Cameron McKenzie’s Top Five Hybrid Texts

In graduate school I was first introduced to hybrid texts – to books that stretched my understanding of what a book was for and what it could do. While initially very skeptical, I began to see that hybrid texts could deliver wonderful, surprising, and unexpected revelations in a mode that transcended linear narrative. It was like finding a new band that nobody knew about. It felt like my secret, and as I read these books, I didn’t want to slow down and intellectualize what the book was doing, instead (in a reading experience rare for me) I was excited to just let the book happen. Most of the texts here use the hybrid form to dramatize a search for meaning and to interrogate received truth, but chiefly I think these books are able to breathe life into raw experiences that could be too easily blunted by more traditional forms of writing. -Cameron McKenzie

1) Coming Through Slaughter (House of Anansi Press, 1976)

Before Michael Ondaatje was a world-renowned novelist he wrote a handful of works that straddle the line between the narrative and the aesthetic. This small book chronicles the tragic life of Buddy Bolden, an obscure trumpeter from New Orleans who presaged Louis Armstrong and laid the foundations not only for jazz, but for Black American artistry. Fusing a combination of poetry, photographs, speculative narration, and even sound graphs, Ondaatje illuminates a forgotten moment in American history that helped give birth to the world we know.

2) Empire of Signs (Macmillan, 1983)

A classic. Philosopher Roland Barthes goes to Japan in 1966 with a simple question: what is this place? Barthes’s search for answers quickly turns back on himself: his past, his preconceptions, even his methods of collecting knowledge. While that approach was novel at the time and not quite novel anymore, what sets this book apart is Barthes rich and insightful exploration of the ineradicable “Japan” he finds in everything from city maps, to the theater, to origami. For all the insistence that there is no reality outside of our perception, Barthes’s Japan can’t help but flare surreally into life.

3) The Yage Letters Redux (City Lights, 2006)

William Burroughs famously tried to escape his heroin addiction for decades and was ready to try anything and everything to kick. Between 1953 and 1960, both he and Ginsberg took several trips to Mexico and South America in pursuit of yage—ayahuasca—and the supposed mind-opening properties the drug could provide. This book consists of letters and drawings the two men sent one another in those years, and infinitely more interesting than the inevitable experience itself (and Ginsberg’s predictable cosmic-yogi reflections) are the personalities that emerge: Ginsberg self-consciously playing the sweet and yearning boy to Burroughs’s cold and disappointed romantic. And Burroughs’s take on the metaphysical trip itself that closes the book is an ecstatic vision more in line with a Borgesian hive of mirrors than Ginsberg’s holy holy holy.

4) Hunting Lieutenant Chadbourne (University of Georgia Press, 1993)

What history is, what the past means, where meaning resides and who is its proprietor are the central questions of this hard-to-find but exquisite book. Tasked with writing a short essay on a forgotten soldier from the Mexican-American War, Jim Corder dutifully takes on the challenge, publishes his piece, and then spends the rest of the book questioning not only the accuracy of his work, but the bourgeois precepts that let him so easily wallpaper over the truth. Written in the late 1980s, this book wrestles with the implications of continental theories of writing from a concretely American perspective, but the real heroes here are the solitary women Corder meets who are scattered across the Texas wilderness. These museum curators and librarians and widows have dedicated their lives to preserving and curating the snatches of photograph and cloth and paper that allow such a thing as a fact to exist.

5) Fears of Your Life (Manic D Press, 2004)

Michael Loggins is a writer in San Francisco who produced this book at Creativity Explored, a collective for artists with developmental disabilities. The entries of this book, which catalogue Loggins’s fears, ranging from bats to Christmas to stop lights, spark a rare level of insight, tenderness, and resonant emotional power. Written in Loggins’s hand and accompanied by his sketches, these lists are able to conjure the sense of walking around an unimaginable city in Loggins’s own permeable skin:

133: Fear is like this: someone like a woman that you grab a hold of her hand and going down the escalator when of a sudden you happens to be holding a stranger hand not realizing that she isn’t your mother is scary. 

Cameron MacKenzie was born in Virginia and has worked as a dry cleaner, doorman, house painter, farm hand, contractor, editor and teacher, residing in Santa Barbara, London, Tokyo, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and now Virginia once again, where he lives with his two children. Follow him on Facebook. his collection River Weather releases December 7th with Alternating Current Press.

ABOUT RIVER WEATHER: As the D.C. city sprawl moved west along the banks of the Potomac in the late 1990s, what had once been a rural backwater was rapidly transformed into a dystopian suburbia of suspicion, greed, and naked self-interest. This collection examines the resulting blends of money, race, and class that have come to define the ongoing metamorphosis of Northern Virginia. In “Kalim Mansour,” a boy trying to understand his father fixates on a mysterious Saudi car salesman. In “Rowdy,” a man who was sexually assaulted by his high school football team still romanticizes their masculine code of behavior. In “A Non-Smoking House,” two contractors battle the realtors who control their livelihood as the ties that bind civil behavior pull tight, and then snap. Each of MacKenzie’s stories explores the incommensurable moments that lie at the heart of shared experience, the yawning gaps that separate us, and our desperate attempts to close them.

“The stories in ‘River Weather’ manage to be both sensitive and transgressive, socially conscious and hard-edged. MacKenzie captures with exquisite detail the challenges of being a man in a world that’s gone to hell, coping with irresistible urges and impossible expectations. Like the work of Palahniuk and Ellis, these stories are riveting and bleed tensile masculinity. Crisp and hard-hitting, this book will leave you breathless.”

—Cliff Garstang, author of ‘What the Zhang Boys Know’

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