Jaded Ibis Press, pp. 196
Cost: $9.99 for the App
$15.00 for paperback
The psychiatrists were left scratching their heads. They could not understand how such a polite person who seemed together could commit such a heinous crime. They walked away empty-handed. From the time a reader encounters the first sentence in Alexandra Chasin’s Brief, “I have requested an oral argument because I’d like to try, if I may, why my representation and I have chosen this defense, uncommon though it is, and why I would take issue with the psychiatrists’ findings,” he knows there is something wrong. Our narrator seems a little off and eventually we understand why. But at the heart of Brief is a narrator who is trying to change our outlook on how we perceive other people.
Reading Brief is an experience unlike any other. It is the first book that can be downloaded as an interactive app that changes with every read and reread of each page. The pages inside are littered with torn magazine images that feel as though they came from the '60’s. If you flip forward a page, but then need to go back again to re-read, the page you have just left is not the same. The images have changed and so has the layout. Each new read will be a different experience for the reader. This idea of book construction is so unique that it is sure to be soon copied.
At the start of Brief, Chasin’s narrator gives clues to where she is taking us. She starts with an oral argument to begin explaining her psychiatrist’s findings. According to her they came up with, “bupkus.” Our narrator gives us reasoning as to why she thinks she vandalized a work of art. While many others would blame it on the parents, or her childhood friends, she blames it on the changing times of her youth.
Our narrator tells us that she has been called the “High Art Killer” and “Cuckoo Connoisseur” for vandalizing a piece of Andy Warhol’s work. She says that the vandalism was born out of other art vandals, such as Laszlo Toth and Mary Richardson, who didn’t so much inspire her, but their earlier actions shaped her into what she is today. In a way they created her, much like images on the TV of Vietnam did and the revolutions of the '60’s that she was born into. However, it is a parallel relationship with her best friend Winnie that shapes her life and our narrator’s story.
“Maybe the question isn’t why I would vandalize a great work of art,” the narrator says, “maybe the question should be why I wouldn’t strap on an AK-47 and stride right into a McDonalds and open fire?” She blames some of her troubles on her constant cases of eczema, seborrhea, and psoriasis, but she never once blames her parents. The narrator goes out of her way to show us that she had a regular upbringing and that her parents did everything they could to raise her right. Our narrator says that her only downfall is her over-education. Throughout her argument, she wants to confuse the reader.
The confusion is designed specifically to make the reader, her judge, think. Our narrator notes early on the difference between “real” and “implied” authors and “reliable” and “unreliable” narrators. So is our narrator unreliable? According to her she is. But she wants to change how we view people based on others' opinions. We are all quick to point to the psychoanalytical findings of doctors. We think they must be right in their findings. But our narrator questions all of their findings and methods, explaining that it wasn’t her parents that made her this way.
Winnie’s history, along with the narrator’s, is plotted on a timeline throughout the book. The narrator gives us insight into how they were born on the same day, grew up together, and eventually how our narrator fell in love with Winnie. Winnie, although she had the same feelings for our narrator, decides that they cannot be together because of many reasons, including the friendship between their parents. Winnie soon after joins the military while our narrator goes to college to study art.
While away at school our narrator studies and misses out on most of the young adult experiences that her friends are having, all the while she thinks about Winnie. They write each other as their lives are moving away from the parallel and into different directions. Soon though, the letters stop and our narrator finds out that Winnie has died during a military exercise. This leads the narrator into an “A to Z path of emotions” as she tries to deal with Winnie’s death. This could be the moment that turned our narrator insane, but she gives us quite a few other reasons behind her vandalism.
“By my parents' report, I spent a lot of time laughing at blank walls.” Maybe, even as a child, she hated the idea of art and enjoyed the emptiness of the blank walls. She soon brings us back into the present, saying, “Now the captioneers call me the “Museum Masher”, and they wonder why, what could possess a person to do the things I’ve done. Why, they wonder, am I incapable of watching an entire television show from beginning to end; why I must change channels as soon as I’ve arrived at a show I like, possessed by the fear that I might be missing an even better show that began four five six seven minutes before? Why at 23 past every hour do I throw the remote against the wall? Why do I bungee jump without a helmet? Why are my pipe dreams pyramidal?” Our narrator is only giving us more questions and adds her answer: “Because art, that’s why, the art of all of the above.”
Our narrator goes to great lengths to confuse the judge, the reader. She wants us to feel like we are getting a look into why she vandalized the work of art, but she does not come right out and say why she did it at first. She wants to take us on a roller coaster ride of emotion. The whole idea of the oral argument, or confession, is to shed light on the reasoning, but it only adds more pieces to the overall puzzle. The narrator drops little clues here and there that attentive readers will pick out. During a lengthy explanation of why various art vandals do what they do, the narrator keeps referring to the vandals as “he/she” or “him/her”. She slips up for one sentence, stating, “Often, she thinks she is acting as an artist,” and the next sentence she goes back to using “they”. So does our narrator think she is an artist? That’s what she tells the group of students on a field trip who watch her perform the act. She spray paints, “KILL LIES ALL” across the painting in big red letters, and finally she calls it “temporary insanity.”
But that isn’t enough for the reader. It doesn’t feel like the book has ended. It only feels like we need to go back and reread the entire oral argument over again. Once the final sentence rings out to end the story the satisfaction does not immediately come. It leaves the readers scratching their heads and unable to understand how such a polite person who seemed together could commit such a heinous crime. Chasin brilliantly litters the narrator’s intentions piece by piece throughout the argument and leaves it up to the reader to decide where the true motivation lies, and that’s what makes this story worth the second and third reading. That second and third reading, however, will be a completely different experience for the reader with new layouts, pictures, and maybe even a different perspective on the ending.