Jinnwoo’s Little Hollywood is an inventive, fun, and depressing collection of stories. Each short piece—none is longer than four pages—is written in the form of a script. The use of this form (which I can only remember seeing carried through an entire book one other time, in Darius James’s Negrophobia) distinguishes his stories from other stories of misfit twenty-somethings that have populated America since forever. I’m talking about all those searches for meaning and connection that ought to be doomed but turn out fine, especially if they go on a road trip, as in On the Road and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Jinnwoo’s collection is a good example of how an intelligent writer’s formal choice can help him breathe life into a dead horse of subject matter.
We can see this resuscitation in pieces like “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” whose main action recalls Sartre’s No Exit. In this piece, JESSICA (Jinnwoo gives all character names, screenplay-style, in all-caps) repeatedly attempts and fails to exit a waiting room.
Here the concentrating nature of the script form—including its layout and intense focus on the present moment—makes her come memorably alive. That’s because the form requires the dialogue to convey almost everything about JESSICA in a single exchange:
You can’t use that door. It’s a fire door.
JESSICA pushes on the door but it doesn’t open.
Bye, thank you.
You can’t use that door. It’s a fire door.
Is there a button? For the—
You can’t use that door. It’s a fire door. It’s a fire door.
Oh, sorry I didn’t hear you. Well I heard you, but I didn’t go in.
It’s a fire door.
It is a terrifying anxiousness that makes JESSICA unable to see the sign on the door and effectively unresponsive to the receptionist. We can imagine her wandering the grocery stores and apartment halls of her world, always simultaneously present and absent, always afraid of making a mistake, her fear inevitably leading her to do just that. She is a familiar bag of anxieties, a common subject of internet articles regarding the problems of young people today.
Although Jinnwoo regularly uses the script form to create similarly intense and clarifying spotlights on other characters, he is never fully bound to it. Before this story’s dialogue are several paragraphs of setting that would be cut from a standard screenplay. There we see Jessica holding her hands inside of her sleeves, intensely aware of people looking at her and grading her ability to walk. Following the dialogue is a brief fantasy in which JESSICA imagines herself as a corpse on a rowboat. In the wonderfully elaborate and italicized backstory to that fantasy, on a boat far from shore, sea birds peck at JESSICA’s corpse. The setting, fantasy, and backstory accent the dialogue, suggesting JESSICA’s helplessness in both real life and fantasy.
Jinnwoo’s attractively flexible approach to form appears in a variety of ways throughout the collection: as jumps ahead in time and space, as lengthy descriptions of both action and background figures, as omniscient narration describing a range of activities and people in relation to another corpse (named DAISY).
JESSICA and DAISY mirror each other, and those two mirror many, if not all, of Jinnwoo’s protagonists, including talk-show guest GOOSE in “Gordon’s Show;” salesman-type (not even he knows what he does for a living) RABBIT in “Check Behind You;” party attendee CLOWN in “Circus Party.” Each of them avoid, desire, and simulate interactions with someone, though the person they would really like to interact with is elsewhere. It is, of course, unlikely that they would interact with that absent person if they had the chance. The similarity between these characters flattens them, but it does not dehumanize them. It brings their depressing humanity to the fore.
Yet Jinnwoo’s work is not entirely depressing. His brand of light, dry humor is highlighted in his stories of the future. These stories are not exactly hopeful, but they are definitely not dystopic. They are my favorite stories in this collection, and my favorite among them is “The Last Problem,” a piece in which all of humanity’s problems are solved, so politicians pander not to people but to pigeons. I don’t know if I’ve read a more pleasing satire since George Saunders’s early work, and it’s all the more pleasing because it’s a page long.
Also fun are the paper dolls interspersed between the scripts. The book instructs readers to assemble an actor and let them audition one of Jinnwoo’s scripts. You can accessorize them with items from the “Prop Store” in the back of the book. There is headwear (including a turkey, an umbrella hat, and a king’s crown that might have been ripped off from King Friday, for those of you who remember The Land of Make-Believe), a stuffed seagull, and a hairbrush that is labeled a microphone (the word “hairbrush” is parenthesized beside that label).
The dolls are, expectably, mixes of misery and humor. You cannot help but smile grimly at poor Pop. He is lightly muscled; has a tattoo of a different man’s name on each shoulder; sports a ridiculous beard and even more ridiculous pilot’s goggles, which he’s turned up like a hair band; wears hoop earrings, a turquoise tank top, pink short shorts and socks and flip-flops; and a friendship bracelet that he probably made for himself. He and his fellow dolls flamboyantly and wretchedly stare out of the page. In some ways, that stare feels like an accusation: Who are you looking at? But it feels mostly like disbelief: You’re looking at me? Really?
Little Hollywood’s inventiveness shines best in the interplay between doll and script. Jinnwoo’s characters (already false) are turned into parts in a script (also false), and those parts are to be played by paper dolls (false again). But the sum of this falsity is an authentic vision. The lives of Jinnwoo’s characters/roles/dolls are neither singular nor distinct. They share these lives. Many of us do too. No road trip can save them. A road trip isn’t even an option. What a nightmare. Get this book.
Little Hollywood: A Collection of Scripts & Paper Doll Actors, by Jinnwoo. Minneapolis, Minnesota: 11:11 Press, April 2020. 168 pages. $24.95, paper.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.