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Book Review: Jason De Boer—Annihilation Songs

An Avante-Garde Retelling of Shakespearean Drama

The black, red, and white book cover is intensely modern.  

Stalking Horse Press is an independent publishing house based in Santa Fe, NM. Unlike mainstream publishers, their books are more radical and subversive. They publish authors who take risks and experiment with their literature. Jason De Boer is such a writer, with his ambitious renditions of three classics by William Shakespeare (Hamlet, The Tempest, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona).

De Boer composed this book with the literary technique of Anagram, wherein the words and letters of the source material are rearranged to make something new. In the first story, "Puzzles of War," the great tragedy of Hamlet becomes a military drama set in World War II. My personal favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest, is retold as a loveless, failing marriage in the modern world, titled "Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision." Finally, Two Gentlemen of Verona, thought to be Shakespeare's first play, is transformed into a surreal tale of desire and longing in the last story, "The Execution of the Sun." 

Three timeless masterpieces of the European Renaissance, with three vividly creative re-imaginings. It's like comparing a Baroque painting to an Impressionist piece. In Shakespeare's time, the literature and art were melodramatic, capturing the human condition with epic depictions of knights, maidens, gods, and demons. Centuries later, artists rebelled against this pretentious pomp and circumstance with Impressionism.  They rejected the stuffy mythologies and gods of their predecessors, for everyday people doing everyday things. Instead of exaggerated poses and facial expressions, the impressionists exaggerated their paint textures and brush strokes. 

A Renaissance painting looks like a moment caught in time. All of the chaos pauses for muscular Greek heroes, carefully choreographed and posed in meticulous glory.  In an impressionist painting, it's not the moment itself, but the atmosphere in which it happened, with blurred lines and pastel shades creating the illusion of movement. Whereas the Elizabethans made the impossible look realistic, the Impressionists made the mundane look otherworldly. 

So it is with De Boer's fiction. He captures the feeling and concepts of Shakespearean literature, but in a completely different context. War and politics play their part in Hamlet as they do in Puzzles of War. Caliban is a tragic but unsympathetic character in both The Tempest and Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision. Lust, resentment, and aggression are explored in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and also in The Execution of the Sun

A postscript, titled "Killing the Dogs of Kathmandu," follows after the trio of short stories. This is the author describing the writing process. Traveling to India, he was a stranger in a strange land. Sleepless nights took their toll on his mind, body, and soul. The stress and exhaustion finally came to breaking point, when he literally cut up a Shakespeare book with a knife so he could rearrange it.

My copy of this book is especially sentimental to me, because it was signed by the author at a public reading. Events for the community, including book readings and signings, are integral to Stalking Horse Press. I have attended some of these gatherings, and it's lovely to enjoy modern literature while sipping a hot coffee from a local cafe, or trying unique cocktails at a downtown distillery. 

Another way that Stalking Horse gives back to the community, is by donating a portion of all profits to the charity of the author's choice. De Boer chose Esperanza Shelter, an organization helping domestic violence survivors and their families. 

Jason De Boer has also been published in Absinthe Review and Exquisite Corpse, among others. In the movie industry, he is known for his feature film, Dead River. He is also the founder of Trembling Sun Films. Annihilation Songs is an example of his darkly humorous writing style. 

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Book Review: Jason De Boer—Annihilation Songs
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