Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.
Bald Ego, Number 3, Eds. Max Blagg and Glenn O'Brien (2006)
Review by Jim Feast
If we think of the production of literature arranged in concentric circles with the best sellers and big, conglomerate publishers in the middle, then it can be remarked that impressions of changes in the political situation make their first impact at the margins. In the U.S., for instance, the smaller presses (such as FC2) and little journals reacted first to the growing militarization and regimentation of our current security state. Perhaps literature and the presses in the core are slower to take notice because the higher up the ladder one is, the more one is exposed to the propaganda pitches of the government and corporations. (Note: The days when an entity like Grove Press could stand simultaneously in the core and at the margins are long over.) By the way, this is no reflection on quality. There is valuable as well as worthless work at all points in the circle.
Lately, it should be noted that those a little nearer the middle, such as high-profile literary journals (although not the most established) have become aware of the glum political situation. One example of this trend is the new, glossy magazine, Vanitas, reviewed by Steve Dalachinsky in a previous Evergreen, in which, in some cases gloriously, in some cases dismally, its authors tried to adapt a high-art style to a progressive political message. .
Another, more piquant example is from the newish journal Bald Ego. It just so happen I belatedly reviewed the year-old issue in the last Evergreen, and when the editors found out about this, they sent the latest installment, hot off the presses. It shows a notable advance in political resolve and direction. As I said in reviewing the last issue, there was one highlighted, running motif in many of the included stories, that of the hipster tourist, who either went abroad or into society's underbelly. In this issue, though, in a change indicative of an acknowledgment of the world's presence in the American purview, the tourists have been replaced by natives.
Take the fearsomely brilliant excerpt from Gate of the Sun by Lebanese Elias Khoury, in which a bemused but embittered Middle Eastern intellectual tries to explain (through a translator) the Palestinian viewpoint to an American. Yet he never brings up his best argument, the suffering of his own family since it would be too painful to speak about. Besides, he knows, as the translator perceives, Americans are "afraid of the victim! Instead of treating the patient, they fear him, and when they see, they close their eyes."
A chilling counterpart to this piece is Hooman Majd's "Jamkaram," which details the visit of a pledged suicide bomber to a revered ayatollah. The power of Majd's story comes in his interweaving of the secular and sacred in the protagonist's life. The bomber sits down to puff a bowl of opium with other religious before joining pilgrims to the site of a martyr. His fanaticism is persuasively presented as arising from these mundane details, while being neither inflated or played down.
If in the current issue, hip tourists have been replaced by native informants, showing the journal's opening to world politics, the hipsters themselves, who in the previous edition gonzoed their way through foreign milieus, have come home, chastened and less adventurous. If the hero of John Stravinsky's "A Mistaken Sense of Identity" gambles incessantly and finds a mistress in a massage parlor, he is still not as reckless as he appears. His gambling is carefully calculated to earn a living and support his sculpting, while the pole dancer he picks up is one he has correctly diagnosed as a closet homemaker. When she crosses the line by (without his asking) helping him cheat on a game, he severely reprimands her, a lesson driven home by the hombre they cheated who totals their car. And if in his new story, Max Blagg hasn't pulled in his horn, the one a cock ring choked in last issue's story, his hero's sexual cavorting has become less an instance of hipster hijinks than an initiation into culture. In "The First Time I Saw Fuses," in escaping pursuing ruffians, the hero jumps a wall into an aristocratic flower child's garden. The proprietor seems happy to entertain him and, after some flirtation and near foreplay, introduces him to avant-garde film, dropping the spark that led the hero to a life-long enchantment with the finer arts.
All these stories are set off by a flood of vivid poems and images. Of special note are the verses of Elaine Equi, poised and poignant; the Rimbaudish romp of the surrealistically named Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle; and the playful distortion of homilies provided by Glenn O'Brien. Also worth poring over are such images as the garish, out-of-focus drawings of people at amusement-park booths by Jane Dickson, the out-of-tempo, peculiar-views-at-peculiar-angles beach shots of Lloyd Ziff, and the harshly innocent, woodcut-like paintings of Alison Elizabeth Taylor.
Read carefully, these works, as do the stories, show the editors' decision, one that is both understandable and applaudable, to make a course correction and give Bald Ego, always possessing a strong id, a politically conscientious superego.