Monthly Archives: September 2006

György Dragomán, "Jump"

Two kids gambled away their class’ money, and their only solution is to injure themselves.

(from The Paris Review, Fall 2006)

A funny, strange little story wherein the boys matter-of-factly decide only an illness will distract their classmates from their embezzlement. A nice mix of mischief and naivete, told via long, winding sentences. (Translated from Hungarian by Paul Olchváry)

Victoria Barrett, “Not Sold in Stores”

The morning after their first night together, she can foresee the entirety of their two-year relationship.

(from Puerto del Sol, Spring 2006)

I don’t imagine Gina will be pleased when she finds out I just slept with her favorite crush.

That’s a pretty good first line, if you ask me. Brief and brisk, this story never strays outside the head of its narrator. You don’t know why the relationship will end, or how Nessa knows so early on that it will. In fact, we’re only in her head in those early morning moments. It’s a weird place to be, as a reader, unsure whether she even holds herself accountable for the one night stand that will be so hurtful to her friend. Maybe it’s too tough a sell in so few pages, or maybe the surface tension is enough.

Miranda July, "Something That Needs Nothing"

Two friends strike out into the real world, but one of them thinks this is a love story.

(from The New Yorker, Sept. 18, 2006)

In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. We felt like orphans and we felt deserving of the pity that orphans get, but, embarrassingly enough, we had parents. I even had two. They would never have let me go, so I didn’t say goodbye; I packed a little bag and left a note. On the way to Pip’s house, I cashed my graduation checks. Then I sat on her porch and pretended that I was twelve or fifteen or even sixteen. At those ages I had dreamed of this day; I had even imagined sitting on this porch waiting for Pip for the last time. She had the opposite problem: her mom would let her go. Her mom had gigantic swollen legs that were a symptom of something much worse and she was heavily medicated with marijuana at all times.

We were anxious to begin our life as people who had no people. And it was easy to find an apartment when we got to Portland, because we had no standards; we stood in our tiny new studio and admired our door, our rotting carpet, our cockroach infestation. We decorated with paper streamers and Chinese lanterns and we shared the ancient bed that came with the apartment. This was tremendously exciting for one of us. One of us had always been in love with the other. One of us lived in a perpetual state of longing. But we’d met when we were children and we seemed destined to sleep together like children, or like and old couple who got married before the sexual revolution and are too embarrassed to learn the new way.

Curse The New Yorker for not publishing this excellent story online. (Cheers for publishing it at all, I suppose.) For one thing, I just typed those two paragraphs myself. I type slowly. For another, this story is surely shareworthy. I’m all for artists’ rights and for authors making money, but some days I wish there was a Lit Limewire, wherein peers could swap fiction in a worldwide people-powered scheme. Alas, if it were profitable, it would already exist.
My point, such as it is — find yourself this recent New Yorker and read this story. It’s got all the good stuff: love, sex, glimpses into the darker things, sudden idiosyncrasy and some moments of genuine funniness. (Click here to read one of those funny bits.)

(“Palmcorder Yajna,” The Mountain Goats)

Karen Russell, "Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers"

Somebody’s killing the sheep.

(from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves)

This year, we’ve got a New Kid, this Eastern European lycanthrope. he is redolent of tubers and Old World damp. New Kid’s face is a pituitary horror, a patchwork of runny sores and sebaceous dips. Ginger fur sprouts from weird places, his chin, his ear. You intuit some horror story — homeschooled, his mother’s in a coven, he eats rancid cabbage out of a trough, that sort of thing. His sleep cycles with the moon.

See it’s this camp for kids with sleeping disorders: sleep apneics, night eaters, narcoleptics, etc. It’s an interesting notion explored relentlessly, right to the point where you wonder if you’re supposed to think it’s over the top on purpose, a joke about a neat idea taken too far. This camp occasionally resembles a George Saunders concoction (his are often theme parks), where the bleakness and ridiculousness are deadpanned. But Russell doesn’t treat the oddity of the situation the children are in like it’s unremarkable. The coolness of the sleepy-time fun camp is instead exploited and riffed on in every paragraph. So this was a good read — and some sentences were quite artful — but maybe not as fascinating as it thought it was.

Karen Russell, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator"

Ava and Ossie spend the summer unsupervised in the swamp.

(from Zoetrope All-Story and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves)

You know, Ossie’s possessions are nothing like those twitch-fests you read about in the Bible, no netherworld voices or pigs on a hill. Her body doesn’t smolder like a firecracker, or ululate in dead languages. Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. They steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water.

The mood is darkly exhilarating: Unseen, mostly unknown menace lurks just out of sight. It’s not just the gators; it’s the sisters’ imaginations, their dementias. This story does a good job of matching the reader’s imagined horrors with real ones. But their situation is preposterously, contrivedly horrible. The feeling that the absent father was careless leaving these girls in the middle of Swamplandia! is counterbalanced by the sinking feeling that the author was very careful in doing the very same thing. It’s a greasy slope to start thinking of authors like that (comparing them, essentially, to the bad guy in Saw — not that I had the stomach to watch that movie).
But I did find myself occasionally pondering the author, for instance: each time the young narrator used a word like stridency or ululate or noncommittal. It’s probably legit that somebody Ava’s age would know/use those words, but it gave me pause. But the intrigue overcame all pauses, and that the true horrors are never revealed is no frustration. It’s really no fun talking in such vague terms, but that’s your fault for not having read this already. It’s a good story. Read it already.

David Leavitt, "Dinners at Six"

Just another dinner with dad.

(from The American Scholar, Summer 2006)

And interesting scene, described interestingly. It’s not a terrifically satisfying story because nothing changes. The guy always meets with his dad for dinner every week and now here they are meeting again for dinner. Noteworthy things do not happen. But the mundane exercise acted out by the two men is new to me, and so is new.
This is The American Scholar‘s first foray into fiction publishing (this and an Alice Munro story in the same issue). The editor’s letter says, essentially: “why not?” It also cites the Atlantic‘s decision to relegate its short stories to a pretty, annual fiction issue last year. Like the good people at the Scholar, I felt a reactionary resistance to the Atlantic move, defensive of the medium as I am. However, I’ve enjoyed those fiction issues on their own terms. Or in these terms: It feels like Zoetrope All-Story puts out five issues a year instead of four. And now I feel an instanteous camaraderie with the scholarly Americans at The American Scholars. Because “why not?” is the genesis of many worthwhile endeavors, this site among them.

Anthony Doerr, "Village 113"

The seed keeper’s village is slated for submergence, part of the new dam project.

(from Tin House, vol. 7, number 4)

Teacher Ke shakes his cane at passersby; his coat is a rag, his house a shed. He has lived through two wars and a cultural purge and the Winter of Eating Weeds. Even to the oldest villagers Teacher Ke is old: no family, no teeth. He reads three laguages; he has been in the gorges, they say, longer than the rocks.

Awesome. The prose is elegant and visual, the storytelling natural and careful. Damn.

Richard Russo, "The Horseman"

Janet Moore is an English professor with an underachieving husband, a mentally ill son, a plagiarizing student and other problems.

(from The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2006)

I don’t know, the mundane problems of English professors and writers don’t count for much with me. Especially when their struggles are served up as metaphors, or, worse, as things to be metaphorically delved into. Anyway, getting past that, and admitting it’s a taste issue to begin with, I’ll say this story had deliberately contemplative thing going on which I found a bit too deliberate. It was a rumination on pushing beyond mediocrity and seeing past the easy route and such. Fine. It was a fine story. Well composed. Just not for me. Read the first lil bit here.

Antonya Nelson, "Kansas"

“But why take Cherry Sue?” Anna asked. “Why run away with a two-year-old? I’m always trying to run away from her.”

(from The New Yorker, Sept. 4, 2006)

For me, it’s hard to sympathize with people who don’t freak out when things happen to them that would freak me out. I don’t know if I would have finished this story if I hadn’t (totally unsolicited) volunteered a guest entry to this blog. I probably should not have read it. But you can read it here.
—Amy Baily
guest/literary confidant