Reviewed by Toni Woodruff
An intoxicating whirlwind of feverish notes from a coke-addicted social worker
Autofiction is a gentle beast. Sure, the narrator of this collection of notes & anecdotes might be named Michael Keen, but slap the words “a novel” on the cover, and you can get away with some pretty questionable stuff.
In Notes from the Trauma Party, the questionable stuff takes center stage.
Keen is a social worker with a goal (and surprising talent for) helping mentally ill people. As readers, we receive notes—jumping forward, backward, and kind of all over the place in time—that include segments with those mentally ill people as well as girlfriends, fellow writers, and those notes written just for himself, trying to piece together what everyday moments mean when they feel like nothing but also like everything.
Keen is a rapid-fire philosopher, able to whip off big-thinking ideas about what his and other’s lives mean amidst the smallest moments in his life. Because this book is a collection of notes, it’s terrifically easy to pick up and breeze through at your leisure, without needing to remember where you left off or where you plan on going from here. Scenes are acutely described, and dialogue is sharp, but no sentence is bloated or unnecessary. A note is a note is a note. They all exist for existence’s sake, trying to make sense of the trauma party he calls life. The book is funny and dark; the voice cuts a line. Fans of Kevin Maloney and Ben Lerner will find a lot to enjoy in this book.
What fuels this novel most? It’s gotta be the cocaine. And so much of it. A lot of writers and writing students and writing teachers and the rest of the people in Keen’s MFA are confident that a character has to be chasing something in order for a book to move forward, but I wouldn’t say that’s the reason Keen is on his never-ending search for another line. It’s more so that the guy is an addict, willing to make the worst of his decisions to get it.
There are times when I wished we went in search of something a bit more than cocaine, realizations or truths or what have yous. We are set up for a story of a guy getting his life together, or at least learning more about how to, but over time we lose hold of that narrative as Keen’s focus zeroes in primarily on the next white line on the bathroom sink. It takes on the form of an addiction memoir, one about never quite succeeding in the face of trying, but maybe it’s also about not trying. Maybe that’s the point, but it does mean we get an occasional flat-line narrative because of it.
Notes from the Trauma Party is a flurry of a read. It comes down hard (and in white) and might be one of the best nighttime e-reads I’ve consumed in some time. It’s easy to pick up, put down, get lost in, and finish in a matter of days. I probably should have been sleeping, and Keen probably should have been too, but at least we both have this weirdly good book out of the experience.
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