An Orphanage of Dreams by Sam Savage
Review by Nicole Gray
Sam Savage captures his own collection of short stories in a single statement: “I know why I came. I don’t know why I stay.” That line is the opener to the third of a series of short stories which make up the collection. “The Awakening” doesn’t feel like the third story, upon reaching it you may feel you’ve been wrapped up in this collection for far longer than the few minutes it actually takes to reach this point. The structure, the order of Savage’s collection is essentially irrelevant. None of the pieces stand out as a beginning, or middle or end. Instead of considering this collection like a normal book with an acknowledgeable path which you follow from beginning to end, think of it instead as a dream, with arbitrary shifts brought on by the whims of a subconscious and an ending as abrupt as the beginning is blurred.
If you are a reader with a special interest in all things unconventional, odd, broken and fantastical, then you know why you’ve come. You’ve come for “bags planted side by side on he sunlit tiles, between rows of desert vegetation, the spiked leaves and spines and the flowers that were too yellow, in front of the closed gate” (The Awakening 18). You’ve come to discover what a “Klatsch” is. You’ve come because Charles has gone into the yurt and not come out for days. No reader with any affinity for odd things could possibly resist witnessing the moment he comes out. You’ve come because you’d like to go along and “It’s just words” (Ducks 70). People are naturally curious, and Savage baits that curiosity with mysteries and truths just out of reach.
You know why you’ve come, but somewhere in “Crocodiles and Parasols” when you find yourself “In the desert. A woman with two men. A man with two women” (8)—you start to wonder why you stay. Savage has a few stories like “Crocodiles and Parasols” that are slower and broken up into smaller parts. There are three parts in “Crocodiles and Parasols”, later there is a story of “22 Stories”, and at the end Kiffler’s Adventures are captured in nine different sections. The sections cover everything from Kiffler’s early childhood to his descent into insanity. It is tedious, a collection of stories which are then broken up into smaller stories. Some capture just one story in sections; others, the twenty-two stories, for example, are entirely separate narratives which seem to have very little connecting them. Each of the 22 are short, a few pages at most. In one of them a soldier named Nolan is killed by an explosive, and another Calloway perhaps also killed by the same explosive, is not missed. What are we to make of these two men and their similar experience? If there is a value to be had in their tale, Savage fails to capture it in such a short medium.
“Awakening” finds itself then, in the perfect place to voice a reader’s exact dilemma. Just at the moment one might have put the book down, Savage introduces the toaster oven. The narrator of this story is repeatedly foiled in her attempts to leave the house because of the small chance that the toaster oven might have been left on. Readers are repeatedly foiled instead by a small wonder of what might be in store in the next chapter. Savage’s stories are intriguing because of their seemingly random and yet overly charged images. In the words of one character, there is “nothing to do but check” (15). Of course, once you’ve begun his characters never fail to pull you in. Take “Walter”, everyone is so enthralled by Walter that reading about him leaves one immediately feeling left out of some remarkable secret. Richard and Denise and all the people crowding outside like a mob “waiting over an hour already” must be doing so for a reason. They seemed convinced that Walter knows the true meaning of life, and perhaps he does.
An Orphanage of Dreams is essentially a character study. It captures people in ways never before imagined. A reader, looking for the answer to what the men in “Ducks” were really doing when they claimed to be “stamping ducks” will be disappointed. This is not a collection of answers, it is a collection of stories which reveal hidden parts of the human condition. Sam Savage published his book in 2019, in the era where social media replaces social interaction. It is with this place in time in mind, that I recommend An Orphanage of Dreams to modern readers.
Egghead: Or You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham
Review by Rohan Suriyage
In 2008 I joined YouTube. Since then I’ve watched the content and culture of the website change multiple times, but one consistent figure in my watching has stuck around. When I first made my account I had been following the channel of Bo Burnham, a goofy, lanky, but rather stern musician from Massachusetts who sang these ridiculous songs over impeccable piano playing. Looking back at it, it was the kind of stuff anyone my age would be into—suggestive, crude, but always made you laugh and think in one way or another. As his music prowess developed, my readership and love for music developed as well, and I found myself interested more and more at how good his metaphors and punchlines really were. That proved to be enough to get me invested in his career, which took off quickly.
On a day in June of 2014 I was passing shelves and I did a double take as I saw the author on a hardcover sky-blue book of poetry called Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone. It was Bo’s, of course. I was hesitant to pick it up at first; the potential letdown of his penmanship could have been serious enough to stifle my love for his creations in the worlds of music, comedy, and film (did I mention he wrote, directed, and starred in a mockumentary that aired for two seasons on MTV?). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the internet-based birth of this renaissance man up to the point of this book of poetry. I know that’s a hefty title, but it’s a fitting way to describe his meteoric rise.
I should mention before I continue, in his first comedy special he performed a few poems in the middle of his set, all of them following themes of the avant-garde, charismatic but juvenile humor and delivery he’s always been fantastic at doing. The poems didn’t feel out of place, but upon my first watch it did leave me wanting more. Bo’s songs have always had a cohesive feel despite their either serious or comedic nature, and I wasn’t getting this entirely from his poems. Bo’s work has this unique sense of stimulation, and I believe it’s from his use of sense and taking advantage of the unexpected in his comedy and even in his TV shows and movies he has produced. Because of this, I decided to give his book a chance.
I took it off the shelf, turned it around, read the blurbs, then saw the price. I proceeded to put the book down on the shelf and buy it on Amazon later that night.
Since then, I have little to no regret on my purchase. The poems themselves are a crossbred entity from his songwriting and comedy, and it’s clear from the variety he includes on every page. I can see the inspiration Shel Silverstein had on Bo from the poem construction and delivery to the black and white illustrations that luxuriously give life to each page. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s Shel Silverstein inspired—if he was much younger, cynical, and had lost nearly every sentiment to give to his readers.
The poetry proved to be even more avant-garde than his comedy in the best way possible. I might hold some bias in that I was incredibly familiar with him and could hear his voice in every single word in the book, but that was the joy for me. In his comedy Bo had made a killing off warping and exploiting norms and expectations in the delivery of the arts, and he did this successfully throughout the poems in Egghead. The spectrum of poetry here is almost indescribable, as the only consistent analysis I could make is that there was no concrete, typical poetic form in the book. It was nearly all free verse with a light sprinkle of the occasional prose.
"Rock Bottom" by Bo Burnham. Illustration by Chance Bone. Page is taken directly from Egghead.
One of Bo's works in the book that I find most compelling is "Rock Bottom". The poem playfully toys with the feeling of hitting the end and point of no return, or as Bo calls it, "rock bottom". To combat this trope, one might look for inspiration to dig themselves out, or begin an upward spiral, and Bo turns this on its head with his wish to dig deeper; feeding on humanity's ability to dwell upon their sadness and "dig the hole deeper". Accompanying this short poem is the illustration, which depicts a man mining in a vertical shaft, with complete darkness sandwiching him into the center of the page. The poem is also formatted to be thin with lines that are only a word to two words long, a strategy that further gives the poem its suffocating feel. Another poem where Bo attacks the norms of poetry reading is “Magic”, in which he forces his creative hand on the reader. Bo spends every line effectively breaching the fourth wall (much like he has in his comedic endeavors). Poetry, much like any good art, should leave its interpretations open to the reader...but what if it doesn't? What if it tells you exactly how to feel and what to think, down to putting the words in your head? In “Magic” Bo writes, “NOW MAKE THIS PART LOUD! / SCREAM IT IN YOUR MIND! / DROWN EVERYTHING OUT. / Now hear a whisper. A tiny whisper.”. It was...oddly refreshing to have all the poetic analysis done for me.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have the book any other way looking back at it now in 2019. I felt as if I’ve grown with the book, as Bo’s art encapsulates the point in my life when I discovered poetry and its infinite capabilities. Since the book’s publishing Bo has released a more mature (in terms of language and theme, not entirely content) comedy special and has written and directed one of the most successful independent films in recent history, Eighth Grade. Bo is 28 now and has clearly matured in one way or another, but this poetry book is a memento to what brought him to this point of success in his life—calculated randomness, ingenuity, and a love for the creative world. I’d certainly be interested to see if Bo ever created another poetry book, but Egghead feels finite in Bo’s contribution to the poetic world as the title aptly describes his place of mind in the creation of the book. If he decides to create another one down the line, I’m sure myself and his followers would receive it with open arms.
Bo Burnham reading poetry in his comedy special, what. [NSFW warning--language. Don't say I didn't warn you.]