Review of 'Explanations' by Andrew Borgstrom

Andrew Borgstrom’s chapbook, Explanations, is a collection of 36 first-person stories, each a character study in alienation, anxiety and unfulfilled desire. Each is titled with a description of the relevant character’s personality or profession, followed by what they are going to explain in the piece, most often a certain aspect of their lives.

These titles are often humorous: “An Etymologist Explains Baby Names at the Park,” “A Rock-Climber Explains Marriage,” “A Brother Explains Fingering to His Brother” and “A Stalker Explains Weigh Loss.”

Though this is a collection of poetic prose, Explanations reads and/or feels like a small (post)modernist novel. Borgstrom’s explicit use of poly-vocality reflects a (post)modernist focus on the periphery as opposed to a narrative monopolized by a single character.

Borgstrom’s transitions are impeccable. Each piece leads, as if by heredity, into the next through a series of thematic remnants. The pieces in Explanations are at once, humorous, tender, parodic, and excruciatingly detailed in their minimalist emotional depictions.

In “A Philosopher Explains Dreams,” Borgstrom’s humor bursts through:
There remain two perfect dreams. In the first, you blurt “ate toe broto” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and instead of just being four acts early and the wrong actor, you wind up opening the Necronomicon and killing all the babies. You are responsible for the death of all the babies and you are a shitty stage actor. But it was only a dream and thank God and life is perfect, no matter how shitty and babyless. In the second dream, you forget everything upon waking. But it was only a dream and life is perfect, no matter how shitty and godless.
Underlying this humor, there is a strong sense of illusion and futility. Here “babyless” and “godless” are equated, and existence is both “a dream” and “shitty.” That the philosopher thanks [g]od for his godless life is reminiscent of this oxymoronic sentiments of Robert Browning’s poem “Bishop Blougram's Apology”:
Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist.
There are many religious undertones in this collection, and even specific references. In “An Inmate Explains Where He’s Been on the Walls of His Cell,” the numbers 40 and 144,000 are invoked:
I have been there. […] I have been wearing the same pants for 40 days. […] I have been high on everything. I have been found worthy. I have been seen naked by 144,000 people. […] I have been a blessing in disguise. I have been many things in disguise. I have been here.
The number 40 is significant in both the Hebrew bible (Old Testament), in which the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years, and the Greek bible (New Testament), in which Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. The number 144,000 is also significant in both these books, as, apparently, only 144,000 people will be chosen to go to heaven. These references seem at odds with one another, as do Hebrew and Christian theologies. The tension created is reflected in the moral conflict of the prisoner's character.

Borgstrom here, as well as in pieces like “A Mormon Missionary Explains the Conversion Process,” “An Adam Explains Where He Met a Steve” and “A Sinner Explains His Penance,” questions both religious ideology and its enforcement through ritual and tradition.

In “A Mormon Missionary Explains the Conversion Process,” the first piece in this collection, Borgstrom immediately begins to criticize the hypocritical components of religion, such as race relations perpetrated by dogmas that claim all are equal in [g]od’s eyes. Here is the piece in its entirety:
No matter what we do, one third of our audience will hate it, one third will love it, and one third won’t care. In the beginning, Satan’s “tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven.” Leaving two thirds in heaven, awaiting fleshy bodies. On third of these would be born with dark skin as a curse for not caring enough, for fence sitting. This is why dark-skinned Mormons could not hold the priesthood until 1978. This and the practice of plural marriage are the toughest concerns for us to resolve, yet one third will still convert. No matter what we do. Sacred underwear.
The concept of "one third" here is also recalls the [h]oly [t]rinity. In “An Etymologist Explains Baby Names at the Park,” Borgstrom also invokes Greek mythology in comparison to Christianity (interestingly, as the Christian bible, the New Testament, is also known to as the Greek bible as it was originally written in Greek):
A mother called her daughter Persephone but refused to acknowledge the connection to mythology[.] […] Like this one year old was the first Persephone. Like she didn’t owe her name to anyone. Like it was just a sound her mother made and father agreed upon. Like there was something wrong with being named after a fictional character. Like we were all proud of the child on the swing named Jesus.
Here Borgstrom critiques a generationally self-imposed amnesia, how we tend to erase history and take credit for the ideas of our ancestors—as if they had preemptively plagiarized us. Borgstrom implies this flaw is inherent, or at least hereditary, passed down through the ages—our willingness to forget acting in opposition to any potential dialectical progress in tandem with religious ideology to suppress creative expression. As Louis Althusser says: "Ideology has no history."

There are also poignant descriptions of life, of how we hope to live it in parallel to its inevitabilities, as in these lines from “A Retiree Explains Perpetual Travel”:
We never even see the turns, right or left, but this doesn’t stop us from consistently taking four lefts in a row, from Haven’t we been here? To Why did we come here? The postcards we’ll keep buying look nothing like this. Everything’s like this.
This collection doesn’t end with the characters Borgstrom has written. He humorously makes himself into a character as well in “Andrew Borgstrom Explains the Author Bio”:
The first person writes the bio in the third person (i.e. Andrew Borgstrom wrote a chapbook you can read for free at Pear Noir! And a much shorter one at Gold Wake. And one forthcoming at Publishing Genius. And he also wrote this bio you paid for.). The second person reads the third person bio of the first person and feels changed. The first person becomes the third person for the second person, and the second person becomes the first person for the third person. The third person tries getting to second base with the first person but makes it to fourth base because the first person writes the bio in third person.
Andrew Borgstrom is an associate editor for Mud Luscious Press. Explanations is available now from The Cupboard. Here is Andrew Borgstrom’s blog.

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