Rio Liang reviews “Tin House” Fall 2009

Folks, this may be the first time I’ve ever liked ALL stories in a particular journal/magazine issue. Pigs must be flying somewhere in an ice-capped hell. The Fall 2009 issue of Tin House is actually two issues in one, sorta. Pick up the journal and find one side entitled “Hope.” Flip it over and you’ll be reading the “Dread” side. Pretty nifty idea. But what matters most is the quality of the writing, and thankfully that buoys what might have easily been a shallow concept issue.

“Hope”

Karen Russell’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach.” Fourteen-year-old Nal Wilson has a screwed-up life. His hotshot brother Samson bests him at basketball and gets all the girls, particularly Vanessa Grigalunas, whom Nal had set his eyes on. His mother, a former nursing home caregiver was fired for some building code violation, and now she’s a practical vegetable, depressed and unemployed. Which leaves Nal to pick up the pieces, having to work at a supermarket and housesit for a teacher to make ends meet. To add to this, seagulls keep terrorizing him. They pop up everywhere, and one day he discovers them congregating in one specific tree, in the hull of which they’d been storing various stolen items. One of them happens to be a screw that he believes is the very loosened screw that caused his mother her job; another is a ticket to a field trip. Had he not retrieved it, he would have missed out on hanging out with Vanessa. This, and the fact that had the seagulls not loosened the screw from the nursing home building, leads him to believe that the seagulls are stealing away people’s futures (there are other artifacts in that tree hull as well from other unidentified people whose futures he can only conjecture had been changed drastically by the seagulls’ intrusion). When his mooch of an older brother asks him for some money to buy Vanessa a ring, he punches him and instead buys the ring himself. He then presents it to Vanessa, and the story ends with him stealing her away from Samson. They make love. He has reclaimed his future, but at what cost? …I liked this. The scene when we find the stolen screw was such a reveal; I couldn’t help but laugh and be surprised by that. The last few lines (which are lurid and I won’t reproduce here, haha) was nicely executed.

Alaa Al Aswany’s “Izzat Amin Iskandar.” Short piece. The title character is a disabled boy the narrator had known when he was a boy at school. When the narrator had gone out to bike one day, Izzat at first challenges him to ride with his hands in the air, and then asks to ride the bike himself. That attempt of course ends badly, as Izzat falls off the bike. But that is moot to the boy, who weakly asks “Did you see me ride the bike?” It’s unclear whether he will die (there’s blood pooling around the site of his amputation), but the whole point of the story is that he got to do something he had obviously wanted to try. Short but sweet.

Michael Dahlie’s “The Children of Stromsund.” How bizarre. Seven Maine women decide, as a result of a dream of one of them, to have a communal pregnancy. There are seven men of course to sire their babies, all of which get picked off until none of them remain in the very end, leaving only the women and their babies. But the journey to that end is one marked by oddities one might find in “The Canterbury Tales” or some Medieval work:  The women decide to hire a midwife, but she kills one of the men who spurns her, then she kills herself; one of the men, Johannes, suggests everyone move to Stromsund to raise their babies, which they do by ship, on which they try to perform a play. In the end, Johannes gets killed by a Bosendorfer. …Hard to place this story, but I rather liked its quirkiness, which left me in alternating states of confusion and laughter. What’s going on? Huh? Hahaha!

Michael Byers’s “Guess Who?” Victor Fish is a happy guy. He’s an actor who keeps getting lucky breaks, whose line “I love it here” from a commercial garners him attention from various people he meets, among them a gangster writing an editorial at the public library (ha!). He’s happily married to Winnie, who works for an environmental foundation buying wetlands. He writes her facetious letters in which he pretends to be other men, and she receives them happily enough. There isn’t much of a plot here, but that doesn’t really matter. What substitutes plot is a series of seemingly unconnected but interesting events that nonetheless resonate and set up the story’s wonderfully wry last paragraph (Victor’s last letter to Winnie before he stops doing them). One such event is when Victor finally talks with a neighbor of theirs, Henry, whom Victor and Winnie had been watching from afar during Henry’s walks with his wife. Henry talks about his wife, who had died weeks ago, and tells Victor he should have a baby. In the end, Victor writes another of his joke letters in the guise of Henry in which he professes his love for her. One would think that a story like this would fail, but to me it soars. It’s a delightfully unconventional love story, which is probably the reason I forgave it its often too bright tone. Writing about happiness and love can turn sappy quick, but here the writing is odd and quirky enough that it thankfully doesn’t. Highly recommend.

Abigail Thomas’s “Nana’s Close Call.” Another short but sweet piece. Nana is sixty-seven with many grandchildren. She’s perfectly fine with being alone. Until one day a man she had known when she was in her teens starts corresponding with her about how smitten he had been with her then. He recalls funny moments such as the time they had played spin the bottle and she refused to kiss him; the time he wanted to say it was all his “fault” but ended up saying “fart” instead; the time he had been thinking of how gorgeous and leggy she was but only was able to eke out “You’re tall.” This obviously endears him to Nana, and when he asks to come over, she obliges him. She paints in a frenzy, thinking about how she doesn’t want to be with someone but then wants to know how it feels to be in love. Unfortunately she won’t ever find out, as he cancels at the last minute, citing complications in his life. She goes out to her backyard to paint yet again, discover more colors and be engulfed in them. …I really liked this. The story really didn’t need more than what it had given us. Four perfect short pages. The man’s recollections of his crush were very charming, and it’s understandable how Nana could let even the possibility of love enter into her life at such a late age. The passages about her painting render her almost feral, someone who’s devoted to nature as opposed to humans, someone who can ultimately in the end live without the touch of a man. Great story.

“Dread”

Ander Monson’s “Weep No More Over This Event.” Truly a sad, brilliantly-told story. The narrator, we find out, has just shot an intruder into his house. But he is cleared of any wrongdoing by the police because they deem it an act of self defense. But this does nothing to clear him of the guilt–or malaise–he feels. Most of that guilt has to do with his recent split with his wife Katie (he admits at one point that it was she he was thinking of when he shot the perpetrator). In a nice twist, he starts trying out this business of home-invasion, using his neighbor Danny’s house as his first target. Danny himself has been having family problems, with his daughter Mary having vanished and his wife Marie having died. The narrator then learns more about the “decedent,” whose name is Lewis, and he breaks in to his house next. In a weird twist, Lewis collects toy rockets just like the narrator’s father had. He lies on Lewis’s bed, waiting to be shot at himself. …There’s a nice circularity to this story, i.e. the victim becomes the shooter and then wants to become a victim again (to be shot at). And there’s the broken family motif running throughout. The narrator’s family is torn asunder by Katie’s leaving him; even his father faced devastation in a relationship when his wife died. Danny’s house is broken by death and disappearance. Lewis’s family is absent him now, with his only remaining traces on social networking sites he was part of. A truly dreadful state of affairs. But thankfully we are kept afloat by superb storytelling.

Nick Cave’s excerpt from “The Death of Bunny Munro.” I usually despise novel excerpts that are fobbed off as journal issue fodder. This two-pager isn’t one of them. Bunny Munro is on a joy ride or something, eyeing all sorts of women and arousing himself in the process. That’s all quite deplorable and all, but the writing here is quite electrifying. If these two pages manage to be so intriguing on a word level, I’m in for the long haul; give me that novel.

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