The Author is Present: On Steve Roggenbuck’s Calculating How Big of a Tip to Give is the Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out to My Family & Friends by Steve Roggenbuck
Boost House, 2015
72 pages – Boost House / Amazon
I firmly believe that the most interesting works of art are those that expand our collective definition of art. I recently finished watching The Artist is Present, which is about Marina Abramovic’s exhibit in MoMA where she sits in a chair for hours, simply staring into the eyes of whomever decides to occupy the chair across from her. Abramovic—a renowned performance artist, known experimentalist, and provocateur—often makes art that causes more conservative parties (in this case, Fox News) to denounce her work as artless. However, Abramovic’s exhibit asks us: Is there an art to simply being present as a person? Steve Roggenbuck’s most recent book of short fiction, Calculating How Big of a Tip to Give is the Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out to My Family & Friends, asks this same question.
If you are familiar with Roggenbuck’s work—his tweets, his YouTube poems, or any of his publications with his press Boost House—than I can simply tell you that this book is vintage Roggenbuck. If you aren’t familiar with Roggenbuck’s style, however, take a moment to imagine that the brainchild of Haruki Murakami and Miranda July watched a lot of Cartoon Network, read bell hooks, and embraced the internet as an poetic medium. You would get something close to Roggenbuck, who engages with surrealism and humor, while never ceasing to bluntly comment on urgent topics like environmentalism, gender equality, LGBTQ Rights, and the ails of capitalism.
To elaborate on “bluntly comment,” one need only read the back cover of Calculating, which is a fact-based polemic advising the reader to “Quit Dairy,” as it is an oppressive, abusive industry. Some might denounce such a move as propagandistic, but I would argue that Roggenbuck’s sincerity-obsessed aesthetic allows him to dodge that label. “Mother cows often cry for days,” Roggenbuck writes, “missing their baby calves.”
There’s a brave originality in Roggenbuck’s language; his sentences operate with their own internal logic. Roggenbuck uses line breaks and emoticons, and he embraces typos and improper grammar as an intentional aesthetic choice. One could argue that Roggenbuck’s work is transmuting internet speak into avant-garde literature, but I think it’s more apt to appreciate the democratic nature of his work. Like his hero Walt Whitman (about whom he published a book) and his “alt-lit” peers like Chelsea Martin, Timothy Willis Sanders, and Sam Pink, Roggenbuck’s work has an accessibility that I admire. His language is concerned—perhaps even obsessed—with failures to be proper. Akin to the Scottish literary tradition concerned with subverting “proper British” as a means of giving literary voice to the subjugated working class, Roggenbuck calls into question everything that makes a short story “proper” by more conservative standards. He ends many of the stories with “the end.” He also never shies away from abandoning a plot at its most climactic moment. To some readers these might seem to be frustrating maneuvers, but Roggenbuck’s voice is so lovable in its energetic whimsy that one can’t help but feel compelled to keep reading. With Calculating, Roggenbuck, who left an MFA Poetry program feeling it was too limiting, has engineered a prose style that is far less concerned with pretentious ideas of art, and far more concerned with sincere originality.
Or, to put it in his words: “the lesson of the story is dont be somebody/else be yourself/the end.”
That line comes at the end of “Almost all rain starts as snow when it’s leaving the cloud, then it melts on the way down,” which brings me to my next point: the stories’ titles. This title has, on the surface, nothing to do with the plot about clay, who becomes famous for making clever blogger accounts and eventually meets Kanye West. Many of the titles in Calculating seem to have little to do with the stories they introduce, but function as tweet-sized meditations or random facts, which enable the book, as a whole, to mirror the way in which the internet works: as a network both concerned with connecting and distracting people.
Perhaps I’m clutching at straws. The point is, Roggenbuck’s slender collection has managed to make me to re-examine what I consider to be an “artful” short story. Unlike revered, canonical minimalists like Carver and Hemingway, Roggenbuck lifts the iceberg from underwater, and reveals that the iceberg has feelings, too. Chekhov’s gun is never mounted on the wall in these stories, but appears out of thin air and is aimed at anyone who dares to insult militant moon-lovers. Roggenbuck’s mastery is in his ability to defy tradition, and, to quote George Saunders on David Foster Wallace, “pop up” in his fiction. In an age rife with distraction, in which the puppets of the mainstream media rely on sensationalism as a means of communication, it is the duty of the artist to be ceaselessly concerned with sincerity. There is enough out there to distract humans from being present with one another.
Greg Letellier is the author of Paper Heart (Thought Catalog, 2015) and two self-published chapbooks called Your Mother is a Book and Lazy Sunday. He can be found on tumblr at gregwritesstuff.tumblr.com.