Reviewed by Keerthana Manoj
Agitprop for Bedtime is a collection of 17 satirical short stories written and curated by Charles Holdefer. Holdefer is a well-established writer; he has written short stories, nonfiction, and novels, several of which have been featured in reputable magazines, such as Chicago Quarterly Review, Yellow Silk, and North American Review. One of his stories, “The Raptor,” has won a Pushcart Prize.* Agitprop for Bedtime takes on a similar form to the majority of Holdefer’s past work, which consists mostly of dark comedy or political satire. Although Agitprop is relatively short at around 100 pages total, the collection takes a few reads to truly appreciate because of Holdefer’s abstract and experimental style of writing. Some stories and themes are clearer than others, but the collection as a whole is quite the undertaking. Agitprop is intended for the politically-aware and educated reader, and highlights and critiques various elements of American culture.
As evidenced by titles such as “The Pain of Patriotic Dysfunction” and “Laurel and Hardy Have Sex,” Agitprop’s stories feature humorous and adult themes. The story premises are strange and diverse, from an inescapable millennial coffeeshop straight out of a horror movie to a drawn-out depiction of an overweight man belly-flopping into a pool. Most of the characters in Agitprop are purposefully-constructed caricatures of American people. They react to the bizarre circumstances in the stories in bizarrely American ways. The characters are unrealistic enough to be humorous and entertaining, but realistic enough to be frightening and thought-provoking. In some stories, such as “The Strange Case of Patient C,” Holdefer positions the reader as a participant in the narrative, as another character experiencing the oddities of Western society. Other stories like “The Exterminating Clarity of the Coffee Shop” follow the disillusionment and bewilderment of characters coming to terms with American culture. The varying perspectives in Agitprop contribute to an overall sense of confusion and disorder that falls in line with Holdefer’s overall vision of the current state of the country.
Holdefer’s cultural commentary is both bold and subtle. The stories themselves feature overtly political themes, such as “Second Thoughts,” which is a clearly targeted message about gun control (Nancy Pelosi is also a main character in that story), or “Kickstart me Harder, Harder,” which explores the relationship between capitalism and art. However, Holdefer’s own stance on these issues takes on a more nuanced approach; his commentary exists between the lines of the stories. From the ironic “(sics)” in “The Strange Case of Patient C” to the letter of recommendation form in “Letter of Rec,” readers are rewarded for meticulously dissecting and analyzing each story’s form, tone, and stylistic devices. A few stories strike this balance between audacity and understatement especially well, such as aforementioned “The Exterminating Clarity of the Coffee Shop” and “The Prison Forecast.” These stories are also the most irreverent, yet scathing critiques of American culture in the whole collection. Agitprop is also well-paced, leaving adequate blank space for readers to reflect and digest each short story and its meaning.
No one is safe from Agitprop’s sharp tongue. The collection attacks everyone from entitled youths to archaic American institutions. Agitprop is definitely political but does not pander clearly to a liberal or conservative audience. Through the variety of narratives and characters, Holdefer does not make his political affiliation clear. Holdefer’s refusal to “pick a side” speaks for itself, further highlighting America’s obsessive, almost militant, desire to identify with a fellow liberal or conservative, or conversely, shame a rival liberal or conservative. Agitprop merely illustrates the shortcomings of American culture and the kinds of people and practices that have contributed to this culture.
Ultimately, Agitprop for Bedtime is a series of well-composed contradictions. The collection is both lighthearted and vicious, zany and realistic, whimsical and grounded, political and apolitical. Agitprop takes its subject matter seriously but doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Perhaps Holdefer’s own words are the most appropriate description of the collection: an assembly of “human tales which manage to feel both strange and inevitable at the same time. Like fairy-tales, but for grown-ups.”**
*“About Charles Holdefer.” Charles Holdefer, charlesholdefer.com/AboutY.html.
**“Charles Holdefer’s Playlist for His Story Collection ‘Agitprop for Bedtime.’” Largehearted Boy, Largehearted Boy, 15 Oct. 2020, www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2020/10/charles_holdefe.html.