:: Article

how to pose for hustler

By Gabino Iglesias.

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Andrea Kneeland’s How to Pose for Hustler
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015)

 

If life is an amusement park filled with the silly constructions we adopt and painted with bright lies, then Andrea Kneeland’s How to Pose for Hustler is like taking a behind-the-scenes tour of that amusement park at night while an eloquent junkie who hides underneath an attraction during the day leads you by the hand and points out every nasty crack, useless patch, unsightly stain, and ugly, rusty mechanism. Kneeland’s strong, fast-paced voice rings loud and clear in this collection of short prose pieces, and she somehow manages to turn remorse, inaction, pain, depression, and even creepiness into the kind of narratives that hurt as much as they please.

While the writing is beautiful and full of brief poetic explosions, there’s nothing pretty about How to Pose for Hustler. Kneeland delivers tale after tale about loss, the most uncomfortable extremes of self-doubt and shame, the unpleasantness that can come from human interaction, and awful memories. From unlikable sex and money that feels dirty to days at the office that turn into eternities and moments in which life boils down to staring at the slow drip of menses from between your own legs, this collection is as sharp and engaging as it is harsh and emotionally gritty.

That what lies ahead will not be the kind of literature that allows readers to remain unaffected is something the author makes clear from the start. The first story, “The Difference Between,” offers a shocking glimpse at how brutally honest and direct the author can be:

I realize with certainty that my husband is an asshole about three years into the marriage, while I am delirious with a flu-born fever, freezing beneath cold yellow sweated through bed sheets, bones shaking like caged mice. Instead of going to the store to get me Nyquil, he forces my legs into the harness of a strap-on, sits on top of me and fucks himself while I try not to die.

Kneeland’s voice, which always comes from a female character, shifts between a plethora of negative feelings, and her characters are always trapped in situations that are not only perfectly plausible and somewhat relatable regardless of gender, but they also occupy a bizarre interstitial space between self destruction and inaction. The stories in this collection are either studies in the results of inertia (“I never file any divorce papers. I leave him all of my under- wear because he likes to wear them so much. I leave him all of my everything because I am afraid of confrontation.”) or explorations of how humans can consistently make the worst decision while hovering above the moment and understanding that said choice was far from inevitable and probably nonsensical:

I don’t remember much about the ambulance ride, but I see now that I had managed to carve “WHOORE” along my inner thigh before they picked me up. I won a spelling bee in third grade, so there is a gray sort of math here somewhere that might indicate how many pills I have taken.

Kneeland understands that suffering is almost always the sum of what life throws our way and our own inability to deal with it, and each narrative in this book looks at some point of the spectrum between those two elements. For example, in “Familiarity,” a woman finds herself having sex with a man she’s attracted to, but not attracted enough to make the sex a pleasant event. Instead of enjoying the moment or putting an end to it, she decides to leave her body there and take her mind out of the situation as a coping mechanism:

I sit down on my bed and watch him undress. His skin looks blue beneath the light, folds his body up beneath petal- thin flesh. His nipples, flattened at a downward slant, are the color of a battered woman’s lips. I wait for him to undress me. There is very real comfort in becoming a ghost, and I am thankful for it.

Being aware of the strange ways in which the world operates and the multiplicity of ways in which we hurt ourselves and each other with inhuman cruelty is one thing, but having the ability to delve into that strangeness and pull out crushingly beautiful prose is something very different, and the author pulls that off here. How to Pose for Hustler possesses a subdued viciousness and an upfront cruelty that retains its freshness through all thirty-six stories. Readers knows that heartbreak, desperation, loneliness, weakness, and pain are coming, but the way they finally arrive at these emotions in the stories is always different, always original and unexpected. This ability to constantly rebuild ugliness serves as one of the collection’s main cohesive elements and speaks volumes about Kneeland’s knack for observing people as well as herself.

Besides the wonderful mercilessness of the narratives, something that makes these tales deserve attention is Kneeland’s outstanding economy of language. The dialogue is fast and to the point; the descriptions are short and effective. With each story, Kneeland wants to tell the reader something while provoking either a thought or a feeling, often both, and then moving on. The result of this desire to move forward at breakneck speed regardless of emotional turmoil is a collection that demands to be read in a single sitting, despite its length. In fact, Kneeland’s ability to get her point across without wasting words doesn’t waiver even when what’s being said is a great starting point for a philosophical discussion or when a passage stops abruptly, as it does in “Scene 36: Uncertainty”:

Almost before the thought is even conceived, it is aborted. This vague sense of a growing list of possibilities floating in every space like a comfort, like a painless happiness, and in an attempt to define these possibilities, it is discovered that the list is a list of only one item, and that item is not a possibility, but a consequence. And instead, substitute: where has everyone gone?; why can’t; is this all; where have you gone?; if nobody is at home today?; if I am not ever home?; everyone is gone, except—

Given such quick pacing and economy of language, it’s surprising to see that there are tiny observations sprinkled throughout the text that prove Kneeland is as observant when looking at the world around her as she is when looking at people and herself. Lines like “The wind tousles a few pieces of trash, shakes the fast food wrappers around like they’re luckless babies” are morsels of urban poetry that stand out for themselves while simultaneously enriching the narrative to which they belong. This power of observation turns things like buildings, furniture, trash, caged rats, and the light coming through the window into unexpected characters that end up playing important roles in the stories despite their inability to talk or interact with the main character in a significant way.

There’s a very enjoyable simplicity to Kneeland’s delivery, a wonderful effortlessness that allows her to turn simple sentences into living things that jump of the page:

Everyone has at least one talent. It’s just that some talents are pointless.

The combination of straightforwardness and touch of literary filigrees brings to mind a variety of authors ranging from Sam Pink to Flannery O’Connor, but the stories never stop being entirely hers. What Kneeland does is take seemingly unimportant elements, such as pets or the music playing in the background, and bring them to the forefront in order to give them a short, devastating moment in the spotlight before moving on. While these acts are never long, they stick out and are easy to remember because they come from nowhere, suddenly becoming something that provokes a reaction that may or may not be completely unrelated to the larger themes of the narrative:

There is music playing. It’s some sort of folk music from the 60’s, which is always depressing. All the anger and idealism and hope: it’s like reading the end of the book before reading the beginning. I heard on the news the other day that one in four mammals are on the verge of extinction. The fervent passivism and marijuana induced love didn’t mean a thing. Ferrets and polar bears and elk and tigers and people, they’re still all getting killed every day.

How to Pose for Hustler is memorable because it achieves a balance between emotions and sex, grit and poetry, depression and hilarity, minutiae and universal themes. The stories in this collection deal with the world each of us carries inside, the world outside ourselves, and the uncomfortable ways in which those two worlds constantly crash into each other and affect the individual caught in between. Kneeland is a talented and extremely candid author with a knack for the offbeat and the outré, and what she brings to the page are characters who are often, like most people, on the verge of breaking down and realizing they’re to blame for a good portion of their pain.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He is the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and Zero Saints (forthcoming, Broken River Books). His work has appeared in publications like Verbicide, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Marginalia, Word Riot, Entropy, That Lit Site, Atticus Review, Spinetingler Magazine, and other print and online venues.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 8th, 2015.