Becca Yenser on Reading Brian Phillip Whalen’s SEMIOTIC LOVE [STORIES]

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” So writes Joan Didion in her book, The White Album.

That statement holds true for Semiotic Love [Stories], in which Brian Phillip Whalen meticulously records his losses like a man trying to save his life. In a series of vignettes, Whalen transmits signals of grief like a whale singing underwater. Just as grief comes in waves, so does this prose. Semiotic Love [Stories] is a rare occurrence where the mode and the subject perfectly reflect each other—like a winter sky above a lake (or a lake in the sky). And while these are micro stories, the prose is often poetry wearing a Hypercolor lavender trench coat: it changes color the more you touch it.

A slim, peripatetic volume, Whalen’s fiction debut, Semiotic Love [Stories], uses a frame narrative. It is divided into three parts: Parts I and III revolve around various stories of loss and affection between family and friends, while Part II is a hyper analysis of a singular love gone wrong. The first and third are somewhat linked, with familiar characters. These flash fictions are peppered with one-sentence thoughts or overheards, which lend an air of absurdity and humor to the gravity of the longer pieces.

In Part I, we meet a child with one testicle, a young couple in Paris, a dog we need to kill, and a father who fought in Vietnam. Whalen’s breadth is wide, but the common denominator here is humanity. His protagonists are living in the moment, which is all you can ask from your characters. There is a vibrancy and lust for life that drips from every page.

Importantly, we meet the sister early on, and come to know her in a tender vignette that exposes her passion for photography and her struggle with addiction. Whalen acrobatically navigates huge swaths of time, then ruthlessly brings us back to the now. In “Exposure,” he deftly paints the scene of familial hopelessness when he writes, “But she only took one photograph: a blurry image composed of the dog’s nose, the corner of the coffee table, a crooked expanse of hardwood floor.”

Whalen bargains with pain through symbols and words. Part II, the title’s namesake, employs a mathematical model to help describe the unraveling of a romantic relationship. Whalen introduces us to the “constitutive model,” also known as a semiotic square. Each vignette (of which there are six) is precluded by a variant of the semiotic symbol. We are offered snapshots of moments between the two, and these small scenes are relayed from one of four angles: him, her, not him, and not her. The section is written partially in mathematical terms, with certain words in parentheses, and other words squared. The meta bit of all this is that in one of these scenes, she explains the model to him, which he finds “Pure {nonsense}.” The overall effect is to feel overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated. In other words, like a jilted lover.

At turns lyrical and plainly written, Whalen skillfully captures the unpredictable waves of loss. This deliberate play between sentimentality and objectivity is evident in the story, “Dog,” which begins:

The drive to Alabama took us thirteen hours. We started in snow, and ended in rain. We stopped near Athens at a Country Inn. I’d make our reservations for the wrong week. It was January, a gray forecast. They had vacancies.

The dog slept between us in the bed.

Like flash fiction extraordinaire Amy Hempel, Whalen leaves out the most important parts, letting the reader fill in the rest. He boldly draws outlines, and invites us to color them in. Whalen can evoke an entire mood with just a few words:

Things were great at first. I bought her a stuffed hippopotamus from the Jewel-Osco.

It would be remiss to write a review of this book without mentioning the poetry. Have I mentioned the poetry? Many lines in Semiotic Love [Stories] refract like zen lyricism. One is reminded of the work by Kobayashi Issa, Bashu, or Ikkyu. In the opening story, “The Father Bell,” the narrator reads the Russian novelist Turganev, while his father swings in a hammock that faces a mountain and a river. Whalen goes into detail about his protagonist’s mother’s illness and the trees his father chops down, obsessively, to deal with his own grief. The paragraph is delightful, but the final two sentences take your breath away:

Nature kept encroaching. My father bought a chainsaw.

Here’s another one stolen from the passage above, “We started in snow, and ended in rain.” The sentence is self-contained in a circadian rhythm that is hard to teach and harder to write.

But beyond the gorgeous language, Semiotic Love [Stories] has a splendid narrative arc. In Part III, we are back to various stories about friends, lovers, and dads with shotguns. Behind the curtains, always, an unsustainable momentum builds. And then we arrive at the final story, the denouement, of the book.

“Una Vida Major” translates to “A Better Life.” The narrative begins with a younger brother visiting his sister in her destitute apartment. The sister has an ongoing drug addiction, and we know from previous stories that she often slips “between programs.” The jostling emotions of wariness and affection the brother has for her are palpable. He is disgusted by the dirtiness of her home but tries not to offend her by folding a napkin over rancid salad dressing. He hopes for the best but prepares his heart for disappointment. But for all the tragedy of his sister, we love her, too. We cherish her humor and her stubbornness. When Whalen’s narrator leaves the apartment with relief and fear, so do we. We see the clean hallway light and go towards it.

Ultimately, Whalen seeks to categorize and understand the losses of his protagonist, through mathematical analysis and an obsession with finding the truth by sifting through memory. This is reassuring. It’s comforting to have Whalen point out what went wrong, and how, and why that’s ultimately okay. Whalen sees the world with a compassionate gaze. You like him. While there is a raw edge to his writing that evokes Larry Brown or Denis Johnson, there is none of the misogyny. Tenderness fills the gaps.

You shouldn’t think of Semiotic Love [Stories] as a sad book, because while a major theme is grief (raising its many heads), the end result is an affirmation of life. This book hurts. It will hurt you. But you’re just grateful Whalen is delivering the tender punches.

Semiotic Love [Stories], by Brian Phillip Whalen. Austin, Texas: Awst Press, March 2021. 128 pages. $18.00, paper.

Becca Yenser is a writer living in Wichita, Kansas. They are the author of the poetry chapbook, Too High and Too Blue in New Mexico (Dancing Girl Press, 2018). Their work appears in HobartMadcap ReviewThe Nervous BreakdownDostoyevsky Wannabe, and FANZINE, and is forthcoming in No Contact Mag and X-R-A-Y. They’re working on a memoir.​

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