Thursday, November 26, 2015

On "Doppelganger" by Mark Crimmins (247 words) ***

Here's a fun one about the person who looks like you. Such has happened to me quite often--dentists claiming I walk by their office every day around noon, roommates angry at me because they wave hello to me on campus and I don't wave back, and so on. Well, here's one thing that could happen, here, at Pif.

(After today, Short Story Reader will become irregular in presentation, rather than every three days or four days or five days, as I have been gradually slowing down. I'll still try to update folks on my reading and present great stories, but life has gotten hectic in the past two years such that I no longer have the time to devote to blogging as regularly as I once did. Look for entries about once every week or two or three. Thanks to all those who have been regular readers through the +7.5 years.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On "For The Wheels to Nullify" by Brent Rydin (422 words) ***

Here, storm is juxtaposed with relationships of various sorts. But the line that sticks out most is the one about how a storm chaser, which the narrator is, isn't brave--he's just some jerk hanging out on the outskirts where it's safe. So it is with the nonrelationship. Read the story here at Whiskey Paper.

On “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” by Manuel Puig ****

What can I say of this book for which I hold such conflicting feelings? It has taken me decades to getting around to reading Manuel Puig. Time gets away, and there are so many things to read. I was intending to read Kiss of the Spider Woman, but the book was unavailable, and in a sense, I was relieved, because I actually wanted to try something else of Puig’s. And so I tried this, his first novel.

Puig is a post-boom writer, as some Latin American literature scholars call those writing after Cortazar and Borges had hit their zenith. And his is a very different text to the magic realism that seems to hold so many Latin American authors imprisoned. I love magic realism, but it’s interesting to read someone who isn’t focused on that. Puig’s novel isn’t even in the objective realist tradition that some other Latin Americans I’ve read fall into. Rather, he seems to fall in line more with William Faulkner, James Joyce, and that ilk. And in that sense, I wish I’d had the time and the ability to concentrate on Puig’s text that I felt it demanded.

The book is written in various styles, but the bulk of it is written in stream of consciousness. Other styles include dialogue (sometimes only half of the conversation is provided to the readers), letters, reports, and diaries. The diaries are the easiest to follow, but they come late in the book. The sections are presented over the course of about fifteen years and involve different narrators. The result is that the book is rather hard to follow.

Was there a plot? Not much of one. Rather, we’re introduced to a village, a rural town, called Vallejos, and we learn about the people who populate it. With so many people and such indirect means of presentation, however, gleaning what’s going on is a task. In essence, it’s like we’re one of those people listening to half a conversation and getting sections of gossip but never the whole story. Only with great concentration will we glean what’s really going on.

Or not. Because of course much of what is going on is in the imagination or in the guise of falsehoods and rumor. So reality is twisted per whatever point of view you are getting the story from.

Vaguely, we learn the story of Mita and Berto and their son Toto. Toto loves movies. Berto looks like a movie star. Toto grows up to become (at least insofar as he becomes a teenager) a rather intelligent young man, a nerd of sorts. His cousin Hector lives with the family, and Hector is a brute, as are many of the young men who populate the novel, whose main goal seems to be to beat others up and to add as many girls to their list of conquests as possible.

With a title focused on a famous actress, the book obviously flaunts its connection to film--or rather characters’ obsession with the movies. An “essay” that appears in the book, which is about a film one of the characters has seen, appears to be almost entirely a summary of the film. Characters discuss movies, actresses (wholesome women versus bad women in film), and how to make it with a gal in the dark. Film’s role in lending the lives of these people meaning is everywhere.

The writing throughout the book is stellar. I’d be tempted to read another work of Puig’s, but I might just need to reread this work first--give it the due attention it deserves. I suspect I might need to do that for any other book of his.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On "The Punch Line" by Jared Yates Sexton (2596 words) *****

Ostensibly a story about drugs, this piece makes the subject new again by putting it in a dentist's office and selectively dropping out details. Sexton hits the right tune here, doing, as one fiction writer once noted to me, well by not mentioning certain things better left unsaid. Sometimes the eggregious seems more eggregious when we don't have it described for us--and sometimes we don't really want to know. Read the story here at Juked.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth (about 9,100 words) *****

The best work from Barth's collection of the same name is a metafictional masterpiece. Barth essentially tells a story of a kid named Ambrose going to a funhouse, but in the process he also tells readers how he's writing the story or failing to. What we have is an instruction manual of sorts. "Character is built this way," Barth tells us, and then goes on to show us within the story. The result is something comic and instructive. Bring techniques to the fore, Barth still manages to keep the story compelling--perhaps because it is the way in which the writer himself begins to become lost in the "funhouse" as his character does. The parallel is sharply drawn--and amusingly. Read the story here.

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth ***

Years ago I read The Last Voyage of Somebody Sailor, which I enjoyed enough that I kept a copy of it in my personal library (despite whatever mediocre reviews it may have gotten). But it has taken me nearly two decades now to get to Barth's classic collection of stories. Unfortunately, the collection proved as a whole to be underwhelming.

Here's what I liked about Somebody Sailor, as I recall: Barth's musings on middle-class life. There was, of course, a whole other plot involving Sinbad that becomes mixed in with the work, and while somewhat interesting, it was less compelling to me than the realist fiction of everyday life.

Something similar happened with this book for me. I was drawn most to the stories about Ambrose and his family. One explained how Ambrose got his name. One involved Ambrose being locked out of his brother Peter and Peter's friends' "club," in which the older kids discover a few things about sex. And the last involved Ambrose going to an amusement park. Each had some metafictional musings, as does the collection as a whole, but they remained subjugated to the purposes of the story as a whole. Such is not as much the case with the other stories, and as a result, my interest often waned before getting far into them.

Here's a rundown of some of the devices included: there's a story ("Night-Sea Journey") of a life that is essentially the tale of a sperm crossing crossing to its egg (or so I read from a secondary source--the tale could be easily read as one of a person swimming for life). There's a story telling the story of itself ("Autobiography"), which proves hardly as interesting as the conceit sounds. Other stories recount, in varying form, Greek legends--one discovering how to write as story, one exploring stories within stories (the techniques of "Menelaiad" is fascinating, as we get to a point where there are seven quotes within quotes, but the story itself hardly kept my attention).

The one exception to these other stories that really intrigued me was "Life-Story," which told of a writer trying to write the story that we readers are currently reading. All the conflict and crisis occurs right in there, as we witness the write dissatisfied with his work trying desperately to bring a decent story into being.

Friday, November 6, 2015

On "Cocktail Hour" by Kate Braverman (6379 words) ****

Bernie Roth returns from finding out that he is no longer needed at the company he works at and once owned to find that his wife is leaving him, and neither his son nor his daughter are the people he thought they were. In fact, this whole story revolves around the ways in which things are often not what they seem--we are all actors playing our parts. I'm reminded a bit of the stories other men have told me who have lost wives to divorce, often without any real warning. They didn't fight, they say, but the woman one day said that she is not who she was pretending to be all these years. How much do we give up of ourselves to please others? And what are the consequences when we stop? You can read the story at her website here.

On "Lithium for Medea" by Kate Braverman ****

I remember Braverman saying, from classes I took from her years ago, that she felt this first novel a bit overwritten--if still a lovely offspring (as firsts generally do bear a certain fondness in our hearts). I could see, perhaps, some overwriting, but really, this work seemed a very well-wrought piece. If the overwriting is anywhere, it is not on a sentence level but on that of plot: the poor protagonist has a dying father, an estranged mother with an estranged grandmother, an ex-husband who "leaves" her for Star Trek and other intellectual pursuits, a current lover who deals the narrator drugs and spends his time with other women, and so on. There is not much that is not wrong with this woman's life. But dysfunctional families and people are often the heart of novels, and there was, at bottom, it seemed to me, a kind of loving that came through between the protagonist and her parents, even if on the surface much seems wrong.

I'm also a bit taken aback by what I was writing at the time, which seems in many ways not unlike this first novel of Braverman's--a tale of family troubles with a dying mom (instead of dad). I feel as if I was probably conjuring Braverman while in her class, though I had not read this book. And I can see also how Braverman's ideas about writing come through in this work. You write good sentences and then you string a plot in afterward--you write the air, and then put a net on it. That seemed true hear. There was lots of air, lots of little chunks of things, that somehow got wrapped into this plot. Such makes for a work in which plot is not a centerpiece. We're not dying to know whether dad will live so much as to know what the next turn of phrase will be. That's why one reads Braverman--for the poetry.

And here, the language, of course, is lovely, as Braverman's language usually is. She makes metaphors seem so effortless and natural. But also what I was struck by with this text is how she uses the short sentence. The sentences are much shorter than I would expect, than I remember, for something so full of poetic language. It's as if she mixes her Hemingway with her Nabokov, and it is wonderful.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On "Just Fine" by Bill Roorbach (1333 words) ***

This story has a great hook in its first line. And that's often enough to keep me reading on. "Jeremy Kellog came home with a railroad spike protruding from his head." What follows is an absurd commentary on parents and children and the inability for the two to understand one another. Read the story here at SixPenny.