Paul Ash 's What I Think About When I Go to the Job
reviewed by david kraut
If you look for the eye in this hurricane of a book, chances are you won't find it. At least I didn't. But somewhere amid the narrator's dream-state meetings with God (who sports J.C. Penny jeans), psychoactive trips through Cantonese fish houses, lonely stays in crusty motels, painfully pubescent Bar Mitzvah memories, booze-buzzed walks in a New York City singed by 9/11, and cyclical but unpredictable drug-influenced thought patterns, you will find something that speaks to you with undeniable force. So much is packed into the slim volume that I can't say what specifically will slap your individual mind and you probably wouldn't care what grabbed my ear and has yet to let go, but I can promise that if you've spent some time thinking about the storm swirling around our heads (and chances are, if you're still reading this, you have) this book is worth your while.
What I Think About When I Go to the Job is a collection of five monologues that have been written and performed by Paul Ash. While there is no discernable plot that drives or connects the monologues, they all revolve around the engaging and funny personal histories of the narrator. Also, despite their adaptability for the stage, this printed comprehensive version offers a reading experience of a much more literary than theatrical nature. Ash's writing reflects the influences of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Bukowski, while maintaining a fresh, contemporary originality that resonates with a new generation of thinkers. This new audience exists in a much different reality than those who exclaimed over Howl and Naked Lunch; we now live among a slew of mood-altering prescription (but easily illegally obtainable) drugs, in a post 9/11 culture of fear, and on a planet so instantaneously interconnected, waiting for anything more than 3 minutes can seem unthinkable. Ash is acutely aware of these cultural determinants, commenting, "Baseline has shifted. Nothing is dangerous anymore." The final product of his rambling, sharp, style is a streaming narrative tailored to hit home for readers enmeshed in this recently upgraded version of social chaos.
Yet, the impact of this book reaches far beyond the specific time and space of today. In fact, one of the most prevalent underlying themes of What I Think About is the subjective and relative nature of our concept of "Time." Ash introduces the fourth monologue with a Burroughs quote that points to this confusing and fascinating feature of our brains: "We face death all of the time, and for that time we are immortal." While most of us consciously or unconsciously believe that the earth and sun exist according to an objective reality and therefore so does our concept of time, since it is based on the behavior of those bodies, writers like Burroughs and Ash remind us that time is nothing more than a human construct. Exploring the recesses of his memory, Ash's narrator muses,
"Now none of these people are stuck in Time like I thought they were when I got there. I guess probably they're never stuck in Time, because that would require a complete renegotiating of Time which only exists by definition, and so can't ever be renegotiated again."
After some calculatedly scattered digression, he revisits the effects of Time on our desires and perception, remarking,
"…everything changes no matter how much it makes you think you can touch it forever. But also it seems sometimes it's like what time it is doesn't even fit between the numbers on the clock anymore. And you can try to go back, but of course that hardly works forever until it stops like it always does. "
Between the capitalization of "Time" the concept (as opposed to the lower-case literal "time" of the day or night), the arbitrary use of "500 years" as the standard amount of Time between salient events, and the clock graphic that greets readers at the opening of the book, Ash keeps his audience aware that although difficult to wrap your brain around, the relative and subjective nature of "Time" merits some hard thought.
Another related main thread that impressively (amazingly, really) weaves its way through this crowded verbal labyrinth is "the fact that there's really no objectivity over anything." If I were forced to point to a thesis statement in What I Think About, I would choose the formula: "Ss = So + Si [Ss is the smell that we smell right now, So is the smell of whatever it is we're smelling at the moment, and Si is the smell of the inside of our nose]." In this formula, the narrator highlights the source of his internal chaos. He wonders
"if we can't rely on what we smell as being what the thing or person or whatever it is that we're smelling smells like, then where does the line between subjective imposition and actual reality begin…this whole nose thing, pretty much proves, without a doubt, that anything we think is an absolute, is really only relative.
The main problem with the book is Ash's tendency to ramble and get sidetracked just as he approaches a moment of profundity such as the one above. The challenge of reading this stream-of-consciousness-type narrative is not finding the calm eye of the hurricane, but rather holding onto the solid nuggets of truth and fresh thought through the swirling storm. It's such a worthwhile challenge, though, that I'm left to wonder if Ash is just doing his part to give everyone a little practice at a searching process that we face every day in our chaotic world. Uncovering moments of quality, truth, beauty, or light within the framework of our subjective, exasperating existence may be the most important goal we can have. If Paul Ash can recreate an opportunity for that discovery process on stage or on the written page, then I definitely suggest taking a shot at finding a few golden nuggets in his mess of words and pictures. Maybe something will leap off the cluttered pages into you're hungry brain and maybe something won't, but either way you will experience (not just read about, but actually experience) a search for meaning amid chaos. What I Think About When I Go to the Job is a strange and personal book - it is one of those books that will mean something different to just about every person lucky enough to open it's cover - but for every last reader, I guarantee it will give you something to think about when you go just about anywhere.