Sunday, May 31, 2009

Short Story Month--Roy Kesey

When I think of Roy Kesey's imagination I see an old battered leather suitcase, nearly covered with overlapping oval decals that advertise whatever city or country has been visited--look, there's Big Ben, there's the Eiffel Tower, there's Victoria Falls. The image of this suitcase may capture the way Roy's mind works, I think, but also how your own mind will look after reading a raft of his stories. The fellow seems to effortlessly travel everywhere and into anyone he chooses, ignoring whatever literary checkpoint or border crossing he may come upon.

Though I'd seen Roy Kesey's name here and there in the table of contents of various literary magazines, the first story of his I read, "Fontanel," was one he sent to Ninth Letter, which came in an envelope postmarked with some very cool stamps from China. Within a couple pages I knew he wasn't going to disappoint me, that his high-wire act was going to continue successfully right to the last word. Because Roy's cover letter stated that this was a multiple submission, when I finished reading I immediately called Jodee Stanley, who'd already read the story, and I proposed we accept it right away. Normally, our acceptances come after a long process of reading, counter-reading and discussion among many folks working on the fiction side, but this was one fish I didn't want to slip away. Jodee and I agreed that we couldn't imagine that anyone would object. We were right, and "Fontanel" appeared in our second issue (Fall/Winter 2004).

The story is a brilliant set of verbal photographic collages following the course of events as a young Chilean couple make their way to Clínica las Condes, "the finest hospital in Santiago," preparing for the eventual birth of their second child. The reader quickly wonders, however, Who is taking these photos that the narrative voice describes? The various shots are too disparate for any one person to accomplish, and then these photos take on a kind of three-dimensionality, one that balloons inward, not outward. We learn the nurse loves the obstetrician, who, it turns out, only loves himself, that the pediatrician loves everyone in sight whenever he attends a birth, we learn secrets of private behavior that are temporarily being held in check. And on we move closer to the birth of the couple's son, the moment's arrival described as the point when "things end and begin." And so the story wraps up, giving flashes of everyone we've seen before, including the grandmother at home comforting the couple's first child, the cabbie who drove them to the hospital, the maternity staff and their sexual secrets, and the accidental nick of a vein and some pooling blood that points to another story after this story ends, this story that, in ending, also begins.

We went on to publish another marvelous story by Roy Kesey, "Nipparpoq," in our sixth issue (Fall/Winter 2006-2007), which recounts the troubles of an Inuit hunter disastrously down on his luck--another sterling example of his border crossing expertise. Since I'm on the subject, though this is a post for Short Story Month, I can't help recommending Roy's novella, Nothing in the World, in which he effortlessly inhabits the life of a young Croat conscript fighting in the Balkan Wars. How does he do this?

"Fontanel" appears in Roy's first short story collection, aptly titled All Over, and this collection also includes the story "Wait," chosen by Stephen King for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2007. "Wait" initially plops us into a situation we're familiar with--a flight is delayed, the weather outside the international airport's windows is not promising, connections in other cities vanish in the air. However, days pass, and the flight's hopeful passengers lose hope and yet linger at the gate, watching the fog outside grow, darken, then clear--but never long enough to get a plane off the ground. Antsy factions develop along lines of nationality, age, gender, race, nervous angry energy that briefly gets transformed into a hastily organized fashion show, then a mini-Olympics, and as this long wait extends for weeks we come to know a Bulgarian poet struggling with the crossword puzzle: a Mongolian boy, expert at checkers; a Canadian accountant; and a Ghanaian beauty on the lam from a jealous warlord. All hell eventually breaks loose, as well as an unlikely escape from the world of this story--so much like the mess of the world we know--lifting off in a graceful goodbye, defying borders, like so much of Roy Kesey's work.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Short Story Month - Katherine Vaz

One of the most striking achievements of Katherine Vaz’s stories is how they are firmly rooted in reality and so otherworldly at the same time. Religion and ritual is key to most of her stories. The rituals in "My Bones Here Waiting for Yours," from her short story collection, Our Lady of the Artichokes, is not religious in the most obvious form of that word. Ritual in this story is very personal and heartbreaking. Mary Smith's daughter, Delilah, died in an avalanche seventeen years ago at the Devils Postpile and every year Mary is photographed standing in the spot where the snow patrol found her daughter's body. She wears the same outfit every year, a turquoise business suit and high heels. These are the same clothes she wears to her job as a real estate agent. Mary thinks, “it is no longer available to me, the simple act of matching right time, right place, and right clothing.” Clothing and how she feels about it conveys her sense of loss so perfectly. One of the most telling things about Mary is how she feels about her name. She feels that it is “so ordinary that it suggests the exotic.” The story continues to push the idea of the ordinary being exotic.

Delilah was a synesthete. Mary first noticed the condition when her daughter was in the third grade, “I wrote G-L-A-S-S, and she said, ‘Red with spots, white, something like those bugs that live under bricks, pink, pink. She told me she saw colors when people spoke. They spilled from everyone’s mouth…”. Mary relates the frustration and difficulty of living with the condition (Delilah won’t drink milk because it is blue noise), but what an amazing image – color spilling from mouths. As we are given more example of how Delilah perceived the world, not only do we learn more about her, we also see how Vaz can take a harsh reality and turn it into art.

The story gets its title because of a phrase written above the door of The Chapel of Bones, which is made from the bones of monks, in Alentejo, Portugal. The phrase is, “Our Bones Here Are Waiting for Yours.” Vaz does something interesting by including photographs of the chapel in this part of the story. The photographs are not replacements for a narrative description. Rather they close the gap between reality and fiction.

She does something similar in “The Knife Longs for the Ruby,” which is also in Our Lady of the Artichokes and was originally published in Ninth Letter's first issue (Spring/Summer 04). The story has a note that says, “this work of fiction is inspired by the true story of a nineteenth-century statue known as one of the most touching images of Christ in the world.” This throws us right into the world of the story as we are introduced to Tónio, the sculptor of the statue, and Father Jamie. The story explores their relationship and all that has led them to the present of the story as it alternates between their two narratives.

Father Jamie gets “drunk exactly one night a week, and he did it beautifully, falling into the sparkling glass of firewater and emerging out the other end, clarified and wounded.” A wonderful image. He tells Tónio that he restricts his drinking or else he would be drunk all the time. Through the course of the story we learn of the loss he suffered years ago. Tónio’s vice is having sex with prostitutes in town, “but what did women look like in during the day? Why he never tried to find out.” He carries a machete with him as he walks home and cuts his leg. This allows us to see that the two men take care of each other. Tónio cares for Father Jamie when he is drunk and Father Jamie does the same when Tónio is injured. Their relationship is complicated because Tónio is Father Jamie’s servant. In fact, their relationship is so complex that I cannot do it justice in the space here.

The creation of art means freedom in this story. Tónio seeks freedom by sculpting the statue because “it was fashionable now for nobles to release their slaves for artistic feats.” Teresa Silva is freed for stuffing “a thousand cuttlefish with a mix of shrimps’ eyes, and the guests of her master had collapsed into a type of ecstasy.” Teresa is wounded by a past relationship with a writer and Tónio wants to help her recover by creating a new piece of art.

As with the previous story, the characters here are richly written. None of Vaz’s characters allow themselves to be defined by one trait or one event in their lives. They are flawed and truly human. Adding historic elements only makes them more alive. The writing is visceral, so we feel Mary’s anguish over the death of her daughter and when Father Jamie is slashed with a shard of glass across his bare chest. Katherine Vaz wonderfully blurs the line between reality and art, which makes for a deeply rewarding reading experience.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Short Story Month - Jill Summers

Jill Summers writes stories that are meant to be heard. Her authorial voice is that of a true storyteller, spinning lovely, touching, whimsical tales that carry the reader away. She has performed many audio versions of her work, and it’s clear that her remarkable writing talent is particularly well suited to this format; but even when read on the page, her stories convey the sense of being listened to, rather than read—they are charming, musical, and completely engaging. I often have a sense of nostalgia when reading Summers’s work, as though I’m sitting up close to an old Philco radio, captivated by the stories and voices of her characters.

Cohabitation,” a story published in Ninth Letter’s Fall/Winter 2007-8 issue, is a series of five vignettes, inspired by radio plays, about the tenants in a Chicago graystone apartment building who touch each others lives only tangentially, but whose lives are connected by interwoven themes of loneliness and longing. The first piece tells of the brief passionate lives of Roberto and Rosa, two ants (yes, ants) whose love blooms and dies in a split second. The ants are part of a colony infesting the apartment of Apricot Wensleydale, a vivacious widow disgruntled by the grandmotherly life she’s been relegated to. As Apricot plans her escape, in the apartment overhead a young couple struggles with the pressures of sharing physical and emotional space; meanwhile, the owner of the building, a coarse and careless man, unwittingly shares his life with a thoughtful entity who yearns to reach a higher state of being. And in the final, most beautiful and poignant section, the building’s caretaker falls in love with the sad gentle ghost who lives there, and selflessly helps her find a way to move on. In each of these stories, the characters live and breathe, flush with life and vivid in the reader’s mind—we can see and hear them so distinctly it’s as good, or better, than watching them on stage or screen.

In “Diagnosis of Sadness,” available as a downloadable mini-book from Featherproof Books, Summers turns her talents to a more concentrated consideration of sadness—or Sadness, as it is referred to in “medical” terms. Excerpts from a health pamphlet discussing the diagnosis and treatment of Sadness as a medical condition are interwoven with the curious tale of a tragic freak accident witnessed by passengers on an El train—one passenger, Agnes, observing the death happening below her while contemplating the Sadness pamphlet and the diagnosis of her doctors. Deftly combining pathos and humor, Summers illustrates how the condition of sadness is universal, while at the same time being heartbreakingly particular to each person’s experience.

Jill Summers is a wonderful writer, but beyond that she is an extraordinary artist—her narratives refuse to be confined to text and paper. You will find renditions of her works in image, sound, and text, and in many instances multiple iterations of a single work are available, giving her audience the opportunity for a uniquely layered experience. Summers’s work represents the best of what Ninth Letter strives for—to explore the many ways we experience narrative art while maintaining a heartfelt emotional core.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Story Month - B.R. Smith

Reality + Magic = Art. Thrity Umrigar wrote this on the board during a workshop I took with her a few years ago. I don’t remember if she attributed this to a source or if it is simply something she concocted. Either way it has stuck with me. B.R. Smith’s stories have a lot of magic – that indefinable element that elevates a story from the mundane to the sublime - to go with the lonely, confusing realities of his characters.

In “The Cortege” (Mississippi Review, vol. 36, no. 3), the story begins with the narrator and his sister discovering their father has gone missing from his apartment. The elderly father doesn’t leave a note or any clue of where he has gone; rather he has left a man made out of gold ribbon. He leaves his children an approximation of a man, not the real thing. The issue of real vs. fake becomes very important to the story. As the characters search for their father, the narrator thinks he sees him around town. When the narrator follows the man into a Laundromat, it turns out the man the narrator thought he saw isn’t there at all. In fact, every time the narrator thinks he sees his father, it turns out not ob e him. Early in the story it is easy to discount this confusion as caused by the stress of the situation. However, as the story progresses and on subsequent rereads, it becomes clear that much more is at work for the narrator. In many ways, the narrator is fed up with reality. At one point the narrator says, “there was this whole world we weren’t a part of, a whole imaginary world.” He says this of his father, but it really applies more to him.

The narrator is disconnecting from the actual to make things as he wants them to be. He thinks about a theatre playing a movie about hermaphroditic angels. The movie is about an angel that has fallen to earth and needs to be saved by her friends. The narrator relates to this character, “I’d gone to the theatre alone and found it difficult to pretend that I wasn’t this angel, that I wasn’t in need of rescue.” The narrator longs for connection, so when a man touches the back of his head after a viewing of the film the narrator follows him to his car. He watches the man and concocts a life for him. “I thought maybe he could take me there, that he could give me something. It didn’t matter what. It could have been anything. He could have been anyone.” There is a very interesting tension in wanting to find connection to a fantasized version of someone. The narrator also wants to be someone else. One of the very first things we learn about him as he watches his sister walk around the apartment is “….when I was alone I could never picture her face without looking in a mirror and imagining myself as a girl.” This raises the question of identity. Not only gender identity, but just identity in general. He struggles with who he is and also with recognizing who others are as well. He feels something is amiss. Several times throughout the story the narrator reestablishes that the story is taking place in Philadelphia. This repetition is essential because it allows him to ground himself and shows his struggle with reality. This self-awareness is shown again when he has difficulty feeling anything over the loss of his father, “I was unhappy about not being unhappy.” Through the course of the story, the narrator feels on the cusp of change, but he doesn’t quite know how to get there.

“The Cortege” is a very intimate story with the narrator spending most of the time with his sister in various enclosed spaces. However, at the same time it feels epic. I attribute this to the characters being so alive on the page that it opens the story up in surprising and satisfying ways.

The same could be said for another B.R. Smith story “The Countrymen” published in Ninth Letter's vol 5, no. 2 issue. The story is set during the Haitian Revolution in 1798, which is, of course, very different from modern day Philadelphia. Yet, all the elements that make “The Cortege” so enjoyable to read – lush language and engaging characters struggling with identity - are present here as well.

In “The Countrymen,” Petri is a Haitian solider under the command of General Dessalines. It starts with this beautifully visceral sentence. “It’s when the blood moves over the battlefield that I’m in and out of love, swooning, and cowardly, wanting to run while my sword feels its way around their guts, searching, keening when it hits bone, the ocean air like a whip across the plain, and me turning sideways, looking out of politesse, the bile rising to my throat.” This is perhaps one of my favorite things about this story, the contrast between the beauty of the language and the harsh realities of battle.

Very early in the story it is revealed that Petri and Dessalines are lovers. Sort of. Physically they are. However, psychologically it is more complex. Petri can be inhabited by a woman, Guillemette, “…my eyes roll in my head when I feel the possession coming, and when I look to Dessalines he’s already beside me, his voice impatient, saying her name like a question to see if she’s here, prodding me toward sleep as I become her.” The General whispers her name and Petri says he is still himself. Dessalines tells him that he’s another person now. The next sentence is, “and then I am.” It is never clear if this is an actual possession or if Petri pretends to be this woman to please Dessalines. Either feels possible, which makes the story more complex and exciting. We are given enough information to support the possession side of the argument. Petri remembers that his mother also had the ability to channel spirits and like her, he doesn’t remember what happens during that time.

Ultimately the concern of the reality of the possession is secondary to Petri’s caring for Dessalines. After taking on the guise of Guillemette, Petri asks The General what she does for him. They read and dance. Petri imagines this, “I try to place myself in the scene, held without waiting, knowing I’m his.” Later when things go badly for Dessalines, Petri’s love for him will remain.

Rereading B.R. Smith’s stories are a must. They are so layered that the details become richer with meaning on each read. B.R. Smith takes issues of identity, transformation and abandonment, combines them with gorgeous sentences and fascinating characters to make remarkable, haunting stories.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Short Story Month - Keith Lee Morris

Keith Lee Morris has received a lot of well-deserved attention of late for his fine novel The Dart League King, but let’s not forget that this author writes a hell of a short story; if you haven’t read his collection The Best Seats in the House, you’d better run out right now and get yourself a copy. No other writer I know inhabits his characters so fully and so well—even in his more surreal and metafictional works (see “The Cyclist” and “There Are in This World Moments of Great Beauty”) the narrators’ voices and interior lives are never overshadowed by the experiments of the form.

Two of my favorite stories, written years apart but sharing many similarities, are “The Children of Dead State Troopers,” from Best Seats in the House, and “Camel Light,” from the Fall/Winter 2008-9 issue of Ninth Letter. “The Children of Dead State Troopers,” originally published in New England Review, is a perfect example of the subtlety mastery with which this author takes an ordinary moment and, through a series of small, deft turns, creates a situation of palpable anxiety. In the story, Randall Moon is home alone with his toddler son, working a jigsaw puzzle and distractedly worrying about his wife who has gone to see a doctor about her increasingly painful headaches. Randall is struggling to hold it all together, and seems on the verge of failing: he can’t seem to get his son dressed, or keep his focus on the puzzle, and we gradually come to see that as his wife has gotten sicker he hasn’t been able to keep the house clean. The description of the growing disarray mirrors the increasing disorder in the Moons’ lives as well as Randall’s increasing anxiety as hours pass and his wife doesn’t return from the doctor. In the midst of all this, Randall takes a series of phone calls from the mysterious Joe Butter Rentals, ostensibly soliciting donations on behalf of the families of state troopers killed in the line of duty. The phone calls are initially only an annoyance, but quickly develop into something sinister, and then surreal, as the disembodied voice of Officer Joe takes a graphic and very personal approach, drawing parallels between Randall Moon’s situation and the tragedies of the dead state troopers and their surviving children. If you break this story down by external action only, all that seems to be going on is a series of phone conversations—Randall Moon and his three-year-old son are the only characters we actually see, and the action of the story never leaves the house. And yet, an entire drama is played out, to great effect, in the small details of Randall’s engagement with the his son, in his elliptical conversations with Officer Joe, in his constant circling back to his wife’s headaches and her delayed return from the doctor, what that means, what it could mean today and for the rest of his life. In the final scene, when Randall for the first time steps outside and lifts his arms beseechingly to the sky, the reader, too, feels release, as if we have been holding our breaths anxiously all this time.

In “Camel Light” we also encounter a man home alone waiting for his wife—but in this case, he’s not worried at the outset, he’s glad. Rick Barker is glad to have an hour to himself for once, the children off with their friends and his wife gone to her yoga class. Sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, Rick ponders what to do with this rare moment of solitude, and as he contemplates the pleasing options (reading, watching baseball, listening to old records, practicing chip shots on the lawn), he idly notices something out of place on the kitchen floor—a cigarette—that sends him spiraling mentally into the past and into a series of potential futures. Where did the cigarette come from? The possibilities, ranging from either one of Rick’s sons to his wife to the worst case scenario of his wife’s imagined lover, develop story lines of their own as Rick, immobile at the table, plays out various alternate lives in his imagination—ultimately doing nothing, but holding on to the prospect of future action like a talisman. “Camel Light” has even less physical action than “Children of Dead State Troopers” and yet feels even more expansive—the interior life of Rick Barker is so finely drawn that we literally live the story of his wife’s betrayal in his head, so by the time we see her actual car pulling into the driveway, there is a jarring moment when we realize that she is, in fact, just coming back from gym, that she is only the wife who went to yoga class, and as far as we really know, nothing more.

The current trend for flashy, edgy, and gratuitously weird in short fiction may have left you looking for short fiction with a little more emotional substance—if so, you need to seek out Keith Lee Morris’s stories right this second. You won’t find here any pyrotechnics, verbal funhouse games, or unnecessary bells and whistles. Morris’s stories are incredibly powerful, seamless, smoothly and quietly hypnotic like the voice of Officer Joe Butter Rentals himself.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Short Story Month – Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s take on the horror story is what I love about the two stories I’ll discuss today, “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” and “The Bees.” As I reread these stories, the term personal apocalypse came to mind. The world is unraveling for the men in both of these stories.

In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” which is in 9L’s fall/winter 2007 issue, Brandon Fowler is dealing with multiple deaths. The story begins with, “there had been several funerals of his old high school friends and Brandon hadn’t gone to any of them.” After missing the last funeral, the girlfriend of the deceased confronts him for basically being a terrible person.

Brandon agrees because he realizes, “…it was not the kind of argument that you could win. What could you say? He had known a lot of dead people recently. But was that a legitimate complaint? Was it enough of an excuse to say that he simply felt worn out?” We find out rather quickly that Brandon is also dealing with the death of his parents and living in the house where they died. A good deal of the story is about his withdrawal from the world. The decay in his relationships is mirrored in the decay of the house. He sees and hears things and worries about his mental state. At one point he wonders if he is actually dead and just hasn’t accepted it.

Despite dealing with dark, existential ideas, the story is never bogged down by them. The impulse to turn the page, to stay with Brandon is strong because Chaon keeps a nice casual tone to the writing. We are simply presented with Brandon’s life. All of the dramatic interest is there without it needing to be revved up any further.

So why is the story called Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted? Brandon works at a grocery store and in the bathroom, is “his favorite piece of graffiti: Patrick Lane: Flabbergasted! This had been scrawled above the urinal for as long as Brandon could remember, and he occasionally wondered about Patrick Lane as he peed.” Brandon’s life is not without moments of humor and wanting to reach out to other people. He thinks that him and Patrick Lane, a former grocery store employee, would have been friends. We find out why they could never meet, but I don’t want to ruin the story for people who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that the story is a great, emotionally complex read.

Is it a horror story? I’d say so. Perhaps not a traditional, blood and guts one, but a psychological one, which makes it all the more exciting.

“The Bees,” which appeared in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002), introduces us to Gene. He is married with a son, Frankie, working for UPS in the suburbs of Cleveland. Frankie has been screaming in the middle of the night with alarming regularity, “it is the worst sound that Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently – falling form a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal.” This is on the first page and sets a dark, violent tone.

Frankie, we find out, is not Gene’s only son. Gene had been married before and had another son, DJ. In this other life, Gene had been a “drunk, a monster.” After things got really bad, he left them. Now he worries that Frankie’s condition is payback for abandoning DJ, “something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.” Creepy to say the least.

One of the best aspects of this story is how Chaon is able to maintain and build the dread seeping more and more into Gene’s life. Gene begins to dream of DJ and the revenge his first son might seek. There is the image of the bees, “he remembers what Frankie had said a few mornings before, about bees inside his head, buzzing and bumping against the inside of his forehead like a windowpane they were tapping against. All of this builds to a horrific ending. An ending that will not be ruined here. It is disturbing and haunting and must be read in the context of the entire story. Whereas in “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” the deaths happen off stage, the same is not true in “The Bees.”

“The Bees” is a psychological horror story, but includes some of the more violent aspects we traditionally expect from that kind of story. “The Bees” horror reputation is further cemented by being included in Peter Straub’s anthology of new horror, Poe’s Children.

While it is interesting to ponder how these stories might fit into the horror tradition, in the end classification is irrelevant. Great stories are great stories.

Friday, May 08, 2009

2009 Guggenheim Fellowships

Congratulations to 9L contributors Chris Abani, John Haskell, and George Singleton, who were each awarded a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship. Guggenheim Fellowships are awarded annually to writers, scholars, and artists who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.

Friday, May 01, 2009

EWN's Short Story Month

As you know, the short story is far from dead, but short stories can always use some extra love and support. Lucky for us, and the short story, Dan Wickett over at the Emerging Writers Network has declared May Short Story Month.

Here is what Dan plans to accomplish this month:

My goal each day will be to find three stories to read and blog about - one from a collection that maybe I've held onto a little too long, should have finished and reviewed by now, etc; one from a print journal; and one from an online journal.

By month's end, if all goals are met, just under 100 short stories will have been read and commented upon. I hope to meet these goals, if only because it means I'll have scared up the time to read nearly 100 short stories!

Head on over to the Emerging Writers Network to read about the stories already posted.

Short Story Month is a great time to revisit some favorites or to try some new ones. Tell us how you plan to spend Short Story Month.