Ryan Chapman went to college at University of Puget Sound, lived in Seattle for a spell, and then—because he wanted to work in publishing—moved to New York. He also wanted to write a novel, but he’d come up with an idea only to head to work and hear about someone else already on it. So he sought a premise that would remain his own. “And I think that’s where I came to incarcerated Sri Lankan sociopath inside upstate New York prison,” he says.
Add to that “verbally decadent” and “terribly funny” and you have Chapman’s slim, dense first novel, Riots I Have Known, which came out today and from which he'll read at Elliott Bay Book Company on Friday, June 7. (Does he have anything big planned for his return? “I have a laser projector. I just need to figure out if there’s an outlet next to the podium. And that’s all I’ll say.”)
During a prison riot he perhaps provoked, the novel’s unnamed narrator has locked himself inside the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts. He’s writing a final dispatch: part live blog, part editor’s note (he very proudly helms The Holding Pen, the prison literary journal, which has become an unlikely hit), part confession, part scabrous ramble.
While there’s something of a plot here—buried, in part, beneath the narrator’s lush bluster—Riots is mostly a chance to riff wildly and often hilariously on prison life, literary life, and just life:
“I assure you with hand over heart and other hand over keyboard I only wish to give myself more time in the service of an official accounting of events as they happened. To wit: I’ve urinated on the doorframe. The plastic lip bordering the carpet forms an escarpment with the hallway tile, a handy sluice for my noisome volley of psychological warfare.”
That description gives way to a riff questioning the “efficacy of psychological warfare against the psychotic.” Chapman mines this divide between high literary style and lowly prison life for plenty of gems, and finds them on both sides. Literary theorists take to “post-penal lit”; one publication aims to “apply a critical lens to the post-Foucauldian ([un]self)-imprisonment of the post-human.” The narrator and his prison lover, “sweet McNairy,” spend romantic nights drinking toilet wine, “a bracing variety flavored with anise.”
There’s precedent for this brand of comedy—from Nabokov to Paul Beatty—and ultimately it gives way to something bigger, grimmer. The riot draws closer, time runs out, and the narrator’s endless, flashily erudite digressions become an existential deferral, a way to avoid reckoning. But what can you expect: “Am I saying that I’m the Godard of contemporary prison literature?” the narrator writes. “I’m not not saying it.”
June 7, Elliott Bay Book Company, Free