Pretty Things
Susan Compo
(Verse Chorus Press)

I'm always intrigued when an author with past success goes to a smaller press for the freedom to publish something unconventional. Susan Compo, whose two books of short stories (Life After Death and Malingering) were good enough to garner praise from critics and get her a job teaching the craft at the University of Southern California, is happy with her first novel being published by Portland's Verse Chorus Press.

Pretty Things is a carefully-woven tale starring a cast of characters that are all searching for that crack of bright light known as fame. Giselle is the impendingly broken-hearted, but savvy, talent agent. Her roster includes spoiled child stars, a Tupperware salesman, and a country singer, who orders restaurant food in a cryptic, hick-style slang ("burn one, take it through the garden, and pin a rose on it."). The early focus of the story though is a '70s glam-rock hanger-on named Pandra. She gives her memoir to Giselle, who becomes haunted by its allusion to the possible murder of a mysterious rock star. Compo includes 78 pages of this tale, which comes just 10 pages into the novel. It's fairly disorienting at first, but quickly you become engrossed in these particular characters--regular scenesters from a TV dance show, surfer boyfriends, and groupies. Pandra's story is in a third-person narrative, making Giselle wonder if she's hiding something (like, for instance, a body).

Compo glides back into the main story with skill, and from there it becomes a swirl of action. The country singer hits it big and runs off with a girl from the band Glee Club, the Tupperware guy hits on Giselle, and a pair of kidnappers ironically find themselves in possession of a willing hostage. Compo's story gets away from her at times, and characters sometimes disappear in the thread of subplots, but Compo's talent is conveying the smart, sassy side of her leading ladies. When asked about the joy of climax, one woman says, "Come? Coming's a confidence trick, like throwing your voice." Even better are the thoughts of Giselle, whose lightning-quick assessments and criticisms are worthy of a Lorrie Moore creation.

I tracked down Compo's e-mail address and asked her a few questions.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for your new book since it's on a smaller press?

There is the obvious disadvantage of a smaller publisher's limited resources, but it's balanced by a responsive and personal approach. I think they were willing to take a chance with the book's unusual structure, and they let me do things like pursue a potential blurbster, who would really not benefit the book in any direct way (the person in question was one of the UK's few literary soccer players). I have friends with books out now from larger presses, and their travails are the same, if not worse.

Were you a glam rock fan?

I was, from afar. I'd like to say I was too young, but there were certain people younger than me on the scene. In fact, I was too far, physically and mentally, and was busy surfing in Orange County. I did a zine a few years later but it was devoted to punk rock.

How long have you been at USC?

About a decade ago, I studied in USC's writing program as a grad student, taking classes with Hubert Selby, Jr. and John Rechy, among others. Two years ago, the director asked me to come back and teach. I have really enjoyed it although I think it's somewhat ridiculous, seeing my name alongside a legend like Hubert Selby.

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