Stephen Michael McDowell gave me his novella at the Literary Tailgate on Thursday. It’s called Treees and it’s handmade with half-letter pages lovingly stitched. The cover was red and had no words or images, which I thought was peculiar, but when I saw Stephen again the next night he drew a cover onto the book. I thought that was neat. I thought, “That is a neat thing to do.” (Dave NeSmith does it, too, with Dave’s comic chapbook, El Greed.)
Treees is 68 pages long. I read the first 25 pages when I woke up from a nightmare (actually a sadmare) at 5am. I read the next 20 or so pages later on the subway. I finished it this morning while sitting on a bench watching an amateur baseball game.
I recommend reading this book. It’s good. It is built with sturdy declarative sentences. Alt-lit, whatever, that’s all good, it’s a thing, whatever, god bless em. One thing about this book is it is 99% free of typos. That’s nice, considering the book is all about typo-ridden media like texts and web chats so he could have made it messy. This way is better.
Treees opens when Aiden, a bummer of a twenty something, learns the results of his HIV test—he’s not infected, but the brusque “hospital scrubs man” adds, “Now this doesn’t mean you don’t have all kinds of other heinous shit” and admonishes him to “wear a fucking condom for christ sakes.”
Then Aiden uses the Internet to talk to Sarah, his ex-girlfriend, who asks “Just as a question” how many people he’d slept with when they were together. Aiden tells her it could be four or six, he couldn’t be sure. He’d been drunk and depressed.
The story is populated with sex-obsessed kids. It’s disturbing and awesome in a Larry Clark way. A sociologist might theorize about whether new generations are exposed to more of something and are therefore more something than older generations.
I wonder if the obsession with the Internet that happens in Treees is more powerful than the sex obsession. I wonder if I’m more obsessed with sex than twenty year olds, who are more obsessed with sexting. Anyway, that’s a douchey way to read the book. Just say: Aiden uses the Internet a lot, for chatting and making music collaboratively and cybersex.
He goes to parties and bars. He doesn’t ever have any money so people buy him drinks. At afterparties he ends up sleeping with a lot of girls. It goes: “Aiden asks Katie if he can sleep in her bedroom. She says, ‘Uh yeah, sure. Definitely.’”
In NYC, Aiden meets Cora, whom he had noticed earlier as the prettiest girl in a chatroom. Aiden and Cora bond. They go to bed together and Aiden experiences profound intimacy. This is one of my favorite things in the book, because Aiden falls hard for Cora. In chats and on email he tells her how he feels. He’s overcome, but she stays rational and rebuffs him. Aiden says,
“Based on how emotionally intense I feel toward you, how happy I feel about the emotions, and the fact that if you didn’t feel ambivalent we wouldn’t be discussing this all seem good to me. I don’t know, I still feel confused. I want to take a break from discussion, so I can rationalize better. Thank you for talking about this, bro.”
Later he sees that Cora and some other friends are going to Cape Cod for a weekend and invites himself. Cora says no. McDowell writes, “Aiden stares at the Macbook display with his eyes not focusing for about three minutes.” Then Aiden responds with impressive graciousness, even though it’s clear he’s heartbroken. McDowell’s flat tone make for subtle, nuanced emotions.
He nails the anxiety that comes with a crush.
Though Aiden and his friends drink a lot and do a lot of drugs and have a lot of unprotected sex, they maintain a certain vague moral code. This is seen when they are heading to a party where there will be drugs; they won’t let Ramona come because she is trying to get clean.
It’s also pertinent in the way Aiden feels about a person he calls “the goat.” For some reason, Aiden is afraid of the goat, and he never definitively says why. I like this a lot. I like the mystery of it. Aiden thinks the goat “will probably kill me if I stay in Baltimore.”
But the goat doesn’t seem like a bad guy. He buys Aiden beer on several occasions and helps him get Ramona away from the party. On the other hand, Aiden does tell a story about when the goat ditched him at a music festival, and that it caused him to do drugs and black out and wind up doing things with a girl that he wouldn’t have otherwise done.
For most of the book, Aiden feels pretty lousy. Even the trees put him down: “’You little shit,’ screams a cherry tree.” The trees say things to Aiden several times; this is another one of my favorite things about the book. It spikes the emotions. Treees ends with Aiden crying while watching all three Lord of the Rings movies. It’s bleak, but somehow it’s not a miserable book to read. That’s part of what makes it remarkable.