98 Wounds – Justin Chin (Manic D Press)
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“You cannot,” declares the narrator of 98 Wounds, Justin Chin’s stunning, essential new short story collection, “must not, believe anything – not a single word – that I say.”
It is a fine joke, the best and the last laugh in this dark, witty book, Chin’s seventh and his first of prose fiction. For, by the time we read the above pronouncement, we have come to know this narrator as one of the most straightforward and reliable we have ever met. If we cannot believe him, who can we believe? Which may be the point of that statement. If 98 Wounds is unreliable (the title is from Rimbaud’s Book of Absinthe, wherein Verlaine denies God and makes “the ninety-eight wounds of our Blessed Lord bleed again,” an image picked up by Patti Smith in “Privilege (Set Me Free)”), then language and narrative themselves may be unreliable delivery systems, which of course they are. In the meantime, however, Chin’s language and tale-spinning ability give us a dizzying, dazzling, deeply affecting ride. Fine – let him tell us not to believe. By the time he does so, he has already made us believe incontrovertibly.
Adding to our pleasure is surprise that we can thrill to such sober, grown-up candor in a narrative sporting all the earmarks of pomo. It’s gritty, it’s grimy, it’s sexually, emotionally and pharmaceutically “X-treme,” its characters and storylines are blurred – isn’t it obligatory that the writer not write so much as riff? Mustn’t this be a literary drug trip, the kind that is great fun to write but torture to read? Hardly.
The only pain here, and it can be considerable, comes from Chin’s clear-eyed, spot-on frankness. Even when he is metaphorical, surreal or satirical, we know with a jolt to our hearts the suffering he specifies: abuse, addiction, illness, and isolation. When he says, “my husband was possessed by an evil spirit,” it introduces a passage that, for all its Exorcist imagery, will be squirm-inducingly real to anyone who has endured any kind of abusive relationship. As for his portrayals of physical illness and decay, I will tell you that I read 98 Wounds twice: one before my 94-year-old mother’s recent illness, and once after. The first time I thoroughly enjoyed myself, in spite of the narrator’s multiple afflictions. The second time I could not read more than three pages without having to put the book down. This, obviously, is a high compliment. It also means that, having had two equally rich and rewarding but quite divergent experiences of 98 Wounds, I am hooked and I want to read it a third time. (And speaking of elderly mothers, wait till you meet the one in this book. You will not forget her, or the scene in which she appears.)
It occurs to me that, after 400 words, I should probably say more concretely what this book is “about.” If I say abuse, addiction, illness and isolation, it is all true. But these words are just boxes into which we sort Chin’s verbal shards so we can feel secure, as though by such a reading we have done something quantifiable. The book is not finally “about” these things. It is intimately, painfully about us, about what you do to yourself and others every day, no matter who you are, no matter what your relationship is or is not to people, substances, viruses, or abuse. No one, Chin implies, is sane. No one is innocent. Werner Erhardt, the founder of est, was fond of saying, “Everyone has fucked their dog.” Chin’s narrator knows you have done worse. He certainly has. We are all a micron away from the abuse and suffering he portrays. Everyone is infected. You’re not slumming. You live here. Reading 98 Wounds gives you the experience William S. Burroughs described in the title Naked Lunch: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
Fortunately, failure on this scale has a grandeur. So does Justin Chin’s extraordinary book.
Reviewed by David Pratt