Violence, Identity, Love… THEN Art: A review of Unger House Radicals by Chris Kelso

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Chris Kelso, known for crafting books that are often meta-cognitive explorations of a Dystopian nightmare, has assembled a more linear, plot-driven piece with Unger House Radicals, though the “plot” and “linearity” are used loosely here, with consideration to Kelso’s works. Kelso uses a collective of unique personalities against the backdrop of an artistic, world-changing revolution that involves violence and art. While these themes are often utilized in Kelso’s work, a subtle analysis of love and obsession deliver an interesting work that still fits perfectly into the author’s oeuvre.

While I have always enjoyed Kelso’s ability to present work that highlights creative freedom in a universe of tyranny and censorship, Unger House Radicals presents a more palatable theme exploration for those who have yet to experience Kelso’s work. As the plot unfolds with the concept that an “artistic” portrayal of violence will spark a revolution of thought, it is Kelso’s exploration of the role that identity plays in relationships and obsession that makes Unger House Radicals work. It is the greater interest point that allows for a more accessible read.

I have always appreciated Kelso’s seemingly manic deconstruction of art and plot, but in Unger House Radicals, it is the freedom to love and know one’s self that triggers a sequence of world-shifting events. Some readers may find it jarring that the move from a seemingly unified narrative voice to other characters, who seemingly have almost nothing to do with the actual plot, takes center stage. A part of me wishes, for Kelso’s sake, that he stuck with the linearity he established in the first half of the novella, so that he might have a more complete piece that could serve as an introduction to his work; while I might understand and enjoy the narrative shift, it almost seems like a reversion for Kelso. The majority of the personalities continue to explore the major themes, and I truly felt like I wanted more, as if the book ended well before it needed to. There is one personality that was nothing more than a backstory to a character that did nothing to enhance any of the themes, as if it was an unfinished idea… and maybe that was the point. I think Unger House Radicals represented an opportunity, and Kelso allowed the art to dictate the construction of the novella; not a bad thing for a reader like myself, but for folks who aren’t interested in anything that might be perceived as pretentious, they will get lost and feel a bit cheated.

The love story in Unger House Radicals is pulled off with masterful writing, as Kelso is able to tackle, and develop, powerful, complex themes with an economy of words, leaving the reader to absorb the evolution, or perhaps, devolution, of characters/identities. As a fan of pretentious books, Kelso, comparatively, pulls off what so many writers only aspire to do without many of the frills. A very “straight story” is presented, and I think the fragmentation that occurs in the narrative structure mirrors the fragmentation of personalities. If you’re a fan of authors like Blake Butler and / or William S. Burroughs, here is the better contemporary writer who can deliver the art without punishing the reader with ideas. Not suggesting that Kelso is better than Burroughs, but rather, Unger House Radicals presents a more updated variation of theme that can be enjoyed in one sitting, with ideas that are not shoved down a reader’s throat; Unger House Radicals can be appreciated on many levels, and if you’re looking for something both interesting and original, here is a good place to start.


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