Two-artist singles are a longstanding tradition in indie rock, giving two bands or performers the chance to increase exposure and decrease costs by sharing space on the same slab of vinyl. Tables Without Chairs #1 is a book that embraces the same aesthetic, with a pair of writers — Brian Alan Ellis and Bud Smith — sharing space between the same set of covers as they spin tales in their own distinctive styles. The results are fast-moving, funny in a quirky way and offer an intriguing alternative to the usual self-conscious literary poses struck by many a young author.
Ellis’s half of the book is devoted to two pieces. The first is entitled “Sexy Time In The Spook House, Oh Yeah!” and it’s a kind of punk novella. It’s told in first person style by a protagonist who is smarting over a breakup with a woman whose love he finds consuming and whose rejection sends him spiraling into an abyss of self-loathing. As he gathers his courage for a face-off with this heartbreaker, he ruminates on the wreckage of his romantic career — illustrated via a series of punchy, pithy anecdotes — before the story culminates in a reunion that challenges what has come before.
Such a tale could be a wallow in self-pity and self-indulgence but Ellis dodges those traps with lean, acidically witty prose that combines shock value and bursts of flowery prose to create a style that is poetic yet combative. The final sections show a sense of storycraft that deploys a plot twist in a way that not only surprises the reader but challengers their attitudes and observations.
The second inclusion is a barrage of lists and free-associative one-liners that Ellis has entitled “Ha-Ha, Sad Laughter.” You could call it an example of soul-baring as stand-up routine, with Ellis poking fun at his writing career: topics include battles with laziness, the unique characteristics of working in the avant-literature world and living a low-budget life to pursue his muse. He’s funny while also being incisive and the self-deprecating approach he takes helps it avoid casual cruelty or navel-gazing.
Bud Smith’s portion of the book takes a different style, more naturalistic and observational as it presents a series of short sketches that focus on its first-person protagonist’s working class lifestyle in the big city. It varies between nicely detailed accounts of apartment living and list-style pieces that offer such unique entries as a diary of reviews for the corner bodega.
Smith’s prose is minimalist but keys in on the details necessary to make his writing atmospheric. His storytelling might look effortless but it gives you a real sense of how the protagonist gets through his days by keeping the big worries of life at bay, digging into the unique slices of life going on around him and taking a dryly humorous approach to the mundane yet necessary parts of his daily routine (the bodega diary is particularly witty and illuminating in this regard).
Tables Without Chairs #1 is also fleshed out by illustrations by Waylon Thornton that give an appropriately imaginative yet lo-fi visual cohesion to the overall package. His work utilizes a lot of fantasy and horror motifs drawn in a Daniel Johnston-ish style. His illustrations add to the book’s oddball charm and dovetail nicely with the rough and ready sensibility of the authors.
In short, Tables Without Chairs #1 offers a lot of gritty creativity in a fast-moving, unpretentious package. Like a good two-artist single, its contents have a liveliness and immediacy that will appeal to those who want to look beyond the mainstream for their literary kicks.