Sunday, October 30, 2011

Electric Literature No.6: Stories by Matt Sumell, Mary Otis, Marc Basch, Steve Edwards, Nathan Englander

Electric Literature No.6
Stories from Matt Sumell, Mary Otis, Marc Basch, Steve Edwards, and Nathan Englander

After absolutely loving No.5, I had high hopes going into the latest volume of Electric Literature. Perhaps too high, as no ongoing literary magazine is going to be loved by a specific reader every single time. No.6 links together five stories of quiet resignation and detached violence, and though I found the stories and characters interesting enough to keep going, they did not stay with me. They're perfectly fine, well-written stories, but their complications were not the sort of complications I typically enjoy.

Maybe I've been in a bad, unforgiving mood, and I've needed stories that weren't going to tell me how shitty life can be. It's fair to admit that, I think — If you've read this site for any length of time, you know I review books in terms of what they mean to my own life, more so than what they mean to the literary world at large. Though the reviews come from the perspective of a writer who has a hard-ass editorial streak, I'm also regular reader who needs books to provide escape, in addition to creative fuel. No.6 did not provide me with either of these things.

Matt Sumell's "OK" opens with lines that made me sigh in a "So that's how this one's going to be, then. Impressed with itself at how 'real' it can be:"

This is the one where I Amex-ed myself to Ohio to see Fatlegs after she head-firsted her way into the world and forever ruined Tara's vagina — that's what my brother says anyway, and he would know, he's seen it — me calling her Fatlegs because she has fat legs and I'm not clever.

Our narrator has also come to see how his father is doing in the absence of his mother. The house is flea-infested, filled with trash, and his dad refuses to take his anti-depressants and wants to die. They call each other assholes a lot, and there's a scene with a cat and dandruff shampoo that made me think, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Then again, that's also what our narrator is trying to find out, under the guise of helping his cranky father. They are all struggling, and while the story's actually not as impressed with itself as it originally seemed, it was just... fine. And I moved on.

"Where We Missed Was Everywhere," by Mary Otis, is told from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl, dancing as quietly as she can with her six-year-old brother, upstairs and away from a funeral party.

Outside the rain sounds like a lazy person peeing, and everyone else in the family is downstairs — talking, falling asleep, drinking, smoking cigarettes in the broom closet without exhaling, crying quickly and quietly in the bathroom, staring at their fingernails, aching for relief. My brother and I have nothing to do with that.

It's a rather short story compared to the rest in the book, just a little over 2 pages, and it does seem to accurately capture the semi-stream-of-consciousness inside a child's head, where they know what is going on, but have not lived enough to feel the gravity of it. To some children, enduring a funeral is the same level of trauma as having to use the plaque detector their dentist gave their mother.

Funerals carry on as a plot device in Mark Basch's "Three," in which siblings — Kenneth, Lucas and Delia — decide to take a road trip after their mother's funeral. An Alzheimer's patient, she had been living in a long-term care facility and "the other shoe needed to drop; dignity needed to be restored." Kenneth is not so sure he feels her death at all — they had all been watching her drift away for years. The three are calm and detached, and yet, the story opens with the brothers beating up on some kids they catch beating up another kid. Lucas decides to get out a tire iron. Delia is asleep and does not find out until later. There's this unsettling subtext of hero worship, and once Delia finds out what happened, at least she's a voice of reason:

"You probably broke his leg," she said.

"It isn't broken."

"You don't know that."

"I know it. I know what it feels like to break a bone."

"You had no right."

"It isn't about who has a right," Lucas said. He hit the ceiling with the heel of his hand, spilling coffee on his lap. "Fuck." He brushed at the spot of coffee with the back of his hand. Delia's face went dark. "Somebody has to take care of something," he breathed. "There's more than enough pain to go around. I was just redistributing it back to where it belonged. And it felt fucking great, I might add. Never felt better in my life than after doing that. Never better."

In the back seat I heard Delia begin to cry.

Look, I know there are screwed-up people in the world and I know that people take that damage and do stupid things, but I'm never going to be in a place where I can objectively read a story where adults are harming children. That's not to say that those stories will never have any value to me — certainly there are other books I've read where that figured into the plot — but I've got to have something else besides darkness. I wasn't in the mood to be a helpless bystander.

My reading experience began to improve with Steve Edwards' "Daily Bread," taken from the point-of-view of a man participating in a government study during World War II. Joe says he felt like he needed to help out with the war effort, and so he agrees to have his food rationed out by the study's administrators. At first they receive 3,200 calories a day, and then they are brought to the brink of starvation, provided only a slice of bread and a plain baked potato per day. The men are all monitored closely, both medically and socially, and they are all assigned minders to make sure they do not wander around the college campus and cheat.

We're all getting skinny. We've gone grey in the face. We're notching our belts. But it's not even that so much as it is seeing these young men curl up on their cots after breakfast that gets me down. Grown men in their prime, getting up, eating breakfast, then going right back to bed. That's why I still hang around with George. I don't want to be one of those guys sleeping their way through this.

I don't want to be down.

The 'why' behind everything — Joe's participation, the study itself, other participants behavior — is fascinating in the same way some unsettling science fiction is. Since we are inside Joe's head, the starvation-induced delirium does not make for easy information, but piecing everything together does not feel like a chore. In a way, it reminded me of an episode of Torchwood, the way they would flashback to covert and morbid government operations whose repercussions would effect their present case. I don't know for sure if these sorts of operations were happening during WWII, but I believe that they could have.

Surrealism increases with the final story, "The Reader," by Nathan Englander. An unnamed author — male, older, formerly distinguished — has come out with his first new book in twleve years and is embarking on a reading tour. In this reality, no one comes to readings anymore. Bookstore owners shrug their shoulders and tell him, "That's just how it is."

And yet, just as he is about to leave, an old man calls out to the author, "Writer, you came to read."

Author is hesitant to stay, but the man insists, and the author gives in.

Author takes a seat himself, angling the chair farther into the horseshoe, and takes up his book to read.

"No," the little man says. "The podium."


"The podium."

"We are two," Author says.

The old man looks back, blank.

"As audience," Author says, "you are one." He holds up a finger to illustrate.

"Dignity. A great author."

"I am?"

"You are. A great author. A mighty author. One or one million come to see you, still, from the podium. Read out. Read strong."

It's an interesting take on insecurity, posterity, and what it means to be an artist. Maybe this is a story written for other creative people, particularly writers, and that is why I enjoyed this one more, despite it being somewhat depressing as well. Of course that's narcissistic to say — Oh, it's better because it has more to do with me — but that's another element of the story as well. Yes, it's about the love for books, but it's also about personal satisfaction, the feeling that one's work matters.

So, yes, what redeems No.6 for me are the last two stories. I may not have fallen in love, but I do love how each volume of Electric Literature I've read has been different. They have a common mood, perhaps — loneliness and conflicted families — but I definitely don't feel like I've read 15 of the same story. Let's see what No.7 brings, shall we?


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.

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