Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Book review: Mentally Incontinent

Do you know Joe Peacock? You will after you read Mentally Incontinent, a remarkable selection of short stories from the eponymous website. The premise of the book is intriguing: a writer, who by his own description churns out copy constantly but can't always distinguish the good from the bad from the ugly, uses a website to solicit feedback on which stories to include in a book. It's a unique way of involving a community in shaping a text, a group project sharing in and refining the vision of a single writer.

Does it work? Sort of. The heart of the project is Peacock himself, who demonstrates a quick wit, a gift for breezy and involving narratives, and a remarkable willingness to share and find humor in moments most people would prefer to repress from conscious recollection. Who can fail to sympathize with the plight of a preteen vomited upon by a dolphin in front of his entire school? Peacock describes dating woes, surreal moments in a nominally Japanese restaurant, and the "joys" of owning a computer; it's an entertaining smorgasbord of moments from what is apparently a pretty interesting life. The stories are a little uneven in execution, but the starting material is solid, and the two-year project has produced a fine collection of tales. But one has to wonder about the stories not included, and what drove readers of Mentallyincontinent.com to choose as they did.

At the outset of each chapter we are presented with a list of all the "candidate" stories that weren't chosen. One suspects these lists are primarily for the benefit of those who visited the website and may be curious about the outcome of one or more of the votes; for the average reader, they serve mainly to demonstrate that there's plenty of material for a sequel or three.

The principal problem with the book is that it's not quite clear who's driving. Collections of stories are more than random assemblages of text; there is a rhyme and reason behind the selection process of most, and good story collections will stand together as more than the sum of their parts. In a group anthology, it's the contrasts between the various contributors that provide this unity. MI tries to be a bit of both, and doesn't quite succeed. Peacock cedes two chapters to "guest authors," whose contributions are palely reminiscent of his own; they're not bad stories, but seem out of place in an otherwise intensely personal collection. Each is strongly reminiscent of Peacock's own stories, and hence doesn't have a chance to stand on its own; they're both overshadowed by similar (and better) stories elsewhere in the book. Peacock also comments on the selection process at the beginning of each chapter, noting almost with bemusement how the voting went.

But for all that Peacock gallantly acknowledges the contributions of his devoted community at every turn, he nonetheless wrests control of the project from his voters periodically, adding a few "book exclusive" stories.

Essentially, despite the guest chapters and the website voting, the book is all about Joe Peacock. And that's not a bad thing at all. But in asking his website visitors to help sift through these stories from his life, one can't help but wonder if what he's really asking them to do is help define himself to an extent. Joe Peacock, the webmaster, is a dynamic, live presence with whom anyone can interact; Joe Peacock, the author, is a static portrait, a presence fixed in paper and ink, and the stories selected here comprise a snapshot of him which he's allowed many people to help take. Tellingly, he writes that he did not put one of his "book exclusive" stories up for a vote on the website - the one in which he describes how he and his wife got together - because it was too important a story to risk losing the vote. For this part of himself, this part of his life, he insists on maintaining control.

It's a good project, and a good book. A sequel is in the works, and Peacock doesn't seem to have any shortage of stories up his sleeve. Now that he's finished the journey of one book, it will be interesting to see how the driving goes on the second trip.
Bookmark and Share


Blogger JtP said...

Mr. Watley,

Thank you kindly for your honest (and quite nice) review of my book. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate your critique.


8:33 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home