Ken Sparling is the author of Book, Intention Implication Wind, and Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt Sparling has had short pieces published by Mud Luscious Press, New York Tyrant, and Gigantic magazine.
"Sparling’s deadpan delivery is as obsessive as it is confessional and demands that it, rather than expectations of this follows that, be followed."
"When I first read it as a young writer, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall was my bible. I read it, reread it, and even read it to other people. It felt like a revelation, a master’s class in writing."
"I envy anyone reading Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall for the first time.”
"I’m still amazed by the book every time I re-read it.”
I was first introduced to Ken Sparling's work at — where else? — AWP, when I bought his book, Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt, and one of Ben Tanzer's books as a package deal from Artistically Declined's table. Admittedly, I was sold on Sparling's book because of the title, and wasn't prepared for the tightly episodic, slice-of-life prose therein. By the time I'd reached the halfway point of Hush Up and Listen, it occurred to me that Ken Sparling is one of the best kinds of writers, by which I mean the kind who shows readers that all the rules they learned from workshop are total bullshit.
So naturally, I jumped at the chance to review one of Sparling's earlier novels, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, and it's awesome, too. It doesn't have the focus or grace of Hush Up and Listen, but it does have the same sense of fractured desperation and the same wayward, perhaps futile search for meaning. In much the same way that Philip K. Dick had to write We Can Build You before Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this book is Ken Sparling's realization that he's onto something big.
The premise of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall is simple enough; the narrator, a Canadian library employee also named Ken Sparling, is concerned about his relationships with his wife Tutti and their son, Sammy. The stress of these relationships is clear, and his memories of his mother, father and stepmother (the fictional Sparling's parents divorced when he was a child), help the reader understand that he didn't have functional models for adulthood, so he has no idea what to do once he gets there himself.
This all sounds like a fairly conventional middle-class domestic novel, but Sparling delivers it in vignettes that, through repetition and a non-linear structure that bounces between the present and the past, make for an uneasy atmosphere. The idea that he is dissatisfied with his wife and stays with her out of numb resignation isn't stated, or even described, but the reader can sense it as their interactions become more terse and mundane as the book progresses.
The same can also be said of the narrator's paternal frustrations; although he freely declares his love for his son (“I cannot believe Sammy will ever turn out to be less than perfect” and “I love him so much it is all I can think about sometimes” are two examples of this), the narrator's fear that he is a mediocre dad wears on him as much as the messes, tantrums, and other exhausting realities of parenting.
Sometimes the narrator makes direct appeals to the reader, which range from taunts to challenges (“But you try telling the truth. Just try it sometime. Maybe you think you are already doing it.”) to questions that feel like cries for help (“will I have moments of clarity, moments just long enough to understand where I am and what is happening to me?”). These, along with a few sparsely sown moments of stunning description (“when she blinked, her eyelids fell like torn rags in the wind”) should be enough to keep readers invested.
The full effect of Sparling's work — that is to say, the effect his structure has on tone and atmosphere — creeps up on you as you read, and that's the kind of experimental approach that rewards the reader for his or her effort. I kept thinking about how something like this would get savaged in workshop, just torn apart for the arbitrary movements of the narrative lens, the mundane dialogue, the apparent refusal to ratchet any of this material into a conventional story with a rising action and so on. I kept hearing a well-meaning but persistent voice saying “show, don't tell” as passages were crossed out or circled with a red pen.
That's the fun part about experimental literature (which is really just plain old literature), though: there are few things more exhilarating than watching someone break rules and not only get away with it, but pull it off. Ken Sparling does that in spades.