I first encountered xTx’s writing through a recommendation of a friend about five years ago. I followed her twitter account, read her chapbooks, and got my foot stepped on by her while at an AWP offsite reading/bar crawl. I do not know her real name. xTx, in that way, is singular unto herself, widely published in the indie lit scene and yet determinedly hanging on to her privacy.
And it’s understandable why xTx feels the need to conceal herself with a twitter handle. Her stories frequently stare straight into our own id, at that part of the brain that would get us labeled as perverts and run out of town. Her characters pursue what makes them feel good regardless of the cost, or else are the victims of others doing the same. It does not make for light reading, but who would want to live their life with only safe words to comfort them?
In her newest collection, Today I Am a Book, xTx sticks with the flash format that is her trademark, spreading 35 vignettes over a scant 117 pages of text. The dedication section doubles as the first chapter; it’s titled “Today I Am a Book” and lets us in on the thoughts of the very book we’re holding. This is the format of what follows, each chapter titled “Today I Am a ____” and then we get to live with them for a few pages, knowing their hopes and shames, their follies and triumphs, before xTx casts them aside for a whole new point of view to try on. xTx brings us into a world literature often considers gauche, with abusive parents, destructive couples, murderous masters. What makes these stories bearable and sublime rather than prime misery porn is the sympathy that xTx bears for each character she gives birth to. “You are a weirdo,” she seems to be saying, “and so am I, and so is whoever is reading this book, and there’s something reassuring about that.”
Though don’t let this lead you to believe the range of characters is limited to your strange neighbor. An early piece takes on the point of view of a tattoo, waiting beneath the skin, watching its eventual bearer grow closer to the person who will choose to brand himself with ink: “Unaware, he often scratches the place where I will eventually surface. I can feel him wanting me. Is there a burning?” He survives an abusive father who makes him refer to his mother as “a hole” and rapes him; one day, his tattoo informs us, he will repeat this pattern of abuse towards other woman. But in this moment, as he and our narrator tattoo finally meet, “The now-man steps to the mirror, turns sideways, takes me in. Our eyes meet and he knows and for the first and only time of his adulthood, he cries.” xTx is able to find the soul in these people who most would be quick to write off.
In total, though, the book feels like an examination of what it means to be a writer. That first section, “Today I Am a Book” (and by extension the title of the collection), immediately draws your attention to the fact that we are reading words rather than listening to someone’s internal monologue. Near the end of the book we encounter Chapter 31, “Today I Am a Writer,” a lament towards the difficulty of putting words on the page and a literalizing of the Hemmingway quote, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” But before our writer can haul their typewriter to the local Starbucks and brood about the lake of ink on the page, they must try to become what a writer is supposed to look like: “I wear dark-rimmed glasses and knitted scarves. Still nothing. I try a beard and skinny jeans. It starts to feel hopeful”.
But this is what xTx is doing through the collection, trying on new personas and seeing where they lead. The number 33, the ending of her twitter handle, repeats itself throughout the collection as a tiny signature, a reminder of her presence. When she declares “Today I am a -” she’s declaring what all writers must do, put aside themselves and find their way into the minds and hearts of someone else. And finding the words still comes at a cost. “Later, when I wash the blood off my face, I see the letters… Only two lines, but they churn the stagnant inside me. I towel off and begin to repair my typewriter before it has a chance to fade.” And there it is, the compulsive need of the writer to write, regardless of how they finally managed to bleed out the words. And that is how you wind up with a book.
Today I Am a Book is a wonderful little weirdo. We needs books like this, even if most would like to pretend otherwise; reminders that we aren’t alone no matter what fucked-up thoughts we have or what fucked-up things we’ve lived through or what fucked-up place we’ve found ourselves in. There is even hope, xTx tells us, at the end of the collection, simply by the act of telling these stories. “One day, because of you, the father’s melody will finally be forgotten; in its place, this new song.” It’s enough to make you believe we might all really make it out of here okay.
Fred Pelzer is a writer and director in Chicago. His chapbook of short stories, Static, is out now from Etchings Press, and his webseries Losers was produced by Cloud Gate Productions. He is the Fiction Editor for Wyvern Lit and can usually be found at www.fredpelzer.com or @fredpelzer.