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Tim Kinsella

Tim Kinsella holds an MFA in writing from The School of the Art Institute Chicago. His writing has appeared in The Chicago Reader, Monsters & Dust, and Stop Smiling Magazine. The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense is his first novel.


"For all this novel's depth of story, and that story's grip and wealthy undercurrents, Tim Kinsella's rushing, trippily meticulous prose is so exciting to follow that the story seems as much the novel's soundtrack and topography as it is the point. A thorough and wildly distinctive read."

– Dennis Cooper, Author of The Marbled Swarm



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The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this might just be one of the best novels of the year.


“‘I hate The DaVinci Code and its stupid exclamatory big-string swells every thousand words.’

He nodded.

She repeated herself, ‘Yeah.'”

I have had an on and off again fascination with Tim Kinsella for years. I think of him as a sort of indie-rock Werner Herzog, and that might be totally off base, but that is sort of what I think of him as. First as the singer of Cap’n Jazz and then in Joan of Arc he delighted and annoyed me with a great songs that held in them the potential to be be unsatisfying and annoying. They (I’m talking more about Joan of Arc than Cap’n Jazz) also had something literary about them and like the other notable Cap’n Jazz spin-off, Promise Ring, the lyrics had something ee cummings-esque about them. Here are two of my favorite Joan of Arc songs, feel free to listen to either of them as a soundtrack to the rest of this review.

“I Love a Woman (Who Loves Me)”

“Post-Coitus Rock”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this might just be one of the best novels of the year. I probably haven’t read the other novels that could be up for this honor, and this is a pretty flawed best novel of the year, but I think it’s still that good and, even with the problems I’ll mention later, it manages to transcend those flaws to be a very satisfying novel.

First, the book looks amazing. Aesthetically, featherproof has put out another fine looking book. Possibly their best yet. It’s mass-market size (but comfortable mass market size (were there people out there really complaining about mass markets being too uncomfortable? (this little aside has nothing to do with this book but with a way big publishers tried to market the new size books a few years ago))), but with trade paper-back quality, and even a kind of pretentious detail of the price of the novel written on the upper-right hand corner of the first page in a way that makes it look like it had been written with a pencil. You know like an used or independent bookstore might do. It was a little detail I loved when I first saw it and showed to Karen multiple times, each time thinking it was something new I was sharing with her. Oops.

Second, there is no description anywhere on the book about what to expect. Just the kind of catchy title and a blurb from Dennis Cooper. This scared me a little bit. I generally find that books Dennis Cooper blurbs turn out to be ‘shocking’ in a way that bores me the same way that looking at teenage goth kids in their scary get-ups bore me. Fortunately this book isn’t shocking and doesn’t try to be.

Third? I don’t know how to describe the book. I want to thrust it in to peoples’ hands and tell them to read it, but I’m afraid that if I gush over it the book won’t live up to expectations. I was expecting a fairly pretentious book that would humor me in the balls-out way it danced around pretensions. This is a novel for gosh-sakes by a guy who for one of his albums filled the CD booklet with a photo montage of him(?) and his hip looking friends dressed up from scenes of Godard’s Weekend. I was expecting the literary equivalent of that. Nope. It didn’t turn out to be that either.

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a while now. I don’t know how to gush appropriately. Things I think of saying could come off wrong.

I’ll put off gushing for another paragraph and say what is bad about the book. The book is over-written at times. It can be wordy in the way a good editor might have been able to control a bit. It also gets a little, um, well-wordy in an intellectual sense at times to, for example a seventeen year-old (I think that is her age, she’s in high school still) can have this scene:

“Still, it had been a while since it first occurred to Sarah Ann that her MySpace profile no longer reflected the her she thought herself to be. Social networking was obviously little more than the sunny cultural inversion of terror cells, the final clinging to some sense of community or belonging that the last stages of consumer Capitalism would allow. and the habit had been knocked to the back of her mind, so only occasionally did she cringe, recalling the state of her identity as she left if projected to the world. But, she did cringe.”

and later in a scene between her and an older character:

“. . . ‘he put on some Fleetwood Mac, but I told him I wouldn’t dance to that Clinton music.’

Gus nodded.

‘The stupid neoliberal conception of freedom, the self-absorbed, unchecked ego, that’s what opened the door for this corporate fascism. It allowed everyone to assume it’s their right to have opinions about everything, when there are, in fact, facts in the world,’ she went on. ‘Facts are not disputable.’

Gus rubbed the back of his neck, ‘I kind of like Fleetwood Mac,’ he said quietly.”

When Kinsella has an intelligent angry teenager making this Adbusters like critiques there is something charming about them. They might be overwrought arguments that make you roll your eyes but an angry alienated kid in the Midwest making those comments seems almost nostalgic to me, and it fits into the very anti-intellectual atmosphere of this book. This book isn’t about people who equate social networking to late capitalism terror cells, and they aren’t the type of people who would watch one of the Twin Towers burning from across the street and think, “This is a spectacle of late capitalism’s own demise” (what kind of fucking twat would think that, right?). This is a book about some unremarkable people and their pretty shitty lives… which I’ll use to segue into the next paragraph where I’m going to make the comparison I’ve been dreading making. . . .

This is a shitty lower middle class version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or The Corrections about people who we might actually know from our own shitty little towns. I’m not saying this is a Franzen knock-off, but it’s the same basic premise. Three siblings return home and see each other for the first time in years at their grandmother’s funeral. The eldest was a cool guy, the kind of guy who drove a Firebird and listened to The Who and probably had a comb in his back pocket who know works a menial factory job to support his family. The middle child is a woman in her mid-thirties who has just hung up her stripper boots and now slings drinks at the club she used to dance at, and the youngest son is a recovering addict who lives caught up in perpetual twelve steps (his addiction happens to be getting the shit beaten out of him in fights, his character being a weird mixture of Fight Club and Infinite Jest). Intersplicing the present and back stories of the three siblings are the stories of a few other characters who help flush out the novel and give it some offbeat color. I was going to say something about these characters but it would give away a bit too much of how the novel unfolds. And I believe novels should be let to unfold in the way the writers mean for them to unfold and not be ruined by (in)competent reviewers.

I compared this to The Corrections, but this is the family that lives on the other side of the tracks to Franzen’s dysfunctional family and who would have beaten the shit out of The Corrections kids when they were in school.

I’m hoping this review will be good enough to get someone to try to read this novel and hopefully get some enjoyment out of it. Or hate it and then blame me for steering them wrong.

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