Don’t Kiss Me, or anyone else for that matter after they have read this book, the faint taste of filthy words may still be on their lips. “I want to break your heart, I want to make you laugh and I want to make you just a little bit sick in between.” The words of Chuck Palahniuk echo throughout when reading Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me. Hunter has a successful first collection of short stories titled Daddy’s and Don’t Kiss Me is her heart thumping and entirely cringe inducing second collection of short stories.
Reading Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me is a similar experience to having a neurosurgeon delve inside your mind to remove the slab that keeps repressed memories from lurking into your everyday thoughts and then print them on paper for everyone to see. It is as honest as it is unashamed in its brutality to convey a series of modern truths; we are all going to die, sex drives 90 percent of higher brain functions and your brother wants to chew your breasts off. So who the hell is Lindsay Hunter and why can she do what so few others can, where does her deep human understanding come from?
The unassuming Hunter who writes from her home in Chicago and loyally dedicates her book to it too, is an avid figure in the writing scene there. She speaks in interviews with a clear passion, focused largely on her own work and her ability and her wish to improve it. That being said she is not afraid to talk about her anxieties when confronting her own abilities and use of language. Something that her critics seem to ignore completely as Hunter racks up one great review after another. When it comes down to the facts Hunter is not A Boy Called It and Don’t Kiss Me is not a tell-all confessional of despair, though no one would blame you for making the comparison. She’s a modern day mother of one, elbow deep in self confidence and baby vomit with a pretty interesting way at looking how human beings, perhaps from the fringes of society, engage with the rest of us. You may be asking how can we trust her with such taut subject matter? For those who already follow Hunter’s web blog they already know the answer and it’s in every line of her blog posts and observations on daily life. Without her honesty, sympathy and empathy the writing just simply wouldn’t work.
Hunter’s book is a catalogue of the disreputable activities we all do in private but taken to their most extreme point. Who knows, perhaps they’re not so extreme, but seldom will anyone you know admit to enjoying the feeling of being urinated on in a dumpster. Yet this is one small part of the first story you are confronted with, and I use the word ‘confronted’ deliberately, in one of Hunter’s older stories, THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT PEGGY PAULA.
“Peggy Paula just waiting it out with her eyes closed, thinking how it smelled like warmed butter, or buttered popcorn, something comforting like that, thinking it was kind of nice, kind of intimate, and suddenly feeling grateful for the whole night.”
The story was one of the first to garner Hunter some level of fame as it went on to enter Roxane Gay’s electric literature’s recommended reading and effectively put a crosshair on Hunter’s head for Indie publishing houses wanting more. People were hooked almost immediately as Hunter managed to encase all you would ever need to know about Peggy Paula, and a great deal more, in a story that takes around 3 minutes to read. Her stories are often incorrectly referred to online as ‘short short stories’ but should be professionally known as flash-fiction. This is where Hunter has managed to bridge a gap between what we read on the Internet and what we pay to read in the bookstore, something I’m sure those publishing houses are very interested in! She is the co-founder and co-host of the Chicago based flash-fiction reading series Quickies and her book is no departure from that ethos.
QUICKIES! Is a bi-monthly reading series in Chicago formed to spotlight very short prose. Each author has four minutes to read a complete work of prose. No excerpts. No cheating.
In today’s fast paced, pleasure-first-work-never culture of get rich quick schemes, Debenhams ten minute Botox jabs and a plethora of 7 minute abs videos , what could be better then a collection of stories comprised entirely of intense bursts of fiction. Don’t Kiss Me does well to lure people in on this promise, but delivers something entirely different. Journalist Hope Reese shed some light on this matter in the Chicago Tribune.
“Although Hunter’s book could be consumed in one sitting, the stories in “Don’t Kiss Me” took me longer to digest. I often needed to re-read a section or to recover from what I’d just read.”
Re-readability is at the core of Don’t Kiss Me and it’s one of those books which friends make their friends read. Like those gruesome stories you hear about or a crazy news article that you sit around and muse over a coffee or send via email. Critics may try to say that her stories are just sensational and nothing else, but this is not the case. The work goes much deeper than that as her use of broken language, deep vernacular and irregularity in just about everything she writes is at the forefront of everything she does. Don’t Kiss Me serves as a good reminder to any aspiring writer that the classic rules of writing work best when they’re turned upside down, slapped in the face and often just ignored altogether. AFTER is the fantastic 3 page story about the apocalypse that starts with a capital letter, has a comma in nearly every line and forgets to leave a full stop at the end of it, or anywhere else for that matter.
“after you woke to your brother curled up around a tattered stuffed elephant you didn’t know he had, after he muttered, eat your boob meat in his sleep, after you heard it before you saw it, after you thought maybe your brother wasn’t asleep, maybe it was a lit fart, after that second white sting, after that clap of light, after”
This is by no means a new and ground breaking style of writing, it echoes the works of many writers and in more recent years looks paradoxically similar to certain passages from Will Self’s Umbrella, something a ‘literature pioneer’ may not like to hear. Yet these texts rely on the ebb and flow of rhyme and poetics and when done right become just as important as the plot, narrative and character. No easy feat. What is clear though, is that Hunter’s work stands out as being comparable with the best of the brand name modern writers such as Will Self.
Her critics love to comment on her literary style and where a lot of book reviews will offer insight into the story, plot, character and all the other institutionalized staples of good story telling, Hunter’s reviews more often than not place the spot light solely on her. This is all due to, as Alissa Nutting author of Tampa puts it, ‘Hunter’s singular voice and unflinching eye.’ There is certainly a common ground between all her stories. They all feel like part of a bigger picture, a vorticist’s dream of the 21st century that is at first confusing and jarring but when all pushed together form a disjointed perspective of a set of human-truths that we can all believe in and perhaps even sympathise with.
Sometimes however Hunter’s ‘singular voice’ can come across as repetitive, throughout her stories certain imagery is forced and then re-forced on the reader, which shows cracks where the creativity begins to look formulaic. In a 2003 interview Hunter noted that this problem was one of her most common criticisms.
‘The more I read from the book, the more I’m like, oh my God, I’m a one trick pony … the Boston Globe just reviewed the book and were talking about how much barf was in the book … I could swear I put barf in the book only once, but she listed so many examples of people barfing and upchucking and vomiting, It’s not something I’m conscience of.… I get disappointed often, I just want the language to be fizzy and sparkly and fresh so it does cause me great anxiety when I see those repetitions.’
What’s clear is that Hunter’s style of writing doesn’t leave a lot of room for the plain and uninteresting. Thematic similarities, especially in imagery, may be an unavoidable part of her ability to write the grotesque, as there is only so far a writer can border on perverse before their work becomes distasteful and unappealing. That being said it is clear that it is not Hunter’s sole aim to turn your stomach, that is a necessary by product of the honesty and realism that is prevalent and rich in her writing.
Its not easy going. Don’t Kiss Me requires a little patience and an empty stomach but sometimes the 40 line sentences feel at best unnecessary and at worst over the top, often forcing the reader, rather than asking them, to read back over passages. It is clear that a great deal of creative licence has been afforded to Hunter but it often seems that a small amount of traditional formatting would not take away from the creativity but add a depth to the meaning which can sometimes feel sparse. Some of the more prominent moments in the book come from the stories that use structure in a liberal format, as opposed to being ignored completely. MY BOYFRIEND DEL is the story of a one-sided romance and resilient hope, a common theme in this book. That romance is targeted at a 9 year old boy by a 20 year old woman. With subject matter this controversial it is refreshing to see Hunter use shorter sentences and punctuation, if anything just to let us breath as we read on in disbelief. It is these stories however that will stand the test of time, and allowed her unique brand of writing to reach a wider audience base.
“I know what the magazines say about jealousy being a powerful motivator when a man can’t commit, I grab for Simon and push my lips onto his, his smell like mood and ketchup and dirt, his heart beating out his whole body, his lips cold and wet, the snot, the snot, I pull away and he is wiping his mouth and gagging.”
That being said her unconventional and stylistic approach to writing has most certainly found a deserved home in many of her stories. She applies an arsenal of writing techniques to keep her readers guessing, often they help to pull the narrative along quicker which is crucial in flash-fiction, sometimes they add to the rhythm and every now and then it feels like it might be done to just look cool. I’m sure the latter is never really the case! CANDLES is a story that lives entirely in the metaphysical space of a woman’s brain. Its realism and believability is haunting due to the way it is written. People don’t think in sentences, with correct grammar, or even any grammar, people don’t even think in lowercase and uppercase. CANDLES is a short narrative told exactly the way her character thinks, in big bold capital letters, broken sentences, contradicting thoughts and yet somehow out of all this chaos emerges a deep story about obsession, lust and loneliness and it does it all in only 125 lines.
I HAD A DREAM JULIAN WAS SHOWING ME A CANDLE THAT WAS CALLED SUCK IT LIKE A STRAW
ITS COMPANION SCENT WAS LICK YOU LIKE AN ICE CREAM CONE
I HAVE NEVER BEEN ATTRACTED TO A MAN OF A DIFFERENT CULTURE BUT
THAT ASS I AM NOT MADE OF STONE
I AM FONDLING A CANDLE SET CALLED HERBACEOUS TWILIGHT, I WANT TO
ASK JULIAN WHY IT IS NOT JUST CALLED OLD FORGOTTEN BOMG BUT HE IS
BUSY HELPING AN OLD MAN OBSESSED WITH THE SMELL OF LAUNDRY
This is where Hunter begins to carve her own path in the world of literature, moving away from comparable material and giving us blindsided readers something to get excited about. It feels raw, un-tampered, unedited and that only goes to add to the mysticism and vulgarity of the thoughts portrayed. CANDLES delivers an un-easy tension as you read it, you get the sense you are stealing someone’s private thoughts, seeing what humans are never meant to see and absorbing feelings they may not want to share. It’s as though Hunter has found a way to read the minds of everyday people.
This story is written entirely in Capital letters, there is an abundant lack of punctuation and it’s practically nonsense when it comes to sentence construction. Hunter has combined all this to create an unflinching voyeuristic probe that the reader finds themselves looking through and unable to turn from!
Leaving Hunter’s collection is a hard thing to do but as you close the cover you begin to see how clever the publishers at Farrah, Straus and Giroux [FSG] really are. The jacket of the book is eye catching the first time you see it with its metallic silver text that shimmers as you pick it up. It’s ordering you from the minute you read the title. Challenging you, confronting you! There is just the right amount of sickly lurid pantone pink on the cover that forms the lipstick shaped ‘I’ in the word kiss to make you think twice before you inevitably pick it up anyway. In a nutshell it looks both raunchy and inviting. FSG didn’t stop there, with the silver letters sunk into a black matt cover there is a tactile nature that forces your hand to rub the sleeve and the matt effect does nothing to make you feel clean. It’s imposing enough to make you pick it up and interesting enough to keep it in your hand. FSG came up with a few ideas when designing the jacket such as fingerprints in lipstick, promptly vetoed by Hunter for a lack of realism, to simple white lettering on a black background and finally landed on something that is quite unique. Publishing houses are going to great lengths to complete with online sales and electronic formats and FSG have got it perfect with this cover. Something I’m sure the team at Graywolf Press envy greatly after passing up the chance at being the original publishers.
The marketing has felt new from step one, something that is refreshing to see and allows the smaller publishing houses such as FSG, Black Balloon Publishing and Graywolf to compete with giants such as Amazon whilst at the same time take advantage of their services and online presence. Book events in quirky locations fused with abstract new music artists have helped spread the message and reach a wider audience with online videos designed to be short and able to go viral. Nowhere in sight are the long winded readings in prestigious venues with champagne and caviar, instead we can see Hunter perform a live interview over Skype with her dog barking in the background and the ever interesting interruption of Champ, the dog walker. Mike Meginnis who has came to notoriety after his own publication of Fat Man and Little Boy, looks like he woke up, rolled out of bed, turned on Skype and started asking questions. Speaking of mind bending book covers, I highly recommend his as one to check out! This is marketing targeted at a new generation of readers, the generation who are at the core inspiration for the characters in Don’t Kiss Me. It’s refreshing to see the publishing industry fighting back, moving with the tides of online media and making a stand.
This book may make you feel damaged or wrong, but Hunter is shining a light on the people that society wants to look away from. It’s no portal or insight to a world, it exists without specificity, there are no dates, locations and fewer still are there character names but it’s thought provoking and enticing. It’s rare you’re made to feel both disgusted and proud to be so at the same time but Hunter has brought you closer to the human experience with a common understanding fuelled by sympathy, embarrassment and experience.