Released in early 2012 from Tyrant Books–the brainchild that brought us Brian Evenson’s Baby Leg, Eugene Marten’s Firework, and Michael Kimball’s Us–Atticus Lish’s Life Is with People is a sketchbook drawn through a poetic gloryhole. It is a violent, raging, and brutal book, yet also houses subtle moments of massive and quiet weight. But what is Life Is with People? In a recent posting on Vice, Tyrant kingpin Giancarlo DiTrapano described it this way:
“I met Atticus last year and I got all beggy with him about whether he wrote or not and if I could get a story from him for the next Tyrant. He said he couldn’t find any of his stories (heard that one before), but he’d been messing around with some drawings if I wanted to see those. We don’t really do “art” in the Tyrant but I still wanted to see what he’d done. You know when you find some obscure and unknown shit and you think you’re the only one who knows about it and that it somehow gives you powers? That’s what the package Atticus dropped off for me did. These drawings have the right ingredients. There is the perfect ratio of humor and disease, transcendence and decadence, laughablilty and pain.”
Life Is with People looks like a notebook (complete with ruled aqua lines and the texture of forgotten notes) and is filled with a collection of seemingly amateurish art that is exactly as Gian describes it: obscure and slightly unknowable but full of beautiful powers. Atticus Lish, son of the well-known and all-powerful Gordon Lish, has indeed mixed all of the right ingredients into these panels, each page a new arm in a freaky and bright beast both ghastly violent and oddly satisfying.
The drawings are in part crudely made–think Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head–and part ornately and gorgeously outlined, akin to contemporary artist Scott Teplin, but Life Is with People is more than just art. What makes the drawings in this book come to life (spring, pour, bleed), is the unpaneled dialogue and header / footer captions that accompany each piece.
This is not the world’s greatest art, but the dialogue is a perfect semblance of the draining of life we all experience, of the ability to finally and with gusto relate that we are only modestly fulfilled, and that we no longer expect more than that.
Or this one,
where the crude nature of the art itself, the intentionally ragged and monstrous character, mixes with the earnestness of the dialogue, off-setting the simplistically genuine (“Your English Breakfast tea is ready”) with the grit and stank and its atmosphere.
This is what Life Is with People does. It creates a space where acts of mid-violence (stabbing, hacking, bleeding) are juxtaposed with careful still-life moments of cooking or sexual passion. In this book, the easy moments in life are rendered in blighted art, and within each juxtaposition is a kind of new poetic art.
In one of the longer captions, Atticus Lish writes:
“Today, we’re making popovers. As you can see, I’m using cake flour, not the baking flour used by ordinary people. This is what science involves – a departure from ordinary grains and powders. A rebellious swerve.”
Lish’s Life Is with People is exactly that: a rebellious swerve, art and words that come at you from one direction and leave from another, all the while tricking and braying and joking, but never quite letting us settle in. It’s a work that begs us to the edge and then holds us there, just shy of falling.
But in case I haven’t made sense of it above, clarified what Tyrant Books sees in Life Is with People and what I see in it too–a great and unexpected work of art–then here is a cataloging of the first 30 imagistic moments contained in Atticus Lish’s Life Is with People, listed until we ran out of words:
audience and head-severing
Bernie Madoff as a pet
an egotistical toast
giving up a daughter
a screaming child
a depressed Asian child
an Easter egg competition
a split head
a person as horse
eyes stabbed out
a fat graduate
a new handshake
a lizard woman
a sexual bear
a girl fight
tv and religion