I always have a few subscriptions to literary mags running. I've been getting One Story and Irreantum for over half a decade now, and I'm still looking around and trying out others. On the audition stage now is CutBank; I have a year subscription and the first of two issues has arrived.
I'm only going to talk about the fiction today, but I did want to say that I really liked two of the four pieces of nonfiction and several of the poems, but sometimes I couldn't tell them apart. Can you tell which of these is a poem and which an essay?
Their essayists need to spend some time with Montaigne and the poets with, I don't know, Frost or somebody. If we can't tell you apart, you ain't what you claim.
Anyway. The fiction.
General comment: The fiction was on average much more successful than the poetry and nonfiction.
Now let's get more specific:
Chelsea Bolan: "Man Already Falling"
A story about a suicide and the cop who tries to talk him back to life. The dreamy chaos of the suicide's mind infects every aspect of this story, and the tale's elliptical looping relationship with time prevents simple answers to complicated questions. As much a philosophical exercise as a a work of fiction, "Man Already Falling" is the sort of experiment that should not work as narrative, but in this case provides a measure of what I found to be honest pathos. Although a fair question is this: would this story work if it were not about a suicide? Or is Bolan pulling a Foer and picking up pathos on the cheap through a topic which will always provide it rather than through any actual skill in writing? I think she does have skill, but I would need to read more of her work before I put any money on the wager.Naira Kuzmich: "The Fearcatcher of East Hollywood"
This was my least favorite story in 77. It had both the precocious adolescent narrator and the Crazy! Ethnic! Sorta Sexual! element that're so popular these days. I did enjoy the look at Armenians in East LA and the characters were decently drawn and some were truly great, but the story as a whole felt like a series of cliches that aren't really cliches because they're backwards and the colors are reversed and it comes served with baklava. And I love baklava! But still.Amanda Shapiro: "Notes for a Eulogy, Undelivered"
Every once in a while, a writer will come up with a gimmick so brilliant that you wonder if you're witnessing the birth of a new genre. Certainly, this story's sequence of moments passing through the protag's mind and experiences following the death of her father covers a lot of breadth and depth. And it's not that any one element of this story is Utterly Unique, but the combination is so fresh and revelatory that all I could think about as I read it was wishing I had written that story first. And having recently been told something similar myself, I'm convinced this is one of the highest praises one writer can give another.Matt Valentine: "The Hindu Shuffle"
Plus: I love any game with the reader that remains a true work of narrative.
Until I hit this story, I was settling into the assumption that CutBank's fiction would be aggressively modern in either form or topicality. Not so much here. This is more classically shaped short fiction (perhaps because the story was selected by Benjamin Percy rather than the editorial staff?), even if it does have some trendy elements such as the aging gay man.Gabriel Welsch: "The Castle"
And here's the thing: just because something (in this case, the aging gay man) is trendy doesn't mean it's not a legitimately human something worthy of consideration in fiction. The test is whether the story is celebrating humanity or celebrating trends.
"The Hindu Shuffle" celebrates humanity.
A failing journalist (is this also a trend? I ask because we'll see another of these in the next story) interviews a nearly forgotten elderly magician about his former partner. The journalist follows the magician through his routine. Both characters' lives are slightly sad, somewhat desperately lived on the edges of successful society---the story eventually takes one to the edge of his final failure and the other to the edge of an unwelcome / hoped-for opportunity for progress. But even the minor characters are drawn with reality and compassion.
This failed journalist has actually lost his job. Which seems like just one more symbol of his emasculation. After all, his wife is in charge of everything, even running outside in the middle of the night in her sportsbra to solve their neighborhood problems, telling her husband to stay behind. But "The Castle" has more in mind than just presenting another emasculated modern male. Much more.Anne Valente: "Until Our Shadows Claim Us"
Our pov character (the journalist) has a foil in the "successful" (lottery-winning) nerd down the street who built a castle at the end of their suburban culdesac. That twerp is asserting his masculinity All Night Long by shooting off his cannon. But he's not much of a man's man either and the conflict between these two weak male characters leads the story to make some striking and original comments on the state of men in 2012.
I've written about this topic's appearance in literature before and I daresay that Hemingway not only did not have the last word on the modern male, but that the literature has yet to really get started. If you're working on a dissertation on the topic, pick this issue up.
Finally! A supernatural serial killer story in a reputable lit rag!In conclusion, I want to quote some words to live by from Fridtjof Nansen, as quoted in one of the two essays I liked, "The Contours of Cold" by Kate Harris:
Told in first-person plural, this story has a boring enough monster (say his name three times in a mirror!) but the way his crimes dovetail with international disasters and the children's sense of responsibility is something challenging to the genre tropes. (Clarification: Great literary horror also appears in genre rags, but I've not seen anything quite like this story before. It's doing something new. And being reminded of Lake Nyos is always a good way to make me feel a little less safe on my planet.)
Like many horror stories, this one is very much about growing up and becoming an adult---the most scariest thing we do in life. I was glad to read it. I hope CutBank submits it for horror awards. I'm not sure how well it will do, but I think it has a shot at attention.
Let it be impressed upon the young never, when there is a choice, to do anything which can be done equally well or better by someone else. How many wasted lives would then be spared if each individual tried to find his own line.