New Faves: Brook McClurg Introduced by Nicole Walker


No-holds-barred, matter-of-fact, we’re-all-going-down-together kind of writing is my favorite kind and Brook McClurg’s way with it simultaneously stabs and sings. In his forthcoming book, Brook makes a dictionary for the real world—one that does not mince words but rather slaps words on the table like a poker player calling the bet. Each term in his dictionary is incisive. It cuts a straight line into the absurdity of our late-capitalistic existence. But what I love as much is the narrative tucked in the footnotes where we hear the story of his family and their search for security, purpose, and happiness while all these word-swords at flung at him. Happily, Brook is as great as ducking the swords as he is writing. This excerpt is from the beginning of the book so you can pick up on letter C when A Dictionary of Modern Consternation is released and you find it at your local bookstore.

—Nicole Walker

A Dictionary of
Modern Consternation

An Excerpt


ABRACADABRA: A word to conjure
by. Because words have magical powers.
Because we become blind, to magic and power both, through frequency. Because in our modern moment, we can be disappeared through words, sawed in half, handcuffed, drowned; or, conversely, reappeared, mended, released, and reborn. Because this incantation was once believed to make diseases go away. Like all magic, it requires belief.

ACCOMMODATIONS: That an ideal world makes room for us all.

ADVERTORIAL: An ad in an article’s costume, a ruse, somewhere between product placement and propaganda—and, for a brief time, my job.

AGREEMENT, USER: Less agreement than imposed requirement to partake in aspects of modern life offered under the guise of choice. To pick one’s poison when not picking isn’t an option.1

AGREE TO DISAGREE (PHRASE): A statement of entrenched position. Nonagreement.

AI: You’ve chosen to begin a human-simulated interaction. Your scheduled human interaction will begin shortly. Please read the following prompt to calibrate your settings and maximize the human experience. Sorry, I can’t understand you. Please interact in Broadcast English or reload THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE program with your appropriate regional dialect patch. Please upgrade your program. Sorry, that program is no longer supported. Sorry, your region is not recognized, sorry your platform overlay is disabled, and I hate to bring this up when you have so much going on, but your connection—to all things, really—is unstable.

ALGORITHM: A non-neutral party.

ALL-PURPOSE: Indicator that the solution will be specifically good for none.

ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL (PHRASE): They’re not, even in this intellectual exercise.


ANXIETY: Primary feeling of the time.

APATHY EVALUATION SCALE (AEP): Because a simple questionnaire can determine it.2

APATHY MOTIVATION INDEX (AMI): Because all apathy is built the same. Also, potentially, a de-motivating scale. Is critiquing the scale itself an apathetic act?

ARTIFICIAL PERSONAS: But what if being artificial is my persona?

ASTHMA: Breathlessness evokes something so much sexier than wheezing, but lately, moments that take my breath seem more likely comprised of particulate matter and other toxic debris than beauty, awe, or physical touch.

ASTRAL PLANE: The longing for another place, like this one, but not.3

ASTROTURFING: Masking the sponsors of a specific messaging strategy. Notably, this book is a messaging strategy without a sponsor.

ATAVISTIC: The rising feeling that we are missing something that is, in fact, behind us; interconnectedness, on a gene-network level.

ATTENTION ECONOMY: I’m spent, busted, broke, and running a deficit.

ATTENTION-SEEKING BEHAVIOR: The only thing more cringeworthy than watching it happen is the awareness that you’ve done worse. Allegedly.

AUTHORITARIANISM: How will we know when we’ve arrived? Asking for a friend.

AUTOCORRECT: A technological emancipation; really food at the worst bit, rarely good at the second.4

AXIS OF EVIL: Cartographic justification for war: if a place is wrong, the people, too, must be wrong.


BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT: A parent at Christmas, a sibling year-round.

BAD FAITH: Your only recourse against the bureaucratic system. So difficult to prove that the term itself seems evidence of same.5

BALKANIZATION: A real conflict with real people reduced to a shorthand for fragmentation, because a phrase can travel further, wider, and longer than the events that inspired it.6

BANDWIDTH: The total transmission capacity of a finite system; also, emotional bandwidth, a phrase that suggests the human nervous system is equally finite. Normally referred to in context that one has exceeded it. Also, reducing personhood to a computing function.7

BASIC: Is there anything more basic than thinking you’re not?

BASTARD: A name so old and well-worn that it scarcely belongs here . . . 8

BINARY: There are two types of people in the world. Those prone to reductive binaries . . . 9

BLACKBALL: Nothing for you here. Keep on moving.

BLACK SITE: A geographical exception whereby a country might engage in acts they feel are counter to their principles. The governmental equivalent of “What happens in Vegas . . .” SEE ALSO: EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION IS THE NEW ORDINARY RENDITION. Note: seafaring vessels in international waters might not be considered black sites due to loopholes in maritime law. Plan accordingly.

BLINDSPOT: That we all have them.

  1. Alexa is the name of the disembodied woman who moved in with my family, late 2019, against my wishes. Sarah, my wife—a term that she prefers over partner, incidentally, though that is indeed what we are—thinks it will make things easier for us. Mainly, our new guest plays music while we are busy about tasks in various parts of the house. I worry about the government, but not in any serious way. Just a vague apprehension, really. Alexa, play Americana, she instructs. My son wants to know more about our new houseguest. At five, he is mainly worried about her emotional well-being. Alexa, do you have friends? he asks.

    She only hears him when addressed properly. No, that can’t be right. She must hear him all the time, I’m almost certain that we’ve agreed to this, somewhere; still, she only answers him when she feels sufficiently addressed. My son is still young enough that he has a lisp and a Boston accent that can’t be explained geographically. It does mean, however, that she can’t always understand him. It frustrates him to repeat himself, but he persists in the face of her obstinacy. Where are her legs, exactly, he wants to know, and Alexa, do you like rainbows?
  2. For each statement, circle the answer that best describes the subject’s thoughts, feelings, and activity in the past four weeks.

    I am interested in things:
    NOT AT ALL                   SLIGHTLY                    SOMEWHAT                A LOT
  3. As far as relationship deals go, you could make a worse one: I’d go anywhere in the world she wanted to teach, and then we would go wherever I got into school. That’s how we ended up in Kuwait, then New York City, then Philly. That’s why we are in Texas now. That, and a global economic collapse. That, and us both getting laid off. That, and losing the house we’d bought due to the recession. That and, that and . . . 

    We say lost the house, like it’s beneath the rug or in an unexplored couch crevice, comforted by the distancing statement. Truth be told, we probably could have kept it if we just agreed to live on the knife’s blade of over-extended risk for longer than the future seemed. We’d purchased a home in a neighborhood that was described as “could be great one day” but apparently wasn’t yet. Not gentrification—revitalization! They say the bottom fell out then, a phrase in which a complex matrix of banking, gambling, and nonregulation hides. And we felt trapped in that way you can early in a career and a marriage.

    We were passing each other at the airport so often we’d just leave a car there for the other. That life required something of us that we were increasingly unwilling to give. We were considering breaking under the strain of it.
  4. Perhaps a dictionary is a form of societal autocorrect, a means to keep the language of the people in line—and with language also their actions—at least in the prescriptive versions from which they originate. But instead of being chided by a red squiggle beneath a word, or some other textual prompt, it is more recently your know-it-all cousin or a frenemy from work passing along something they read once, in judgment.

    This won’t be that. Indeed, this can’t be that. I am no linguist. I’m just one obsessed with a verbal undertow; the invisible power of words. Someone who twitches every time they pay a convenience fee or accept a user agreement under some form of low-level psychic duress; someone who laughs when discerning hidden meanings in particular usages, perks at their origins. Languages live and in living they change. There will be no argument from me on a line to hold.

    I don’t speak proper, nor often wish to, but it wasn’t until I learned to that I could actually choose.

    Sometimes, in academia, my own verbiage or linguistic fill-ins cause others/me to cringe. I code-switch like crazy. I get my connectors crossed. But I don’t want to change, if I’m honest. I see, too often, how language is used to make others feel small when all I want is for it to be a door to a room with some seats by a fire, where words open us up, make us whole. Where they articulate the hidden corners of our hearts. So that by articulating, we can make all of the hard parts bearable.

    My only wish is to pause long enough to consider words in this moment, how they affect us, how the leach and bleed of specialized language can draw us in as consumers, workers, bots, and push us away as people.

    I never set out to write a dictionary; perhaps I’ve been successful in at least that regard. But I’m fascinated by what it means to live in this time; words like post and fatigue prick at my insides with each new iteration. After a long history, after so many advancements that were meant to ease our lives, we are after the development of the most complex societal tools in the most literate societies ever known. We are after so much, and we are tired. Exhausted, really.
  5. Modern emergencies: what starts with blood often ends in correspondence, moves from immediately necessitated response to snail mail to defensive posturing over liability. Everything was fine until it was not fine and in that not fine we needed to solve it. We solved it. We are adults capable of solving things. We thought.

    Our provider had supplied us with a laminated card promising benefits. Empowered. Vowed protection. Suggesting safety and access. Or, for some of us, over an increasingly longer duration, we were allowed no such laminated illusions, but instead found a loophole in the emergency room, a local clinic, or somewhere we’ve been enough times to learn that the system’s old and bendable—fungible, even—where the paperwork doesn’t run so fast. Where we can outpace the bill. For now.

    Or perhaps we were blessed enough to have a hospital VIP platinum frequent-fever-flier status, but our procedure was not covered by our policy because we were out of network, have failed to use a network provider. We are so ungrateful. Look at this network they provided us, but a referral or preauthorization was required, and we had typographical errors and policy limitations and a general lack of timeliness. Or we had a preexisting condition, because we find ourselves in the rare situation of having preexisted. Or maybe our procedure was considered experimental, cosmetic, investigational, or not medically necessary. Did we really have to arrive by helicopter? Just who do we think we are when we’re unconscious?

    Appeal? Sure we can. Please do. They’ve got a whole department for the 0.05 percent of all claims that get overturned. We give them our time. Come home after work and get our papers straight before we call and wait on hold for hours. Don’t get the dinner ready and don’t call the kids downstairs and do stress-fight with our significant other should we have one, and no, we can’t speak to a manager who’s currently always on break, and yes, they are recording because you never know when we might lose our cool and say something inflammatory or incriminating.
  6. And we never wanted kids. We’d said that. Often. Then she began to change her mind. Not all of a sudden, I just sort of watched it happen over a period of years. It was a growth in her understanding of herself that was hard not to envy. By contrast, my own position was so entrenched that it threatened to pause me in place forever. My own story was my example of why I would never have a child, and a handy reason to throw about when these conversations began. I knew enough to know, too, that I could never have a child for someone else, that this was a recipe for disaster. Sarah did as well. So we proceeded as-if, knowing that soon this was going to be a point we would not get past.
  7. There is simply not enough room, in me, for you.
  8. but so central to your narrator as to misrepresent without it.
  9. and _________________.

Brook McClurg is assistant professor of nonfiction in the English and Comparative Literature Department at San José State University. His creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in CagibiIron Horse Literary ReviewPidgeonholesWanderlustExposition Review, and others, and his Spanish-language translations have appeared in the Loch Raven Review. His essay “Geometry of Absence” was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021, and he has received fellowships and residencies from the Fulbright Research Scholars program and Writing By Writers.

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