So You Know It’s Me
Tiny Hardcore Press, June 2011
This post was written by Kim Liao.
A good piece of experimental nonfiction is hard to find: Creative nonfiction writers experiment rarely, and when they do, the result is often too tentative or too filled with clever gimmicks privileging form over function. Experimentation falls flat when it doesn’t match the purpose of a piece.
Luckily, Brian Oliu’s masterful first book So You Know It’s Me avoids these potential pitfalls, in a stunning example of experimental artistry. The premise is simple and whimsical: you know Craigslist? Well, Oliu went on the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Craigslist page and posted all of these pieces as “Missed Connections” over the course of 45 days. The resulting book collects all 22 lyric essays in a collection that builds small moments into a larger arc of longing.
Riffing on conventions of “missed connections” personals ads, Oliu references the genre playfully: “Darling, in a sea full of crimson, you were the most crimson”; “If you know who I am, tell me what I was reading”; “Your stereo is on—you are singing along with the words to a song that I do not know, a song that I will never know. You could be singing in French.”
But Oliu transcends his personal ad form, offering a haunting, philosophically speculative poetic collage on the idea of a missed connection—to miss someone; to have missed someone; to miss the very idea of someone. Each piece takes advantage of its physical location to recast the object of the narrator’s desire. In a video-game shop, she takes on superhuman qualities; in the bookstore, she is an intellectual, spiritual equal; on campus, she is a classmate whom he asked to borrow a pen.
Oliu is at his most moving, however, when he directly questions the nature of this subjunctive tense, how one comes to identify as the subject or object of a missed connection. In the piece, “M4W-22-Craigslist M4W,” this refrain anchors the book like a heartbeat, pulsing echoes throughout the rest of the text:
“Make no mistake, this is about you. This is about you, sitting there, reading this. This is about you, touching the keyboard, reading this. This is about artifice—this is about you knowing that this isn’t about you. But make no mistake, this is about you. It has always been about you. It has always been about you reading this, even though you have never read this, even though you are reading this for the first time.”
All of this makes Oliu’s experimental approach feel truly warranted to me, as the form exposes a new side of the subject. He does it so well he leaves me speechless to critique—and glad to appreciate the beauty of his writing, both true and truly artful.
Kim Liao is a 2010-2011 Fulbright Research Fellow. Her nonfiction has appeared in Fourth River, Hippocampus, Fringe Magazine, and others. Her essays were also short-listed for awards by Bellingham Review and Fourth Genre. She is currently finishing her first book, Girl Meets Formosa, a family memoir and adventure story. You can find out more about her writing projects at GirlMeetsFormosa.com.