Ryan Chapman’s ‘Riots I Have Known,’ a Prison Novel That’s Actually a Literary Satire
Prison is now all the rage, in journalism anyway. The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker regularly run deep reports on the vast underground conduits—we might call them sewers—connecting profit, racism, and pure sadism in the prison-industrial complex. Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 Dead Man Walking, focusing on capital punishment’s fundamental injustices, broke original ground in treating the subject, which in general lends itself to nonfiction. Recent hardback attention (in Locked In and Charged) has bored into prosecutors’ peculiar role in driving mass incarceration. Still, though, the hardest gut punch on what’s behind the addiction for caging fellow humans, sadly also very nonfictional, remains Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th.
Apart from the hoary classics set all or partly inside—The Count of Monte Cristo and Papillon and The House of the Dead—only rarely does fiction go there once more. Rachel Kushner’s bestselling The Mars Room and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones got prison under the eyes of the smart set in large numbers again this past year. There’s even poetry, like Visiting Days by Gretchen Primack.
Into this ripe moment comes, or doesn’t, a novella by Ryan Chapman. He set Riots I Have Known inside a fictional prison in Dutchess County, New York. Specifically, he goes inside the inside, namely the barricaded room devoted to the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts. But the book has little to do with prison at all. It doesn’t take up questions of justice, or maltreatment, or violence begetting violence. Instead it makes fun of cultural foibles that are current outside. It merely uses prison as the mise-en-scène for a takedown of our moment while exploring the zeitgeistiest of questions. How does a psychopath rise to power? How does narcissism express itself?
Orange is the New Literary Pretension
The New York Times reviewer hit Chapman hard for what appeared to him an inexcusable lapse: writing satire. Perhaps there are indeed subjects that should be off limits. Eating children, for example, or lighthearted use of the most heinous monster ever to walk the modern earth. Although the case could be made that we at last face monstrosity only when we approach its essential absurdity.
Absurdity is on riotous parade in Riots I Have Known. It’s a fine book that resists summary to insist on quotation, since the author has already distilled his story down to….his story. Any review of Chapman’s book withers beside the book itself: “Must the final issue of The Holding Pen be my own final chapter? Can any man control the narrative of his life, even one as influential as mine?”
The speaker is the unnamed editor of the preeminent example of “post-penal literature,” who live-blogs his final Editor’s Note from inside the media center. A poem, printed in what is certain to be the last issue of The Holding Pen, cynically financed by the warden, has incited a riot. But the warden’s story feels like a bit of a stretch, even for such an arch satire.
I’m not really seeing a guy named Oot Gertjens so moved by a parenthetical aside in Corbu’s journals that he uproots himself from university in The Hague to an entry-level job in the New York Department of Corrections because he can somehow foretell the possibility of milking lefty billionaires to fund his rise into the Warhol of the prison system. But that’s what Chapman asks us to imagine. Gertjens goes from creating an importantly brooding black-and-white ad for exorbitant jeans in a pan-European arts-fashion marketing publication into being the keeper of a dingy institution in rural America.
As the melee proceeds outside the media center’s door—covered by HuffPo and television helicopters and its own hashtags—our protagonist of “adventures, misadventures, and multiple felonies” cluelessly self-aggrandizes while people die around him. He’s unable to experience empathy.
A Brutal Takedown in Front of A Friendly Crowd
This disturbing feature runs like an underground stream beneath the guffaw-inducing skewerings of high-toned media, the academy, fashion, architecture, you name it. Every sentence runs a sharp sword through some pretension or other: Chapman gives the name ### to “an upstart literary magazine from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.” The narrator opines, “In these trying times I can think of no goal higher than the self-imposed edicts by these fun-size Sontags to reshape the worldview of each and every Brooklyn millennial.”
With this novel, Chapman has found one of the only good uses for the random and otherwise unusable system of code that costs the English major tens of thousands. That or running trivia contests. In fact, he does both. (In Kingston, New York, the author’s new home, he hosts occasional Nerd Jeopardy at Rough Draft Bar & Books, the heart of upstate’s Brooklyn diaspora. This was the site for the launch of Riots I Have Known, in front of an audience that looked uniquely able to appreciate every last arcane reference in a book top-heavy with them. They also easily fielded three trivia questions concerning literary prison riots, which Chapman was helpless not to append to his reading.
Chapman capped the evening with a celebratory cake sporting the book jacket’s flaming prisoner. Appropriately, he provided an ominously sharp knife, bigger than necessary for the job required.