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Monday, August 11, 2008

Atlantic Monthly Fiction , Part 2

Now the second part of the reviews of the fiction. [If you've not read part one, click back and read that first -- pretty please.] Medicine first, then then one good response will tie this issue up.

Obituary, by Jessica Murphy Moo sort of sets the tone here, those who struggle against odds greater than themselves. There is much to like about Obituary in terms of plot but unfortunately it gets entirely lost in poor writing and no unique voice. In short stories more is less. You want, when writing, to let scenes create emotion that push the forward until it suddenly ends with the echo in our head. Moo, whose writing career seems to be just starting, overwrites nearly everything. She tells us then tells us again. She throws in sentences that make us want to drink an emetic. For example, "Living on a boat has made him aware that nothing in the word is ever static. Everything is moving, alive." No kidding dicky, really? ps. Don't look for more insight than this. Or, regarding a phone, "He lets it ring and ring..." yawn. Or, "For the next four days, he calls his son morning, noon, and night." Put aside the sheer idiomatic cliche of this, the way it's written suggest he calls his son that, "Hey morning noon and night, get over here." Moo really needs to find in herself what Hemingway called the shock-proof, shit detector. This story could have been half as long and be much better for it.

I admit I tried Stand by Me, by Wendell Berry, but I really hate this sort of backwoods, southern stuff. I did try, honest, but like a story about hockey, there's no possible way to get me involved. And it's all rambling telling us what everyone did and felt, sort of rule number one of the no no list of writing fiction.

Mark Fabiano has written We Are All Businessmen. Maybe so, but we sure are not all short story writers. This one really began the downward spiral for me into the land of complete cynicism. It's all about the language. I felt this is author never figured out what he is doing.

He develops a character who speaks English, either poorly or quite well depending on what part you read, who thinks, I guess, in his own language either quite poorly or quite well depending on what part you read. The language is so absolutely inconsistent that I struggled with wondering if this story was a complete joke, whether the text had skipped the editing process, or whether writer was just on magic mushrooms. To make matters even worse, the 16th line has what appears to be a major typo, "bank clarks" instead of "bank clerks" unless Fabiano means this as some sort of dialect, which I doubt but giving his inconsistency, who knows. I never could be sure what was accident and what was planned.

Sometimes the main character uses "a" and then other times he drops it. He writes, "...not even taking a sea bath" and then it's "This beach is not good for taking sea bath." Both are his thoughts, neither is spoken. Mr. Limited English, who in many places speaks like a second language learner then turns around and uses phrases like "I don't tout for the evil things..." which probably makes most readers rush for their dictionary. Or he constructs sentences like this, "Mr. Richard holds up a hand as he drinks the rest of his beer, as if to ask me to wait." I've worked with many second language learners and even taken a class on teaching esl. I can vouch for the fact they do not construct sentences in this manner. I'm still trying to paste most of my hair back to my skull.

The longer the story goes the more all the characters begin to speak like each other. If you want us to really believe your story we first have to trust you as a voice, and here, as in Moo's story a strong voice is thoroughly lacking.

But then, FINALLY:

A flash of lightning in the final story, Amritsar by Jess Row. Here is really a very strong story that kicks all the others in their dang sorry asses. Row's voice immediately booms out with a killer opening

"I don't like boats. For that matter, I don't like water, either, unless it's coming out of a tap or a hose. Where would I have learned to swim, in the hot dusty Punjab of my childhood?"

He comes from Chandigarh, which is a city designed by Corbusier into gridded concrete buildings. The Indians hated it. It denied them of their central meeting squares, for example. Early on he moves to Deli, and this little shift in location shows a shift from order to chaos. The idea functions as the theme which then circles as as issues of individual against society, or pacifist against violence are introduced. 911 happens but is not directly referred to paralleling itself against a 1919 massacre by Britain that killed 379 unarmed men, women, and children. The idea of order and chaos is further tested as the narrator, now a radiologist, moves to the American suburbs where his life once more becomes ordered, and finally into this comes violence, that chaotic element confronting his beliefs yet again.

There are some brilliant pieces of writing here and I'll quote a couple, "Hate lacks imagination. Hate never made art, only dreary cliches." Or this, the narrator considering 911 and the racist responses to Indians living in America as he sits on the roof of his suburban house, replete with garage and steel refrigerator, surveying the cul-de-sac:

"Nobody was stirring, it seemed. At a time like this you would think people would come out of their houses and scream, or tear their clothes, or just weep and stare at televisions together, but we live in a suburb, of course, a place without a center -- no City Hall, no Boston Common, no village church. Nobody would know where to go. All this pain and anguish, and no place to put it."

It sounds like an ending but it's not and it gets even better. It's the longest story in the issue and it still feels short and tight. Sharp, unpredictable, deep, smart -- there's not much more you want in a short story and it's all here. Add to the reading list, other works by Jess Row. This one story makes the entire fiction issue worth every cent.