From Rio Liang: The Paris Review, Fall 2009

The current issue of the journal includes three easily digestible short stories (they’re all relatively short), two of which I would recommend:

Sam Shepard’s “Four Days.” Shepard had a “New Yorker” story a short while back that irritated me, and he continues that trend here. A disjointed story split into four vignettes (what’s with all these horrible vignette stories?), all from the point of view of the narrator, a man on a homeward-bound road trip. In the first vignette, the narrator recalls having forgotten as a young boy what “margarine” was, instead calling it “majesty,” a lapse in memory that worried his mother into thinking he’s a “cabbage head.” Not quite sure how that connects with the second vignette, in which the narrator recalls an anecdote involving a man forced to endure the wailings of Shania Twain after he’s locked in a public restroom overnight (the store manager had apparently left the sound system on after locking up). Don’t ask me how that then connects to the third snippet, which has the narrator at a diner being prevented from his dessert by a weirdly solicitous waitress who wonders why he’s skipped his main course. The last section has our heretofore unidentified narrator observing a man at a donut place who turns out to have been a fellow truant when the two were younger. It’s revealed to us that the narrator goes by the name Billy Rice and is a Hollywood actor. He shams ignorance at having known the man he’s been observing. The end. Quite frankly, stories like these aren’t enjoyable. I like puzzles, but this is just drudge work. And there’s nothing resonant to even make the story the least bit interesting. Another throwaway story.

Check mark symbolMark Slouka’s “Crossing.” A father takes his son camping, but a specific site where they want to pitch camp is blocked off by a river. The first crossing goes off smoothly and they spend the night well enough. But the crossing back to the car the next day is not as lenient as it had been previously. Turns out the snow from the nearby mountains had filled the river and strengthened its already pesky currents. The suspense of the story hinges on whether father can get through this gauntlet set up by nature and bring his son back to its mother, to prove he can get things right this time. When he finds himself trapped midway across the river with his son on his back, you know there’s only trouble ahead, that this will most likely not end well, but he trudges on. …I liked this. Great suspense. Not much happens, but the story manages with the scant elements it has. The river becomes truly menacing, and the last big paragraph of the story, aside from being gorgeously written, elicits a feeling of helplessness akin to that you feel for doomed characters in horror films:  “The river. It wanted to be whole, unbroken. It wanted him gone. He could see it, forming and reforming, thick-walled jade, smoothing out its sides with its thumbs like a hypnotized potter.”

Check mark symbolRichard Powers’s “Enquire Within Upon Everything.” An enjoyable read. Told in a quirky narrative that never gets on your nerve; and it never loses you either as usually happens in the most grating of pomo stories. The story’s focus is on a boy born in 1989 whose life we follow till his death at the age of 98. His is a life humorously showing us just how intertwined human life can be with technology, especially the Internet. In this story, the “boy” (a term used for all stages of his life; which is funny considering he marries–“the boy’s wife”–and has a son, referred to as the “boy’s boy”) is surrounded by a curious variety of ever eerily smarter Web sites; one tracks a person’s movements since childhood, one can reproduce paintings, another can recreate symphonies Mozart would have composed. The possibilities of the Internet here are wondrously endless, to the point of being ridiculous. Definitely read this one.

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