Thursday, October 30, 2008

On "Extinction" by B. J. Hollars (2385 words) ***

If the Hollars story featured earlier on this blog (here) was fantastic realism, this one falls more precisely into the realism camp. That earlier story, with its odd subject matter, caught my attention much more quickly, but this story still managed to keep me reading.

"Extinction" is, in part, a story about stereotypes. They aren't the stereotypes we usually think of, when looking at a national or human level--racial, gender, or otherwise. These stereotypes are more personal than that. These are stereotypes that two characters have built up about each other--a dad who fails to acknowledge that his son has grown up, and a son who can't see his father for the new man he is. This is also a story about change, two men dealing with grief, one the loss of a mother, the other the loss of a wife. And most important, this a story about desperation, about a dad trying to hang on--to life, to people, to anyone really, but most especially to his son. Stirring doesn't publish fiction very often, it seems, so the stories are rather special when they do. Read the piece here at Stirring.

On "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde **

So I just returned from a road trip, which means that most of the reading I've been doing in the last couple of weeks is via good old books on tape or CD. Most of what I "read" (or, rather, listened to) in the car was via the public domain archive Project Gutenberg. Wilde's book, one I've been intending to get around to for over a decade, was the first. What can I say? I was disappointed. Is it fair for me to be disappointed by it? I'm not sure.

I'm recalling seeing The Godfather for the first time, another slight disappointment, and I'm wondering if this might not be a similar case. What happened with The Godfather was that I'd seen so many interesting bits and pieces and heard so many things about it that I expected much. But The Godfather is such a iconic movie that films thereafter have often copied its various techniques and plot points. Seeing it for the first time, I felt like it was full of cliches. Such was also the case with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I'd never read it, but I'd heard the whole story before, many, many times, and now, finally reading the original, it lacked much oomph. Beyond that, Victorian dialogue, with its paragraphs of discussion, seems so unrealistic, even bad, to my modern ear that at times it was hard to put up with Mr. Wilde, even if the reader himself did a rather remarkable job of making his voice seem lively and clear. You can download the text here, and the audio book here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On "Shots" by Kim Chinquee (761 words) ***

Previously, I wrote about "Shot Girls" by Kim Chinquee (here). Here's another story with a variation on the same theme. Although I typically end up enjoying one story much more than another, I like it when authors write two versions of a story and share them both. It's simply interesting to watch the way in which a mind can go in different directions with the same idea--the meaning a given piece will take on and the emotions that piece will elicit. It's also interesting insofar as usually one piece is much longer than the other, more full bodied, less stream lined. Some authors, of course, only write a very few stories, over and over and over--Poe was one of those. Perhaps, all authors do that to an extent, but most are more subtle than presenting the same "buried alive" theme/plot device (one of Poe's favorites) again and again. Another author I enjoy who has written stories that closely parallel one another is Brock Clarke. Unfortunately, the two pairs of stories of his that I see as parallel are no longer available online. You can read Chinquee's "Shots" here at Willow Springs.

(Note: In an e-mail exchange with Kim herself, sometime after I read the story, I discovered that "Shots" and "Shot Girls" were written four years apart. So this was indeed a case of an author returning to fertile ground to explore the same setting and some of the same themes again, rather than a story taking two directions and both being written and published.)

On "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust ***

I like the modernists, usually, but sometimes they can be a bit much. Proust's book is French modernism at its height, and it reminds me much of Virginia Woolf in its focus on thought. Add to that an interest in memory and love, and one has the essence of the first volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The first two hundred pages recount a child's life and his interest in his own mother (hello, Freud), culminating with the beginning of his interest in Gilberte, Swann's daughter. The second section I thought the strongest and the most interesting--"Swann's Love." Here, we get the story of Swann, falling for one Odette. At first, lady's man that he is, he has little strong interest. She's not his type. She makes a play for him, and he spends time with her accordingly, but without much intensity. During the course of the section, however, Swann's interest grows, even as Odette's seeming interest falls. This interest finds form in jealousy (Odette, Swann learns only later, has been something of a gentleman's woman herself). Watching the transformation take place is interesting, if a bit mind-numbing in a Woolf sort of way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

On "The Ghosts We Love" by Brock Clarke (9318 words) *****

A common subject in Brock Clarke's stories is men who have failed to live up to life's potential. Often, this revolves around marriages gone bad, in part because of these failures. In this story, from Clarke's second collection, Carrying the Torch, we see the theme carried across a family. Here, the setting of a lake house is used to full effect, presenting us with eras of the family and its gradual deterioration. Read the story here at Virginia Quarterly Reivew. Or listen to Clarke read it here at Lit-Cast.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On "Mr. Inspirational" by Kirk Pynchon (920 words) ***

"Mr. Inspirational" is what I'll call here a "talking story." What I mean is that it's a story you'd hear someone tell rather than write. Such stories are first-person narratives by and large, and they sound real, and personal--and genuine. One of the difficulties, sometimes, with fiction is that, well, it reads like fiction. We write in ways we would never tell a story. When was the last time, after all, in a conversation, that your friend Francis said something like, "Joe sat down at the bar; Sam, the bartender, was a surly sort who'd just lost two hundred dollars on a horse, and he wasn't in the mood for guff; 'What'll it be?" he asked Joe, swaddling a stack of newly washed glasses in a towel like a baby"? There's a certain faux quality to fiction. When written like "Mr. Inspirational," however, that faux quality is pushed down and what emerges is something you might hear around the water cooler at work or at a bar or at church--or at a funeral. Thus, the piece seems more immediate. I never did varsity sports, but this guy seems to have. Read the story here at A Cautionary Tale.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On "Junkyard Dog" by Michael J. Cunningham (8818 words) ****

Cunningham's "Junkyard Dog" falls into that genre of stories about diary writing--or stories that are a diary. I think of Evan S. Connell's novel The Diary of a Rapist and of Rick Moody's short story "The Preliminary Notes" (this latter not exactly a diary, but something akin to it). Both are about who in writing about themselves and their relationships discover something unsavory about themselves--as do the readers. Cunningham takes a similar track, but what makes this story an interesting variation on the genre is that our main character to an extent knows that he's a jerk. And his change at the end--indeed, the change wrought in every single character--suggests that perhaps nothing has changed at all. It seems, unfortunately, so much like many a life. Read the story here at the Summerset Review.

Monday, October 6, 2008

On "Second Favorite Girl in Brooklyn" by Kendra Grant Malone (5708 words) ***

There seems to me to be a trend in short stories these days where narrators use short declarative sentences and talk mostly about banal day-to-day things. One would think such stories would be incredibly boring, but somehow they're often very interesting--and quite sad. The stripped-down language speaks for characters who lack much to live for, whose words are as stripped as their lives. Examples of this include the earlier reviewed "Eat When You Feel Sad" by Zachary German on Bear Parade and much of Tao Lin's often hilarious and absurd work. Here is yet another example of the form. I love how Malone repeats one key phrase regarding her friends, how that in turn reflects on the narrator's relationships in general with other people. And the title--the second favorite girl. Always second. Of course, I'd take second over third or fourth or fifth--but when it comes to romance, whether it's second or third or fourth doesn't really matter--it's still not the "one," still not special enough. Oh boy. I'm going to go cry now and try not to think about all those rejections. Why don't you read the story while I'm gone? You'll find it here at Bearcreekfeed.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On "Eat When You Feel Sad" by Zachary German (5688 words) ***

This story is made of simple, declarative sentences. It is choppy. Early writing instructors would be horrified. You need sentence variety, they would say. I would comply. Zachary German does not. In that is part of this story's strength. Young adults struggle with tedium. Life moves forward. Life stays the same. People party. People stop partying. People ride bikes. People stop riding bikes. They go to another party. They eat some grapes. They go to sleep. They type on the computer. Somehow, if you're like me, you'll be sucked into the tedium and read the thing all the way to the end, fascinated. Read the story here at Bear Parade.