Thursday, March 29, 2012

On "What Will Happen" by Colin Bassett (361 words) ****

The title of Bassett's story tells us what the piece is going to meditate on. It's a piece of quiet desperation, with each line hinting at some other bigger trouble just outside the scope of the story, just "waiting to happen." And we wait. We almost begin to feel the awkwardness and trouble ourselves. Reading the story, I suppose, is kind of like working or living with someone with a personality disorder, the discomfort that that creates, how things are all right now, but you know, at any second, everything might change. Read the story here at Super Arrow.

Monday, March 26, 2012

On "Alice" by Kate Axelrod (610) words ***

A letter brings unintended consequences. That's the simple way to summarize this story. It's the unforeseen consequence at the heart of this piece that makes it so memorable, so utterly awful, so discomforting. Alice discovers she has more in common with a neighbor than she realized--is in fact perhaps better off. Read the story here at Storyglossia.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On "Hope You Get Him" by Kate Vukovich (1330 words) ***

I have had friends I liked a lot who dropped out of seeming existence. These days, it's usually easier to track said people down because of the Internet--as long as you have a full name. But I've had a few friends whose full names I never learned or who are Internet absent or whose presence on the Net consists of nothing more than perhaps a comment on a blog somewhere or a dead Friendster page. What is one to do when such friends disappear? Move on, I guess.

But Vukovich's story does something different. Here, the friend drops out--but not quite. Postcards arrive from him with short cryptic messages. There is no return address. The cryptic messages are generic. Yes, your friend is alive, they seem to say, but not much more. They beg for response, for acknowledgment--or do they? I found this piece mildly disturbing--in other words, discomforting in a subtle way that is hard to describe--perhaps because it hints not at a violence that would be shocking but at a distance that is hard to overcome. Are our words just so many communications by postcard? How well do we know those we consider to be important to us? How well do they know us? Is it even possible for us to know each other in a meaningful way? Read the story here at A Fly in Amber.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On "And It Can Never Be Too Dark or Too Bright" by Leesa Cross-Smith (1900 words) ****

Years ago, in conversation with a woman who is perhaps the closest I've ever managed to get to having a girlfriend, she asked me if it was possible to be in love with two people at once. I said I thought so, though I didn't really know from experience. What, after all, is love--or "in love"? For her, though, I could see that she was wrestling with the issue, for she "loved" two men, and I was one of them. In the end, we remained "just friends," but in the end the other guy didn't get her either.

Leesa Cross-Smith's story mines similar territory. It's a meditation on dating two men at once, on trying to sort out which is the right one--or more precisely, it's about knowing who the right one is but not being able to commit to him, because that other offers something the right one can't, because the right one isn't who you feel you deserve, because they're both in love with you, and you're in love with both.

In the midst of this, Cross-Smith does some cool stuff with geography. The places her narrator's lovers are from become their namesake. This is a means of distancing the narrator from them, of allowing her to continue see both. It's also of interest that both are from a similar region of the country--so there's sameness in the two--but from different bordering states--so there's difference. And significantly, it is in travel that the narrator finally is able to make a decision. Read the story here at Storychord.

On "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" by Philip K. Dick ****

This may rank as my favorite Philip K. Dick work so far (though I have fond memories of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I read nearly two decades ago and thought intriguing but poorly written; I'm not so sure I'd have the same opinion now, and of course, much of my nostalgia actually comes from the movie, which is a very different animal and, actually, not as interesting in terms of theme).

Flow My Tears is an It's a Wonderful Life tale, but without the pleasant vibe. It took me a while to recognize the basic plot line as one that's been done many times before. Rather, my mind went to stories in which a character wakes up with amnesia. Here, however, the main character wakes up and knows exactly who he was the day before--only no one else knows him or remembers him, and his ID cards have been erased. Essentially, he doesn't exist.

But this isn't some tale where we learn just how many people depended on our character to survive. He doesn't, in fact, appear to have changed many people's lives at all, despite his seeming importance in the world as a pop star and variety show host. Like the empty entertainment he provides, he as a person is short on value.

Worse, he lives in a totalitarian society, a police state. Where once he was a man of privilege, he is now wanted. After all, it's illegal to go without your ID--and you can't get an ID unless you have a birth certificate, which you don't have if you don't exist. He's looking a slave labor, and so instead, he hires someone to make him some fake IDs, which proves to land him in just as much trouble.

Dick is asking big questions here--about fate (what value do we really have in the scheme of overwhelming forces?) and about identity. In the case of the latter, he seems to be suggesting that ultimately we don't control it; rather, society and circumstance forge identity for us. If we're lucky enough to host a talk-show, we're one person; if we're less fortunate, then we're likely some slave in a labor camp. The individual, in the end, isn't much value.

I've barely skimmed the surface of this text. As one would expect from pulp sci-fi, there are plenty of plot twists, and as with most of Dick's titles, there's some interest in psychological neuroses (though less than in the three previous texts I've read this year), in hallucinogenic drugs, and in altered states of reality.

If I have one complaint about the book, it's that it's actually too short. I felt like he only told half the story, then got tired of it, and chopped out a summary epilogue chapter for the ending. Until then, this text was humming along, and the questions Dick seemed to be asking were still begging us to go further down the road. I could have seen something akin to Kafka's The Trial for the second half of the book, but it wasn't to be.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On "In Thirty Minutes or It’s Free" by John Minichillo (1479 words) ***

Something about the mundanity of delivering pizza appeals to me in a story. As I recall, it was the subject of Tao Lin's first novel, and here it is again as a focus of Minichillo's wonderful short story. Cliff and Wendy are watching a movie, but the pizza they've ordered is late. They're a little irritated. Calls to the chain restaurant keep eliciting an "It's coming" response. But something wicked is working that neither Cliff nor Wendy know about, and it'll change just what this pizza means to them. Read the story here at Frigg.

On "Being-in-the-World" by Ludwig Binswanger **

Binswanger was an existential psychologist that Philip K. Dick thought highly of. In some ways, Binswanger seems very much of his time and in line with Jungian psychology, which Dick was also a fan of. But in others, Binswanger seems to depart quite a bit from Jung, at least in my reading/understanding of him.

The understanding is based in part on the substantive introduction to this book, by the translater Jacob Needleman. When I say "substantive," I mean nearly 50 percent of the pages of this text. Needleman lays Binswanger out in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy. As such, the work in total felt a bit over my head. I've never been that much of a fan of pure theory, and that's much of what is on hand here.

Needleman starts with Kant and with ideas about what is "real." Is the real the exterior world of things, or is it the interior world of thoughts? Do our thoughts compose those things, or do the things compose our thoughts? Kant finds a way to meld these two ideas with his concept of understanding--that we understand the exterior, essentially, thus bringing it into the interior.

But for Binswanger, an even bigger influence is Heidegger, whose work I've never had much enthusiasm for. Thus, most of my interest went more toward Needleman's later passages when he writes of Binswanger's actual closer tie (in terms of ideas, not influence) to Sartre. Sartre claims in a way that we compose our world, our reality--but we compose it with the things that are in the external world. Essentially, we have objects, but our interpretation of those objects is what makes the world.

Within this comes Binswanger, whose interest in these topics revolves in large part around treating psychological problems, especially schizophrenics. Here, he departs from Freud a bit (and I would think Jung too) in his concept of a meaning matrix. It's not enough, Binswanger seems to suggest, that objects have universal meanings (e.g., cigars as penises). We need to know why they have those meanings, what that meaning's significance is, and whether that meaning applies to a given person's situation. In this, I think Binswanger is a bit more practical--dreams do ultimately need to be seen in a personal rather than universal context for interpretation.

Binswanger's ideas of schizophrenia rest in these ideas of what constitutes reality. To him, a schizophrenic is one who loses "being-in-the-world." Such a person creates a world of his or her own, a world that is ultimately dislodged from the world and from the true self. The neurosis and fear becomes the center of existence, and thus the person ceases to exist in a real way. If All facts are interpreted through a twisted worldview. Thus, old clothes might become, for one person, for example, a harbinger of death, of old skin, and all actions then work their way out to avoid this.

If freedom of choice is based on the opportunities presented to us, the insane person actually lacks choice. He or she is handed a sleight of predetermined ideas or interpretations of the world, and all sensory perception is thus guided by them, as are all decisions. In this idea, it seems, Binswanger merges ideas of existentialism with those of psychology.

Binswanger is at his most lucid in his essay on the case of Lola Voss. Here, his theoretical discussions take on a concreteness that allows one to see them in action. It was in this essay that I began to feel, finally, like I was sort of beginning to understand what was being argued.

I suppose, if one wanted to try to apply Binswanger's ideas to Dick's books, Now Wait for Last Year, might be one that one could twist into appropriate shape. For in a sense, that book--about alternative universes--is also a book about interpreting one's reality, and changing one's past and future through such. But Dick's novel works on a very exterior/literal level--thus whatever psychological focus the work has arguably has been literalized as a surface part of the story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On "This Is the Beginning" by Lili Flanders (496 words) ***

A lot of flash is a flight, and this is one of those. It's a fancy. It's a wish. It's a run at the possible, a stab into the realm of the imagination. It's a list of beautiful details, a list indulged upon, details added to details, ideas added to concrete sights (which are themselves only ideas) added to a plot that becomes not so much one of the story but of the mind, which becomes one not so much one of the mind but of the story. Flanders--she of a foreign city's name--talks here of a simple lunch, of the sights around, of the desires those sights beg of her. And then we see the desires trashed--or come to be. Read it however you want here at Vestal Review.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On "Unhappy Women I Have Loved" by Paul Takeuchi (4411 words) *****

Takeuchi makes the ensemble story look easy. Indeed, breaking stories into discreet bits and giving us each morsel is a common technique. After all, in film, we have one scene followed by another and then by another. Writing has to come in these small portions. But midway through Takeuchi's story, I realized he was doing something slightly different, something a bit more difficult. This is, in the end, a story told mostly as summary--summaries of various relationships. There are some scenes, but mostly there are just very well-told overviews, abstractions about the kind of person each woman the narrator dated was. And they are fascinating--perhaps, in part, because they're all depressed. But there's also just so much love here, so my enthusiasm, so much wordplay. I was reminded of Nabokov. And I wanted more, but alas our narrator stops at three--or four or five--women. Read the story here at the Adirondack Review.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

On "The Collected Notes of Gary, 3C, to the Unnamed Tenants of 4C (June 9-Oct 6, 2003)" by Jonny Diamond (1701 words) ***

Not too many years ago a (former) friend of mine (dating back twenty years) decided he no longer wanted to be in contact. Dense as I am, I didn't understand that that was what he was telling me when he said he didn't think we had much in common anymore. True that we had less in common, I surmised, but for me that was not enough reason to stop exchanging messages once every few months or so. And so I continued to write. The messages went nowhere, and on the cusp of the time--a year later--when I was figuring maybe I should no longer bother, the friend finally wrote me back. The message? What was I, a stalker? Wasn't it clear he didn't want to be in contact anymore?

Diamond's story follows a similar tact, though here Gary, from 3C, seems clearly desperate and somewhat insane. Perhaps, he only seems that way because I am the third person here, not the first. Nevertheless, this one-sided collection of messages is a fun and funny read, which you can do here at Fifty-Two Stories.

Monday, March 5, 2012

On "Salvage Sputnik" by Sam S. Kepfield (7623 words) ***

Kepfield's story is one of the most interesting pieces of science fiction I've read in a while. I find it interesting because it doesn't seem far from possibility. Decades down the line, what happens here could well be happening in real life. The story revolves around a company that decides to go into the space salvage business. By this time, corporations have taken over much of the space race, bringing meteors into Earth's orbit to serve as hotels and mining stations. In the end, the story is about law--and about lawsuits--which proves to be rather fascinating when space is at stake. Who owns all the junk out there? And who gets to reap the rewards? I can't help but feel a bit ambivalent about the narrator here, who seems perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to make a buck, even if American taxpayers end up footing the bill (well, sort of--after all, junk is junk, worthless until someone decides it isn't anymore). Read the story here at Electric Spec.

Friday, March 2, 2012

On "Exposure of the Breasts While Being Demeaned" by Dennis Kaplan (8445 words) *****

I like a good mystery, especially when it doesn't involve murder or some other typical crime. Creating a mystery is a natural way to make a story interesting, since readers are curious people. In a sense, all stories are mysteries of a kind. We read to find out what happened or what will happen. We read to find out how a character changed or didn't. We read to find out why a character is the way he or she is. We read for information we do not know.

Kaplan's "Breast" story is a mystery that may or may not involve a crime. It's rooted in a strange phone call that one Lillian Kern receives one day regarding a psychology experiment in which she once took part. Someone's trying to track down the participants--ten years later. Who is this person and why do they want to know who was involved? That's just the start. As the story proceeds, we end up wondering if the experiment is what it was supposed to be or whether more sinister ideas were at work--or whether those doing the tracking are more sinister. I even ended up wondering at one point about the main character's husband. The piece, as I'm thinking of it now, actually reminds me a bit of Thomas Pynchon, which its focus on these kind of why questions about our pasts interacting with worlds we cannot even begin to fathom. In fact, the whole search seems, in a way, like yet another psychology experiment of dubious taste--but then, as the narrator's husband might say, that's life. This one seems much shorter than its 8,000-plus word length. Read the story here at Eclectica.