that he has put a lot of thought into the nature of pedagogy and the systemic inequality between teacher and student. He has said that some of the most intense bullying he ever experienced has come from teachers. In a Twitter interview with Daniel Zomparelli, Fiorentino said: “I think about teaching a lot. I’m bothered by the fact that many of the biggest bullies we face at school are teachers.”

You lock eyes with fresh-faced, bright-eyed undergraduates. Some of them are cheaters. You know this on account of all of your experiences with cheating. You had never cheated at anything, but you have a great deal of experience with the cheating of cheaters.

Fluctuating power dynamics in relationships is the crux of most of Fiorentino’s work, in both prose and poetry. And while Needs Improvement is a very close look at the relationship between teacher and student, Im Not Scared of You or Anything expands to examine romantic, familial, and fraternal relationships.

While his poetry is often formally condensed and employed with a detached wit, his prose is accessible and colloquial. His dialogue reads like conversations you might overhear half-drunk at the local pub. Fiorentino’s short stories scrape the edges of open wounds, pushing into the absurdly comedic, creating a world that is both instantly recognizable and darkly funny.

Like Stripmalling, Im Not Scared of You or Anything is an illustrated collection “documenting the lives of loners and losers.” The lonely and unreliable narrators populating the stories are familiar, constantly striving to make contact, to be seen. They are the patients waiting next to us in the doctor’s office, the last person in the line-up at the bank, everyone we’ve ever clashed carts with at the supermarket.

Im Not Scared of You or Anything is not strictly a graphic novel, but is reminiscent of the work of Harvey Pekar, whose semi-autobiographical comic book series American Splendor captured the day-to-day misery of menial jobs, finances, and relationships. Pekar would sometimes veer off-course from documenting drudgery to write about jazz musicians or artists, just as Fiorentino sometimes gives us stand-alone concept pieces like “Sweet Pro-tips,” which serves as an ironically de facto guide to life.

Always look for ways to monetize your abjection.

One very effective way of getting out of a relationship is to never speak to that person ever again. Also moving far away. Also murdering them. You can do all three I guess.

Never have sex while being sober. It’s really weird.

If Fiorentino is Pekar, artist Maryanna Hardy is his Robert Crumb, or perhaps more accurately, Gilbert Shelton. Hardy’s illustrations capture the off-kilter world Fiorentino has constructed. The meticulous line work in textures like hair, fabric, and wood evokes a rich tactility, and her use of earth tones reflect the seediness of Fiorentino’s scenes. There is something slightly askew in her work, a kind of gorgeous menace.

While most of Im Not Scared of You or Anything contains short stories, some of the concept pieces are almost entirely visual and rely upon Hardy’s art to effectively carry the text. “Teen Wolf Quotes Slavoj Žižek” would not work without the accompanying illustrations, a series of three portraits of the eponymous film/television character. Teen Wolf belongs in a Fiorentino story; he’s a social misfit who turns into a werewolf.

But why Žižek and why Teen Wolf? It could be read as social commentary and a satire of captioned .gifs, hand-drawn in print instead of being quickly replicated using Photoshop. Fiorentino is a meta master of fast-trending tropes, and some of his funniest ‘bits’ are on social media: his yearly entry into the Lay’s potato chip “Name That Flavour” contest (this year’s entry is “Literary Snobbery”), satirical Photoshopped Google searches and text conversations, hashtags that parody other hashtags. In 2013 Fiorentino wrote “The Unfriending,” a poem in response to a conversation he had on social media during which he was informed by an unnamed writer that he or she had “unfriended” him. Fiorentino’s response is atypical of most of his poetry. “The Unfriending” is written in the language of casual online conversations.

“ ‘Get an agent, buy some power suits, schmooze your fucking brains out, and then sit back, collect the cheques and prepare for a lifetime of financial security and worldwide recognition. ’ ”

Hearing Fiorentino read the poem aloud is twice as funny as reading it on the page. The awkward cadence and pauses are a deliberate send-up of the tone of the original offending email. Declaratively unfriending is the new way to ostracize, the contemporary equivalent of snubbing someone on the playground. Fiorentino is committed to spotlighting bullying, particularly when it happens in public spaces. And he pushes his audience to uncomfortable but necessary places using humour as a vehicle.

“Critical Theory Archie” first appeared on Fiorentino’s Tumblr. The work takes actual pages from Christian Archie comics and replaces the text in the speech bubbles with fragments from critical theory, such as “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Hélène Cixous and Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. For Im Not Scared of You or Anything, Hardy copies the original comic pages frame by frame, but the organic quality of the illustrations gives the images a disturbingly sinister quality.

“Mr. Spock Says Things From Episodes of Girls” is truly, wonderfully weird. The contrast between the image of Mr. Spock as an archetypal pop culture embodiment of commitment to logic and order, and the random comments about sex he’s spouting from a popular TV show is a jarring and hilarious contrast. Fiorentino subverts pop culture tropes first by juxtaposing the imagery with rhetoric and then perverts them by replacing familiar, friendly visuals with Hardy’s eerie illustrations.

In the title story, the narrator delivers a lengthy and rambling excuse to a woman he abandons at a bar—his bar, he repeatedly reminds Ingrid, the subject of his attention. While it’s clear the narrator is very much in love with the idea of loving Ingrid, he has little interest in Ingrid herself. He claims that he didn’t leave her because he’s afraid of her but was prevented from staying by a series of small and strange events that included drug dealers, threesomes, a dude from Iron Maiden, alcohol, and wizards. The drunken fluidity of a night spent chasing the idea of the idea of someone you might have loved is both repellent and familiar, as we can all see something of Ingrid, the narrator, or even the dude from Iron Maiden in ourselves.

In “It Seems Like Sex Is a Weird Thing That Used to Happen to Me Sometimes,” protagonist Steven Marr begins a regimen of psychiatric medication after failing to qualify for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The failed psychiatric intake interview is one of the funniest pieces of writing in the book. Juxtaposing real diagnostic True and False questions with Marr’s absurd answers parodies the often-insulting nature of psychiatric medicine.

“Number nine. I would like to fall in love and share my life with someone.”

“True. Oh, very true. Falling in love can make you do strange things like brushing your teeth or showering. And I would love an excuse to manscape. Like, to truly manscape. As it stands right now, I have no real reason to trim my pubic hair into fun and amusing shapes. Also, I feel like my sense of humour could really wake a slumbering lady from her slumber!”

After fourteen years of celibacy and sadness, Marr is finally prescribed medication to help him cope with his symptoms.

“You will be a healthier person if you use these drugs to cure your sadness instead of always using pizza,” his doctor tells him.

Fiorentino expertly captures altered sensation and the reality-blurring haze of drugs or drink or loneliness.

The CBC runs a strange and wonderful blog series called Magic 8 where Canadian writers are asked unpredictable questions by other Canadian writers. Vincent Lam’s recent question to Fiorentino was: “Does your personal relationship with your characters change over the course of writing a book? If so, how?”

Fiorentino replied: “I don’t have a personal relationship with my characters because they are fictional and I am not a crazy person.”

But not all of Fiorentino’s characters are fictional and Fiorentino himself is quick to speak about and defend issues of mental health. While another writer might get called out online for using hurtful, ableist language, Fiorentino self-identifies with mental illness.

Some of the characters he writes about are not imagined and his stories about them are deeply personal. In “When It Got a Little Cold,” Fiorentino’s daughter recounts the night she was born from her own perspective. It’s a sweet and moving story, humourous but with warmth that is sometimes hidden in his other work.

Jon Paul Fiorentino Interviews his Mother” is a story that might or might not be true. Its first appearance was in the National Post in September 2013 after the release of Needs Improvement. Did Fiorentino’s mother actually say, in a nationally syndicated newspaper: “You were a pudgy, pubescent, pain in the butt. You sat in the front and raised your hand wildly like Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter and tried to answer every question: “Mom! I know! I know!” Also, your notebooks were in total disarray. You lacked focus.”

This sounds very much like the voice of one of Fiorentino’s character, it could be a comment from one of Leslie Mackie’s report cards in Needs Improvement. Does Fiorentino borrow from life for his work or is his life reflective of his fiction?

In Stripmalling, Fiorentino asked, “Why do I dwell on the formative years, the narratives of failure and shame, the dry humping and the huffing?” An intriguing question, as his work is often nostalgic but never sentimental. His stories are rooted in places so familiar they are indistinguishable from each other: parking lots, bars, cold cars, laundromats. The reader feels instantly at home but the conversations in these generic places have a surreal, overly personal quality.

“They are the patients waiting next to us in the doctor’s office, the last person in the line-up at the bank, everyone we’ve ever clashed carts with at the supermarket.”

The Loser who stands at the core of all of Fiorentino’s work comes in many forms: an outsider who deliberately crashes events and worlds where he or she won’t be welcome. Examples include a male pillow-fighter, a would-be rock star from Winnipeg at a party in New York, a middle-school student idolizing a popular kid, an unathletic man joining a martial arts centre. Often The Loser seeks guidance from strange sources: the dude from Iron Maiden, Vlad the Russian martial arts instructor, an androgynous film student. This is another magic trick of Fiorentino’s—The Loser is rarely likeable yet the reader is compelled to follow the narrative to the story’s destination. The Loser’s insecurities are excavated and emphasized. They tell comical, outlandish lies to make themselves seem larger, more whole. They are us in Fiorentino’s warped mirror, caught and magnified.

Im Not Scared of You or Anything is a funny, weird trip. Fiorentino zigs when you think he’ll zag; his dialogue is bizarre, while his excessive use of exclamation marks and the word “anyways” creates an irresistible velocity in his prose. You are dragged by the hand through snowstorms and relationships, always slightly drunk and certainly out of place. The stories are an invitation to a party where all the guests are strangers to one another, and everything they say could either be a lie or a very uncomfortable truth. Kaufman would have approved.

 


Roxanna Bennett is a Canadian poet, writer, and artist educator. Born in Ontario, she spent much of her childhood in Newfoundland. She attended the Ontario College of Art and Design and studied Creative Writing at The University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Her poems and reviews have appeared in CV2, Descant, Existere, vallum, the National Post, Bitch Magazine, Boxx Magazine, VenusZine, Gender Focus, and others. Her first collection of poetry, The Uncertainty Principle, is forthcoming in 2014 from Tightrope Books.

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