Monthly Archives: June 2013

A.E. Van Vogt, “The Cataaaaa”

22812A man goes to see the star attraction at a freak show part-owned by his old classmate, Silkey Travis.

(from The Worlds of A.E. Van Vogt)

The animal that sat in an armchair on the dais was about five feet long and quite slender. It had a cat’s head and vestiges of fur. It looked like an exaggerated version of the walkey-talkey animals in comic books.

At that point resemblance to normalcy ended.

It was alien. It was not a cat at all. I recognized that instantly. The structure was all wrong. It took me a moment to identify the radical variations.

The head! High foreheaded it was, and not low and receding. The face was smooth and almost hairless. It had character and strength, and intelligence. The body was well balanced on long, straight legs. The arms were smooth, ending in short but unmistakable fingers, surmounted by thin, sharp claws.

But it was the eyes that were really different. They looked normal enough, slightly slanted, properly lidded, about the same size as the eyes of human beings. But they danced. They shifted twice, even three times as swiftly as human eyes. Their balanced movement at such a high speed indicated vision that could read photographically reduced print across a room. What sharp, what incredibly sharp images that brain must see.

Like a lot of the Van Vogt stuff I’ve read, this story was kind of deadpan in its humor and straight-faced in its insaneness. For instance, where does the name “Cataaaaa” come from? According to the story, the crowds see the cat creature and instantly say “Aaaaaa.” Pretty goofy, even for a story about [SPOILER] a cat alien who comes to Earth to finish some sort of school project that requires him to reveal his mission to a human. I assume the philosophical discussions about the limits of atomic energy in spaceships, “rhythmic use of energy” for space travel, life, the universe and everything are extra credit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Futurama people had this story in mind when they dreamed up Nibbler and his fellow Nibblonians.

Read “The Cataaaaa” here.


Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past”

628x471A young Italian traveler loses his friend in the Nevada desert.

(from Battleborn)

Day seven. At the motel Michele lies staring at the untouched bed across from him. He hasn’t slept in days, not really. When the red-orange glow of sunset permeates the crack between the two heavy panels of curtain covering the west-facing window, he gets out of bed and showers without soap or shampoo, though there are fresh supplies of both on the shelf in the shower, still sealed in their waxy sanitary paper.

I don’t know what it is about the title of the book and the cover design and the name of the author that makes me think BORING. The book has done very well, especially for a story collection, and other people don’t seem to think it looks boring. Anyhow, this is to say that I’ve avoided reading it. And the cover is actually kind of pretty if you look at it up close. There are silver sparkles everywhere.

Okay, so, onto the story. This is a long one and most of it takes place at the Cherry Patch Ranch, which the Italian finds himself at nightly while waiting for his friend to be found. They don’t card him here and he falls in love with a prostitute. These two things don’t go together, but one is the reason he goes, and the other is the reason he keeps going. Anyhow, it’s a very good story. There was never a point at which I wanted to put the book down. I didn’t even refill my coffee. Read some of it here.


Stephen King, “Afterlife”

th56-cover-webA dead man meets the bureaucrat he always meets when he dies, and has to choose between living his life the same way again or winking out of existence.

(from Tin House, Vol. 14, number 4)

When the brilliance dims, he’s not in heaven or hell. He’s in a hallway. He supposes it could be purgatory, a hallway painted industrial green and floored in scuffed and dirty tile could very well serve as purgatory, but only if it went on forever. This one ends twenty feet down at a door with a sign on it reading ISAAC HARRIS MANAGER.

Bill stands there for a few moments, inventorying himself.

You know, I never would’ve recognized much common ground between Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut, but this story’s definitely got some crossover. With its cool, tidy premise and working-stiff protagonist, “Afterlife” would fit nicely in Welcome to the Monkey House — think “Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog” — and would be a standout in some of mighty KV’s posthumous collections.  And, like several of Vonnegut’s novels, this story shrugs at the universe, makes you want to scream “well then what was the point of all this?” at God.

Of course it’s very King, too: decidedly creepy, occasionally loopy and written in that loose, in-the-moment style. But, as always, my appreciation for King increases with pretty much everything I read. His tics are comforting now, and he knows how to show a reader a good time.

According to Kevin Quigley at FearNet, King’s stuff has been more concerned with mortality these days. I don’t know enough to agree or disagree, but Quigley’s post on Afterlife is worth a look. There’s also a review at October Country. Hey, check it out, you can watch/hear King read this story for an audience. But you should also buy Tin House.

Jean Thompson, “Wilderness”

dndmA single woman goes to visit an old college friend and her family for Thanksgiving.

(from Do Not Deny Me)

“Did you guys have a fight or something?”

Anna thought this must be what it was like to be a parent, some part of parenting. When you had to explain to children those things you did not wish to explain to yourself. That it was possible she and Lynn had never really been friends, that over time they had become a reproach to each other, and that people would do almost anything, contend with all manner of injuries to the spirit, just to keep from being alone.

If you read this site at all, you know that I love Jean Thompson’s stories. She has published four collections and I’m crazy about three of them (not her first, The Gasoline Wars, so much). These collections often move with me from room to room.

In this story, a divorced childless woman goes to visit an old friend from her college days. The friend has a husband and two children and a nice big house, all of the trappings of success, while the other is a failure, at least by societal standards. Turns out neither life is perfect, of course. The real story here is one of outgrowing someone, but keeping her around anyway. Or realizing you have no idea what you had in common with her in the first place. Anyhow, I love Thompson and think she’s terribly under-read. Part of the reason may be that she’s not publishing in magazines very often. Even though this collection is really (really) good, only two of the stories were previously published. I’m not sure why this is.

“Wilderness” originally appeared in One Story. Here’s a bit of it and a brief interview with the author.

Jamie Quatro, “Better to Lose an Eye”

9780802120755Lindsey, Mama, and Nona go to a pool party in their new handicapped-accessible van.

(from I Want to Show You More)

They drove to the party in the new van. Nona liked driving it. She said the van was a smooth ride and it was a blessing never to have to worry about parking. Next to Nona, Lindsey’s mother sat in her wheelchair, which locked into place with clamps built into the van’s floor. She was wearing her red cowboy hat.

This is my favorite story in the collection so far. I was immediately invested in Lindsey, her struggle to accept her mother’s quadriplegia and all of the changes that went along with it. Lindsey is horrified and disgusted by her mother’s condition–gnarled hands and urine bag–while also feeling an intense and abiding love: “she loved her, loved her desperately; she would sit with her, facing her, her back to the party, to the world.” It all feels very real, a vivid portrait of a family.

This story is online. Read it here.

Susan Steinberg, “Court”

9781573661294_p0_v1_s260x420A woman remembers the year her parents divorced. 

(from Hydroplane: Fictions)

My father went, Crazy.

My mother went, Crazy.

They thought I couldn’t see the fight. But I saw his hand flash through the air.

So I took the rocks to the car.

The neighbor girls could hear the war from their stoops.

I could still hear it clear.

I blared the horn to drown it out.

I was captain of my boat. I was thinking of my treasures.

I didn’t want to like this story, which was originally published in American Short Fictions Winter 2006 issue. The writing style is very affected (think Gary Lutz). There are many paragraph breaks, as you can see, and a lot of repetition. Sometimes she even rhymes! I can’t believe she’s pulling this off, really, but she is. She won me over big time.

Because the prose is so stylized, I would sometimes forget just what it was she was writing about, but I became engrossed with the rhythm and beauty of the language. This story is about all of these things: divorcing parents, cars, blue shirts, boys playing basketball, becoming the person you want to be too late to do anything about it, unrequited love, catty girls on stoops, and shitty mothers, though Steinberg might disagree with me on all counts.

Listen to her read a story from her new collection, Spectacle, here.

Cate Kennedy, “A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear”

1590487A man finds himself without the means to communicate with his wife and children.

(from Dark Roots)

I watch people sometimes, wonder how they can walk around with the weight of what they know. Wonder if they feel like me, stumbling with lead shoes on the bottom of the ocean, swimming in a sea of the unsayable. It’s a mistake we make, thinking it’s words that tell us everything.

“A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear” is a pretty short short story, as are most of the stories in this collection. So far, I’m really impressed with Kennedy’s prose and range. This is a first person narrative, told from the point of view of a man who can no longer run like he used to, who sees his abilities failing. Even his dog grows old and deaf. I would suggest buying this collection, which got good reviews in the NYTimes and Kirkus. You can read most of the story here.

George Saunders, “Tenth of December”

Tenth-of-DecemberAn old man with a brain tumor escapes his hospital bed and wanders in the snowy woods where a kid falls through the ice. (Worst summation ever?) (EDIT: Worse than I thought; I’d forgotten the word tumor. Of course he had a brain.)

(from Tenth of December)

The ice edge broke again, but, breaking it, he pulled him- self infinitesimally toward shore, so that, when he went down, his feet found mud sooner. The bank was sloped. Suddenly there was hope. He went nuts. He went total spaz. Then he was out, water streaming off him, a piece of ice like a tiny pane of glass in the cuff of his coat.

Trapezoidal, he thought.

Artists rarely save their title track for the end, but it’s easy to see why here. This story’s a straight-up heartbreaker. Maybe even a tearjerker. Then again, it’s unexpectedly life-affirming or at least bleak-lightening, or. I don’t know. And per It’s 3-something in the morning. I thought I went to bed early. Turns out it was just a nap. It’s a fine time to read this story, but writing about it? Not happening. You can read it here.

So that’s the end of the collection, and right on time, given that the flimsy spine of the advanced readers copy is about ready to give up the ghost. Shame to see a signed book falling apart, even one that lasted long enough to be read. I won’t be lending this one out.

Kurt Vonnegut, various post-humous stories

200px-WhileMortalsSleep“Epizootic”: Insurance men mourn their financial losses now that so many are committing suicide to give their families the big payout.

“Hundred Dollar Kisses”: A recently fired man answers an investigator’s questions are to why he struck his co-worker with a telephone.

Q: What is wrong with the world?

A: Everybody pays attention to pictures of things. Nobody pays attention to things themselves.

“Guardian of the Person”: A guy and his new wife drive home to pick up his inheritance. The uncle who raised him has a drink. The reader scratches his head.

“With His Hand on the Throttle”: Earl neglects his wife and plays with his model trains, to the chagrin of his mom.

(from While Mortals Sleep)

Some of these are like non-supernatural Twilight Zone episodes. I’m having trouble buying in. Like, there’s no way we as a people were as simplistic and stupid as we appear to be in “With His Hand on the Throttle.” Well, outside of bad television. That’s kind of how I feel about everything I’ve read so far from While Mortals Sleep. I liked the doom and gloom of “Epizootic” but the rest have been a little light and silly. There’s a reason Vonnegut never had these stories published.