Saturday, March 28, 2015

Or So It Seems By Paul Steven Stone

Or So It Seems
By Paul Steven Stone
Blind Elephant Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts
ISBN: 978-1438207698
434 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Overthinking a book review can be hazardous to both the author and the reviewer. You never quite know where these musings will take you. Here I am, disembodied, settled in a few inches under the ceiling of this book-strewn room where I am consulting with Bapu, a fictoplasmic Hindu holy man that I have borrowed from the pages of Or So It Seems, the very novel that I am reviewing.  Both Bapu and I look down upon my squat physical being, sitting at a large drawless, cherry-stained desk, clad in sweats, feverish and suffering from a head cold. I seem to have come up with an idea and am now typing furiously into my cranky HP computer. My newly-found spiritual companion comments unmercifully on recent changes in my appearance—my baldness, my thickening no-neck carriage, and my toad-like expressions to be exact. Fair enough. But I must admit that his damnable high-pitched giggling does, occasionally, get to me.

Bapu reminds me that Paul Steven Stone created his character as an aid to the reader’s consciousness and as the driving mechanism which moves a charmingly simple and often hilarious story of father and son intimacy and family dysfunction into the exotic realm of karma and time travel. Structured as a do-it-yourself-workshop, the novel’s characters discuss and confront the nature of experience and reality itself. The book’s protagonist, Paul Peterson, responds to life’s hurdles with thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and astute problem solving, and is, of course, duly rewarded with divinely appropriate punishments for each of these positive reactions. Like most humans Peterson experiences missteps and shares his fellow travelers’ befuddlement. And also, like most humans, he makes the best of things and continues on his one-way (or perhaps circular) journey through life.

Did I mention sex and the singles scene? Stone tethers his plotline to a Plymouth Massachusetts second floor apartment and this setting becomes not only the center of feral sexuality, but also the launching pad for his time tripping into past and future adventures. The unbridled cougar who entertains Peterson here doubles as the stressed-out, cynical fourth grade teacher of his earnest and perceptive son, Mickey. Her character type exudes hilarity and danger in a sexual package that our pedestrian reality unfortunately loves to nurture. Unaccountably, I think that I’ve met this woman in a past life. “You have!” giggles Bapu. Oh God, this head cold has impaired my frail judgement.  Stone entitles one of his chapters,

Never Let A
Fourth Grade Teacher
Drink More Than Three
Glasses of Wine.

Pretty funny stuff.

In perhaps more innocent times the Pinewood Derby ruled the day as the yearly ritual of father and son connection. Often it would be overseen by other stalwart organizations of fading (at least in this locale) Americana like the Cub Scouts. Stone uses this event with great effect in chronicling the evolving relationship between the hapless but well-meaning Peterson and his son. Lessons are offered and learned, but they are quite different from any considered pertinent or intended when the game was joined. Peterson unknowingly schools his beloved son in independence, humor, and courage. Without giving away the twisting plot lines and the neat punch lines, there is a terrific scene in which Peterson faces a bully overcome by envy and rage. The humor surrounding the struggle melts away… and the starkness of the real world harshly appears, as it often does. Both protagonist and antagonist grip Mickey’s race car and the universe stands still. The tone is just about right. Don’t miss this section; alone, it’s worth the price of purchase. 

As you read through this novel the texture deepens considerably. Stone includes not only past and future events that support his interwoven plot, but also includes what he call glimmers. These glimmers give insight into roads not taken and the importance of free will in self-discovery. Think Hindu karma, of course. But there’s also the Christian concept of grace. Bapu reminds me that the concept of time changes as the book progresses. Here is another relevant chapter title (Lesson 31 of the workshop),

A Ten Minute
On Why
Time Does Not Exist.

Easy for Stone to say, he spent eleven years writing this book.

Having a guiding holy man as prophet and coach to the protagonist condenses the space between thought and action.  Settings and resolutions immediately follow, but not always seamlessly. Early theories in neuroscience (see Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) considered this phenomenon as wholly internal. Bapu’s very existence was conceived as built in. Call him muse, god, prophet, or disembodied holy man.  As this relationship broke down, space increased and reactions became confused and halted. I can see at this moment my computer has crashed and I’ve walked away temporarily. Giggling still, Bapu cautions me to calm my obvious impatience. Stone’s Peterson will still be there and the review can, in a disconnected sense, be completed. I am sitting back down and complying with necessity now. You need to read this book. It is a bundle of well-built laughs. IT IS WRITTEN for you. So sayeth Bapu.

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