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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