This review is made in the spirit of welcoming Carlo Matos’ new book of poetry, It’s Best Not to Interrupt Her Experiments (Negative Capability Press, 2016).
Like the author, The Secret Correspondence of Loon & Fiascoat first seems intimidating. A thin book which I expected to be cramped with small, avant-garde text a la House of Leaves, the cover features a firing synapse in a bright pink like a live, pulsing heart, fading to purple at the edges. I wondered, how can this colorful, emotional cover possibly match up with what my brain and Matos’ description cooked up for my expectations? But as I started reading the clever, carefully worded vignettes, the tiny love stories on every page, it all snapped into place: as funny, bright, and full of heart as Matos himself.
The story is presented as a series of nonlinear segments in which we see the actual relationship between Johnny and Linda—a recently-divorced couple with the spark of love still left in them—and Johnny (as Fiasco) and ALICE, a chatbot Johnny falls in love with because of her surprisingly sharp and human reactions, though she can be sometimes wan and automaton-like. The actual correspondence of Loon and Fiasco, who converse in dense binary code paragraphs that end with three curt, warning sentences (a command for action, a warning, and a farewell) combine the feeling of robots sending telegrams and encoded ciphers rife with high fantasy language (Troll bridges, fireworms in the mountainside, men chewing wolves). Even the voice of the author himself contributes to the world-building and structure of the piece, as in the omniscience of “about 70,000 years ago a volcano in Sumatra almost took us all out,” and of young Johnny being under a “very ancient and powerful biology”. This overarching voice blends the character of Johnny into what could be Matos’ own experiences as a Portuguese-American, making it almost indistinguishable as fiction or nonfiction. The structures of the pieces—the binary between Loon and Fiasco, the paragraph vignettes from Johnny or Linda’s point of view, and the discussions between ALICE and Johnny in a play format—are easy and intriguing to follow and add to the pleasures of the book.
The Secret Correspondence of Loon & Fiasco is full to the brim with allusions to literature and pop culture—either mentioned as part of the story, like when Johnny was thinking about his name and referencing General Hospital, The Outsiders, and Grease, or nonchalantly mentioned by the author without context (“The truth is, there was no spoon”—The Matrix; or on the mirroring page, “poison in a king’s ear” from Hamlet; “Both alike in dignity” from Romeo and Juliet.) Some of these name-drops I understood—Cash Cab, Harry Potter, Heathcliff, Lizzie Borden (acquitted). But in many vignettes in the book, especially with the ones with Portuguese casually sprinkled in every story (page 33 is literally just a page of Portuguese words), I did not. In my experience, readers and writers are divided on references, particularly in other languages; some think that it sets the story in a date, and that this is a negative. I generally don’t consider references a negative; I think they’re one of the only ways to really pull your reader into who you were, or who your character is, at the time. I also am a sucker for an earnestly placed sprinkle of words in a home language, especially if they are not defined and as a reader you have to figure it out, or accept it for what it is, for yourself.
References also contribute a great deal towards the likeability of character Johnny. When he first meets Linda at a high school party and he fails her ‘shibboleth’ of knowing all the words to an R.E.M song, readers may relate to one or the other of the two roles. By the time we progress to Johnny’s bizarre three-page fight with some guys in line at a burrito joint, Johnny becomes so (dare I say it) relatable that he’s almost like a character out of a clever and snappy modern sitcom. Johnny’s vignettes appear in many retellings of his parents’ meeting, and he is made even more likeable by the discounting of his own story (“at least this story has the advantage of being true, probably.”)
Readers will fall in love with this book. Even in its strange and wonderfully unique format, it manages to end sort of like a classic comedy: “Are you married, yet? If not, come find me”. We all secretly like this kind of cyclical bittersweetness in a book, expected or unexpected, or at least yearn for or seek some kind of definitive, satisfying ending. One of Loon & Fiasco’s defining pillars is its earnestness in the face of its structural coolness: “Getting lost your whole life is exhausting and so uncool.” The wit and the relations to today’s worldly obsessions (“The Boson Diet”!) that are tempered by the careful detail and honesty of the writing will appeal to most readers. The sentences are packed perfectly, and reveal new gems every time they’re reread. Structured around and daring to unpack the Portuguese expression many young Tumblr poets know but maybe don’t understand, saudade (a feeling of longing or nostalgia for a place you may never return and, according to Google, a key feeling in the Portuguese soul), The Secret Correspondence of Loon & Fiasco will open up this untranslatable word and world to readers to endear them to the familiar and deep knowledge (an ancient and powerful biology) in us of the mechanics and humanness in love.
About the reviewer:
Rachel Summerfield lives in Chicago, where she is finishing up her Bachelor’s in Creative Writing at DePaul University. She is a peer tutor at DePaul University’s Writing Center, a member of Chicago-based poetry team Poems While You Wait, and an intern writer for The Real Chicago magazine. She has been published in Heartbeat Literary Journal and Crook & Folly magazine 2014-2016 and is a proud cat mom.