Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Electric Literature No. 5: Stories by Kevin Brockmeier, J. Robert Lennon, Ben Greenman, Lynne Tillman, and Carson Mell

Electric Literature No. 5
Stories from Kevin Brockmeier, J. Robert Lennon, Ben Greenman, Lynne Tillman, and Carson Mell

I hope it's not only because I've read a few less-than-satisfying books lately, but I really enjoyed Electric Literature No. 5. From the first paragraph of Kevin Brockmeier's "A Fable For the Living" until the last line of Lynne Tillman's "The Original Impulse," I remained so glad that I'd purchased a subscription to the quarterly publication. (Well, their March sale didn't hamper my decision any either.) While Alison Elizabeth Taylor's full cover "The Gamer" — I've cropped it here to make this review safe for work — is certainly attention-grabbing, after reading five stories filled with loneliness, a naked man playing video games makes so much sense. What do appearances matter if you are the only one looking? Or rather, even if someone were to pay attention, are you past the point of caring?

In Brockmeier's "A Fable For the Living," people are able to communicate with the dead through writing. Some talk about everday happenings, some confess everything they ever wanted to tell the person, and others just like knowing that their loved ones are available in some form. During the summertime drought, deep rifts form in the ground, and into those rifts people slip their messages. They do not expect replies, only a sense of relief. The story focusses on a woman who lost her husband not long after their engagement.

That first summer, immediately after he died, she had barely been able to pick up a pen, but by the time the earth split open a year later, she had amassed three heavy baskets of letters. One afternoon, she went to the parched field where the fair sat in the autumn and the soccer team practiced in the spring and dropped the letters into the deepest opening she could find. The ground swallowed them as neatly as a payphone accepting coins, except for the last page, which continued to show through the dirt until gravity gave it a tug and it slipped out of sight. That was where her heart was, she thought, cradled underground with the roots and the bones. As she stood in the dust listening to the insects buzz, she dashed off one last note and let it go: Are you even out there?

The next morning she received her answer.

Without spoiling things further, it's a haunting and beautiful story, and easily my favorite in the collection.

"Hibachi," by J. Robert Lennon, gives us the passionless-yet-newlywed marriage of forty-one year old Philip and forty-three year old Evangeline. Five months after their wedding, Philip is run over and dragged several yards from a crosswalk by an inattentive woman driving a large SUV, and he is now confined to a wheelchair. What little spark they had between them, and the few friends that they had before the accident, have disappeared as they adjust to their new life. Still attempting to make an effort with their relationship, they go to a hibachi-grill style restaurant for their anniversary.

A familiar dread came over Philip, the same one he felt whenever he was about to witness any kind of performance, whether on a stage or at his front door, behind the Book of Mormon. He turned to his wife to express his feelings but was brought up short by the expression on her face: one of rapt attention and giddy anticipation. It would have taken a trained eye to detect these emotions, but a trained eye was what Philip had, and he kept his mouth shut.

The way Lennon explores how a person can grasp onto and even become slightly obsessed with one pleasing thing is excellent. He gets right into how a person manages any form of grief — even if that grief does not come from literal death, but a longterm handicap — and it's captivating.

Also dealing with themes of pain and obsession is Carson Mell's "The West." Eight-year-old Dan travels accompanies his father on a trip with a man named Mr. Horselover. Mr. Horselover wants to open up a burger chain, and he's decided they should take a trip from Phoenix to somewhere in California, sampling every burger joint along the way, in order to determine what makes the best, most moneymaking burger. Horselover is, to put it mildly, quite fat and a source of wonder and bewilderment for young Dan.

As Horselover ate, he stared into the long, narrow window between the lunch counter and the kitchen. He was chewing fast, breathing hard through his nose. He almost seemed to eat automatically, his arm swinging the food up, his mouth chomping down to catch it, his throat working it down. It was like these parts of his body worked independently of the rest.

I liked this one, but really, the endless eating is morbidly fascinating instead of sympathetic. Horselover is so odd, you really do want to carry on and see how it all plays out.

Also car crash-like in its drama is "Come Out" by Ben Greenman. A group of middle-aged friends gather for a party at Bill and Louisa's house. Louisa dated two of the friends in attendance, Carl and Jim, and once she and Bill married, the friends grew apart. Bill and Louisa are childless, and in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the rest of their neighborhood, they've filled their yard with vintage bathtubs.

Bill serves the drinks, puts out the bowls of nuts and olives, gets to grilling. Steve is telling Julie about a study he read that explains why some species eat their young. "They are culling," he says. "If you eliminate a third of the eggs, the rest have a better chance of surviving." He pops an olive in his mouth illustratively. The party has just started, and already the talk has turned to survivial. Everyone is huddled on Bill's deck like it's a ship. One thing about the tubs is that they are theatrical. They demand a certain level of energy. No one just wanders out into the yard; people venture. There are too many people and none of them is Jim. Bill works the meat on the grill and wishes that some of the guests would leave. "Culling," he says.

It's an interesting story about expectation, and how people compare themselves to others in order to feel more at home in their quiet insanity. Greenman writes with a lot of resigned sadness, and I almost wished I had more than a short story to get the full picture of these people. That's not to say that the story felt incomplete or poorly excuted — No, I just wondered more about from where it came and where it might be headed.

The last story in the collection, Lynne Tillman's "The Original Impulse," picks up the esoteric, speculative story of love that "A Fable for the Living" introduced, still fraught with loneliness and longing. Here though, the difference is that Katherine is unsure if she's ever found a great love, much less lost one. She feels a longing towards the past, and a longing for a man she had a brief relationship with, and she doesn't understand people who dismiss history. She has trouble moving forwards.

Her time was full, adequate, hollow, fine, and she felt content enough with love and work, but no one lives in the present except amnesiacs. Her history was a bracelet of holes around her wrist, not a charm bracelet like her mother had worn; that was gone.

Electric Literature No. 5 is a fantastic collection, with all five stories bleeding into one another to make a cohesive whole. Each one deals with people trying to fill some void in their life, some unspeakable absence, even when their methods for doing so are unhealthy. These are flawed, interesting individuals, and I couldn't ask for more in a collection of short stories. I flew through this slim volume, and I am eager to read No. 6 when it arrives in my mailbox.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.


  1. Great review. It's difficult to write a book of stories that meet at some point and make it good. The few I read didn't impress me very much.


  2. Thanks! Yes, sometimes with larger story collections, it's a little bit harder to feel like I gave a complete picture of the book. With EL, the 5 stories is a nice length. I can give everyone some attention.