Monthly Archives: January 2008

Drew Johnson, "The Last Dead"

In a world where people are almost guaranteed to live for a long, long time, a disagreement is brewing about whether to unfreeze the blue people.

(from Virginia Quarterly Review)

When the last body of the last dead was in the cairn and the door was shut, the exhausted survivors made their way back to form little enclaves all over the suddenly vast earth. The feeling was so layered as to be impossible to communicate to those who were not there. Most remember it as joy.

I like apocalypse stories, for the most part, the ones where there’s a big big world and hardly anybody left in it. (Disregarding the ending, I enjoyed I Am Legend.) It’s a weird environmentalist/nihilist strain in my DNA that draws me to these things, to imagine walking down the streets of an empty city and seeing the method by which the earth reclaims its territory. (I know, I really should read this.)
Drew Johnson’s “The Last Dead” was an amazing take on this idea, so full of inventive conceits and images, I’m not sure where to begin, or whether I should spoil it for anybody.
But. You should read this story. Here‘s a link, though I would recommend you pick up the physical issue, because VQR has much more than great fiction going for it.

David Mozzi, "Claw"

An old mysterious man doesn’t interact much with the people from town.

(The Missouri Review, Fall, 2007)

The beginning is the elaborately described static image of a house, and it’s kinda beautiful. A Simple still life. Then things get all vague and boring and I stopped caring. Kept reading. No longer cared.

Michael Martone, "Limited"

A passenger on a train watches a boy throw a rock through a window.

(from Double Wide)

I saw the rock, saw the boy who threw it. I saw it hit the window next to the seat in front of me. Saw the window shatter instantly. Saw that now I couldn’t see through the window anymore.

Had to read this one quickly and kind of on the sly. I remember it was short and repetitive and kind of puzzling in the manner of Nude Descending Staircase. Ooh, you can read it here. It’ll take like two minutes.

Sarah Manguso, "1-39"

Lots of people think lots of ways about things.

(from Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape)

Our partners wait for us on opposite coasts while in the country we become friends, knowing transgression is impossible. We swim together every afternoon, changing clothes demurely under our towels. One night the man tels a story and strokes my face to illustrate what someone did once. Despite myself I close my eyes during the touch, and afterward explain to the man and to myself that my response to the touch was just a physical reflex. Now we arm wrestle sometimes. I feel close to this man yet do not want sex with him, as he must certainly shrink from the possibility of sex with me. But I think about maybe falling asleep with him, touching hardly at all, waking up together as if something has been consummated.

Yeah, kinda hard to sum up, since this is really a post about 39 really short short stories (from that McSweeney’s mini box set thing). Know what, none of these paragraph-long little things disappointed me. Some were funny, and most had a pleasant conundrum or part where the character either grew or reconsidered or thought twice about something. Above, I’ve typed up my favorite so far, number 29.

Alice Munro, "Hired Girl"

A girl takes a summer job as a housekeeper for a rich couple.

(from The View from Castle Rock)

I’m a perfect mutt.

Alice Munro is the bee’s knees, the hornet’s cornet, the macaroni’s elbows. Few authors can kick so much ass with such simple action, such smart distillation of language. The surprises come from subtlety and insight, and beautifully unique moments. In this story she paints youth and age so smartly, giving neither a free pass or a hard time.
In the I Read A Short Story league, you come to notice a few common endgame moves, some slick shootout dekes authors like to try out once the overtime is over. One of the most, perhaps, common is the
Future Tense Declaration Epilogue. As in:
And after this dreadful dinner party is over, I will pack up my things and I will leave this place, and I will just walk, walk across the ocean but it will only be as deep as my ankles and while it will be very cold I won’t mind much because I’ll be free and also the air above the water will be temperate.
(For a real example, see Daniel Alarcón’s, “Florida.”)
Another sneaky writer trick is the Connection With The Infinite Epilogue. For example:
And at that moment I was the dinner party, and the ocean and the ankles, and a great peace came over all of us.

“Hired Girl” has one of the best of these I can recall. Trick is to pull the trick without leaning too heavily on it, and to make sure you didn’t look like such a sly little imp any time before then, so nobody see it coming.

Karen Russell, "Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows"

Two kids hide in the skating rink to see what happens at night.

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

I wouldn’t call this a tight story — I often found myself unable to come up with a clear mental picture of what the author was trying to say — but such a fantastical and chaotic ending probably wouldn’t benefit from 20/20 narration. So. I found “Lady Yeti” frustrating, but amusing and memorable too. A fellow reader recommended I check out this story, and when I opened the book I discovered that I’d already put a bookmark on it. Why? The word “yeti,” most likely. Everybody loves the yeti.