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Reviewed by:
  • Theoretical Killings:Essays and Accidents, and: The Day after the Day After:My Atomic Angst
  • Wendy Sumner-Winter (bio)
Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. Steven Church. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2009. 180 PAGES, PAPER, $16.95.
The Day after the Day After: My Atomic Angst. Steven Church. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010. 224 PAGES, PAPER, $14.95.

There's a theme developing here—something about hubris and tennis, words and miscommunication.

I was feeling some angst when I started to write about Steven Church's excellent collection of previously published essays, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. So, I did what I always do when I get freaked out about not knowing enough to say anything worthwhile: I Googled. If I was going to write about Church's correspondence with a certain K. Nelson, a reportedly famous writer, I had better have some (quickly) preformed idea of who K. Nelson was/is/could be. The closest, or at least the most interesting, entry that Google provided was a reference to "The _________ K. Nelson Memorial Squirrel Hunt." I think Church pulled one on me. There's no such person as K. Nelson. Or maybe there is, but if there is, he transcends Google.

Oh, wait. Church's essay—in the form of a series of e-mails between himself and his subconscious, and himself and K. Nelson—is all about angst. In fact, it might be said that Church is a sort of Minister of Angst, working with it, around it, under it, over it, but rarely beyond it, in various iterations [End Page 171] in all of his books, these two as well as his first, The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

One of the things I find particularly fascinating about Church's writing is his use of form. I wouldn't call it playful, not in the way that, say, Ander Monson is playful, for Church is wrestling with form—playing with it, but playing aggressively. In Theoretical Killings, it feels as if Church is ticking off a list of ideas about form. Maybe I can say it this way, with footnotes, or this way, with a diatribe of prescriptive don'ts, or an apology for the absence of a photograph, the treatment of an icon, advertisements and reimaginings of movies and monkeys and memes about the apocalypse. He uses imagined correspondence and Kant's imperative to explore his own curiosity, and to tempt ours. But it never feels coy. It feels like grappling, like a man wrestling against himself, thinking against himself, and, in the end, cogito ergo boom.

We get the refrain: "Last Saturday, Pop drove the pickup to the flea markets in Serenity and bought himself seven old wooden chairs. Smashing chairs, he called them." It's both lovely and menacing. He quietly ratchets up the fear for both the character in the essay, the boy we presume to be Church, and for the reader.

What Church has achieved in these two books is not merely a reflection or rumination on fear and angst—none of that navel gazing. Instead, he has, in two very different collections, looked at his own reflection through the fog of fantasy. It puts me in mind of Susan Sontag:

We live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters.

I am of the same generation, roughly, as Church, and grew up under the same ominous grayness of the cold war, ever fearful of the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. Who could blame us if we're a little bit stressed out? Yet it wasn't just the cold war that prompted this strange sense of fear and, yes, angst. It also was something about the unrealistic excess of the '80s, so closely following on the heels of the lean and piqued '70s. As Reagan ascended to power, and our military descended on Grenada, we were matriculating into adolescence. [End Page 172]

In The Day after the Day After...


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pp. 171-173
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