Monthly Archives: October 2005

George Saunders, "Isabelle"

Melancholy and infinite sadness in a poor town.

(from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline)

We were young, ignorant of mercy.

Yeah, I sure do read a lot of George Saunders. This time around, the experience was not unlike watching an episode of The Twilight Zone. I knew horrible twists, grotesque truths and odd hope were on the way, but not because Saunders tipped his hand. I just knew what show I was watching. Those things are why I tuned in.
Lately I’ve been forgetting to mention the plots of the stories I read. “Isabelle” is about a kid who sees murder and hate and ignorance all around him in a poor, racially tense town, but notes acts of love and kindness inspired a handicapped girl. That’s sort of it. Here‘s an interview with Saunders in which he discusses, among many things, “Isabelle.” The apostrophes there seem to have turned to question marks, but push through, people.
Here is a link to the actual story, which, heck yes, you should read today.

Rick Moody, "The Double Zero"

Life isn’t easy for a family of ex-ostrich raisers.

(from McSweeney’s No. 4)

Here’s a passage I liked:
Freight hoboes would come in wearing that hunted expression you get from never having owned a thing and having no fixed address.
Why’d I like it?
1. That hunted expression rings true somehow, though I don’t know any hoboes.
2. I just dig hoboes. I have a vanity bindle which I take to high society luncheons.
3. I think the plural of “hobo” is “hobos,” but Rick Moody does not play by your petty rules.
There was another cool passage, but I’ve lost it. This story’s a bleak/sad/funny tale of unsuccessful Ohio people and it inspires its mood through gross details and a narrator who’s sort of accepting of everything that goes on around him, a bit like the stupid ostriches he takes care of for a brief while. Excellent.

How’d I end up reading from a 2000 McSweeney’s? I set out digging for a Lawrence Krauser story within and upon my shelves and piles. Nothing turned up. I’m going to meet Krauser tomorrow because he’ll be there when I will apparently “host” or “MC” a One Ring Zero event at International House here in Philly. I’ve never hosted anything besides bacteria, but I’m guessing it’ll go okay. I just watched As Smart As They Are, a documentary on One Ring Zero, and they seem like good guys. They’re the band with lyrics by authors like Moody, Krauser, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Paul Auster and some more.

More importantly, Philadelphia City Paper put out another Book Quarterly, edited by Lori Hill. I wrote this, an article on literary magazines in town, and this, a run down on specific ones. Lots of other good stuff in the issue, as we like to say, including interviews with Duane Swierczynski and Zadie Smith. Check out the whole thing here.

One Ring Zero, “Water”

Daniel Alarcón, "Florida"

Things are redundant and unstimulating working at the copy shop.

(from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005)

Nicely told, rich in details, highly atuned to interesting ways in which life can be sad and lived dishonestly. So I liked it.
But I’d also like to point out this story’s adherence to/application of a particular storytelling device. “Device” has negative connotations but we must ignore our Luddite leanings here: Not all devices are bad, so long as we accept them, understand them, use them properly. The device I’m referring to is the future-tense epilogue. I’m sure you’ve read a story does that this: It’s all present-tense-I-am-a-man-of-constant-sorrow and then, at the end, it gets kinda I’ll-fly-away. Things are a bit bleak and a touch hopeless, but then our fearless narrator says he’s gonna get out of this place if it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. A fine device. It makes us, the readers of earth, feel good about things if we believe the guy can do it, or sad if we can tell from our overhead perspective that the guy is trapped and incapable of saving himself. But it’s a device.

The Mountain Goats, “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of”

JT Leroy, "Disappearance"

A trashy, skanky birthmom gets her kid back from his foster parents.

(from Zoetrope All-Story)

Told from the perspective of the crying, sobbing, slobbering kid, this story does a good job of expressing immature thoughts and childish actions with a more adult vocabulary. It’s not a pretty picture. The mom, to whom the court apparently awarded custody despite his ten years living with a loving foster family, is an asshole, sometimes too much so. Like, she needs to keep topping herself with more awful things to say and do to prove she should not be in charge of the well-being of herself, much less a kid. You end up feeling so bad for the kid (though you might also want to tell him to stop crying and wipe his nose) that “Disappearance” starts feeling more of a death march than a story. Of course the end is unsatisfying. But it ends, and that feels good. Swing low, sweet chariot.