Monday, January 26, 2009


OR SO IT SEEMS. PAUL STEVEN STONE. (Blind Elephant Press Cambridge, Mass.) $20.

If you like novels about Brooklyn-born, neurotic, Hindu, Woody Allenish, self-questioning guys with an active fantasy life, then you should get your hot little hands on Paul Steven Stone’s “Or So It Seems.” Stone, by day, a mild- mannered Cambridge-based advertising consultant (and a member of Somerville’s Bagel Bards) has penned a novel that centers on a character Paul Peterson, a mild - mannered advertising executive, and a former member of “The Seekers of Truth,” a cult-like school of self-development. Peterson is decidedly in the camp that believes “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Thus this book, in a very nonlinear fashion, examines a chain of events in the life of this middle-aged “Seeker” through a mystical prism of Hindu/Karmic jargon and sensibility.

The book’s beginning and focal point is set in a shabby Plymouth, Mass. apartment where the hapless protagonist is being dragged to an equally shabby couch for a carnal encounter with a mousy schoolteacher in heat. Throughout the novel Peterson is in constant contact with a laughing, ethereal Hindu holy man, who acts as a one man Greek Chorus to Peterson’s illusion, namely: “Life.”

Now you got to stick with this book, it has many rewards. Stone has Peterson going back and forth in time (hey—time is an illusion, right?) to the many events of his life: his divorce, his sorry relationship with an embittered father, his doting concern for his young son, etc… The book is certainly no dry spiritual tract, with stick figure characters pointing to ideology with big ham fists. Stone, has a way with words, a good satirist’s eye, and some of his best stuff is the descriptions of the ad agency where he works, his long exegesis of a single’s dance, the dissection of his failed relationship with his wife, and his bitter relationship to an angry, frustrated, deceased, father.

Having been a regular at a sad series of single dances years ago I appreciated Stone’s take on them. Here is a smoke and mirrors description of the clever deception one finds at these venues:

“ I remember like the fragment of some surreal dream a dance where the light ran amuck. Someone with a warped sense of humor must have taken control of the master dimmer-switch because for most of the evening, at moment when you least expected it, the lights would suddenly shift from dim to bright, instantly revealing a room full of shockingly older single men and women, far less attractive than those that had been attending the dance just moments earlier.

It was if monsters had been lurking in the shadows waiting to be cruelly exposed as soon as the frightmaster turned up the lights. What was even more unsettling was the way those ghastly apparitions melted from sight, back into hiding, once the lights were turned down again.”

And in this passage Stone describes the décor of the Boston Ad Agency his hero works in:

“ Now tell me what you think of these colorful arrangements of colorful shapes on the walls? Reminds me of the crayon drawings I did when I was a mere kindergarten artist. These are Hauschengaads, genuine originals or so I have been told. Have you heard of him, Hauschengaad? Big name in Confusion art?

Around here we have difficulty pronouncing his name so we call him “Who-should-care!” The general consensus that road kill mounted on the wall would be generally preferable to these original and highly eruptive Hauschengaards. But most of us are biased, you must realize, since we cannot help but associate the unwitting artist with the tasteless owners responsible for plastering his work all over our office walls.

Art collectors?

Who do they think they are kidding?

They purchase art as an investment whose tax liability magically disappears when it gets listed as office décor rather than partner enrichment.”

Stone’s novel’s conceit is an interesting one. He is constantly stepping back from the material world with his nonmaterial Hindu master to survey the scene. The most ordinary situation reveals profound truths about the human condition, and all our lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation.

Stone revealed to me over bagels one morning that David Godine, the well-regarded publisher, told him that a book like his is next to impossible to pull off well. I think Stone proved him wrong.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update/ Jan. 2009/ Somerville, Mass.

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