Sunday, January 29, 2012

On "A History of Lies" by Sarah Kuntz Jones (5658 words) ***

Jones's story has all the markings of a well-structured tale. If I were going to map a short story, give readers a lesson on how to write one, Jones's piece might serve as a model, with its rising action and its climax. The piece is about one Odile Johnson, an "old maid" (at least in the 1940s) who chose to care for her mother rather than run off with a man. Not liking to draw attention to herself, Odile has crafted a life of denial--denying what she really wants and, in the process, denying others what they want. And like a well-put-together story, Odile, through the mysterious arrival of a meteorite, is forced finally to confront her own desires and to change. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On "List for My Ex-Husband" by Andrea Kneeland (722 words) ****

This strange, affecting piece comes in the form of a list. It would be easy to think that the popularity of lists as a formats for pieces of writing before the Net was minimal, but when I think about that, it's probably not true. Popular magazines, with the short, snappy articles, often include(d) lists, and lists were also a popular thing to route via e-mail near the start of online culture. What is different about Kneeland's list is that it is personal, and by the accumulation of details, it builds toward a portrait of a woman on the edge. Something tells me she's not quite been the same since her husband left her. Read the story here at Knee-Jerk.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On "The Long Swim" by Jenny Bitner (955 words) ***

I've read stories about fat before, but I've never read a story that celebrates fatness like this one. Here, fatness is our primate self, our peaceful self. Bitner's words flop over one's ears like rolls of fat hitting skin, only these rolls are beautiful and so is the skin, and one wants more and more and more. Pass the butter please, and the cream cheese, and that hot dog. Read the story here at Corium.

Friday, January 20, 2012

On "The White Man's Way" by Jack London (5233 words) ***

This story of Jack London's is a comparison between cultures and an exploration of the misunderstandings that can occur and the mysteries that can result when wildly divergent cultures meet. I'm reminded a bit of Paul Bowles's work. But whereas Bowles often leaves Western readers with little to hold on to, which is what makes much of what he writes so chilling, London pretty handily makes his point, making for some ironic tension between the characters and American readers. Perhaps that's because of the point of view that London takes here. We read it from the perspective of an American traveler, but the traveler's perspective is merely a frame within which the oral story of an Indian and his sons resides. Many are the mysterious ways of the white man--if you're an Indian. Read the story here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On "Three Chords and the Truth" by Richard Fulco (5551 words) ****

Here's a story about rock and roll, about adolescence, about being cool--or trying to--about picking up girls, about friendship, about parents and their expectations. Years ago, a friend of mine wrote a series of short stories about young girls, ages twelve to eighteen. The stories were intended for the young adult market, and by and large, they were really fantastic--of course, I don't think any of them ever saw publication unfortunately (that's a book of stories I'd have purchased).

Fulco's story reminds me a bit of my friend's stories. Here, all the parents are conspiring against their kids, conspiring, however, in the best sense. They just want to see their kids be successful. For Greg, that means playing football--not rock. For the narrator, that means studying algebra--not music.

But music is what inspires the narrator and why he has to conspire to practice it, play it, listen to it. It's also what brings people together who otherwise wouldn't be. It's a way to discover not just yourself but others. Meanwhile, the narrator is wrestling with girls just as many young men do, and his best friend, to whom girls come easy, is wrestling with a parental problems of a more sinister sort.

The title here lends to an ongoing motif throughout the story. The truth is compromised in order to play music--through lie after lie--but it's also what, down deep, one might say the narrator feels when he's focused on rock and roll. Read the story here at Front Porch.

On "Martian Time-Slip" by Philip K. Dick ****

The last and only time I read a Philip K. Dick novel was while I was an undergraduate in college, taking a class in film adaptation. I had not much enjoyed the movie Blade Runner, the basis for which was Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But as I watched the movie over and over and over for a class paper, I began to gain a certain appreciation for it (especially for the director's cut, since the narration is, to me, overbearing). The novel struck me as even more profound and direct in terms of its themes but at the same very much a pulp book: the writing didn't seem to me terribly sophisticated or strong.

Having just completed reading a biography of the man, I feel like virtually all of the elements of this most recent book I've read could be filtered through the things that that biographer--a former wife--had to say about it. I saw in the Mars setting certain preoccupations Californians have with landscape--namely, the need for water, and the way in which water comes from the mountains. Also, there's the preoccupation with real estate speculation, another common California motif. In fact, I'm not recalling exactly, but this might have been one of the novels the biographer mentioned as having been written straight, and then, failing to sell it, Dick simply reset the novel on Mars and sold it as sci-fi. That would make sense, except that the book veers more and more heavily into the fantastic as the plot progresses, such that Mars seems integral to the plot by the novel's end. Still, Dick himself did feel like, with this novel and Man in the High Castle, he had finally found a way to merge his desire to be literary writer with the fact that the only thing people wanted to publish or read of his was science fiction.

Indeed, if anything, this book is extremely focused not on questions of man in the universe per se but on psychological questions. Reading someone's ideas, from the 1960s, of what life on Mars would be like, it was kind of funny to see him referencing tape recorders and the like constantly, a technology that has pretty much gone away (I'm reminded of a really cool animation short that was nominated for an Academy Award a few years ago--it was sci-fi drawn as if Victorians were conceiving it, with space ships looking like huge wooden vessels). So too, the psychological themes stem to ideas that were in vogue at the time--Dick had a huge interest in Jung's work, as well as the work of existential psychologists'. And so we get vast sections--in fact, the heart of the novel--revolving schizophrenia and autism and the idea that these are related and might be related to a person's ability to live within time.

Sure, the book is about time travel, but interestingly, that travel takes place completely within the heads of the various characters, within schizophrenic seizures and dreams. In this way, the characters' can learn of the future, but they can't do anything to change the future (by going back to the past). What's there is already fated to happen, and that fate is death. The most we can do in light of this, it seems, is ignore such and struggle on.

The plot itself revolves around a scheme to develop a portion of the FDR Mountains on Mars. A human settlement has been planted on the planet, but the lack of water has kept the place from thriving. Developers, however, have word that the best prospect for water is in those mountains, and so the native Martians (yes, Mars has natives, who like so many other natives in history are thought to be essentially primitive and are pushed aside by "humans," even though it seems clear that Martians are actually of the same stock), the native Martians are pushed out. Meanwhile, hearing of this scheme, one local immigrant named Arnie Kotts sets out to find out where the best place to develop is so that he can beat the Earth UN developers to the spot and sell out the undeveloped land for huge prices; unbeknownst to him, some Earth-side investors have the same idea. And the race is on to find someone who can tell Arnie the future.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On "Sectioned" by Katrina Gray (593 words) ***

This brief story recounts a birth. What I like about it so much is its attention to language. I'm reminded a bit of a piece I've been reworking for a journal of late. I couldn't help but be a little jealous. What I do in about 1500 words, Gray manages in just over 500. There's joy here. There's pain. And it all seeps out in the words. Waiting for us to listen. To join in. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On "Babes" by Natalia Cortes Chaffin (3818 words) ***

Here's an adventure story--and a political tale. I'm reminded of the five-year-old boy who came to America on a boat during the Bush administration. The relatives refused to send him back to Cuba, where his dad lived. The dad insisted the boy be sent home. Chaffin's story empathizes more with the political feelings and assumptions of the relatives rather than the father, but it still holds one's attention. How to save a child? Not once but over and over? Read the story here at the Coachella Review.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

On "Beyond Lies the Wub" by Philip K. Dick (2672 words) ***

This short tale of Dick's still manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Some animal rights activists might take heart in its major plot point--what to do when needing food and all you have left to eat is each other or a sentient pig? This pig has other talents too, however, which may not have been counted on. What makes it okay to eat another creature? What makes something human or not? In what way does humanity bear responsibility for what's around it? These are the questions Dick addresses here. (Note: I'll be reading various works about and by Philip K. Dick over the coming months, so expect more stories and reviews on the subject, along with the usual links to great online stories.)

On "Search for Philip K. Dick" by Anne R. Dick ***

This biography of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick by his third wife (of five) is in some ways rather untraditional. It is, after all, a biography by an ex-lover. And in many ways, it is a kind of personal mystery story, which is why it is set up the way that it is.

By set-up, what I mean is that the book is not in strictly chronological order. We don't start at Phil's childhood but rather at his meeting Anne. His adult life starts there, and the rest of the book covers his life until his death. And then--then--Anne returns to Phil's childhood and covers his life until the moment he meets Anne. This strategy lends the tale a kind of poignancy one might find in a movie--and a kind of shift in sympathies. What I refer to in sympathies is that one feels most of Anne--until the end--when now we see Anne's entry into Phil's life from another perspective, that of his previous wife, Kleo. Now, instead of a love story, it's a tale of betrayal. Anne, the devoted wife who rescues Phil, is now the other woman who steals him.

This isn't to say that I felt sympathy for Anne all along. It's always a bit hard to feel sympathy for the adulterer, but Phil--at least in his reckoning--wasn't happy; Kleo didn't want to have children (though later we learn it was Phil who didn't want them--alas, just excuses for leaving). Beyond that, Anne has some emotional intensity I can't sympathize with; she and her new husband have fights in which she throws dishes--rather scary to me.

But as time progresses, she mellows, and it is Phil who becomes increasingly detached and disturbing. And Phil is disturbing--abusive, depressive, dependent, and drug addicted. The dependence on drugs began early. The child of divorced parents, in high school, Philip becomes progressively more uncomfortable with his surroundings and eventually drops out. This discomfort intensifies as he begins his career as a writer in early adulthood, such that he is diagnosed with agoraphobia among other things and issued prescriptions, which would prove to be a bane throughout his life.

It is during his life with Anne that he becomes increasingly paranoid and dependent on these drugs--and on Anne. But he also becomes abusive and, to put it bluntly, crazy. At some point, he gets his wife put into an insane asylum. A constant liar, he's able to convince others she's trying to kill him. This, obviously, lends to further problems in the marriage.

Eventually, he leaves Anne. And in this is the mystery that Anne tries to solve. She was, despite all his troubles, greatly in love with the man--and hoped and wished for him to return ever after. She was willing to put up with his insanity. Why, why did he leave? she asks, and that is what she sets to find out. In the process, she learns that she didn't really know him--and can't.

Despite Anne's constancy, he moves onto other women and other parts of California. He also moves on to more drugs--lots of them--and eventually ends up in rehab, so that at the end of his life, he is much less dependent on them than in the middle portion of his life. Meanwhile, his writing finds its audience, and his books begin selling enough copies such that, always poor early on, he's now rolling in doe. And as such, he becomes an incredibly generous man, though also a crazy one, as all-consumingly dependent on those around him as at any other point in life. Most women, eventually, can't handle it and move on--or he moves on from them to another. This inability to keep a stable family angered him throughout life.

Also he was bothered by the fact that people were only interested in his science fiction. He was interested in ideas, the state of man, and as such thought of himself as a literary author, but the literary books didn't sell--at least until he was a very well-established name late in life. So he had to write literature through his science fiction.

But the science fiction, as fiction by most authors, revolves around some rather consistent themes and motifs--the same stories told time and again. And with many of them based in people and events he actually knew.

The book ends with Anne's dreams about Philip. These alone are fascinating, but they are especially so when written out by a wife who is completing a biography of the man.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On "156 Miles to Las Vegas" by Isaac James Baker (864 words) ***

Baker's "story" is really a meditation on a moment from multiple points of view. Start with lovers, go to the person who has to watch them, proceed to someone for whom the lovers are just friends in the background. What is this moment, 156 miles out of LV? It's a time to relish, a time to escape. Originally published in Clapboard House, read it here.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On "Hanger" by Kat Lewin (1619 words) ***

Lewin's story seems like something out of a vampire novel. It's a regular night, and a woman asks him to help her kids but . . . This is horror movie stuff but delivered in a way that on some odd level seems possible, save for the weird imagery, which is itself part of the horror. I reminded of an incident a few years ago at a local grocery store in which a woman was walking around with a knife stabbing things; the security guard tried to stop her and was seriously slashed. Do I understand that woman? No. Nor do I understand the woman in this story. But we're not asked to understand. We asked to watch, and then run. Read it here at DeComp.