Monthly Archives: September 2005

David Bezmozgis, "A New Gravestone for an Old Grave"

Victor’s dad sends him to Latvia to make sure his grandpa gets a better headstone.

(from Zoetrope All-Story, Vol. 9, #2)

There’s a moral to this slow, thoughtful story but I can’t wrap my head around it. I would discuss it at length if I didn’t have a strict-ish no-spoilers policy. But suffice it to say, this story has something resembling a surprise ending with surprise thoughts and depths hardly hinted at before then. But what does it all mean? It much mean something. You can tell it means something, but the meaning is not neat, not over-clever, not typical. This is mostly a sharp story full of mood-setting details and tangents that build gradually toward its themes. And its end, its heavy, blurry end.

Yiyun Li, “After a Life”

Covering for a friend’s infidelities puts Mr. and Mrs. Su’s own secrets in jeopardy.

(From Zoetrope All-Story, Vol. 9, #2)

Really enjoyed this one, hoped something would happen but didn’t get too bummed when not much did. A lot of this was set-up. The secret lives and hobbies of its characters are explained, their precarious positions are warmly and descriptively laid out for us. The stage was totally set for a revelation. A denouement. A change. We don’t really get that, but, that’s something I’m used to: short stories whose stories stop short of a satisfying arc. But who am I to put demands on “After a Life?” It accomplishes its mission as the author understood it. It was also charming and memorable.

Damon Galgut, "Chicken"

A man becomes intrigued by the reappearance of the bully who tormented him when they were children.

(from Zoetrope All-Story, vol. 9, #2)

A funny, strange story. There is little in the way of recognizeable motives from the narrator, but he’s understandable nonetheless. That’s the most fascinating aspect, that you get where he’s coming from, even if his actions and thought processes are as weird to you as they are to his wife.

Stephanie Harrell, "Girl Reporter"

The reporter who helped make a superhero what he is counters his tell-all with her own.

(from One Story, #60)

Flipping the format is all the rage: Here’s a dialogue between me, Pat/Patrick, of I Read A Short Story Today, and Maura, of (Most typos/inconsistencies were left intact because this was conducted over the casual Instant Message medium. Why pretend otherwise?)

Patrick: Ok, I’ll start. I think we should each open with a compliment, to imply our humanity. This story had action, adventure, sex and journalism. It was like reading my diary. Almost. very close.
Maura: that is so generous of you, Pat. hmm. a compliment? well, I liked the color of the cover — it was definitely a superhero blue. and I liked the concept behind it — that it was trying to present a secret history, if you will. I’ve been really into secret histories lately, as my love for bands like Corndolly and Jale can attest.
Maura: BUT.
Patrick: here it comes.
Maura: it was just so … unimaginatively done! I guess that was my main complaint with it. it read like Bridget Jones’ Diary, but with a cape and with more … harlequin-esque sex scenes. which I guess is fine if what the writer was going for was, you know, cartooniness. but I expect more from my non-Archie comics reading material. this just read like a sketch of bad chick lit. it needed inkers, or something.
Patrick: I always thought inkers were tracers (sorry), but I hear you. I have seen the comic book format flip before and this one didn’t add much to this formerly irreverent approach. In fact, I just saw Unbreakable last week and, despite its eh qualities, at least it took a new angle on the superhero myth. I feel like our narrator shoulda been Amy Archer from Hudsucker Proxy but she was closer Bridget Jones’ shadow.
Maura: maybe it was a commentary on how the heroines in comics were underdrawn? (I’m including Betty, Veronica, and Sabrina in here too.)
Maura: but I mean … if it was, if it was supposed to be a metacommentary and a plea for secret histories or script-flipping, it just didn’t work. at all. the idea totally outweighed the execution. not to mention that some of the writing was absolutely leaden. shouldn’t those girl reporters have his girl friday-esque snappiness?
Patrick: I agree with that. I thought this was going to be a debate.
Maura: I did too!
Patrick: One Story’s web site, of course, has a Q&A with Stephanie Harrell. In it, the unnamed interviewer opines that one reason the story is effective is that it turns comic book stereotypes “on their head.” I don’t know if it comments on comic book stereotypes much at all, just lays them our there. The comedy comes from seeing them, and seeing variations on them, in the cold, harsh light of prose. What seems sane-ish in a comic book comes off silly as written work. On purpose but still.
Maura: but if it just seems silly … what’s the point? I mean, weird al has his place everywhere, but if parody is just going to fall like a bad soufflé, it’s probably just best to stick to the straight commentary.
Patrick: heh.
Maura: I don’t want to have to go to a cross-promotional web site to understand a story.
Maura: or to like it!!
Patrick: true. and while we’re piling on the criticism: Regarding the occasional jokes/observations about spandex, that’s a sort of obvious dig. Which is not to say it could be avoided in a story wherein superheroes walk/fly among us. But give it a mention and let it go.
Maura: right.
Maura: it was just leaden all around, really. and you can’t fly when you have a ton of weights dragging you down.
Patrick: nice and nicely done.
Patrick: while we’re at it, let me get full on nerd by pointing out the hero character supposedly used X-ray vision as lasers. I think that should be heat vision.
Maura: oh man!
Patrick: Ok, but here’s where the wind’s about to change, ready?
Maura: see, I didn’t catch that.
Maura: I’m ready!
Patrick: I mostly liked the story anyway. On an intellectual level, on a parody/satire level, it left me cold, but as for adventure, it was a quick read, a page-turner of sorts. Is chick-lit really a sin?
Maura: well, to me it is, but that’s because I’m dying to have someone rescue me from the ever-more-constant stereotyping of my gender.
Patrick: Ah. Meanwhile I’m just hoping to save somebody sometime.
Patrick: Let’s talk a bit about the end and put this thing on the shelf.
Maura: ok.
Maura: you first.
Patrick: The story ends by pulling away from the plot and talking theory. Essentially beating us up with the narrator, our Girl Reporter, self-analyzing us under the table. Do we need our themes laid out for us like this? Couldn’t we guess that she dreamt of being the hero from the part where she listed the things she’d do if she had the powers?
Patrick: And the thing that makes me barf: There’s this undertone that this dumb superhero/smart reporter dynamic is just a stand-up comedy commentary on everyday guy-lady relationships. Men are from Mars, women are from Earth and wish they were from Mars.
Maura: yes!!
Maura: and the only way that women can fly is to grab on to someone else’s cape, and twist.

Maura’s homebase is