A Review of Robert Vaughan’s Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits

Preamble

Looking through a catalog of books last week this title caught my eye: “Secrets to Drawing Realistic Faces”. I wondered what kind of book would have the title, “Secrets to Drawing Unrealistic Faces”. It was one of those little mental jolts, a burst of electricity, a drop of pleasure that enlivens me. I used this energy to write a poem.

My mind may not have moved in that direction had I not been reading Robert Vaughan’s new book of microfictions, Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits, published by Deadly Chaps. He skewed my view of the world, thus freshening my vision. In short he inspired me, and this is what art is supposed to do.

History

Ever since Kafka claimed that Robert Walser was one of his favorite writers, more and more readers of fiction have turned a curious eye on this singular character. And as web-based reading has caused the genre of flash fiction to flourish, Walser has emerged as its patron saint. Weird little things of prose, not quite story or poem—or maybe both—proliferate in contemporary literary journals. But as in every genre, the reader will find a wide range in quality. Microfiction (a term I prefer to “flash fiction”) presents unique challenges to the writer. First of all, writing is not about putting the words down, just as writer’s block is not about lacking words to say. Language is a vast ocean of possibilities. Writing is about erasure, that is, of the endless possibilities swimming before the pen, putting its point down on just the right ones. Writer’s block is the inability to choose. Perfection in writing is all about choice. If writing were not about erasure then anyone could be a writer, because running off at the mouth is the easiest thing to do. This very paragraph is racing perilously close to proving that.

For my taste, Vaughan’s stories are among the most colorful, pleasing, surprising and delightful in the current world of microfiction. There are indeed diptychs and triptychs in the volume, as well as stories of up to ten parts, painted like Picassos and stacked like Judds, handsomely composed artifices decorated with cinematic flourishes.

A list of words that come to mind while reading Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits

Acrobatic
American
Blunt
Brilliant
Funny
Pop
Surreal
Weird
Wicked

Some of my favorites

I wonder if Robert Vaughan was a visual artist in a former life. Like Donald Barthelme (who was a curator for a gallery and whose father was an architect), one can almost see the words in his stories as building blocks—many-colored—carefully placed together, creating vivid modernist images (and like Barthelme he is very funny and has a knack for names, e.g. dogs named “Paprika” and “Perry”). In the diptych Black & White/Color, shapes, spaces and movement collide in a slideshow journey to unknown places. Contrasts compliment this piece in which the unknown is first to be dreaded and second to be embraced.

Common Password Profile Users: God, Love Lust, Money and Private samples bits from the Star Spangled Banner and contains one of Vaughan’s most memorable lines: “He’s been burned so many times he’s crispy.” It is also a story that utilizes the techniques of word personification and contrast-and-compare, the final portion of which illustrates that Vaughan can be poignant in addition to being funny:

Those first days back. Horrible insomnia. 2 a.m. in their guest room, night sweats, bombs bursting in mid-air attacks. No proof, except those hacked memories he wishes he could erase. But he can’t. He opens the adjacent bedside table, retrieves his dogtags. Cradles them in his palm.

One of my favorites refers to the Occupy Movement. The brilliant An Occupy Trifecta is a diptych rather than a triptych, which struck me as odd at first. The piece moves sentence-by-sentence, line-by-line, like a poem (why not call it a poem?), advancing maybe, maybe not. It evokes the somber attitude of a vigil, the pensive mood of a freedom march, in which one knows why one is there but the outcome, connected as it is to so many forces and factors outside an individual’s power to grasp, is unknown. “All of the planets,” Vaughan writes, “seek to sway you to their course.” But

I’m seeing the flaming gate that holds back the other half of existence. We all do.

I burn my hands trying to open it.

I will open it.

In this determination, Vaughan writes, “You have just been born.” Ah, but those planets. When “Your nature is torn like waves in a discordant sea” and the whole thing threatens to devolve, what is left but to

Take my hand before the wind blows you from the rampart.

In a time of revolution, love is the only way forward.

Prayer, Protest, Peace continues that theme. It is a story/poem about yearning for a condition of love, and again Vaughan evokes a sense of human weakness in the face of one’s best efforts. For me, these two pieces are the most beautiful in the collection. They share a characteristic that I love in my favorite paintings. A painting is finished because the painter has stopped, a moment has been frozen, but the movement, the fluidity of the paint lingers in that snapshot. The best paintings are a perfect tension between a sense of completeness and fluidity. In addition there is always a window out of the composition. Something is uncertain, unfinished, open. Robert Vaughan is able to do this with his curious little word things.

Ah, but who are the dipshits?

The final story in the collection, Gauze, a Medical Dressing, a Scrim is a little but creepy, but in a funny way. A kid named Billy refuses to leave his room in the basement. Strange and unsettling things happen. For example the family dog and one of Billy’s sisters disappear and over time Billy himself is nearly forgotten. Then one day a note from the basement arrives, and it reads, strangely, like one of Robert Vaughan’s stories. The family “all craned their necks toward the basement.”

Maybe we’re all dipshits if we can’t have a sense of humor about ourselves. And, fuck it, maybe even if we do. Anyway, Bobby—I mean Robert Vaughan’s first full-length collection is just around the corner and it happens to be titled, Addicts & Basements. Can’t wait to get my copy.

Visit Robert Vaughan

Read a selection from Addicts & Basements

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5 Responses to A Review of Robert Vaughan’s Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits

  1. Pingback: Mark Kerstetter reviews Diptychs + Triptychs at The Mockingbird Sings | Robert Vaughan

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Your review is not only perceptive about Vaughan’s work, but about writing itself. This observation is definitely something to post above the writing desk: “Language is a vast ocean of possibilities. Writing is about erasure, that is, of the endless possibilities swimming before the pen, putting its point down on just the right ones.” And in one sentence, you do the same for art, with this: “The best paintings are a perfect tension between a sense of completeness and fluidity.” As for Vaughan’s own “curious little word things” (a phrase I loved for its whimsy), the gauze sequence is remarkable–that note does, exactly, read like one Vaughan story tucked inside another. I remember you noting how much Walser-like short fictions have become prevalent, but, of course, of varying quality. It seems to me you’ve spotted in Vaughan an altogether worthy scribe following on in that tradition.

  3. angela says:

    Terribly curious to read a bit more of Vaughan, Mark. Your posts always make me wonder if I should be writing, though, I know nothing of erasure. Perhaps those of us who just keep running the pen should stop and taste the ink. Dipshit I am, but the first step is admitting… Post the poem, please- on the unrealistic face ~ a

    • I cringe at the thought that my blog posts might cause you to doubt your process. Remember, they’re just my opinion, everyone has one, and what works for me may not work for someone else. And that poem sucks, but here it is:

      SECRETS TO DRAWING UNREALISTIC FACES

      Close your eyes & hold out your hands
      Be cautious not afraid
      Stay awake alert inert
      And ready to go

      Draw a single line on a piece of paper
      Fold the paper in half
      Then fold it again and yet again
      Try and imagine what your line has become

      When your line has refolded
      Enfolded into your gray matter
      Leaven it out in increments
      Like a folding rule

      Out either ear like a balancing pole
      Stick a cherry or a clown nose on each end
      Notice their striking resemblance to earplugs
      Press the LAUGH button & repeat

  4. Pingback: Robert Vaughan and Breathless | The Mockingbird Sings

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