Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On "Labyrinth" by Amelia Gray (2026 words) ****

It's been a while since I featured an Amelia Gray story. Sometimes I check out her tweets, which are almost always amusing (one critic even claims they're better than her stories). And she's come quite a ways since I first came across her work online: two short story collections, then a novel from a major publisher, then another novel. And now this: a story in the New Yorker, the cream of the cream. Congratulations! This one features Gray's typical fascination with the absurd, though it's set in a mundane location, one that when we think about it, really is rather absurd: a corn maze. Only this one isn't just a maze--it's a labyrinth, full of the threat of evil just around the bend (again, another typical element in Gray's stories, as if extraordinary trouble lies within the ordinary). Are you hero enough to follow it through? Jim is. Try it here at the New Yorker.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

On "The Babysitter" by Robert Coover *****

This story, which I read my freshman year of college, blew me away then and still does to this day. I didn't read it for a class. I read it because it was in my textbook for a class, and I read the first line and couldn't stop. I've read other Robert Coover, and none of it compares. This is his climax.

Just a short time after that first read, the story would be adapted into a movie, which I eventually watched and was a shade disappointed in. It's not really a story that lends itself to being adapted. It has no straight through-line in terms of plot, and at the time I first read it, my goal was to try to fit all the disparate pieces together. But of course, Coover isn't intending this. This story is everyone's idea of a babysitter--and so she is sexy, mean, a threat, a nice girl, and much more all at the same time. As we read, plots come into being, some disappearing, others merging into others. It's a world of alternate worlds. If you haven't read this masterpiece, you can find it online here.

On "Pricksongs and Descants" by Robert Coover ***

I am surprised that I did not read this much earlier than I have. I discovered Coover near the beginning of college, and I was a big fan of "The Babysitter," but I barely gave the collection from which it is drawn a look. Instead, about ten years later, I read his novel John's Wife. The reason for this was threefold. One was that a coworker of mine explained to me the premise of his novel about baseball, which got me intrigued. Second, I had no access to a library at that time, so to meet my usual reading load, I was dependent on what I could find cheap in remainder bins or used. And John's Wife happened to be one of them. And then there was this: John's Wife began in a very interesting manner.

Unfortunately that novel got lost in its strangeness, becoming so inordinately weird that I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through (though I did finish it). I didn't return to Coover again.

Until now. And I wish I could say that I was mistaken in failing to read Coover for all these years. I can see how his work might have appealed slightly more in my early twenties, but I could also see myself not being that much more moved. That isn't to say I was not interested in his techniques--and in fact I still find those fascinating. Long before I had a computer or before the Internet was a widely used public utility, Coover was talking about the use of hypertext in fiction. I thought the ideas intriguing, but I didn't quite know how they would work or what they meant, not having the technology to refer to. The article, for those interested, is available here at the New York Times.

However, this Coover book is, as it is probably meant to be, deliberately alienating in many places, and I was left as if I were watching a showman, but in doing so, the showman fails to be a showman because I continue to see him as such throughout.

The stories in this collection are very much self-conscious. They are, many of them, a rerendering of fairy tales. They consider the process of storytelling itself, how we come to create narratives and what that means. They are also very male-centric stories, focusing often on sex and the female form. But the book is called Pricksongs, so what should be expected? Perhaps, Coover is intimating the sexual desire and story go hand in hand. Given how much best-selling fiction is romance or erotica, that's probably true.

The book opens with a prologue that makes the tie-in to fairy tales explicit. From there, the collection moves to a story called "The Magic Poker," which might qualify as my second-most favorite of the book (perhaps, "The Elevator" could also take the position). Coover is explicit here in saying the story is a story, telling us that he is the author and that he is about to introduce a character or that he regrets introducing a character because he seems to have little to do with the story, and so on. Vaguely, it involves two sisters who find a magic poker--one attracted to it, one repulsed; one who turns it into a prince and one who does not. The poker stands in for the frog the way you might expect the male anatomy to stand in for the prince here.

"Seven Exemplary Tales" features a prologue of its own and seven very short stories--some of them again, retellings of famous other stories. "The Elevator" discusses a man who plots revenge for constantly being accused of flatulence, when in fact another man is the one responsible. As with "The Babysitter" it ends up including several plotlines of possibility--sex with the woman who runs the elevator, revenge, the elevator dropping everyone to their deaths, being let off on the wrong floor or at a floor from which there is no return, and so on. "Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl" recounts the tale of a family who lives in a touristy fishing area and the man who comes to fish with them, told as per usual with Coover, out of order and with seeming conflicts in terms of what actually happens. "A Pedestrian Accident" focuses on a man who is hit by a truck but is told as a kind of farce.

Another theme of this Coover book is performance. "Romance of the Thin Man and Fat Lady" recounts circus performers, for instance. And the final story in the collection involves a magician, acting as a kind of epilogue for the collection, one in which the magician can perform some great feats but in which he will inevitably disappoint, as indeed, the collection as a whole seems to do.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On "Dead Reckoning" by Vincent Scarpa (5861 words) ***

Bereft of family and job, Frank is looking for something to console him, for some kind of meaning to interrupt his life again. Frank is a firefighter who has the fire turn against him, whose way of life has become his means of death. And it is only in consoling others--saving others--again that he has any chance to live. The question is how he'll do that. Read the story here at Swarm Lit.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On "On the Way to the Killing Spree the Shooter Stops for Pizza" by Tom McAllister (2401 words) ***

McAllister imagines what goes on in the head of a mass murderer before the actual incident. As he notes, no one really knows or can figure it out. And in this world, even McAllister's sinister young man isn't all that deep thinking. Depressed, bored, full of feelings that things don't mean much, he opts to become one of the slayers before becoming one of the slayed. Read the story here at Sundog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On "Poetry Pool Party" by Megan Martin (50 words) ***

More a humorous thought than a story, Martin here contemplates an invite to the titular event. Somehow, methinks said party would be more intriguing than she lets on. Not long ago, just weeks before my wedding, I went to do a reading, the first in a decade. I had attended readings, but I hadn't done one myself in a long while. It was a great deal of fun, and at least one of the writers (not me) read something that was truly entertaining and rather mindblowingly good. Afterward, a slate of us all went out for drinks--and for talking literature. Ah, the people there--mostly idealistic twentysomethings--it was nice to think literature important again and that we all were destined to have a part in it. That's what I imagine a poetry pool party would look like. Read the story here at Wigleaf.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On "Like Sand, or Lanterns" by Brent Rydin (3176 words) ***

Essentially a tale of two men going to scatter the ashes of a dead man, Rydin's piece stands out for its raw use of language. I love the description of the sky as sand. The dialogue has some zingers as well. Read it here at Pithead Chapel.