Sunday, December 12, 2004


"Interstitials," by Kate Schatz
Blithe House Quarterly

Here's one for you language freaks out there. The narrator of "Interstitials" (spell that five times fast) has a profession that explains the story's speed and gloss: "I make - design - interstitials. Short graphic works: pre-commercial lead-ins, post-show showcases." In other words, she does graphics for TV, filler for the empty spaces between content. She speaks in streams of disconnected words and phrases, each one shorthand for a visual effect, a mood, a time period -- the jargon of visual design. For example:

He goes: "It all reminds me of last month, but OK."

Last month was pinstripes, ineffective love, security concerns, code orange, the same old dill sauce, a brief heart stop, the helicopter over the bridge, a missile pointed, everyone I love in a metropolis, another doctor, the only not-sham.

Schatz, of course, uses this shorthand ironically: the lists are meaningless, not just because all jargon is meaningless to outsiders, but because the words are so divorced from reality. The emptiness at the core of her work has infected the narrator's life, and though she denies it, she does suspect it:

Sometimes the thought comes: what if I leave? What would happen? To me, the world, my stuff? To just go, be one of those people with no money but nice simple foods, in a place with a great deal of green, and space, and animals. I go with this for a moment, then remember: that is unappealing. My life is amazing. There are 17 new messages in my inbox.

Fittingly, "Interstitials" is formless -- it's a snapshot of the narrator on an airplane and in an airport (both places where people are in between their point of origin and their destination). It falters occasionally, particularly toward the end. The narrator stops to explain her profession (fortunately for me, so I could quote it here) to an intrusive, unwanted companion in the airport bar; it's clear that Schatz felt she had to explain what interstitials were. I'd argue that this is untrue -- it's clear from the text that the narrator creates TV advertising. We don't really have to have it spelled out for us, and if we do, Schatz is good enough to do so less obtrusively. As it is, the passage reads not as if we're eavesdropping on the conversation between two characters, but as if Schatz is talking to the reader -- a temporary failure of point of view that pulls the reader out of the fictive dream.

It's almost as though Schatz couldn't quite figure a way to finish after a great start. As the real world intrudes on the narrator, her linguistic pyrotechnics fade away, and the story's energy goes with them. One can argue that this is part of the narrator's growing disillusionment with her work, but this is ultimately unconvincing. The reality around her -- represented largely by the conversation of her companion at the airport bar -- is unpleasant and unattractive. No, I think Schatz understands that for her story to be more than a glossy portrait of a profession and its attendant worldview, she needs the everday world, with its low production values, to intrude upon her narrator's bubble. But once it does, Schatz seems to find it as enervating as her narrator.

As if to revive the story's flagging spirit, Schatz conjures up a violent event on the runway, which the narrator, watching, instantly begins to mentally translate into a graphic sequence. As an ending, it's serviceable enough, but here's the final line:

We grip our stools and sit glued to the scene, and the acrid airport begins to violate my nose.

"Glued to the scene?" Schatz, like Homer, is nodding here. She displays a sensitivity to language that's far above average, so it's hard to believe she'd finish her story on such a cliche unless she was distracted or rushed. The same is true of "the airport violates my nose."

But don't let my grouchiness dissuade you from reading "Interstitials." It reminds me at once of Donald Barthelme, with his elfin humor and preference for surrealist juxtapositions, and of Joan Didion -- whose best essays unfailingly record the way language is used to misrepresent uncomfortable facts -- and that's no mean feat. I'll be looking for more of Kate Schatz' work, and so should you.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

Pocket Full of Posies

The Lies of Handsome Men, by Rob Nixon, appears in the current issue of Blithe House Quarterly. The story is moody, atmospheric and sulphurous as a torch song. Here's a breathless passage that sweeps the reader along with it:

And this boy wants to know where you've been and what you've been doing. He believes you have something to teach him and he wants to know how it feels in your world, so he listens to words you've said a million times and stories that should have grown stale in the telling but it's as if you've never spoken them before, as if you truly had something to pass on. He takes you in with his eyes and his fingers and lets you wrap yourself around him breathing in the unfamiliar scent of his soft skin. There's passion again and you feel what keeps you alive, and this boy, this darling boy who wants so much, he walks beside you out into the streets with endless possibility and you realize what you came here for is still calling to you. It charges you, it puts a dance in your step, it clears the fog from your senses and plugs you in to a glowing, blaring night that can be yours again. And together you're in Boys Town, an endless city of tenement youths and nightclub dancers and sailors and immigrants newly arrived on shore.

Set in New York in 1939-1942, it's the story of a young man, Kenny Donahue, who comes to the big city with big-city dreams, just a kid who hustles his beauty to older men for a chance at glamor, at his dreams -- dreams that turn sour and end in violence. (Sorry - Nixon's tone has infected mine.) Non-linear, the story is told in sections, each one headed by lyrics from music of the period (or, anyhow, music that would sound like it was of the period, presumably slow, big-band numbers about lost love and broken dreams). It's fun sorting out the narrator of each passage, and anticipating Kenny's untimely death, which is foreshadowed early on, but Nixon counts too much on atmosphere and misses a chance at evoking true feeling.

To begin with, let me tell you what's wrong with quoting lyrics in fiction: they don't work. They're a cheap way to achieve a mood, but songs are personal -- even if your readers are familiar with a given song, there's no guarantee it has the same associations for them. I always cringe when I read essays about the 1960s, written by former flower children who were there; they always always always want to quote from the Rolling Stones, or Dylan, or the Doors, and even though I know the music, the lyrics just lie there on the page, pale with consumption, not nearly strong enough to do the work the author is asking of them. If you want a mood, an atmosphere, you need to create it with specific detail, sharp dialogue, and excellent scene-setting. Tone's the clincher, and so powerful a tool that it can carry the show on its own, just so long as you don't rely on it for too long. Nixon tries to make it do the work of the rest-- and he nearly succeeds.

But he flubs it in the first paragraph, just as he's delivering his first serve, his foot over the white line at the edge of the tennis court:

He was looking to get work at the World's Fair, but that's just temporary, he thought, that wasn't what he came for.
That hurts, coming as it does from a playwright. Nixon's syntax leads the reader to expect the phrase, "it wasn't what he came for," to be part of the sentence that forms Kenny's thought. Put into standard prose, it would read, "'But that's just temporary,' he thought. 'That's not what I came for.'" A cleaner way to solve this problem -- and one truer to the voice -- would be to eliminate the quotation from Kenny's thoughts, like so: "He was looking to get work at the World's Fair, but that was just temporary, it wasn't what he'd come for."

But never mind this cavil. Nixon really gets rolling in his second paragraph -- it's so strong it should have been his lead-in.

He came to town thinking he'd be Kenneth, or just Ken, but it never stuck. Kenny, they called him, always Kenny, that's how he was known. Kenny Donahue came to town fresh, the kind of kid you see from a speeding car, passing him almost unnoticed in the middle of a farmer's field, staring off. Kenny Donahue standing in a field, aching, pants on fire, hearing music in the air, and he got on a bus and came to town. He came to town on a bus and three years later left in an unmarked box that nobody would ever guess held someone who'd been in limousines and private party boats and opening-night taxis.

That's a tone with a heckuva sheen on it, so slick you want to keep reading forever. Still, tone isn't enough to sustain the piece. At the end of the story, the narrator relates a scene from a movie, and then realizes that he's in exactly the same situation as the actress he remembers. It's a good moment, but the movie isn't named, and for a reason: its specifics are so generic, so stereotypical, that you recognize the plot instantly -- and you know Nixon is counting on this, that he's smart enough to know that his own story is at best nostalgic and at worst unoriginal, relying as it does on its readers' familiarity with a certain style of story, noirish and seamy, its characters flatly accomplishing only the expected.

In the end, "The Lies of Handsome Men" puts me in mind of nothing so much as Broadway is My Beat, a radio show I first learned about a few years ago, which first aired in the 1940 and 50s. Broadway is straighter than "Lies," of course -- the lives of gay men would never be directly acknowledged in shows of its kind, though the stereotypes are present in the lisping voices of walk-ons -- but the deceptive glitter of New York City and its tawdry underside, recapitulated in "Lies," is a constant theme. Broadway's writers knew the theme was old, even then, and indulged in parody at least twice every show, when the main character, Detective Danny Clover, would wax purple about life on Broadway. One of my favorite examples:

The long winter is dead on Broadway, and the street mourns its dying without a tear. What's to weep, kid? The dawn banging on the radiators, tearing sleep into pieces on a cold morning? The standing on a street corner in the night wind trying to read the racing form with 100% wool mittens? And the girls so bundled up you can only see their faces -- that's to weep? Give me the springtime, kid. In the springtime, things bud and blossom. The girls, the neon flowers, the field of golden daisies on the Trans-Lux. Look at it now, kid:

Police Sift Murder Clues, Searching Link with Death of Philip Hunt, Millionaire
Ever smell posies like that, kid? Spring's come to Broadway ... give up to it!

Try this, from Nixon's story, in comparison. The prosody isn't the same, but the lurid details are:

The clothes you're wearing are the clothes you wore, the smile you are smiling you were smiling then, but who knows? Who remembers? Who saw anything? Everyone suspected Berkeley or Morgan. But they never proved it. They didn't have to. The papers had a field day with the dirt they dug up. "Millionaires and rent boy in sick triangle. Cafè society's dirty secrets. Lush life ends in tragedy." It had all the elements of a juicy murder story. Young. Rich. Nude. Twisted. They said Kenny was blackmailing one or the other, maybe both. They never proved it. Speculation in the air - maybe they hired some down-and-outer to do the deed and make it look like a random robbery. But they never found him. They never tried. The police were satisfied to chalk it up to another pervert dead at the hands of a hustler. Love for sale, appetizing young love for sale. Who knew if it was true? Who cares? There's no one to tell, nothing left to do with the truth about what was done, no one wants to hear it now. Certainly not from someone walking this world like a ghost, haunting this dive, dead to hope and longing, a name connected to nothing, an image that doesn't linger, glimpsed at the end of a long corridor, the far corner of a city block, peripheral, noiseless, if glimpsed at all. A guy afraid to be what he couldn't shake, never got what he came for. A guy who never was, who looked to the papers and magazines, to the Georges, the Waynes he saw there, the men who could make it happen, someone to watch over me. A guy who gazed from afar at the Kennys of this city, the golden boys, the boy on the shiny chrome stool, the face in the misty light, the breathless touch of springtime, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me - in the roaring traffic boom, in the silence of his lonely room, no no - not for me. A lucky star's above, but not for me. The way you changed my life, the way you haunt my dreams, the way I held the knife, no no no no, they can't take that away from me.

It's nice enough work, Mr. Nixon, but the trouble is, I have smelled posies like that before.

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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cannonball Express

Reading is always a gamble; this time, nosing around in the nonfiction section of Dislocate, a journal out of the University of Minnesota, I came up aces. See for yourself. Check out the blazing language and fierce economy of Joni Tevis' "Second String," about the glory days of an old carnie who, in a pinch, once had to take over as the human cannonball. Get past that first colon, and you'll feel a little blown away yourself.

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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Ennui, Already!

In Christopher Orlet's "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Drunk," which appears in the Fall 2004 issue of storySouth, there's one superlative joke. The narrator is selling sandpaper to the Amish when he hears that the Berlin Wall has fallen.

At length I went inside the office grinning ear to ear and asked the owner, a severe man with a long dusty beard, if he'd heard the news. He said he hadn't. I said, "No? The Berlin Wall has fallen." He looked at me with that deep, mistrustful look the Amish have of outsiders. "That's it for [C]ommunism," I said. "It's all over, the end of history." "Did you bring the samples?" he said brusquely.

The deadpan delivery of this joke works best when there is no explanation, but Orlet feels the need to explain it, and then kill it altogether with a metaphor:

I felt stupid for a moment. The Iron Curtain, I mean, what was that compared to the latest abrasive sample? The Amish had their own walls, you see, and they weren't made out of cement and razor wire.
What's ironic about this is that Orlet's intent is the very opposite of explanation. "Portrait" is a pastiche of fragments, told in a deadpan, dead-eyed style reminiscent of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. As these snapshots show, the narrator is largely disconnected from life, depressed and looking for meaning. It's an easy way to construct a story, leaving the writer unburdened by profluence, character, or scene-building. (The story could also use a good proofing.) Which is too bad. Orlet has verve and panache; I hate to see him slight his own gifts.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

Superior Interiority

I'll admit that reading online lit doesn't inspire patience. Much of it is written too quickly, and doesn't suffer from being read the same way. So it's a pleasant surprise indeed when one comes across a story with imagery as gorgeous as that of Christiana Langenberg's Tumble Dry Low Heat, another selection from Carve. As with Bruce Taylor's story from the same issue, profluence isn't the order of the day -- in this case, a divorced woman mentally relives her anxiety over her young son's recent heart surgery while sitting alone in her house during a snow storm. In this sense, it is, like Taylor's story, another think-piece, because we never really leave the woman's head; but the intensity of its imagery carries the story. A single example, when the heart surgeon speaks with the woman after the surgery is over:

Your son's blood, in red stars, constellates on his instep, an irregular galaxy wraps around his ankle.

The fraction of a light year it takes for this to happen. The arc of a droplet in flight. The angle of impact. The way it looks to the mother.

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Not Gormless, Just Formless

Here's a good place to start a story: imagine you're a guy who's having an affair with some other guy's wife. You and she are both on the faculty of a local college, and you're kind of smug about the affair whenever you meet her husband, because you have secrets. You know all about how he disappoints her, and you know when you see him in his "bad plaid car coat" that she hates it, always has, while you, you're wearing a scarf she gave you, and the stupid schmuck doesn't know it. This state of affairs (if you'll pardon the phrase) has been going on a long time. Then she leaves him, and you run into him afterward in the parking lot at the college. You know she's left him because she's told you, but he doesn't know that, and so he tells you his side of it while you stand beside your car, its engine still running.

Thing is, writing fiction is full of pitfalls, as is demonstrated by Bruce Taylor's able and interesting piece, One of the Guys, which you can find in the latest issue of Carve magazine. True, Taylor can't resist some cute irony -- ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man is on the radio as the narrator and the cuckold meet in the aforementioned scarf and coat -- but overall, the piece is entertainingly written and smoothly executed. No, Taylor's real issue is that he isn't writing fiction. There's no dialogue, no dramatic situation that is developed over the course of the piece: all that exists is one encounter in the parking lot, followed by explication about how the dramatis personae arrived there, a brief meditation on their roles, and then a very nice image to wrap things up.

I know all about fiction's infinite variety of form and subject, and am a fan of many a departure from the standard, sometimes-hidebound ideas of what constitutes a short story -- so hush your mouth, child. But just because something doesn't display the profluence of a classically-defined short story doesn't necessarily mean it's breaking the rules of fiction; it can mean that the piece has been mis-classified.

"One of the Guys" is actually an intelligent pensée, a mini-essay on the similarity between the Don Juan and the cuckold: the narrator's own wife has left him, just as the cuckold's has; neither will ever know the real self of the woman they both love; and, we learn, Don Juans and cuckolds in general are, despite the women they have in common, apparently doomed to drink alone. Seen from that angle, it's well done. From the angle of fiction, though, it's unconvincing and unsatisfying: it's exactly the sort of self-indulgent introspection a Don Juan would go in for. One suspects that the cuckold wouldn't see the parallel.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Buddy System

Meanwhile, over at Facets literary mag., Katherine Holmes, a poet and fiction writer published in the Fall 2004 issue of The King's English, has a story called "Buddy System" that's worth checking out. The narrator is a graduate student marooned in Duluth, Minnesota with a neighbor named Dana who can do everything -- including get out of snow drifts -- better than our heroine. Yet even Dana is vulnerable to crimes of passion slash violations of the municipal code, and briefly becomes in her own mind the object of a police manhunt. (Sorry -- "personhunt" just doesn't cut it.) The most interesting aspect of the piece is the narrator's distance from the subjects of her story, and her surprising narrative lurches. Holmes should probably have dropped the unnecessary narrative frame, and the piece could have used another editorial pass, but I found it nonetheless an intriguing piece.

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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Tch Tch Tch, 'Boz

What's up with Pindeldyboz? Keep in mind that the Boz is a power to be reckoned with in online writing. After all, it was named "Best Online Publication of 2003" in the storySouth Million Writers competition. Not to mention the fact that it also publishes a print edition -- and bully for it, I say.

But in the submission guidelines for its print edition, you'll find this:

"[W]hile we do print longer work in the print volume, we actively discourage submissions of longer than 10,000 words, simply because, dude, that's LONG. "

Yeah. And ---?

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Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Great Title, Iffy Execution

"An Interpretation of, and Pronunciation Guide for, REO Speedwagon's 1980 Hit, 'Keep on Lovin'' You" , by Jamie Allen, in Eyeshot. (If you follow the link be sure to scroll down.)

You gotta love this title, since the song it refers to is not exactly notable for its layers of hidden meaning - how much interpretation can it possibly support? The conceit isn't bad either: the interpretation turns out to be a direct-address cry of anguish from the narrator to his first love, a girlfriend he had in 7th grade. The song, of course, was their song, and the sentiment of the song title is his and not hers. Seems she betrayed him back in 7th grade -- presumably some time around 1980 -- and though he grew up and moved on, he never got over it. What's great about the story is its obssessiveness, the way in which the narrator's pain, so easily dismissed by adult readers, has never dulled:

But even so, sometimes I'll be driving down the highway and I'll come across the song, our song, on the radio, and I'll be in the car with someone and they'll somehow sing it the wrong way.

That passage is a perfect evocation of the emotional detritus we all carry with us from other relationships -- song fragments, articles of clothing, jokes -- artifacts which are, for us, invested with powerful emotion, but which others regard as inconsequential.

Unfortunately, the story is weak -- build thy church on rock, not on REO Speedwagon lyrics -- because it outlasts the charm of its conceit. The narrator's one-note insistence on his seventh-grade betrayal wears on the nerves; poor line editing doesn't help. Advice the author didn't ask us for: cut it in half, tighten it up. It'll pack a bigger punch.

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