Don’t Smell the Floss: Healthy Social Boundaries as an Obstacle to Fiction
Upon learning I’d be reviewing his book, Matty Byloos found me on Facebook. Our online introduction, sudden and brief, sparked a mild panic attack the likes of which I haven’t encountered since flying the unfriendly skies in a rickety twin-engine. Turbulence is a bitch, but it’s no match for the kindness of strangers, one of whom lent me his hand to pulverize mid-flight as our plane convulsed over the Rockies.
Strangers are good for near-death experiences.
For all I knew this Matty Byloos character was a complete maniac and, upon accepting his “friendship,” I’d willingly granted him unlimited access to my photos, my random quiz results and fondness for the phrase, “That’s what she said.”
Why did I let my guard down?
Well, it helps to understand where Byloos is coming from. A proficient multi-tasker whose talents include not only writing but painting, music and search engine optimization (yes, he has a day job and, he says, far from leeching his creative energy, it frees his mind of that incessant worry—“How will I make rent?”), the Los Angeles-based author released his work through Write Bloody, a micro-publishing company whose clients retain publishing rights, edit their own material and are charged with marketing/promoting individual titles. Like 99.9 percent of all indie-rock bands, Write Bloody’s scribes find their audience on the road—and the Internet. To succeed, you must put yourself out there, no matter how awkward the initial reaching out.
If Byloos had his druthers, everyone—not just Write Bloody authors or DIY musicians—would hurl themselves into uncomfortable situations. Byloos wants the reader to take risks. He wants us to pause, see things differently and face head-on that which makes us cringe, gag, run away—and of course the best way to approach this challenge is to bypass our comfort zones and break with traditional social norms, as his characters do to varying extremes.
Separated into two sections, Don’t Smell the Floss kicks off a series of 14 stories with a bittersweet tale of Apotemnophilia, or “amputation love.” As we learn, the condition is rooted in paranoid delusion. In fact, the character works to identify the root of his obsession by sifting through childhood milestones—a minor birth defect corrected in his teens but perhaps responsible for subsequent attempts at permanent self-injury. After much prevaricating, the character receives a letter from his stump explaining that, while it understands his decision to break things off, it is disappointed nonetheless.
In less capable hands, giving voice to a detached limb might lead to a cloying pile of quirk, but Byloos establishes a wonderfully surreal tone similar to that captured in works by Aimee Bender and Benjamin Weissman, authors Byloos openly admires. Certain passages in Floss also bring to mind Chuck Palahniuk and Miranda July’s treatment of the human condition.
Byloos creates his fictional world by observing, absorbing and regurgitating his personal experiences and the goings on around him, pillaging the past until random chunks coalesce as bedfellows. The most heightened example of this type of fractured narrative is “Recent Episodes in an Ever-Expanding Birdland,” which at first seems to be a result of trance-induced automatic writing and likely to confuse some consternated readers. “Birdland” is in actuality an attempt to make sense of recurring memories: a lewd Halloween costume, a radio show with fake guests and a fellow childhood summer-camper with kitty-shaped teeth.
Throughout the collection, Byloos picks apart characters’ brains and crafts scenarios that, while often bizarre and absurd, always contain a universal truth: this is how it feels to watch two men fuck a woman for money; this is what it feels like to expose your soul to a strange woman on the bus, who in another lifetime might have been your trusted friend—your lover, even—but who is neither and never will be.
Lovers, though, can grow as distant as strangers as in “We Control the Plot at Dangersby (How Our Relationship Falls Apart),” about a couple whose dysfunctional connection hinges on taking turns telling the story of an imagined serial killer whose actions dictate their fate. (Hint: it doesn’t end well.) The Dangersby narrator observes, “Now, when we write our story, it’s more like dreaming, when a person’s head tries to clean house during the night, kind of based on whatever shit they’ve seen that day.”
Writing is, of course, a type of mental purging. It can also be an effective way to dig our way out of safe, sterile routines. “I think there is something beautiful or meaningful to be found in everything, not just the obvious places,” Byloos says. “Smelling the floss, in reality, is this visceral, awful experience, but it’s real—there’s no ‘internet’ equivalent, shorthand or Cliff’s Notes.”
For all its absurdities, Floss remains utterly relatable. By carrying a series of ‘what if’s’ far beyond their logical conclusions, Byloos is able to describe realities of our emotional landscape that might otherwise go unarticulated. He takes universal insecurities and blows them out of proportion, as in “Ohne Titel (Der Punkt),” which centers on a horrifying spot that mars one man’s foot and, consequently, his entire state of being. Then there is bear-man, a sasquatch-type figure navigating a relationship with his tiny, perfect girlfriend but thwarted at every turn by his massive amounts of hair. These flaws are simply exaggerated versions of our love handles, acne and bald spots.
It’s damn near impossible to draw a single line connecting the stories in this collection but several themes reappear throughout: insecurity, paranoia, loneliness, desperation, intense curiosity, communication breakdowns and lack of social boundaries.
Don’t Smell the Floss deserves to be read—closely, perhaps repeatedly—to discover just how far one is willing to go to accept his challenge.