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Works

Hank Forest's Party

Hank Forest’s Party is Volume Two of Ascher/Straus’s outward-looking novel/autobiography/philosophical journal, continuing the close observation and horizontal storytelling of life as it passes, but — unlike Volume One — the narrative is shaped by persistently circling around and through a central event (a child’s birthday party) on ABC Street, where the narrator lives with those who populate her local image-world.

Hank Forest's Party

ABC Street

ABC Street is Volume One of what is potentially the twenty-five year autobiography of a woman writer who looks outward rather than inward: the chronicle of her life, but not of herself. It doesn’t resemble any writer’s journal because it is a novel, because it suggests a fresh way for a writer to look at life as fiction and because the issues raised by writing such a novel are one of its principle subjects.

"ABC Street sends out ripples that change our reading of the other Ascher/Straus books, blurring lines of memory and realism and imagination, while it forces us to confront the way writing itself, and the sorts of perception that drive writing, is a medium conducive only to very particular ways of understanding. Monica discovers that 'what interests her as a chronicler has as little to do with what's ordinarily meant by realism as it does with what's called imagination.' Chronicling is a form of editing, creating order and meaning out of disorderly experience. 'But another path eludes both reader and editor, arriving in every text as if of its own free will.' "

-Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

ABC Street

The Menaced Assassin

Ascher/Straus’s first traditionally published novel ("underground" edition in 1982) after creating public fiction-events challenging the nature of what a book can be. The carry-over into The Menaced Assassin is the sense of a porous tale as sticky as a ball of cultural silly putty still bouncing to this moment.

Rooted in film (as the 20th century’s great myth and dream system embedded in consciousness in so many fragments that no one knows where the images and phrases that self-invention builds on actually come from), The Menaced Assassin is a novel of incessant mutation of plot and character, its shards drawn from the authors’ own early film (and other cultural) mania.

". . . characters – Celeste, the Dane or the Swede, the taxi driver, one or several men named Antonio – are . . . obsessed with the future and with the unlimited sense of possibility that only gets horribly reduced anytime a decision is made, meaning created. It strikes Celeste as cruel that things lag so far behind the readiness of the personality for change. Or is it the other way around? In a letter from Finland, the Dane or the Swede writes that he no longer feels Scandinavian, so maybe not modern. These characters exist in precarious worlds, at the edge of 20th-century catastrophe. The clouds might turn oddly yellow, 'a kind of phosphorescence that makes one wonder if a chemical factory hasn't been dynamited somewhere on the outskirts of the city.' One day or the next, during one poorly remembered conversation or maybe one just imagined, these constructs say things like 'Everything you don't want will be readily available. They'll wheel it in like a roomful of prizes on a game show. But everything you need is no longer being manufactured.' When we can't even count on the reality of Celeste, her hair color or her continuity within the space or time of the novel. . . ."

--Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

"The two people who publish as Ascher/Straus see life as a series of either/or choices, personality as a tenuous hold on one’s memories, reality as a narrative re-invented daily...

"A breeze floating down the street from Zurich or Salzburg seems to Celeste ‘like a courier from behind the lines who arrives at headquarters, his tongue cut out, bleeding from a dozen wounds...he can’t utter a word and dies in the commandant’s arms with the mystery intact.’ She searches for ‘the other zone’ where mysteries can be solved and choices have meaning. Instead, she encounters ‘the Dane,’ whose car is littered with miniature schlock novels, another man who reminds her of either Fred MacMurray eating popcorn on a park bench in The Gilded Lily or Don Ameche driving a taxi in Midnight; and five or six men named Antonio who may be five or six versions of the same Tony...

"While realistic fiction offers the same means of receiving or entering an imaginary world, The Menaced Assassin does both by providing every option with an explicit alternative...The faithfully told film plots reflect our own memories while the original stories create a new realm..."

--Caryn James, The Village Voice


"The Menaced Assassin belongs to the literature of obsession. Its fast rate of narration is driven by personal obsessions which...reflect cultural ones. A woman wakes up, thinks ‘this can’t be everything,’ sets about transforming herself into the woman of her dreams, using whatever materials come to hand (an astonishing catalogue of films, books, aphorisms, glossy magazine articles, tv)..."

--Library Journal "First Novelists" Feature

 

The Menaced Assassin

Red Moon/Red Lake

The title story was originally published as a novella-length chapbook by Top Stories and then anthologized in Top Top Stories, City Lights. Reviewing the anthology Publisher’s Weekly said: "Most impressive is Ascher/Straus’s eerie ‘Red Moon/Red Lake’ which, while relating a murder story, digresses into descriptions and observations so dazzlingly precise their ‘lucidity, heightened to its extreme, resembles dreams’."

Publisher’s Weekly said of the volume of seven linked stories that it evokes "a hallucinatory world peopled by characters so alienated that their very identities are mysteries to each other. Is Pam’s brother Rudi a serial killer? Is Rudi’s best friend, Don, really his adversary? As their exurban neighborhood is menaced by a string of bizarre murders, these young adults become unmoored; they lose their jobs, their friends and lovers, they drift into states of lethargy...sophisticated readers will readily exchange the charted terrains of conventional fiction for the enigmatic adventures offered here."

"Ascher/Straus-world is haunted by the belief that one's own story is composed of all the stories others tell us, even or especially those we'd rather avoid. As the most sinister possibilities eclipse the willful banality of these lives, Red Moon/Red Lake crests in the strange and complicated title story, as emotionally satisfying and dreadful as anything in contemporary fiction."

--Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

"...a collection of interlocking stories...arty, sexy, rich in imagery and philosophical musings."

--John Strausbaugh, New York Press

Red Moon/Red Lake

The Other Planet

“[A] study in disaffection, full of surreal dreams and brief, startlingly erotic episodes, all bathed in the light of the cathode-ray tube. Each person [Valeria] talks to seems to offer her a new reality or model of life. . . . Many are avid for the ‘superreality’ of celebrity, the sense of living in the future that others have yet to reach. But the book is best at ordinary life, with a nod to William Carlos Williams in its surprising, saturated colors and sudden, sensuous cravings.”

--Publishers Weekly

“A style reminiscent of experimentalists Stanislaw Lem and Samuel R. Delaney.”

--Library Journal

"Ascher/Straus constantly force their readers to abandon expectations. In their later work, those expectations are foiled more subtly, and within structures that resemble more traditional plots, but whose ambiguities and multiple possibilities are all the more striking for that reason. In The Other Planet, Valeria is haunted by the sense that there's a completely different way to live, akin to living on another planet, a future that one can enter now, through sheer force of will. The Other Planet examines the ways the myth of the future creates a profound disillusionment and a yearning for the impossible. It critiques that myth while harboring no nostalgia for the forms that trap characters in the present. . . "

--Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

“Ascher/Straus have translated a post-modern aesthetic into a pretty definitive statement about the post-modern experience. [And] considering that a whole generation of artists and intellectuals have been floundering in it, trying to define it, describe it or run away from it, it’s worth noting that Ascher/Straus pin it down as astutely as they do . . . . ”

“. . . characters who can’t tell if their formless dread and existential ennui are inklings of impending apocalypse or the suppressed knowledge that civilization has already ended.

“[Valeria] is. . . a post-modern Everywoman. All the other characters she meets. . . habitually relate events in their own lives to scenes in their favorite cult movies. I feel just like Marilyn Monroe in Niagara, a woman will say, and then everyone debates the true meaning of the film, until you notice that they never get back to what it all means for the woman who said it.

“Even those who don’t admit it recognize their dilemma. They sense that the arc of the modern era has somehow fallen short of its goal, like work stopping on a half-completed bridge, suspending them between the past and the future. The future is out there, it’s potential, some of them can feel the possibilities charging the torpid atmosphere of the present, but they don’t know how to actualize it.

“In one scene, a guy at a bar snorts, ‘Now I really have heard everything.’ The bartender replies, ‘No you haven’t. There’s absolutely no limit to the things you can hear. There’s absolutely no limit to things. Things produce new things. Multiplication is the basic law of the universe.’ (Remember, this is NYC.) The guy disagrees: ‘Stand in one place long enough and everything that already exists will pass you by. Sooner or later everything that already exists appears in the mirror of waiting.’ But the bartender counters: ‘What we already know exists may be infinite, but what about what we don’t know. . . ?’

“Valeria experiences a moment that ‘was thick with nothing but itself: the world a dark jam of impasses that added up to the here-and-now, releasing the heady fragrance of the exact present, like the spice of weeds in vacant lots or the cultivated wildness of basil and tomato vines.’ She wonders ‘what it meant to say to become someone else. But no one had ever done that. The self was a compact and porous mass of habits and they never deserted anyone, completely or otherwise. They simply ebbed and flowed over the years…(L)ife consisted of an endless succession of deranged states, during each of which you were convinced you’d awakened from something — till you felt yourself waking up still one more time, looked back and realized you’d been “deranged” again.’

“In this floating word, sex and romance are like the debris of a former reality to which the characters cling with a hopeless desperation.

“There is, in fact, a surprising amount of sexual activity in this book, with a strong undercurrent of kinky violence. . . .

“In The Other Planet, the future is sparked by a mysterious stranger, Humberto Vilanescu. Rich, foreign, partly messianic and partly Mephistophelean, he’s a combination of the Aga Khan, Howard Hughes and The Man Who Fell To Earth. He’s the distillation of money, power, brains and high-tech futurism, which Ascher/Straus seem to be offering as one Hobbesian way out of the post-modern doldrums. He gathers about him a secretively corporatist hive of aimless technicians like Valeria, and sets them to work constructing the future.

“It’s an interesting and often challenging scenario. Not quite a futurist manifesto, but a suggestively equivocal counterbalance of dystopia and utopia.”

--John Strausbaugh, New York Press


The Other Planet