Posts in "short story" category / Page 2

Review of Damion Searls “What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going”

Damion SearlIn the fourth story of this collection, “A Guide to San Francisco,” the narrator says, “I have to admit I have never been as moved by the realists or the world-creating fabulists as I am by the pattern-makers.” If you agree with that aesthetic preference, you should read Damion Searls’ “What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going.”

The book is slim enough to be a fiction chapbook, with five first-person stories about writers, and relies on complex patterns and beautiful prose to carry the pieces. Rather than a casual series of events, a slow accumulation of acutely rendered details moves the stories forward.

Lovers of literature should lap up the frequent references to literary titans like Hawthorne, Nabakov, Gide, Orwell, and Fitzgerald. There’s also a good bit of Borges in some of the stories, with literary criticism about stories that don’t exist, and meta stories commenting upon themselves, and fiction not only mirroring reality but creating it.

Here are a few treasures that I enjoyed mining:

  • “The trees drip with green: the air is too saturated to hold more color.”
  • “[The angels] loom, like the buried first memory of a parent.”
  • “Her high, thin gaze would sweep down from above her crucifix necklace or pearls like a frigid Arctic wind to cool anyone’s faintest interest in mentioning [sexuality] around her.”

“The Cubicles” chronicles the career struggles of a technical writer, and the deflation of expectations and dreams: “I no longer aspired to see my name blazoned on title pages, meanwhile achieving such fame nevertheless: my name on the credits pages of dozens of books, read by thousands, books explaining how to use a certain database or manage client ROI in a B2B e-business footprint or design a Customer Call Center (CCC).” The third story, Goldenchain, shows the rattling gasp of an expiring marriage during a trip to Puget Sound. All five of the stories bear of the mark of careful, deliberate thought about character and language, and give fruits to those intrigued enough to return for a second (and third) reading.

If nothing I’ve said has convinced you one way or another, take another look at the cover. It’s a stenciled car driving into a kaleidoscopic square. Yeah, reading this book can kind of feel like that.

Cao Naiqian: There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think Of You Late At Night

Cao NaiqianBefore I get to a micro review of the collection itself, I have to admit that I’m impressed by Naiqian’s bio. Growing up in a rural section of China, he didn’t start writing until 37, as a result of a bet with a friend. He still has his day job as a detective (!) for the government. He actually lived before starting to write, by working in a mine and in a factory and with music and as a farmer.

With a bio like that, you can’t help but be interested in the fiction.

“There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think Of You Late At Night” describes the hardscrabble life of peasants in a rural cave-dwelling town in China. Each of these thirty stories is short — think flash fiction, or short shorts — but accomplishes much with a Carveresque-style minimalism. Desperate lives generate stories about simple elements like food and sex, which reoccur frequently: growing food, cooking food, destroying food, and adultery, bestiality, incest. The reappearing characters, with names like Dog, Grunt, Zits We and Widow San, don’t want modernization or political progress or the afterlife, they want little more than pride and honor; full bellies and sated sexualities.

Stylistically, Naiqian has this habit of repeating an exact phrase twice: “It grew darker and darker. It grew darker and darker.” Also, in dialogue, he gives attribution for every single line, so sometimes you read “Heinu said” four times in a row without any other characters speaking. By piling on the words the particular information grows in significance. It’s reminiscent of the way Hebrew poetry in the Psalms moves elliptically around a subject by describing it in at least two and sometimes four different ways. But since Naiqian doesn’t vary the expression at all, it lacks the kind of aesthetic variation of Hebrew poetry. Instead, it captures the bare-bones existence of his characters — even the words to describe them, and their words themselves, are limited, spare, and can only repeat identical lines for emphasis, rather than by any kind of linguistic flourishes.

The details of this collection, especially about animals, come straight from the source. There’s true-experience tidbits about flies, such as the fact that fly droppings on food can’t immediately be seen, but turn black after a period of time, and also that a fly can still buzz around even after it’s been decapitated.

There’s also a spot-on description of a lesbian hen, and the way Naiqian describes her mating ritual in this excerpt is precise, especially the last line (I raised chickens, so yes, I know):

“Whenever the village hens saw Fluff Ball coming, they would stop what they were doing and hunker down, lift their tails exposing their red rumps, and allow Fluff Ball to mount them. Fluff Ball would strut, its chest thrust forward, over to the most attractive hen. It would spread its right wing like a fan and circle the hen. Round and round it would go before leaping on the hen’s back to do it. To maintain its balance, it would grasp the feathers on the hen’s neck in its beak.”

The translator, John Balcom, who also wrote an introduction, mentioned that the dialogue is particularly difficult to translate, since Naiqian uses heavy dialect. How it comes out in English is full of curses. There’s plenty of “fuck your mother to death” and “fuck your ancestors.” For example, this exchange in the first story, “The In-Law”:

Blackie said, “That fucking In-law is here for you.”
The woman said, “Don’t let him in. Wait till I put on my pants.”
Blackie said, “Shit, what difference does it make?”
Blushing, the woman said, “Why don’t you just tell him I’m sick? It is that time of the month, anyway.”
“How can I do that?” asked Blackie. “We Chinese always keep our word.”
Blackie went out to meet the In-Law.

A lot of cultural nuances are probably lost in translation, but the issue of class comes across loud and clear. The stronger pieces in this collection are the ones that don’t rely excessively upon dialogue, like “Widow San” and “Heinu and Her Andi.” Coincidentally, they’re also the slightly longer ones.

If you’d like to explore rural Chinese culture, this book will give you a look that is almost too close for comfort.

Narrative Has Competition! (Hello, Electric Literature)

Electric LiteratureNarrative has become the current gold standard for online literary magazines, wading in the fray and dominating the competition in a relatively short time.

Well, watch out. Electric Literature just launched, and it looks like a doozy.

True to the name, EL is distributing electronically, through a host of formats: e-book, Kindle, and iPhone, plus print-on-demand. It seems a smart new path for literary journal distribution. Plus, EL actually provides a business model that might work, as stories are sold for .99, a much better distribution model than wrangling a few copies into independent bookstores, many copies of which are unsold and scrapped.

Might I mention the lineup is as strong as that first issue of Black Clock that took the literary world by storm?

  • Michael Cunningham
  • Jim Shepard
  • T Cooper
  • Lydia Millet
  • Diana Wagman

As far as money, they say this on their submission page (a backhanded jab at Narrative?):

We pay writers, they don’t pay us. We are proud to support writers who entrust us with their work.

They also pay at a Subtropics rate ($1000 smackers a story). But it’s pretty hilarious that a journal with “Electric” in their name doesn’t accept electronic submissions. [CORRECTION: Though initially confused by the set-up of the submissions page, I have now verified that they do accept electronic submissions.]

Plus, if all that isn’t enough, they have pictures of hot girls doing weird things on their website (But not as explicit as Fence, though).

How Do Parks Resemble Short Stories?

At the Guardian, they review the new anthology “Ox-Tales,” structured around the four elements, and “Park Stories,” a set of eight specially commissioned short stories all corresponding to a major British park.

Explaining the rationale behind the parks, editor Rowan Routh said: “There’s a kinship between parks and short fiction – both are confined things.”

I could go farther — short stories are manageable enough to be read in parks. They are the perfect park-lit.

Oh, and the article buy medication online reliable continues the trend of speculating that short stories are experiencing a revival. Yet at the same time, the article starts by explaining how short story writers used to make a living at writing short stories, and now for “Ox-Tales,” they’re donating the stories. Hmmm. Not exactly revival-ish. (But it is for charity!)

But one thing Britain’s got right. They are sponsoring the short story form. The USA could pick up some tips.

Open Letters Monthly In June

Samuel_beckettThe June issue of Open Letters Monthly is out — A Fiction Issue, no less — and it’s a doozy. Not only a ton of reviews, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, reviewed by John Madera, but the genuine article of fiction itself. This issue includes six short stories/novel excerpts.

Also, I review noir thrillride, “Nobody Move,” by Denis Johnson, with the not-at-all-sensational title, “This Book Will Shoot You.”

Mix Tape of All-Time Best Short Stories (With Secret Theme!)

Short story monthOver at Emerging Writers Network, Dan’s been hyping up Short Story Month, and a lot of others are getting in on the action.

Marcel Jolley mentioned mix tapes over there. So I submitted a mix tape for Dan, themed along Fantastic Fiction. Love the concept of mix tapes. Did a bunch on this blog way back (including my SEX mix tape!). If I could rename this blog, I’d call myself Book DJ. Or Story DJ.

Below is another mix tape. I don’t want to call these the best short stories, but these are certainly some of my favorites. Classic favorites, really. I’m thinking about making another list of more recent short story favorites, maybe a Modern Collection of my favorites in the last twenty years.

I tried to avoid being too much like Norton or a syllabus. I tried to choose stories that stuck with me over the years, and also ones that I enjoyed upon multiple re-readings.

While my picks have a lot of chalk in terms of authors, the particular stories might not be what you’d first guess. O’Connor too often gets nailed with “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and Faulkner gets “Barn Burning.” Kafka always gets stuck with “The Metamorphosis.” The other obvious choice for Carver is “Cathedral,” which is also wonderful and mysterious, but “A Good, Small Thing” crucifies my heart every time, and I love that the story stayed with him so long he had to revise it and add so much more.

All-Time Short Story List:

  • “Parker’s Back” Flannery O’Connor
  • “The Laughing Man” J.D. Salinger
  • “In the Penal Colony” Franz Kafka
  • “A Good, Small Thing” Raymond Carver
  • “Black Pantaloons” William Faulkner
  • “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Dead” James Joyce
  • “The Garden of Forking Paths” Jorge Luis Borges

But wait! This is not just a randomly collected All-Time Short Story List! There is a secret theme linking all these stories together! Bonus points to anyone who can identify it! Bonus points also to anyone who wants to wildly and roundly criticize some of my suggestions and offer their far superior choices!

Hint: 6 explicitly follow the theme. 2 metaphorically follow the theme.

Esquire Fiction Contest

Esquire is giving the short story a little nudge.

Or, given the bar-brawl story they just published, more like a shove.

They are starting to publish stories again, albeit only online, and are also sponsoring a contest for short stories under 4000 words with one of these three titles:

  • Twenty-Ten
  • An Insurrection
  • Never, Ever Bring This Up Again

The first two seem ambiguous enough to spawn a number of interpretations, but that medicine online generic onhealthy last one tells too much. Nonetheless, it’s good to get more stories in glossies, and I think it’s even better they’re online. Nothing exists unless it’s online. Any of my friends can and will read my stories when they’re online, but when they’re in print mags, nobody bothers.

So kudos, Esquire.

GQ, watch out. I just might have to cheat on you.

Online Short Story Award for 2008

storySouth, one of the more notable literary journals operating online, has announced the longlist of short stories up for the Million Writers Award. All stories published online in 2008 were eligible. On May 15th, the shortlist of ten stories will be announced, at which point the winner is determined by public vote. I would offer a snarky comment about using mass voting to determine a literary winner, but 1) I imagine the people devoting time reading online short stories are a cut above general public and 2) it can’t be any less scientifically accurate than the debacle of juried awards — just read the behind the scenes finagling of any juried prize.

Kudos to the storySouth team for pumping up the prize money from last year (total of $800 bucks for the top winners, now). Also, if you want to keep up with discussions about the top stories, check out storySouth editor Jason Sanford’s blog, including the stories about the quick disqualification (!) and how awesome Kyle Minor is, considering he nabbed four nominations (I totally agree with the awesomeness).

Narrative Magazine scored the enviable position of Most Story Nominations (8!), which indicates how quickly it’s risen in the online literary journal world. But it’s innovative, attracts big names, and pays big bucks (perhaps the last two are related somehow?). Most importantly, although often online-published stories are deemed as second-citizens, Narrative really is blazing the way in establishing cachet for stories published online. I must say, though, that Narrative is like McSweeney’s in some ways: it has an ardently devoted fan base while suffering under a flock of vocal detractors.

Some other mags garnering high numbers of nominations:

AGNI (4)
Blackbird (4)
Carve (5)
Eclectica (4)
Fantasy Magazine (6)
Storyglossia (5)
Strange Horizons (6)

The Familiar Short Story Take

Articles about short stories come with almost metronomic precision from the major media outlets. You can almost count on their release — every few months, a short story article will try to stir up the literary hornets nest. There was Steven King, there was Mary Gaitskill, there was Millhauser.

Granted, most of these articles say very little new about the situation. Most of them could be recycled quite easily from ones a year or two before. The formula seems to be easy enough. Pick one side of the equation: lament the lack of cachet of the short story, or strike a radical’s pose by bucking the assertion that anything is wrong with the form. The former is of the Chicken Little variety, claiming in vociferous tones that the short story “is dying, it’s dying,” while the latter tends towards the Hasty Generalization by picking hope-catalyzing incidents and applying them to the broader literary environment.

The most recent articles of this last stripe. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott (a favorite movie critic of mine) argues that the short story is seeing a resurgence. For evidence, he cites that three major biographies recently released (on O’Connor, Cheever, Barthelme) might signal the superiority of the short story genre:

“And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century . . . Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish.”

A.O. Scott is always a delight to read, and I respect him as a thinker and a critic. But the evidence here does not fully support the conclusion, and what seems semi-plausible (though rather old news) are the scraps he tosses in at the end: that the Kindle might spark a revolution in the short story format (please God, yes), and that despite the death of the golden age of the short story, the form has remarkable staying power.

Might I say, though, that despite my critique of the regularity and formulaic qualities of these articles, that I appreciate that they do appear, because I would hate for short story collections to go the way of poetry and be relegated to the ghettos of journalistic space and attention. Attention is always good news for the form.

In the Guardian, there’s also a piece on short stories. It’s a delight because the editor must have given James Lasdun a long leash, as the piece doesn’t seem constrained by expectations of what a reader might or might not enjoy reading on that newfangled screen thingy.

Lasdun covers One More Year by Sana Krasikov, Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah, and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. Coincidentally, Wells Tower’s book is also mentioned by A.O. Scott. You know it’s a wonderful collection when it serves as the example in multiple essays of the excellence of the form. And deservedly so — it’s a brave, adventurous collection, full of the type of stories that make you think of the possibilities of short fiction.

Best (?) Five Lit Journals

The Daily Beast has an article about the five best literary journals, but two of the journals — N+1 and The Believer — I’d describe more as book reviews.

One Story deserves its place on this list, but it’s interesting that Quick canadian pharmacy onhealthy Fiction gets a nod — as the name implies, it’s all fiction under 500 words. They have excerpts only available online for each story — no, I’m joking. (Remember the 6-word story craze? Try excerpting the Hemingway one: “For Sale: Baby . . . ” — Now pay to see the rest). But explore the Quick Fiction website, because it’s a nice design.

Lastly, there’s Subtropics, about which Lizzie Stark writes:

“Subtropics is the most traditional literary magazine on this list.”

If by traditional she means not publishing exclusively flash fiction and coming out twice a year instead of every three weeks, then yes, Subtropics could be considered traditional. But I wouldn’t call the aesthetic of Subtropics traditional. Consider John Brandon’s “Naples. Not Italy.” Or Chris Bachelder’s “Gatsby’s Hydroplane.”

« Newer Posts Older Posts »