June 3: “The Committee for Standing on Shoulders” by Andrew Farkas

Hello there, Story366! I hope you’re having a good Friday. If you read yesterday’s post, you know I ventured out to Lambert’s Café for some throwed rolls, and for those of you who have been wondering—Caitlin Macy was particularly concerned—I did get hit in the head with a dinner roll, but am okay. To be safe, for tonight, we got our out-of-town friend cashew chicken, which was invented in Springfield, and he liked it.

And yes, a “Chinese” dish, or one you thought was Chinese, was invented in Springfield, Missouri. As the story goes, around a hundred years ago, some chef at a fancy hotel was out of the main dish and had to invent something for important guests, so he took chicken, gravy, oyster sauce, scallions, and cashews and invented cashew chicken. There are probably fifty little drive-through takeout joints in town that serve cashew chicken (and that’s a low estimate), and most of them claim to have been the place to have invented it, to have the original recipe. As novelty foods and hometown dishes go, cashew chicken is pretty good, though I don’t crave it, eat it more than a couple of times a year. Still, if you pass through Springfield, get yourself an order. It’s the thing here, what you’ll put in your scrapbook.

Today’s post is about Andrew Farkas’ book, Self-Titled Debut, particularly the story “The Committee for Standing on Shoulders.” Self-Titled Debut was a winner of a Subito Prize in Experimental Fiction from Subito Press. I know Andy from Chicago—he got his PhD at UIC the same time I was living there—so I saw him around at readings and other events. Andy and I were also in the job market at the same time, and a couple of times, he’d walk out of a hotel room and I’d be waiting in the hall, next in line. One time I ran into him at the San Francisco airport at two in the morning. So, I know Andy and like him.

Farkas’ book is an experimental, absurdist romp! Or at least that’s what I would say if I need to write a one-line blurb for his book. I read a few stories from Self-Titled Debut today, in addition to the many others by Farkas I’ve read in the past, and always enjoy what he does (Farkas’ new collection has been a finalist in Moon City Press’ Short Fiction Competition, by the way). He has a unique voice, thought I picture Barthelme (the Donald variety) a lot when I read his work. There seems to a distance to his narration, one that’s analytical, almost deconstructive of the situations at hand. This technique allows Farkas to both criticize and elaborate, describe and evaluate. In the end, he has a lot of fun with it. And so do I.

“The Committee for Standing on Shoulders” follows this pattern, rendering the story both biting and hysterical. The story is about a brand-new nightclub named Orb3, a nightclub that is immediately a smash sensation. On opening night, the line is so long, they have to stop letting people in, but the guy in charge of that more or less fails, so before long, the place is shoulder-to-shoulder, breaking the fire code for maximum occupancy.

Since nobody wants to make anyone leave—that’s never brought up—and the owner, who’s also the bartender, has disappeared, nobody knows what to do. Then someone has a brilliant idea: They could fit three times as many people inside Orb3 if they stacked people on top of each other’s shoulders, three high, all the way into the rafters. It’s a logical idea—remember, absurdism—until the people on the bottom complain about being on the bottom, and the people on the top complain about being on top. The middle people? They’re not happy either.

This discontent leads to the formation of the Committee for Standing on Shoulders, who becomes in charge of deciding who stands on what level of the columns of people at Orb3. Like all committees, Farkas’ shoulder committee starts out pure, but then becomes corrupted, and by the end of the story, chaos ensues and the committee is no longer effective. More or less. The narrator—who reveals her/himself as a participant in this charade pretty late—is going to play a part that will change everything (which, of course, I won’t reveal).

And remember, this is all taking place on opening night.

I really like what Farkas does in “The Committee for Standing on Shoulders,” and in all of his stories. He has a vision, a perception of the world that’s a bit askew, but wonderfully unlike anything I read in anyone else’s work. I can’t recommend Self-Titled Debut, or anything you can read by Andrew Farkas, enough.

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