Random Book Review: Gum by Rebecca Rom-Frank

(OSR, 2017)

Ryan admired the book. His publishing background gave him distinct insight on the details, particularly the editorial and pre-press production side of things, and Gum, the debut collection of short stories by Rebecca Rom-Frank,[1] held his attention before he even opened it. While never really a believer in the book/cover judgment thing, he felt this was a good omen. It looked like a good book.

The trim was 5 x 7ish, and the cover stock was nice and tactile, no gloss varnish for Gum. A screw-up at the printer, based in New Orleans, resulted in some of the pages printing on a discolored paper, a nice touch, it turned out in the end, and a stamp of DIY pride – like those old Sebadoh tapes recorded straight to four-track, Gum’s rough edges added to its charm. Ryan thought to himself, I’ll have to look into this Risograph machine – not that I’ll ever print anything on it, but it sounds interesting…

Ryan glanced at the contents and realized that the first story, The Nineteen-Seventies, was one he’d already read as a sample on OSR’s website. OSR had shuttered its operations early in 2017. Its label head, Zach Phillips, was busy touring with his band, Jepetto Solutions, in support of oddball popstars of Montreal – a great gig by any measure. Curious to see if the label’s web presence was completely wiped, Ryan did a quick online search, and there it was, still, but its front page featured links pointing away from it rather than within it. “It will return in 2018,” it said, “less as a label than a lab.” Whatever that meant, Ryan was intrigued, making a mental note to check back in 2018, making another mental note that suggested he’ll have forgotten to do so in the near future.

Something nagged at Ryan, and he looked back on the contents page – it was a verso![2] Everything he’d learned from the Chicago Manual of Style went right out the window – as far as he was concerned, all bets were off with Gum. There were no rules. This extended to the back cover of the book, where, instead of a description of it, a ridiculous and seemingly half-assed attempt at cover copy appeared, certain to cause the collective fainting of marketing departments everywhere: “quote from the book blah blah blah … etc etc etcetc.” And then: “text about something.” Ryan’s eyes lit up, visions of early slapdash Pavement seven-inches dancing in his head, and in a moment where giddiness trumped self-control, he blurted aloud to no one in particular, “This is brilliant!”

As Ryan opened the book and began to read, a sense of DIY cool and urban ennui permeating each story, he was struck by how of-the-city the narratives were. Indeed, The Nineteen-Seventies itself was a tale of the absurd lengths to which modern artists go to express themselves, here turning to (literal) clowning as an outlet and freaking out a wide-eyed newbie in the process. The style was intensely declarative, fitting for the short works, each story at arm’s length from the reader. Rom-Frank allowed the quirkiness of the content to exist without much commentary on its actual quirkiness, and for this the text benefitted, insulated against those not in on the secret yet spry enough to evince chuckles from even the most walled-off readers. Ryan certainly wasn’t a city dweller, and had not been since a brief (and wonderful) year in London, but it wasn’t difficult to enter Gum’s world. And with Turds, who could resist a good poop joke, even if story itself ping-ponged through thornier issues (albeit with a satirist’s wicked eye)?

Closing the book, Ryan was struck by the similarities in mood and worldview to Noah Baumbach’s film Francis Ha, starring Greta Gerwig as the titular character. There was an aloofness to the character that seemed to have permeated Gum, or at least informed it in some way. Ryan wondered if he was simply reading that into the text, his limited experiences of life in the city – in particular his lack of knowledge firsthand or otherwise of the female experience therein – coloring his take on these fictional, and often absurd, accounts. Naturally, a little voice nagged inside his mind, pointing out that if he didn’t enjoy the book on its own, what was the point anyway? Good point, little voice, Ryan thought, and immediately began paging through the book again looking for his favorite passages. Because, in the end, he just wanted something to entertain him for a bit, and he preferred the company of books. Gum turned out to be a good companion.

[1] Full disclosure: Rebecca’s orbit and mine within the publishing world often cross, and I’ve worked with her on several occasions.

[2] Verso pages are the left pages of a book, recto are on the right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s