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Written by Dr. Joseph Suglia
WATCH OUT is the story of Jonathan Barrows, “Professor of Intelligent Thinking.” Abandoned since birth on an alien planet called "Earth," Barrows travels West by train to Benton Harbor, Michigan -- a town with "a well-deserved inferiority complex" -- in search of the Unholy Grail -- a teaching position at Benton Harbor Community College ("the only college that would grant Me an interview"). Able to love and desire only himself, Jonathan Barrows finds himself surrounded and hounded by the residents of Benton Harbor and inexorably descends into a world of lunatics. Every human being, according to Barrows, is a form of nourishment. But who will end up being devoured?
A Self-Important Prick
An exercise in writing to repel from PhD Joseph Suglia
By Liz Armstrong
WHY IS IT that I is the only pronoun we capitalize? "It's because we believe that we are irreplaceable," says Joseph Suglia. "We fetishize ourselves. We turn ourselves into gods." Hence the premise of his latest novel, Watch Out, in which the main character, Jonathan Barrows—a vicious tyrant who's self-obsessed to the point where the only thing he lusts after is himself—methodically and psychotically turns up his nose at the entire world.
Littered with antiquated ten-dollar words—no colloquialisms for Suglia—Watch Out is meant to grate, to challenge your tolerance and notions of how to relate to a character. On one hand, you despise Jonathan Barrows for his oblivious conceitedness; on the other, you wonder if perhaps he truly is the hottest, smartest, most interesting stud in the universe. His obsession with his own "luscious erection" is repulsive yet engrossing—you end up feeling like a creep for getting so involved in his gruesome hallucinations.
Suglia himself is a bit of a character: he has a PhD in comparative literature from Northwestern and a penchant for German philosophy, learned French and German because he refuses to read anything in translation, and obsessively screens all of his phone calls. He says he's less influenced by literary artists than the concept of tableau vivant. "The characters aren't really actors, they're posing in a painting," he says. "You have a situation that's frozen. It occurs in time, but also outside of time because it never changes."
The core narrative of Watch Out spans about a week but feels cryogenically preserved: Jonathan Barrows shows no sign of and makes no reference to his age, the encounters he has bleed into one another without regard for a time line, and it always feels like dusk to him. Apparently this is what happens when visions serve as your only point of reference. You stagnate and ruminate and build yourself up so high you have nowhere to go but down. "All of us have the desire to become God," says Suglia. "And all gods deserve to be slaughtered. Jonathan Barrows annihilates himself."
Watch Out, which Suglia calls "philosophical pulp" fiction, is his third book and the only one he really likes. Two weeks after its October release by FLF Press, a small publishing house that proclaims itself dedicated to providing "ideas and viewpoints that are under-represented in the mass media," it had sold 400 copies. Even before it came out, local filmmaker Peter Lambert made a short film, Becoming a Man, adapted from a chapter in which Jonathan Barrows loses his virginity. When talking about his first novel, Years of Rage—the inverse of Watch Out, its main character believes he's universally reviled and persecuted—or his book of literary criticism, Hölderlin and Blanchot on Self-Sacrifice, Suglia winces, confessing that the first one panders and the second one is boring.
Lately Suglia's been incorporating some of his character's arrogant, self-important-prick schtick into his own public profile. His copious MySpace posts are suffused with egotistical superlatives—"In all modesty, I am the greatest writer in the world, and the world is slowly recognizing that fact," reads one—though he won't outright admit he's doing it purely for promotional purposes. No doubt it will irritate some and draw in others, and perhaps it will even draw in those it irritates. "I want my writing to be read by everyone," says Suglia, "but I don't want it to be understood by everyone."
Suglia hopes to make an impression with his novel "Watch Out". "Watch out" is the refrain, throughout, a heightened state of alert pumped into the brain stem with no explanation and no true context. "Watch Out" is the story, or several stories, of Professor Jonathan Barrows, a cold, violent, self-pleasuring egoist.
The world of Jonathan Barrows is grotesque, stupid, and, like Jonathan Barrows, focused on Jonathan Barrows. While it is not rare for characters to have an exceptionally large ego, in this case Jonathan's view of the world is largely corroborated by the world's responses to him--even taking into account the self-colored glasses we're reading through.
Jonathan Barrows is the pinnacle of humanity--so far removed that he, at times, considers himself not a member of humanity at all; while at other times he considers himself the only human. We join him on a trip to a small college town where he is to have an interview, and the first half of the book follows that arc--from the filth-ridden train that introduces us to Jonathan's contempt all the way through to a FINAL SHOWDOWN ORGY with his interviewer.
The latter half of the book is comprised of increasingly violent and surreal vignettes of Jonathan's formative years, plus one farewell send-off to cap things--the only indication in the whole work that there might be some semblance of law and order in the world represented.
Jonathan's incessant auto-arousal grows tiresome, but is balanced with the surreal abusement and dislivingmentation of a number of other parties. Suglia pushes the human body's natural resilience to absurd and engrossing dimensions with his vivid descriptions.
The language used is colorful and clever--Suglia is a skilled user and playful inventor of language, and the inventions intensify the unsettling mindset, the disturbitude of it all. I laughed frequently while reading, either at a turn of phrase or at the audacity of the character. Laughter was both glee and surprise, though some scenes gnawed on my brain and others verged on making me uncomfortable.
"Watch Out", with its detached violence, surreality, and repetition, puts me in mind of a modern pop culture riff on JG Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition". Finishing the book left me slightly disconnected from the world, as my mind struggled to come to terms with what I'd just read. It had no real denouement, with the first climax coming halfway through and subsequent climaxes coming more quickly until it just sort of withered off at the end. Watch Out!
"WATCH OUT" Review by Susan Tomaselli
Watch Out, Joseph Suglia's verbally brilliant debut novel, starts conventionally enough - a young man taking a journey on a train to attend a job interview - yet the protagonist, Jonathan Barrows is anything but conventional. It is narrated for the most as an internal monologue which at times becomes a near-celebration of alienation. Barrows is "disinclined towards human beings." "I loathe humanity. Look at those insects! Squirming vermin!" Other human beings, for not only is Barrows like no one else - "the highest form that humanity has reached," "the most extraordinary being who has ever existed" and so on - but he is also in love with himself, literally and to the point were he masturbates using photographs of himself and fucks a blow-up doll made in his own image. "I want to manipulate My perineus muscle. I want to massage My testicles. I want to slather My penis with margarine. I want to fuck Myself savagely. I want to insert My penis into My doll's colostomized anus."
Barrows, "the hottest iguana in the reptile house," finds the attention he warrants from other people repulsive - "both women and men are attracted to Me in the way that flies are attracted to filet mignon," he tells the reader. "All of these fools. Noisome sheep. They are nothing more than props on My stage. Tools, I can use them how I please. I have never met a single human being who is on My level. The history of humanity is nothing more than a preparation for My emergence into the world."
And what an emergence. Suglia, a proponent (and inventor) of "excessive fiction," defined as that fiction which "presses the limits of language and possibility," has, in Jonathan Barrows and the subsequent work, crafted an exquisite character and a compelling novel reminiscent of Dennis Cooper and Raymond Queneau. His prose, rich and provocative, is like Bret Easton Ellis proof-read by Georges Bataille.
"I'm the only real egoist. Everyone is concerned for himself. We're all self-seeking. We are all trapped in the deserts of our solitude. But I'm the only one whose life matters."
Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis's seminal blank fiction novel painted a pessimistic portrait of American life in the early 1980s: Clay's life is mediated by mass culture and consumption, it is a corrupt and meaningless society. Today's culture is not much better: "everything is reduced to the ordinary," we "idolize the average." Barrows tells us, "what we are witnessing is the banalization of the world." Suglia takes Ellis's fin de siecle writing to its logical conclusion, unleashing la bête humaine (or as Johnny Cash calls it "the beast in me") and recalls another of Ellis' creations when his narrator goes American Psycho in the final chapters: "Simply because murder is 'llegal,' this does not mean that it is 'immoral.' What is allowed by the state has nothing to do with questions of right or wrong. What is right or wrong is determined by Me, Whatever pleases Me is right. That which does not please Me is wrong. I do whatever pleases Me, and, if it pleases Me to kill, then I will."
Although Watch Out is by no means a comic novel - in fact, at times it is written almost in a deadpan style - the erotic nightmare, the tale of bodily transgression and excess raises a chuckle but is corrupt in a way that can only end in death. Intense, sharp, fatalistic and relentless, here is a novel that will force the reader to face up to the potential failure within themselves, yet at the same time Suglia - like a modern-day Huysmans - makes you want to shut yourself away and do very bad things.
Hate the world; love yourself
SAN DIEGO CITY BEAT
Bands and wannabe porn stars have been using Myspace to promote themselves since the online networking site was created. Author Joseph Suglia, however, may be one of the first Myspace junkies to use the peer-to-peer marketing capabilities of the site to promote his latest book, Watch Out—a dark and twisted tale detailing the innermost thoughts of Jonathan Barrows, a man whose outrageous narcissism has him referring to the rest of humanity as "slag dead matter" and himself as "the absolute being."
Suglia hit me up on Myspace to ask if I'd review his book. I appreciated his ballsy conceit—at one point he wrote to say his book "is the greatest accomplishment of my life: literally or otherwise"—almost as much as I came to appreciate the conceit of his central character.
Even more disturbing than the sex scenes are the psychotic murder fantasies (we hope they are only fantasies, though Suglia never attempts to explain). The torture and perversions imagined by Barrows put Patrick Bateman's fantasies in American Psycho to shame. Suffice it to say, cute fuzzy animals and dismemberment become a reoccurring theme.
Sex and murder aside, Watch Out will entertain you with its heartfelt—though x-rated—contemporary reincarnation of Anthem, Ayn Rand's novel about the reclamation of the word "I." The book investigates individualism by exposing the creepy inner world of a narcissistic psycho, and in so doing, reveals some nasty truth—people are freaking nuts.
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