The Surreal Nature of Real Life

Reviewed By

Edited and illustrated by Arthur Jones, Post-It Note Diaries collects 20 mundane but evocative tales by storytellers ranging from Chuck Klosterman to Andrew Bird.

The comic misadventure is a great prism with which to refract poignancy and meaning in everyday human interactions. A comic misadventure relived by some of the best storytellers today and skillfully illustrated on the most mundane of office supplies—the Post-It note—is a double-bonus. Post-It Note Diaries: 20 Stories of Youthful Abandon, Embarrassing Mishaps, and Everyday Adventure works both as a strong story collection and a comic book chronicle of the often surreal nature of real life.

Illustrator Arthur Jones and This American Life producer Starlee Kine started a literary event in New York named the Post-It Note Reading Series, and Post-It Note Diaries is a compilation of new and old favorites from the show’s past four years. Jones writes in the introduction, “I chose true stories because I felt they matched the medium. Post-Its are used to communicate simple, direct and necessary messages like ‘Sorry, I ate all your cookies.’ ‘Buy more toilet paper’ or ‘We are breaking up.’”

Post-It Note Diaries includes stories from a range of talented, well-known storytellers like bestsellers Chuck Klosterman and Mary Roach, comedians John Hodgman and Kristen Schaal, and even musicians like Andrew Bird. Hodgman’s entry “My Position on Subway Fares” is an especially poignant tale of being stuck on a crowded subway and getting punched in the face. Trust me on this one. I’m just trying not to spoil the ending. Writer Arthur Bradford’s harrowing and hilarious “Alaska Death Trip” chronicles a post-high-school-graduation trip with two friends to work in the fish-canning factories of Alaska. Let’s just say they never canned any fish. Mary Roach’s “How to Not Have Sex with Nicholas Cage” is a very funny story about a celebrity interview gone wrong and could have been re-titled “How to Not Have Sex with Nicholas Cage (While Sleeping In His Bed).” Hannah Tinti’s “The First Time I Almost Died” recounts an accident in a graveyard before the time of cell phones. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially if you’re a parent of a young child.

In “Cancer Spider,” writer David Wilcox rents a Chicago apartment beneath an old gay man who takes in a rotation of “cabana boys in search of a cabana.” One of them happens to be a pot-bellied ex-con that Wilcox nicknames Cancer Spider because the man advertises his painting services on a plywood sign in their shared yard with an inexplicable “drawing of a bucktoothed arachnid with the words CANCER SPIDER scrawled beneath it.”

Maybe it was his decaying teeth and the janky Grim Reaper tattoo on his neck. Maybe it was the little things I overhead him say on his cell phone, things like, “I can’t do that cocaine no more. If I do that cocaine they’ll take my babies away, and you ain’t gonna take my babies away.”

Ironically, it’s Cancer Spider who makes Wilcox see that his living situation is emblematic of larger problems in his life. While painting the apartment, Cancer Spider sees Wilcox in his underwear and shouts to no one in particular: “Just saw the man in his underwear. Horrible sight.” Wilcox, reeling from a bad breakup and steadily growing a layer of booze-fed flab, realizes he’s going through depression.

In “The Little Yellow Post-It,” Andrew Bird’s second paid gig as a professional musician involves playing fiddle at a Renaissance Faire, the attendees of which “ranged from families to bikers to D&D enthusiasts.”

I remember one guy in a bright green felt tunic who wandered the fairgrounds with an ecstatic look on his face. A look that seemed to say, “Yes! This is exactly how I imagined it! This is how things must’ve been in that vague thousand-year period between AD 800 and 1800!”

Bird is handed a Post-It note that reads: “Privy Line at 2:00,” which means he has the glamorous job of performing for the people waiting for the Porta Potties. At the privy line, Bird experiences his first flare-up of the tendinitis that ultimately forces him to abandon the instrument in favor of songwriting.

The stories in Post-It Note Diaries cover a breadth of human experiences and never cease to be compelling. From storyteller Jeff Simmermon’s battle with testicular cancer, to writer David Rees’s trip to China’s Three Gorges Dam on a hyper-polluting boat with his authenticity-seeking friends, a strong current of empathy and contemporary relevance runs through all 20 stories. The comic book stylings of Arthur Jones’s black sharpie add a layer of depth and complexity that some longer, prose-only narratives can only hope to achieve. Like any good story collection, the sum is greater than the individual parts, not unlike a pad of the iconic office supply.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. You can follow Cheuk on Twitter at @lcheuk. More from this author →