“I didn’t know how much there was to want in the world until I saw Sheena, and then I wanted it all.” These thirteen short-short stories by Samuel Ligon, illustrated by collage artist Stephen Knezovich, are as dark and absurd as they are poignant, playful, and true, examining men and women and love and loss and donkeys and goats and murder, carnivals, and whiskey bosoms. “Nobody deserves love. Or everyone does. It comes and it goes of its own free will. Like fever. Like flood. Like the greatest thing you’re ever gonna lose. And once it’s gone, it’s gone for good . . .”
Wonderland is a fantastic collection of stories. Sam Ligon has mastered the art of capturing the sweet derangement of love. His characters are drunk with desire and reckless in all the right ways, and his prose is incandescent, absurd, wickedly funny and, in the end, achingly true.
In Wonderland, with his razor-sharp prose, Sam Ligon takes his readers to greater territories—baking pies, swallowing Vicodin and whiskey, squeezing doughnuts, kissing in bikinis, recalling donkey poems and snakes, attempting to train blackbirds. From romps though Hiltons to Wagon Wheels and woods, be prepared, Wonderland will take you on journeys you’ll never forget.
Wonderland glitters magic over gritty characters who must navigate a treacherous reality. Desire is consumed through tender violence: of whiskey and of bodies. The stories in Sam Ligon’s Wonderland fold into a collage of flagrant and uncompromising forms and voices and pleasure to parallel the nostalgically luminous collages by Stephen Knezovich. Here is a book to charm all the senses—here is a book that begets imagination.
This book is indeed a Wonderland, a bizarre feast for our damaged senses. Samuel Ligon has long been one of my favorite writers because he’s bold and fearless, funny and twisted, and he gets down into the muck and marrow of our human mess. And Stephen Knezovich’s vivid illustrations perfectly compliment Ligon’s crackling prose. Enjoy this freak show of fantastical delights and then tell all your weird friends about it.
Read these stories from WONDERLAND, published in various literary journals online:
About the Author
Samuel Ligon is the author of three books of fiction, Safe in Heaven Dead, Drift and Swerve, and the forthcoming Among the Dead and Dreaming. His stories have appeared in New England Review, Prairie Schooner, The Quarterly and many other places. His essays appear regularly in The Inlander. Ligon is the editor of Willow Springs, and Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Eastern Washington University.
Stephen Knezovich is a writer, editor, and artist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the the director of marketing and publicity for Creative Nonfiction magazine, In Fact Books, and the Creative Nonfiction Foundation’s educational programs. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University.
Your Body Is a Wonderland The Seattle Review of Books
Review by Paul Constant
May 17, 2016
One of the pleasures of a short story collection is finding the threads that connect the stories. Even if they don’t share characters, or a common continuity, the stories all spring from the same churning subconscious, and so they always carry some DNA-deep similarities. On the surface, the stories in Spokane author Sam Ligon’s Wonderland don’t have much in common: one or two are steeped in realism, another is a retelling of a nursery rhyme, a couple read like longish dirty jokes. But those connecting threads are there, pulling at the stories and making them bump into each other in interesting ways. A few of the stories prominently feature goats. Another two are about pies. Most of them, in one way or another, are about love. One or two are just out-and-out love stories. And those of us who aren’t privy to Ligon’s personal life might never know why those particular themes keep surfacing and submerging (maybe he had a traumatic encounter with a goat when he was a child?) and maybe learning the impetus behind those themes would result in nothing more than a gassy anticlimax. But in the end, they’re there, defiantly peeking out from the stages of Ligon’s stories amidst all the other characters and sets, and in the end, they make the book a better, more holistic reading experience.
The first two stories in Wonderland are fairly straightforward—possibly the most realistic of the 13—although your concept of “straightforward” may vary. The title story that opens the book is about a young man who falls in love with a bearded lady at the circus. They shave each other as a kind of foreplay: “I took a dip from her beard, then cut and salted her, licked her salty wound, and kissed her. And kept kissing her.” “You’re not a freak,” the bearded lady tells him later, “But I like you anyway.”
It’s in Wonderland’s third story when things start to get really bizarre. “The Little Goat” is about a pair of horny teenagers who sneak off to a quarry and make out. They kiss until their lips chap and they get a little closer to sex each time; she takes her shirt off and he takes his shirt off and everything feels kind of inevitable.
Enter the goat.
It appears out of nowhere and stares at the boy and the girl. She gets creeped out, and he decides he has to make a stand, scare the goat away for her honor. That’s when the goat decides to pass on its message: “You’re not doing it right,” he tells the couple. Then the goat proceeds to give the young lovers sex tips, and the whole thing gets so creepy and steamy and uncomfortable that the type on the page practically smears.
If you were reading “The Little Goat” in your high school English class, you’d probably write a paper on the symbolism of the goat: does it stand for the raw animal physicality that the young lovers are rediscovering? Is the goat a Satanic figure, like Black Phillip in the recent horror film The Witch? Or is it maybe just your everyday kind of talking goat? Part of the reason why education trains people out of loving literature is that we’re taught every story has a pat conclusion, a key that unlocks it like a puzzle box, and if your interpretation differs from the received wisdom then your interpretation is wrong. It’s just not so. Your reading of the horny talking goat is just as valid as anyone else’s understanding of the horny talking goat.
The most potent stories in Wonderland are built around a striking image or phrase that taints the realism surrounding them. A woman fondly recalls breastfeeding from her alcoholic mother, asking “Is there anything more adorable than a drunk toddler?” A member of a band talks pridefully about their “monster hit,” a single called “That’s Not Love Leaking from the Harpoon Hole in Your Heart.”
And in a short monologue titled “This Land Was Made for You & Me,” an unnamed author talks about developing an intellectual property as though it’s a real piece of land: “On my intellectual property, we’ll be accentuating the positive, generating happy endings, curing diseases, filling prisons, eating our pets. No. Loving our pets. Eating animals that aren’t our pets.” That chipper-but-caddywhompus vibe, where there’s something toothy and desperate hiding underneath every friendly grin, is as good a description of Wonderland as any.
THE BROOKLYN RAIL
The Barely: There Before, or Paradise Lost (& Found)
by Chris Companion
11 July 2016
Wonderland, like the circus of its title story, presents readers with a glimpse of magic, equal parts gritty and glittery, fairy tale parable and Middle-America pornography. Behind every curtain is another opportunity to experience the sideshow, and revel in the grotesque and beautiful dichotomy. Collage and pastiche propel Ligon’s short story collection, and each story is prefaced by a similarly startling cut-up by visual artist Stephen Knezovich. So it is with an almost-expected disquiet that each character seems to communicate with one another throughout the text, always on the verge of outperforming whatever and whoever came before. Voyeuristic talking goats, a wife whose remedy for the common cold includes whiskey, raw beef, valium, a pound cake, Robitussin, and Menthols (not in that order), a mother whose breasts flow with whiskey and butter (one at a time), a couple who copulate after jointly fisting the last glazed donut in the box. Ligon is saying something about consumption and desire and death, too, and his stories often start or end with the threat of violence; the threat or the opportunity for violence. Violence which is as much of a pleasure as a plight.
Ligon’s best stories are also his most unusual, inventive in subject but also in the storytelling, as when he traces the history of two major gas stations’ merger by following the teenage angst of their daughter, Exxon Candace Mobil.
“She couldn’t bear to wonder where her phone or hands were, or whether DuPont could ever love a woman so confused about who she was or who she’d been or who she was becoming—herself, her motherfather, her granddaddy, all of her cousins or sisters or pieces of herself broken apart but reuniting—brash Chevron, shy Amoco, lost Sohio. Oh, God, lost Sohio!” (“Exxon, My Love”)
Identity and performance become paramount throughout this collection, and Ligon crafts his narratives with stark aphorisms, funny-because-they’re-true, but also: terrifying for the same reason; the caustic, revelatory punch line that underlies every good joke. “You can’t get closer than killing for love,” he writes in “This Bed You’ve Made,” “In fact, you’ll never get that close again, though you’ll think it’s all just beginning.” And a few pages later: “They were horrible people, the king and the queen. What do you expect? Treat people like gods and they’ll behave like swine.” Ligon’s characters are performers, yes, but sometimes the joke is on them, as with Lucas Astor, Ph.D., who communicates with an old flame through an (unsolicited) blurb of her new book. “New York is such a hateful place,” he discloses in his write-up’s last line, “and I can only imagine how lonely you must be there without me.”
So much of Wonderland reads like 2016’s answer to William Blake’s 1794 illustrated collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, the dualities of experience resolving itself in the seesaw between consummation and consumption, the permeance of life and the permanence of death. “Will you believe me when I tell you that this news delivered unto us a kind of living death?” Ligon writes in “Paradise Lost.” “The horror of innocence lost not gradually or gently, but snatched violently with Mother’s proclamations that our whiskey and butter days were nearing an end.”
Ligon’s best parables combine the ageless with the very applicable, as in “The Little Goat,” where the little goat of the title coaxes out a discussion with two lust-struck children that broaches issues of shame and discretion and public surveillance, too, but also, the perceived lack of liberty inherent when we voluntarily give up our rights to privacy.
“We don’t want you watching us,” the girl said.
“Are you ashamed?” the little goat said.
“It’s private,” the girl said, “what we’re doing.”
“This is a public place,” the little goat said.
“It’s a free country,” the little goat said.
“No it isn’t,” the boy said. (“The Little Goat”)
Though Ligon seems most interested in the picture of the world before it explodes. “The way things sometimes seem,” he writes in “A Prayer For My Neighbor’s Quick Painless Death,” “before they fall apart completely.” There is something beautiful in that space, perhaps because it’s neither here nor there, not yet consummated or consumed. It just exists. And so, too, do all the charged possibilities.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI has worked as a journalist, model, and actor. He teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and interdisciplinary studies at John Jay. His “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK and lives in Brooklyn.
BOOK REVIEW by NICK FULLER GOOGINS
WONDERLAND by Samuel Ligon, with artwork by Stephen Knezovich
(Lost Horse Press, 2016) $20, 78 pages
“Collage-like” is a term that finds an easy home in the short story collection review, but it’s more than well deserved in describing Samuel Ligon’s hauntingly lyrical, Wonderland. Each of the book’s thirteen surreal stories is accompanied by an equally dreamlike collage from artist Stephen Knezovich. The pairing of the written with the visual makes for a uniquely stark picture of fragmentation—of bodies and relationships both—using the context of a shadowy, dangerous American landscape to further upend the characters’ sense of displacement and unease.
Ligon is the author of the story collection, Drift and Swerve, which dips into the realm of gritty lumpen realism, and the novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, which contains a flair of noir. Wonderland is the child of these works in that it borrows stylistically from each while also charting an independent course into fabulist territory. Featured among the stories are a talking goat who coaches a young boy and girl through their first sexual adventure, a mother who breastfeeds adolescent twins on whiskey and butter, and a narrator who makes detailed blueprints for developing his intellectual property.
The eponymous introductory story is a first-person tale of a young runaway who joins the traveling carnival and falls hard for the bearded lady. It’s a well-chosen entry point into Wonderland, an opening shot that contains all the powerful minor chords which Ligon will strike again and again: heartache, confinement, otherness, disfigurement, loss of innocence. The story showcases Ligon’s prose, tight and fast-paced, sound in its ability to compress time while also drawing the eye to the tender and grotesque.
"I took a dip from her beard, then cut and salted her, licked her salty wound, and kissed her. And kept kissing her. When I woke in the morning, she was warm against me. I’d never known I could fit someone like that. All my trouble was behind, it seemed. We couldn’t imagine the ways we’d hurt each other down the road, all our suffering a million miles from the mystery we were grabbing after now.”
Blades, knicks, injury and blood are reoccurring images throughout the collection, making the pairing with Knezovich’s chosen medium all the more thematically appropriate. Knezovich’s collage featured alongside the introductory story is a mash-up of circus posters, advertisements and Technicolor photographs, old-timey images that could’ve been clipped from Eisenhower-era issues of Life magazine. Knezovich cuts, overlays, and reassembles slices of white, idyllic Americana in chilling ways that mimic the shattered lives of Ligon’s characters.
Wonderland is a slender volume; no story exceeds ten pages in length, and most clock in at half that, yet Ligon succeeds in offering full-bodied tale after full-bodied tale. (“Exxon, My Love,” is the outlier—entertaining political satire that belongs in an entirely different collection; its inclusion in Wonderland is perplexing.) The collection is able to accomplish so much in relatively so few pages thanks in part to Ligon’s ability to tiptoe the line between prose and poem, allowing for enormous compression while still maintaining a high-quality of language. The collection’s gem, “Down on the Ass Farm,” walks this line best. A nightmarish love story between a boy and girl who’ve spent their entire lives forced into bonded labor by a cult, the girl’s attempt at escape ends fatally for her and nearly as tragically for the boy, left alone to sort the memories and mistakes.
"Remember kissing and shaking in the spring night, how we never got snake bit or donkey kicked? When they brought your blue body home, they left me alone for two days to roll in the mud and wail. But they didn’t shoot me in the head, like they shot Butch when Priscilla had her stroke. He honked and hee-hawed for two days straight, never once leaving her dead donkey body, until Lance dropped him with a shot from his Browning T-Bolt. The silence that followed!”
Examined one way, Wonderland is a story collection with accompanying images. Presented another way: a series of thirteen collages with supplementary prose. The substantial inclusion of so much thematically-similar artwork in a collection risks drawing attention from the writing, but with Wonderland the gamble pays off. Knezovich’s collages, rather than overshadowing (or worse, propping up) Ligon’s prose, engage the writing in conversation. The written and visual speak the same language of the fragmented and the bizarre. The result is a truly unique artifact, a collage of darkly evocative storytelling that is not easily forgotten.
Nick Fuller Googins’ fiction has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Oxford American, The Common and elsewhere. He volunteers for the organization We Are Not Numbers.