Monthly Archives: March 2007

Primo Levi, "The Death of Marinese"

A captured soldier makes a last ditch effort.

(from A Tranquil Star)

But what’s it a last ditch effort to do? Kill himself? Take some enemy soldiers with him? Get some final shred of honor, or relief. This is a short short story — as, I believe, is Levi’s m.o. — but its one scene is not wanting for detail. It radiates desperation, horror and maybe a little wonder. Very engaging. But we know the title, and we know, Marinese is so doomed.

The Decemberists, “July, July”

Helen Simpson, "Up At The Villa"

The skinnydippers hide in the bushes while the real owners of the pool argue.

(from Zoetrope All-Story, Spring 2007)

Overhearing the adults arguing, and seeing their grotesquely aged bodies, makes the skinnydippers ponder their own futures. One could argue that both sides — the petty, blunt adults and the shallow, naive kids — are played a bit cartoonishly. I’m not gonna argue that, though. This was a short story with a point to make. It did so satisfyingly.

This issue of Zoetrope was designed by Palace Brothers frontman Will Oldham.

* * *

In truth, I read a whole bunch of short stories today. The Guardian published a bunch of six-word short stories. Read them here. Most of them aren’t in sentence form, but a good plot can overcome even the most stilted prose.
My favorite:

Set sail, great storm, all lost.
By John Banville

Bonnie Prince Billie, “Agnes Queen of Sorrow”

I’m Reading a Novel Today

In fact, I’ve been reading the same novel, off and on (mostly off), for the last year. I picked up Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay around this time last year for my trip out to Arizona to witness the wedding of my good friends Ryan and Jessica. I’m not much for, you know, whole books, but I knew I’d like this one. And I do. But work, life and lots of short stories have gotten in my way a bit. Now, with R&J’s anniversary looming, I’d like to get this great book read and out of my life. A year is not an unreasonable amount of time.

So, for this week: Hello, Kav & Clay.
See you in a sec, short fiction.

Mean time, have I ever told you how much I dig
The Elegant Variation?

UPDATE (3/25-ish): Kav & Clay is done. Man, was that good. One of the best things I’ve ever read ever. Good eye, Pulitzer people.
Short story coverage, if I can call it that, will resume soon.

Tao Lin, "Love Is A Thing On Sale For More Money Than There Exists"

A relationship falls apart as unseen terrorists plan impossible tricks.

(from Bed)

“What if the terrorists opened their own store… and sold bad things?” Garret said. “What would they sell?” he said.
It sometimes seemed to him that for love to work, it had to be fair, that he should tell only half the joke, and she the other half. Otherwise, it would not be love, but something completely else — pity or entertainment, or stand-up comedy. “Well? What would they sell,” Garret said. “I can’t do everything in this relationship.”

Well, it would be easy to call this too cute, too prone to riffing on everyday things like a stand-up. But those feelings dried up as I got sucked into the author’s worldview. It’s a whimsical and morbid place to visit, but pleasant and predictable in its way, full of palatable pop culture references and dreamy, outsider satire. The terrorists are magical, lurking, plotting stupid pranks and vicious acts. The protesters are vague-minded, too prone to diversions, too disorganized. The young lovers are grumpy, immature, lightly doomed. But no matter how much you might expect a boom, what with all the drama queen terrorist imps out there, the end has got to be a gradual disolving. Pretty cool.

Max Ruback, "How We Can Be Saved"

A Jesus-hugger tries to recruit two boys on their way out of the haunted house.

(from SmokeLong Quarterly)

In the field behind the church is the haunted house. We laugh at the caskets stacked in the yard, the fake howling wind sounds coming from speakers. We laugh at the paper skeletons hanging from the trees and the cardboard gravestones with mannequin arms and legs sticking out of the ground. We hear girls screaming.

Short, declarative and deliberate, this story has a gentle urgency to it; it’s told from the narrow perspective of a kid describing just about everything he sees. I liked the tone: The horror of the funhouse is laughable, but everything goes quite when the girl in the half-shirt tries to convert the two Jewish kids to Christianity. The poor kids are just trying to have fun. Ne need to bring pamphlets into it. Cool, quick story. Read it here.
Why not read an even tinier story by the same author, here?
Looks like SmokeLong’s deal is flash fiction, which I have no particular affinity for. But when it works, it works.

Raymond Carver, "Dreams"

A quiet, peaceful neighborhood is shaken tragic fire.

(from Call If You Need Me)

A simple, quiet, sparsely decorated little story. I haven’t read a lot of Carver, but I’ve seen Short Cuts once or twice — props to Huey Lewis but I think it was the first time I realized I don’t care for Andie McDowell — so I was expecting someone to do something horrible every time I turned the page. But “Dreams,” with its gentle poignancy and flaming asexuality, would have no place in Short Cuts. A fine read though. You don’t always need to have a scene where Huey Lewis pees on a corpse.
(Yeah, I took the picture.)

Kaili van Waveren, "Maria’s Misfortune"

Three druggies have a problem when another druggie OD’s.

(from Murdaland #1)

What an after school special this story was. Don’t do drugs, kids. Druggie’s are so, like, immoral. Those people are not your friends. They’ll steal your $20 while you’re OD-ing. They might not even definitely take you to the ER. And, oh, the deviant lingo. Lordy.
But, maybe I’m just jaded. For a counterpoint, here’s a site called
Nasty. Brutish. Short. that liked the story.

John Updike, "The Astronomer"

Oh no, the astronomer is coming to town? But I was just gettin’ religious.

(from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories)

I feared his visit. I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages at a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen.

I dunno, I guess this is about a religious Kierkegaard-studier not being quite so different from the morally ambiguous man of science. Both are truth-seekers, of sorts, with different ideas about what’s sacred. But beyond that squid-versus-whale struggle, I don’t think there’s much of a satisfying story here. But, you know, it’s a thought-provoking read. You can check it out here.
I couldn’t find the cover of my copy — on loan to me by M.J. Fine — so I took my own picture.

Ronald F. Currie, “If Natalie Portman Were My Girlfriend, Life Would Be Like the Movies”

Imagining the blissful, comfortable moments he and Natalie Portman would share.

(from Swink #3)

Beth and I are sitting in a booth at the restaurant where I work, taking our break together during the slow hours of mid-afternoon. I don’t say stupid things or talk too loud around Beth, like I do with other women, because she is my boss, and because she is married and happy and has a little boy. If she weren’t married, or if her husband were a slob or beat
her up or ignored her, then we wouldn’t be able to talk like we are now, easily and casually, because I would be aware of her breasts, and the implication of her vagina, and conversely she would be aware of my cock, and would be wondering whether or not I had any desire or intention to use it with her, and I would in turn be
wondering if she was wondering about my cock and my intentions with it, and wondering further whether or not she hoped or wished I was thinking about using it on her—and then I would do what I always do when talking to a girl with whom there is a possibility I might have sex and share my bed and, perhaps, later, some breakfast and, perhaps, still later, after much sex and many breakfasts, the thoughts and emotions which constitute that impalpable and somewhat amorphous abstraction known to me as me, which is: Act weird. Fuck it up. Go home alone, again.

First of all, you’ve got the real life parts: the sick dad, the good friend he doesn’t mention the sick dad to, the date he sabotages. And then you’ve got these asides — framed like the title of the story — wherein our narrator ponders how he and his would-be girlfriend Natalie might deal with his life. It’s kinda silly, but you know what he means. And he’s not crazy, by the way. His imagined life with the movie star comes off just natural enough for you to wish it for him. I liked this story, although sometimes I found myself thinking about the Natalie Portman parts as separate from the real plot and I felt drawn into thinking about the author by extension.
Then I started thinking about Natalie Portman
. I wonder if she thinks the new Shins album will also change lives. I mean, it’s pretty damn good, but we can’t keep having our lives changed every couple years. It’s just impractical.
Yeah, that was one huge, dirty excerpt I pasted in up there. You can read more of the story here.

Paolo Madrigal, “My War”

All’s forgivable in war.

(from Murdaland, issue #1)

Yeah I heard of war crimes, but I still wasn’t expecting a straight-up war story in Murdaland, a newish short story journal promising “crime fiction for the 21st century.” Regardless, this was a captivating is not wholly surprising story. Some of the point seems to be the familiar “war is hell” concept. Which is fine. It does appear to be hell. This story had its own spin everything with the soldier having to worry about friendly fire in addition to the constant, paranoid combat.

Click on the Murdaland link above; they have the story online for some free readin’. Couldn’t find a shot of the cover that I liked so I took my own. It’s blurry.