Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski

A review of the literary fiction short story collection Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski.

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Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski is definitely worth reading, and after reading it I am certain that it is not only for the Bukowski enthusiast. It’s a very entertaining read, and often concentrates on the small, tactile, comforting pleasures of life as a source of positivity.

Everyone makes up a story about the author whose work they’re reading, and although I suspect I may have fallen into a trap, I get the sense that Bukowski was a very sensitive man that had a very thick outer membrane.

There are lines that make Tales of Ordinary Madness, for example when Bukowski writes, “…there were some minor utility bills, and we clutched each other and the walls closed in. We made it.” However, lines like this are often directly juxtaposed with the vulgar and provocative. One gets the sense that Bukowski was quite keen to drive the point home that beauty exists alongside and within such concepts.

Everyone knows that the rule of good quality bleakness is that it is humorous, and Tales of Ordinary Madness is no exception. Even with the concepts of death, pain and visceral illness hanging over the book, it made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions.

Bukowski’s fame precedes him to such an extent that it’s easy to forget how naturally talented he was. The work is bright and sharp at its best, and anything by Bukowski is probably worth reading over most literature being published now. Conversely, I was also left wondering whether Tales of Ordinary Madness would have been published if it wasn’t written by Bukowski. Although the book is well-written, it’s hard to know what it is exactly; its form is loose, and what there is of its narrative is disjointed. Bukowski is the sort of author revered by first year university students, that’s now been given rock star status, so any piece of paper that he touched with a pen has now been published.

At one point, Bukowski writes, “I’m no beat,” but structurally there are similarities with the writing of the Beat Poets, whom one gets a sense that Bukowski kept a close eye on, particularly Burroughs and Kerouac. Just as one example, like these authors, there is a lack of traditional punctuation in this book and at points it reads like a diary.

This is a book that reinforces the idea that good writing is just a series of excellent ideas and sentences strung together. I think that poets writing novels is a great idea; they always—perhaps expectedly—do a poetic job of it, which makes prose so rich. Although it is a very different novel in many ways, (but has similarities in being a thinly-disguised memoir), I think of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, a very successful novel written by a poet.

Tales of Ordinary Madness is not perfect, however, and occasionally experiments with the surreal in a way that doesn’t work. The reader also really gets a sense of Bukowski’s ego within this book, and it’s worth noting that this is not as well formed as his other, more well-known books, such as Post Office. Occasionally this book is also embarrassing in ways that the reader gets a sense Bukowski didn’t intend, but that feel more like walking into someone on the toilet.

However, the greatest criticism that can be made is by far the racism and misogyny present within its pages. Bukowski constantly and feverishly writes out rape fantasies within this book. We are perhaps given a brief insight into why when he writes:

…everything’s a farce, don’t you see? if you go to the counter and try to buy a pack of smokes it will be 5 minutes before someone arrives. you feel raped-over 9 times before you get out of there.

Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski

Perhaps the rape fantasies that Bukowski obsesses over are in part an attempt to exorcise the feeling of being abused within his—or the characters’—existence.

As this book goes on, the shadow of death looms over the pages more and more; the voice or voices of the protagonist linger on the topic. However, amidst the bleakness in this book—which I suspect is a comfort to readers in a strange way because his work is removed enough for them to contemplate ruin and degeneracy without suffering it—there is hope. Occasionally this hope comes in the form of the protagonist’s rather touching relationship with his daughter, who is at one point referred to as “a miracle.”

This is a highly enjoyable book, as long as you’re not looking to find moral characters or concepts.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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