Issue #3 of Electric Literature just came out, featuring Aimee Bender and Rick Moody, among others. I got my hands on a copy of the print journal, and I’m glad to see that a journal that touts itself as being available on so many digital platforms hasn’t let the print side languish. It’s a beautiful design, better than many journals only publishing in print. Inside, it showcases the art of Adam Thompson — simple but fun sketches between the prose, like a genie lamp coming out of a genie lamp and an automatic rifle controlled by marionette strings.
“The Red Ribbon” makes me glad to see the way Aimee Bender’s fiction has matured. I thoroughly enjoyed her early stories — “Girl in the Flammable Skirt” — as well as her novel “An Invisible Sign of My Own,” but this story seems to bear the traces of those early fabulist fictions, while moving on to a more grounded realism. As always, her more fantastical elements are balanced by deep and bracing humanity.
Rick Moody’s story, “Some Contemporary Characters,” was first published via Twitter (to much fanfare). While I admired the attempt to publish a story through Twitter — as much for the new form of dissemination as for the natural constraints of 140 characters — I had a hard time reading it. I started in the middle, where several friends were re-Tweeting the story. Then I backtracked to the source at Electric Literature and tried from the beginning. It never gelled. Thankfully, when I read it here in the journal, I liked it much more. The haiku-like story switches between the points of view of an elderly scholar and a textophiliac girl with “three different hair colors, none of them found in nature.”
It’s nice that this third issue has begun to highlight emerging writers. The first two issues were stocked full of brand names — Michael Cunningham, Lydia Millet, Jim Shepard, Lydia Davis, Colson Whitehead — and now the journal has built the cachet to explore lesser known names, like Matt Sumell. Sumell’s story, “Little Things,” starts like this:
“I folded my arms. They felt big, capable of anything. Lifting, carrying, digging, feeding cows PCP so they revolt with unexpected and tremendous violence — anything. Wrapping gifts in tissue paper and busting teeth out of Christian heads. Pumping bicycle tires, pumping gas, pumping iron, bagging my own groceries and skipping boulders across the Long Island Sound all the way to Connecticut. Cracking eggs with one hand and folding laundry. Pushing my Mexican neighbor’s broke-down car across the street Thursday mornings to avoid street sweeping tickets and tossing my cell phone to a friend who needs to make an important call to his mom. Opening every jar for every lady. Helping. I felt like helping. I felt like I could help.”
The strong voice carries this short piece about a family dealing with their dying mother. Not an original topic, but certainly told in an entertaining way. There are fisticuffs between brothers, a father losing his gallbladder, the man who never stopped walking (like “The Unnamed,” yes), murders with chicken soup cans, Catholic girls dying for human touch, and icing that scalds. Miraculously, it all sticks together.
By surrounding the story of the mother’s death with the violent, odd, and melancholy ephemera heard on the news or happened to friends, the normally isolated event of death is seen with a wide-angle perspective, a single star in a constellation of pain. In fact, I like that this story precedes the Rick Moody story, because the way that a Twitter story communicates is only through and amongst the welter of thousands of other tiny stories. It’s important to recognize that no single narrative takes primary stage — it’s always filtered through all the other tragedies of the world — and Sumell captures that well.
It’s tough to characterize the aesthetic of any journal, but E.L. hovers in that liminal space between traditional and experimental. At least in regards to the first three stories in this issue, it could be called innovative without sacrificing the foundations of fiction. But whatever you call it, it’s good.