Rio Liang reviews Zyzzyva 88 (Spring 2010) – Part I: The Fiction First-Timers-in-Print

Zyzzyva 88Glad to see Junker still at it with this gem of a journal. Sad to read about Z’s financial troubles (support the literary cause, people!), but even sadder to ponder H.J.’s impending departure. Who will cull the best West Coast writing in typical Junker-style? In any case…

This is part one of my Zyzzyva 88 review, focusing on the fiction first-timers-in-print. And I gotta say, these very short stories are oh so good. (Shout out to the first-timers!).

Next time, it’s the veterans. We’ll see how they hold up! But without further ado:

Leila Binder’s “Human Shield.” Pudgy translator Monica leaves New York and with it her overbearing roommate Alessandra’s annoying fastidiousness to go on a human shield mission to Colombia. There, she settles in to the town of Bojaya, befriending and imbibing with the townsfolk. She also meets Father Jorge, a seemingly innocent priest with leftist leanings with whom she has a tryst. What naive Monica only later finds out is that Jorge in fact comes from conservative blood and that he is an informant. Monica ponders all the blood she will indirectly spill as she boards her plane home. …This was a hilarious one, especially with the back-and-forth between the roommates, one a messy laissez-faire type and the other a neat freak. Then you have great one-liners coming out of Monica’s mouth (this is in the first-person narrative, which works just right), i.e. “Do I have pre-traumatic stress disorder?” and the in-your-face postcard she sends to Alessandra after her departure: “Plump, tan, and happy in my grass hut. -M.” (Alessandra’s retort is even funnier: “It sounds horrific. What’s so great about lazing about doing nothing while chunking up? Better you than me. -A.”). All in stark contrast to how things turn dark and grave in the end for imperfect Monica.

Susan Jonaitis’s “The Accident.” I liked this. Short but packs a wallop. The story is one long narrative that spans four journal pages without section breaks–and it flows well. Lettie is crashing at Rob’s place, which is in a “Mesican” neighborhood; it’s a temporary setup until she can find a job and move on. We find out she is in love with a man who had moved away years back; she goes to a particular party for the express reason of sighting him once more. Sad thing is that he goes off with another woman, leaving Lettie alone yet again. Drunk and vulnerable, Lettie sleeps with Rob. We have another flash forward, this time to a party for a neighbor’s ten-year-old son. The mother tells her he never wanted the boy; never wanted his father, who had died back in Juarez. We then find Lettie ingesting pills, purposefully damaging herself apparently to stop the baby growing inside of her. One night, she has a hallucination that leads into a raging fit, causing Rob to throw her out. Again, she is broken, and the story ends with the heartbreaking last passage: “I pressed my hands into my stomach and told the swiftly multiplying cells deep within that if they knew what was good for them, they’d stop.” …As I’d earlier mentioned, this is only a four-page piece, but there’s so much packed in its smallness. A “high recommend” from me for this one.

Outkast...in a literary journal review, ha!Roger Porter’s “A Foretaste of Elysium.” Wow, what a ride this was! Interesting narrative structure. If I got it right, I believe we switch between two voices here, both of the same narrator. On one level we have a young man speaking in street dialect about his adventures and romantic forays in his ‘hood (in the most gangsta way, haha); and then we have the same man perhaps decades later narrating retrospectively, his voice now smoothed out, matured. What’s even more interesting is the use of one particular childhood memory revolving around the man’s cousin, who introduces him to an Outkast song that will be the romantic theme of his young adulthood. The story centers around the man finding the second love of his life, a dark-skinned queen (as he calls her) with burgundy hair to match her burgundy spaghetti straps (love that description), whom he first runs across at a neighborhood car sideshow. The police shortly thereafter breaks up the street gathering, separating the two lovers. At this point, the older version of our narrator dips into a memory of being in love at twelve with a girl (his first love); so much so that he beat up a buddy of his who did her wrong. He was suspended for this act, and his cousin, fresh out of jail, was the one to take him home from school. It was at this point that the cousin introduces him to the song “SpottieOttiedopalicious,” which sums up perfectly his feelings for the two loves of his young life, as this is the same song he plays later on after he is enthralled by his queen. The next time they reunite, the police come to bring down the party yet again. But this time, our hero (hence the title) won’t back down. For the sake of impressing his queen, he gets himself arrested for talking down a police officer. Just as his cousin had told him in his childhood how stupid men can get in the face of love, his friends tell him now how dumb he is for strutting his stuff for the sake of the girl with burgundy hair. …A really good story. I wasn’t thinking too much about the use of dialect (that’s been debated to death I think with the recent debacle over “The Help”); instead I was just so impressed by the threading together of the seemingly at first disparate passages. Read this fo shuh! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

Victoria Tishman’s “Never Let Me Down.” Rich, this one is. Yet another first-person narrative in this issue so far, this one centering around a week or so in which a couple meet in Prague. Looming above them during this trip is the question: Should they stay together or not? Should they get married or go on living separately? The narrator had met Piers, her lover, at a conference (I love the intro of this story); she was a waitress and he an author who writes about manifestations of power. She’s 32, a headstrong woman who finds herself suddenly powerless in the face of someone she probably truly doesn’t love. All signs point to that fact (she realizes at a tell-tale party while observing Piers’s interactions with his colleagues and her that she will always be “in the sidelines” of his life). She had become in effect addicted to Piers, relating herself to addicts she tended to when she used to work at a homeless shelter. She says herself that she should have ended their relationship early on but she continued for some reason, and as a result she’s now reached this limbic stage. Enter Elsa, a girl-companion of Piers’s friend, whom they meet at a Prague club. The narrator can’t help but envy her, who wards off a man’s unwanted come-on at the club in front of her. She is powerful, can deflect the power of men. The ending is subtle and sterling: The narrator surprises us with her finally telling Piers she loves him. The irony however is that he’s drunk. Which leads her back to square one; the story ends with her watching Piers snore and wondering “how many women have been here and seen nothing they wanted to save.” (Wow, that is good). …I just love how this story wonderfully portrays the power struggle between men and women, which itself mirrors the conflict one faces with love (Is he the one? What if he is? What if he isn’t?). Even though the story only spans five pages, I’m sure I still haven’t taken in every nuance this story has to offer. There are bits I don’t quite get yet, but which remain strongly in the mind (the passage about dreaming of the musician; the passage on musicals; Piers’s seeming anorexia–if you have any thoughts on these, let me know!). I am left just so intrigued by these two central characters. At the end of this week in their lives, will she say yes or no to marrying Piers? I suppose the answer isn’t what’s important, but rather what leads to that answer.

* * *

So, what do you think of the stories? Pick up the latest issue and let me know your thoughts and interpretations. Feel free to correct me if you beg to differ with any of mine!

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3 Comments

  1. my favorite is “My Fathr Died 50 Times,” by anthony mohr. it is poignant without being soupy; a really good father memoir. i hope you enjoy it!
    also good = melanie reitzel’s memoir.
    i’m the proofer for ZYZZYVA, so i have to read ’em all–whether or not i like them! plus, i’m really hard to please, or take by surprise!
    this is a good review! thanks.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kathi. Both those pieces you mentioned are indeed beauts. “Brace God” is both very moving and beautifully funny (“Basically we’re Type-A people stuck in Type-B bodies. How’s that for essential tension?”). “My Father Died 50 Times” I think I read fifty times over, haha; the takeaway was just that good. So quietly stunning (i.e. that acting coach section). And the last line got me real bad: “I may have been an adult then, but I was not too old to be reminded that I could like a bad guy and remember that I had loved one.” Wow. …Great job on this issue. Zyzzyva’s one of the regulars in my household; can’t wait to find out what you have in store for future issues. Thanks again!

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