Review: “Bartleby Snopes” Post-Experimentalism Special Issue

I had approached Bartleby Snopes’s special issue devoted to “post-experimentalism” unfamiliar with the genre. But finishing the 17 thematically-grouped stories that comprise the issue moved me no closer to a reliable definition; in fact, it rendered the genre, makeshift or not, more nebulous.

Primarily problematic is that one doesn’t quite get a good sense of what differentiates these stories from the usual arbitrarily grouped fare we see in most other reputable literary magazines. The lingering question, “What is post-experimentalism?” feels somewhat imposed and is more a distraction than anything. (Though I found intriguing the idiosyncratic definitions supplied by the individual authors and subsequently displayed by their stories).

That’s not to say the issue isn’t enjoyable. Stripped of the extraneous post-experimentalism plastic covering, many of the stories make for quite good reads in and of themselves. They are all concerned with the bizarre, more or less. Some don’t feel quite up to par, like “Good Kill,” which is eerily topical (given the recent Newtown shootings) but may be predictable for some; or Joachim Frank’s “The New Gift,” a light, throwaway story, which feels out of place as the issue’s endpiece. But there are a few that merit recommendation, like Andrew Battershill’s cheeky “Laundry under cover of darkness” (perhaps my favorite of the lot), in which two narrative strands unfold, quite literally, side by side; Jacqueline Doyle’s creative “The Last Metaphor,”  which plays with the figure of speech all while transcending gimmickry; Len Kuntz’s beautiful and unsettling “Milk,” in which the narrator’s lover transforms into milk before his eyes; and Edward Trefts’s “Parable of the Door,” an aleatoric and surreal journey that culminates in two hauntingly good lines.

Do check out the issue and try your hand at figuring out what post-experimentalism is, though approaching it from a post-post-experimentalism angle may be just as fine.

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Review: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)

by Rio Liang

The incomparable Wes Anderson marvels again with his latest ouevre, “Moonrise Kingdom,” an unexpected love story between two troubled tweens in love, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). They run away together, but hiding away in the tucks and folds of the small fictional island of New Penzance is no easy task, especially with Sam’s wilderness survival-savvy scout troop (headed by Edward Norton as scoutmaster) on their trail, backed up by local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Suzy’s lawyer parents (Frances McNormand and the indispensable Bill Murray) not far behind. But to not act on their plan promises the two lovers an even worse fate, as orphaned Sam awaits grim intervention by “Social Services” (as personified, literally and quite humorously, by Tilda Swinton), who explains that possible electroshock therapy may be in the young boy’s stars. It would also mean a return for Suzy to her previously unhappy and lonely existence.

Meticulously but affectionately constructed, Anderson’s latest goes beyond mere po-mo gimmickry and features no self-aggrandizing fanfaronades. It is a stylistic tour de force indeed, but one bolstered by an element so often missing in like slick productions:  Heart. “Moonrise” is flashy and bright, but not just for the solipsistic sake of showing off. Instead, Anderson, through each cleverly conceived moment and his ever methodical approach to every filmic detail, is aiming–so courteously, I might add–to ensure his viewers a felicitous movie-going experience.

Youthful innocence is central to the story. Opening the film are strands of Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” the narrator of the recording played for us not just providing a guide for its young listeners, but also providing a clue to the movie’s adult viewers as to how to proceed with watching the film:  With childlike, wide-eyed anticipation. This suggestion is further reinforced by scenes in which Suzy reads her storybooks to Sam and, later on, the rest of his Khaki Scout mates, who look on with such infectious childlike interest. (The eager “Khaki Scouts,” by the way, are a wonderful parody of adult life–Anderson treats the scouts more or less as miniature soldiers, with all the bluster of, but safe from the harm of, the real/adult word). Anderson’s brand of humor, which dips quite often into absurdity (Piercing a girl’s ears with fish hooks? Two twelve-year-olds solemnly tying the knot, a la Romeo and Juliet?) quite relies on youthful participation from its audience. To not play along is to deprive oneself of enjoyment throughout the experience. Anderson provides the (gorgeous) stimuli; it is then up to the audience to respond or not.

During a summer that has so far posted record-breaking heat, “Moonrise Kingdom” offers a welcome “flood” of stylized optimism for film-lovers.

Review: “The Adirondack Review” Summer 2012 Issue Fiction

by Rio Liang

The summer 2012 issue of The Adirondack Review is now available online.

“Mermaid’s Gulch” by Radha Narayan

A doleful piece about a woman struggling to tap into her lover Peter’s mind and find meaning in the eventual (and inevitable) breakdown of their open relationship. There is a terminal disparity, we find, in the way the lovers view each other; she has attached to him with whole-hearted ardor, while he submits to embraces “with affection but without abandon.” Daubed throughout the story are moments when the narrator addresses Jessica, Peter’s former lover and our narrator’s predecessor. A sort of sisterhood then manifests, a bond formed through shared pain:  We learn that Jessica had found consolation in Suzanne before her, just as the narrator finds consolation in Jessica. It’s not too far a leap to assume that Kate (our narrator’s successor) will one day find our narrator consoling her.

The story doesn’t break new ground but nonetheless captures nicely the differences in thinking between men and women. Peter finds our narrator’s emotionality bewildering. “His brain works differently from ours,” the narrator muses. “More focused, more literal, less prone to error and emotion, as if the two were interchangeable.” In one telling scene, Peter wonders at why a student had given him a thank you card, unable to process the sentiment behind it. He tells our narrator that he doesn’t care to read minds, finds no use in it. This insensitivity, which he extends to our narrator, marks him as the expected villain of the piece.

Overall, Ms Narayan knows how to craft an affecting sentence and tug at her reader’s heartstrings. One such moment:  “We are young waves, flinging ourselves against unyielding rock, bursting into tears upon impact. We dissolve, we regroup, we return. In a few years we might lap gently at soft, abraded sand, out of weary habit, when both love and violence are salty memories.” An interesting read.

“Cake” by Matt Carmichael

Seventeen-year-old Haze Greenberg is in love with twenty-eight-year-old Roy. He is, she finds out through the course of dating him, an anti-Semite. This doesn’t go over well with her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, which lands Haze on her neighbor’s – our narrator’s – doorstep. She takes refuge in his house, which is no inconvenience for him; he has harbored feelings for her and views her stay as somewhat of an opportunity. But his hoped for connection never materializes. As Haze’s grandmother tells our narrator, one doesn’t need “Yellow Stars and Swastikas to differentiate between the good and the bad in life.” Roy is clearly bad for Haze, but she’s too much an apologist for him, and too blind to see the narrator as little more than a host.

The allusions to the Holocaust and of guns (the narrator’s father had shot himself; neighbor Osario is a veteran soldier; Haze’s grandmother brandishes a keepsake revolver, a reminder of her Holocaust experience) hint at a more sinister climax for the story. But it ends rather pleasantly with, well, a cake; a nice comic defusion. But the tragic soon envelops, as the ending leaves our narrator abandoned by Haze, his heroics not having elicited a preferred response from his damsel.

Though the story could have done with a bit more tightening here and there, Mr. Carmichael nonetheless does well maintaining interest. More robust details like Uncle Willie’s restaurant, Haze’s star tattoo, and the Virgin Mary wall stain among others could perhaps have been better employed for a fuller effect, but the details we are supplied with are ingratiating nonethless. The backdrop is also nicely wrought and fitting:  The neighborhood is splattered with specters (i.e. the narrator’s father, Haze’s grandmother, Osario) of a past being perhaps gradually forgotten.

Overall, another interesting read.

“News Item” by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

Sprouting from a simple news blurb about a woman caught using the carpool lane with a baby doll as her passenger, Ms Schantz’s story expands into a tragic portrait of the aforementioned woman, Roberta Hallmark, a drug addict who had previously lost her children. Our author doesn’t withhold from grit in her portrayal of Roberta; we learn of her propensity at age 42 for skimp (“She is caught in narcissistic memories”), of her lack of a filter (i.e. her brazen exhibition of her prolapsed uterus), and her consequent lack of friends. She is, as one might be inclined to call her, typical white trash. Ms Schantz of course doesn’t seek to condemn Roberta, but rather elicit sympathy for her subject. We are thus made privy, unlike the cop who had pulled over Roberta, to her having presumably gone mad, the baby doll being a stand-in for her late baby, a substitute to fill the void of her wasted life.

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Review: “ZYZZYVA” Spring 2012 Issue Fiction

by Rio Liang

Editor Laura Cogan continues to impress at the helm of the revamped ZYZZYVA. The spring 2012 issue is filled with many felicities:

“Meditations on the Late 1970s” by Peter Orner

At first glance the title incited an “Uh-oh” from me, as the word “meditations” usually connotes rambling or a lack of focus. I figured “Danger:  Story ‘lite’ straight ahead.” And in many ways that expectation comes true. Nevertheless, the story is quite entertaining; it is indeed a ramble, but it’s an eloquent ramble, and though you’re headed nowhere in particular, you still enjoy the trip.

“What Will Do” by Lindsey Thordarson

Much to admire in this story about a grieving portraitist named Fiona Talbot who meets Elijah Pierce, a photographer during a time when the camera was still a newfangled thing. Both are in their own ways capturing images of the dead, she of a client’s apparently murdered son (via a painting) and he of Fiona’s recently drowned father (via photography). The story, with each detail set with much care onto the page by Ms Thordarson, succeeds at conveying the solitude of those who mourn, and their keen longing for keepsakes, totems, or stand-ins for those they have lost. The ending is beautiful:  Fiona ruminates on how people don’t just want to remember the good, as presented by the posed shot–they want to capture for safekeeping the image of the entire person, blemishes and all. I became enamored of this story after reading it; a very high recommend from me.

“Chemistry” by Rob Ehle

A charmer of a story. Forty-eight-year-old English teacher Ramona develops a crush on Tim, a chemist and her godchild Ariel’s fiancé. The two have, as the title suggests, chemistry together; they banter, they flirt (or so it’s perceived by Ramona). They even share a secular view of life, a bond Tim cannot have with the religious Ariel. The story culminates in a date of sorts between the two. Rapport or not however, it’s a match that, as we had suspected all along, can never be:  Though there is a bridge between Tim and Ariel, he romanticizes what essentially is a form of settling:  His love for his fiancée, he explains, “never faded out, it never went up in flames. Things just. Quietly intensified. Until she became my reference point. I can’t imagine life without her.” Their non-date unraveled, Ramona is left with a heartbreaking return to the humdrum of her life. Lighthearted, funny, and easy read. A definite recommend.

“Commuting” by Elena Mauli Shapiro

My unabashed favorite from the issue. Such a rich story, every now and then engulfing you in an attention-grabbing sentence, an arresting image. Ms Shapiro’s descriptions have grit and beauty; lines like “I am a small hailstone down your shirt collar melting its way down your shivering back as it disappears into your skin” bring literal shivers to the reader. The story:  A female adjunct professor addresses her married lover, one of the tenured professors at her university. “One must be young,” she says, “to enjoy all the waiting I do for you–a woman in my position does so much waiting.” It’s a mistress’s tale of unrequited love, touching on themes of inferiority (a mistress being of secondary worth in relation to a wife; an adjunct being of lower rank compared to a full-professor), longing for recognition (“I wonder if I leave a trace,” she muses about her students. “Teaching is not about filling blank minds. It is about inducing a flicker of recognition”), and self-disintegration (“I feel like a handout that has been Xeroxed from another Xerox from another Xerox, the original nowhere to be found, the printed letters degrading a little more each time the paper is copied, slowly growing illegible”). Interspersed throughout the narrative are memories of her childhood on the farm, of loneliness, of hunting and being hunted, of the thrill of trespassing (cf. being a mistress). Ms Shapiro does beautiful work limning the narrator’s inner conflict; at one point during her commute, a car gets run over by her train and the narrator compares herself to the driver of the unfortunate vehicle in those last minutes, caught between scrambling to get out and capitulating to her fate. Overall, the story conveys so well that airless space of “if”s (“if” he were her husband, “if” she weren’t his mistress…), that limbic state of being recognized and not. Highest marks from me for this one.

“Animal Gratitudes” by Patrick Coleman

This flash piece was the toughest nut to crack of the bunch. The story affords us disjointed glimpses of a couple, with images strewn about of roadkill and the threat of predators ready to feast; counterposing these images are the couple’s cats which, the narrator explains, “divide our love into loves–scatter it, in a way–but stitch it together, too.” An impenetrable piece, this. Thoughts?

“In This Annihilated Place” by Wanda Coleman

It’s 1965 in a neighborhood once populated by whites but now predominantly inhabited by “colored” people. The only whites remaining are thirty-something mechanic Crazy John and his elderly parents. He gets grief from the neighborhood kids but is generally viewed as an innocuous fixture in the neighborhood. That is, until Nita moves in with her 10-year-old Darryl. The boy takes a shine to John, which Nita rails against (John being white, her distrust amplified by the political unrest of the time). The worst that could happen happens when John accidentally runs over the boy, and leaves the neighborhood in a state of shock. It’s an interesting variation on the story:  The white man swapped into the role of the minority bogeyman and taking the fall for an accidental murder.

“The Rooftops of Fine Old Houses” by Benjamin T. Miller

Plaintive piece about a roofer who witnesses his girlfriend Marie’s gradual descent into madness, transforming in front of him from a winsomely impulsive risk-taker to a “wax sculpture.” We don’t know what triggered her descent, nor does it matter. He stays steadfastly by her side hoping to reawaken “worldly desires” that would revive her from her zombified state. The climactic scene in which the narrator acts on a flicker of their former love ends in heartbreak, with her neither compliant nor resistant to his advances, leaving our narrator to contemplate:  “My life has become an exercise in black-and-white: the white of working and the black of being by myself.” The ending, a memory of the two lovers paddle boating, is particularly resonant, showing for us the unchartable waters of her mind, the totality with which she has drifted away from reality and him with it.

“Deborah” by Don Waters

Dark story about a madwoman, having relocated to Arizona after the death of her husband (a victim of the 9/11 attacks, his death presumably her undoing), with a borderline religious fascination with animals, to the point where she feeds herself to a mountain lion at the local zoo. The act to her is worship-like, “the closest she’d ever come to saintliness: providing gifts, her pain blossoming into pleasure, feeling his teeth against bone, his saliva writing scripture on her skin.” It’s a deliberate mutilation that transforms her hand into a makeshift paw. She’s an animal lover gone to the extreme, unhinged. The ending is quite haunting:  We find the woman gone feral, having become herself an animal.

“March 6, 2009″ by Jessie Marshall

Our narrator has a “past,” one she has difficulty divulging to her partner, Jason. She is damaged but he has no access to the backstory. He constantly coaxes the secret out of her, but she is ever evasive, shirking off his attempts at therapizing her. They reach an ultimatum:  By March 6, 2009, she must share with him her grief lest the relationship end. But having perhaps repressed too deep the traumatic event, or what she refers to as the “boulder,” she explains, “I can tell you about that fuzzy shape on the horizon, but I can’t tell you about this thing that’s crushing my foot.” The story is as circuitous and maddeningly cryptic as its narrator about what said trauma exactly is, pulling at times her same diversionary tactics (via footnotes, a play script). One may find the story hard to penetrate initially (especially the first few paragraphs), but one starts to ease in to the narrator’s diversionary tactics, appreciating what isn’t said more than what is.

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