Aaron Dietz's Super is a study of bureaucratic restrictions and supervillains. And superheroes, too, though they scramble more than they super. The novel is structured as a series of escalating examinations to pass levels and garner promotions. Genre-wise, the novel takes its cues from the SAT and a Super Mario Bros. video game.
The two narrative strains are tucked into the work as reading-comprehension tests: one centers around superhero Robert, coaxing his love life along; the other finds Robert in his pack of superheroes. Being typical superheroes, they find themselves in shootouts attempting to save a water source from being poisoned. A helicopter reels and explodes. And some of the superheroes meet nasty ends: "Edward was dying at the bottom of the canyon. Or maybe he was finished by now," reads one account. Worse, their actions are forever under scrutiny. Civilians serviced by these bureaucracy-harangued superheroes have the option to fill out a comment card regarding their experiences of rescue. "I would want to be saved by this superhero again," the questionnaire reads, and the customer either agrees or disagrees by filling in a bubble with a #2 pencil.
The language of Super is dry and static; if it's being reigned in, it's reigned in by something with [End Page 20] super-human strength. "It doesn't hurt when the front end of the bus wraps itself around me," Robert says in one moment—in another, "The fire incinerates my clothing, roasting me naked in the street. It hurts." One despairs, a little, at reading about a man who can fully empathize with a Thanksgiving turkey, but who is tongue-tied, or tongue-singed. Seemingly, language is beside the point, and it's genre that gives shape to the bulk of the work.
In the work is a whole tangle of genre—even within the exam format, we're given crosswords, a telegram, letters, poems, comic panels, interviews, and a psychiatric examination, to name a few. There aren't so much scenes as there are presentations. It is a deluge, and the freneticism of genre-leaping is mirrored in the plot: Robert tumbles in and out of relationships, characters rear up and retreat, and quizzes are pitched at the reader after each selection. "In Document I, what is the primary reason why Asana is going to counseling?" "In Document D, why was Sera willing to care for the narrator, Nelson?" The answer to each of these questions (it's one of the choices provided in this multiple-choice format): "There is not enough information to figure it out."
These moments, tales, and caped figures are fleeting. There's a sweetness (a strict sweetness, but sweetness nonetheless) to those moments that are allowed to bloom. Robert is presented as a loaf-of-bread of a man; he drinks wine (wine!) until he vomits. He speaks in telegram-isms. In one moment, he invites his love interest to act as his yoga instructor; they curl up like roly-polies and rock from side to side. The exchange occupies perhaps two inches on the page; it's nearly as though the moment curls up as well, shyly tucking in.
Most interesting is Dietz's efforts at making the book interactive; on his website, he's releasing a page of the work each day. (Readers are encouraged to print it out for their personal use; binding instructions are even provided.) You'll also find YouTube clips of the author conducting superhero meetings in lieu of a standard reading. Such actions seem to speak to the efforts at the core of the book: to create a plaything of paper, akin to an adult cootie-catcher. In this attempt, one feels a heartfelt love of literature.
If the reader is willing to get her hands inky with this work, then she should be prepared to heave out some sighs. The overwhelming trope of the work is desperation—or, in some documents, desperation's more passive cousin, disappointment. It's all cloaked in cheekiness. One of the superheroes receives a letter from a person who identifies himself as his "best friend from a time that doesn't exist anymore." The writer conjures up a dire description of his future self: "He was the butterfly that flapped its wings and no matter which way he flapped them, the world kept blowing up." The letter rounds out with a PS: "I can't tell you my real name, because that ends up blowing up the planet. Sorry." What emerges from this frantic fragility of it is a strange pitch: the tone (barking laugher) is that of a cocktail party gone awry.
In one of the early scenes, we meet a member of Robert's cohort—Irma, who melts things with her touch. She also makes mix-tapes. "Sometimes I have powers that make me dangerous to everyone around me," she says. In another moment, Irma is made poetic: "Irma says, I want out of / this world / now," and in this form—deconstructed sentences—she seems to helplessly slide down the page. [End Page 21]
Anne Derrig is an MA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.