There are few survivors in Ryan Chapman’s comic novella. “Riots I Have Known” is a compact cluster bomb of satire that kills widely and indiscriminately. Even the narrator is counting down the minutes to his impending death.
But until then, there’s no shutting this guy up. Nicknamed “MF,” he’s an inmate serving nine consecutive life sentences in New York’s Westbrook state prison, which is currently going up in flames — and trending on Twitter. A Sri Lankan American, like the author, MF never sacrifices his extraordinarily refined taste, no matter how incongruous the context. Barricaded in the prison’s new media center behind a pile of Aeron chairs, he’s determined to provide “an official accounting of events, as they happened” — at least until the fire or some unloosed psychopath snuffs him out.
“Riots I Have Known” is presented as a live-blog, a ricocheting monologue of self-justification, cultural criticism and last-minute revenge spinning out on social media while helicopters hover overhead. “Reader, you alone are my confessor and my ally,” he tells his devoted followers. “Though it would be opportunistic and distasteful to appropriate this riot for my own purposes, it must be said that people are dying out there and it’s important to make the best of it.” That voice is a noose spun from pomposity and vanity. Chapman knows MF so well, it’s like they were cellmates for years.
The central joke of “Riots I Have Known” is that MF is the famous editor of The Holding Pen, a groundbreaking journal of “penal lit” or, worse, “postpenal lit.” (Don’t subscribe? You can pick up copies at Urban Outfitters.) As the sirens wail and the smoke gathers, MF recalls with pride his favorite pieces, such as Issue 3 (“Badlands”), Issue 5 (“Dreams”) and the poem — translated from the Spanish — that sparked the riot:
At the magic hour we will meet.
I in yellow, rising
like the phoenix, you
in white the exterminating angel.
MF begs us not to get distracted by the literal meaning of those lines — or the violence they inspired. “Like Pound’s Cathay,” he notes, “the words shed their obfuscating ‘meaning’ for a libertine clarity.”
The Holding Pen was the warden’s idea, the latest of his extravagant PR projects, but MF takes credit for the unlikely success of the journal. After all, it was delicate work coaxing stories from murderers and rapists in prison. “How to explain the nuances of the journalist-subject relationship and its inevitable betrayals to a pugnacious subject like O’Bastardface?” he asks. “Janet Malcolm, hear my cry!” The Nation has called MF’s editorial stewardship “revolutionary.” Vogue has said it was “reminiscent of early Gaultier.”
If you get it, there’s something rewarding about Chapman’s manic humor, the special satisfaction of catching his references to Foucault, Pentagram or Martin Baron. His satire of academic pomposity, the commercialization of the prison system and the infectious influence of marketing zaps with the power of a highly charged stun gun.
Having spent several years working in New York publishing, Chapman can also write spot-on imitations of the latest literary crazes such as “the memoir of a soldier who underwent gender reassignment surgery during a tour in Afghanistan, Tanks for the Mammaries.” Scrambling to catch every esoteric aside and obscure allusion, you won’t be surprised to learn that Chapman runs trivia parties in New York. His previous book, “Conversation Sparks,” was a collection of over 350 quirky factoids. In this slim volume, he seems to have compressed them all.
Throughout this soliloquy of self-aggrandizement, MF sips toilet wine and shanks The Holding Pen into the body of America’s hippest and most cerebral culture, “a critical escalier of faddish hermeneutics, correctional epistemologies, and Pinter-esque moments of silence during Slate podcasts.” If that parody of intellectual posturing sounds like a punishment, then bail on “Riots I Have Known.” But if you’re part of the Venn diagram that subscribes to n+1 and McSweeney’s, this is the funniest book you’ll read all year.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Ryan Chapman
Simon & Schuster. 119 pp. $24