REVIEW OF MATHIAS SVALINA’S I AM A VERY PRODUCTIVE ENTREPRENEUR
By Stephen Danos
The non-sequential prose in Mathias Svalina’s I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur, a novella published by Mud Luscious Press, successfully toes the line between Absurdist agnosticism and the overcompensation that accompanies severe and prolonged grief. I initially read the title as a sardonic jab at the seeming hollowness of self-congratulation. Upon completion of this book, the title took on a whole new meaning. This is not to say that his book is devoid of humor, but the core of the conflict in the life of Svalina’s serial entrepreneur is the acknowledgement of his dead son and in turn, his fractured identity and a need to create business after business in a hopeless attempt to overcome the tragedy.
I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur succeeds formally in straddling genres as well. The prose stays true to the music of poetry while building toward a cohesive, episodic narrative that adds texture to the speaker. Svalina is no stranger to this approach, and the follow-up to Destruction Myth—a collection of poems that stylishly play with the conceit of the creation myth poem, naturally leading to an apocalyptic finale—does not disappoint.
In the book, each poem begins with a refrain in all caps: “I STARTED THIS ONE BUSINESS.” Many of the poems detail father-son relationships, either in snapshot-like snippets or as the prose piece’s main narrative focus. Yet Svalina reminds us often that from dabbling in multiple realities—some abstract, some realistic—can produce a beautiful and fragmented self. Svalina leaves a bread crumb trail of the speaker’s loathing, which is simultaneously driven by capitalist enterprise and stripped of personal purpose.
But no matter how busy the character is, he cannot deny his perpetual sadness. A telling example occurs fairly early in the book, as he relays a “pro bono” business “that gave parents of deceased children a glassful of sugar-water each morning as they left their houses” (17). The sugar-water, of course, can never be “sweet enough,” despite the entrepreneur’s desire to lift the spirits of the bereaved.
The businesses range from companies that combine manmade structures and natural bodies (padlocks on clouds, human-shaped skyscrapers, stone wells inside people) to one that “takes Americans on tours of their own neighborhoods,” celebrating the endless and absurd senselessness that often accompanies cycles of self-congratulation and nostalgia (4).
One of the speaker’s businesses “sold parts of me to the highest bidder,” but it proves to be more than just an extremist organ donor. The speaker catalogs the sale of his intangible traits:
I sold my lack of faith to a young boy who’d been locked up by his religiously devoted father. I sold
my cynicism to a woman who’d been abused by all her boyfriends. I sold my sadness to a quiet old
man with expensively tailored clothes.
The speaker goes on to sell everything that makes him human, including his “pain” and his “capacity to love.”
Many of the businesses have comedic, surreal, or illogical premises, yet even the one that “inserts commas all over the place” emphasizes that the grammatical purpose of a comma is to pause, not to end a sentence (65). Another business “retrofit memories to include pilot lights,” ensuring that they “stay lit, even when you are away on vacation” (46). These two examples hammer home the speaker’s need to circumvent impermanence, to make it possible for others to at least cope with disaster as he states in an earlier piece:
There are so many ways to shut the self off from the world. With this business I wanted to
provide new ways of opening.
This moment best encapsulates the speaker, which leads to a confession in the final paragraph.
I had a five year old son for a while but soon enough he became a red fist—I would hold
him & then when I opened my eyes he was a well and we had to bury him in the ground.
You can know things in the spilling out of the body that you cannot know with your hands.
Simply drop the bucket in the mouth of the well & your work is done. The space you
occupy is not you, it is borrowed.
Svalina appropriately finishes off this collection with a piece that merges the unknowable and the speaker’s futility, common in Absurdist fiction, as a series of disconnections. He conceptualizes unrequited love as a metaphor about the relationship between a map and a glove compartment. Even though these objects are unfeeling, he adds a human touch to the sentiment as “one day there is a face at the door & the next only a door,” and “who do you turn to for the things that can’t be learned (67)?” The poignant prose pieces in I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur concurrently answer and obliterate that question, destroying me in only the way that masterful literature can.
Stephen Danos earned an MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, where he was the recipient of a Follett Fellowship and the Eileen Lannan Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio, Court Green, Lo-Ball, Bateau, and Juked.