Rio Liang reviews Zyzzyva 88 – Part II

Here’s part two of my fiction round-up for Zyzzyva 88. Part I, in which I review the same issue’s stories by previously unpublished stories is available here. Bliss’s “A Full Cellar.” Hilarious, fun, and wild story. Our narrator is Grantinto, a college student majoring in dance, who is just one cog in a seemingly rickety but ultimately (somehow) efficient machine that is her Peruvian family. Her porn-loving father had named all his children after wines, which is about as eccentric as his eldest daughter Pinot’s naming system for her own children based on the alphabet (Grantinto wonders at Pinot’s reproductive prolificacy and would consider it a miracle were she to give birth to baby H). Pinot is the family’s (and perhaps the story’s) backbone. As everyone else is indisposed (father is retired and living off of Social Security, mother is away in Lima, her siblings are all in school), she is the only one working, and one would assume the only one with money. However, money runs through this family in quirky ways. Somehow everything gets paid off. The patriarch’s porn, the food, and ultimately a present that Pinot has bought for Grantinto. The story culminates in a big Sunday dinner with everyone in the family, save for the mother, in attendance. Pinot’s arroz con mariscos is the product of all her financial prestidigitation. And when Grantito finally discovers the present her sister had bought her–new ballet shoes–our narrator finally gives in to earlier nudges to perform a dance for the family. It’s a wondrous climax to the story, a moment of enjoyment for the family, who by this point we’ve come to know–the author does a great job of individualizing each family member and really making each of their idiosyncracies stay in your memory (sister Reese always with her iPod, brother Raz and his Arabic techno music, Aunt Esmeralda and her religious tchotchkes, etc.). Aside from humor, the sectioned-out passages in this piece burst out with narrative electricity, as Grantinto provides us with play-by-plays of every family member’s actions, and through the pile of descriptions a great sense of the bustle of family emerges. Wonderful story. High recommend.

Morgan Elliott’s “Kallio Kiss.” Graphic fiction coolness! A man, a solitary traveler with Finnish roots, travels to Helsinki, where he wanders the streets of the Kallio district. He finds a woman who had been expecting him (it is unclear how they had previously known each other, but I suppose that’s moot). Together they go to see a band and over drinks he probes into how the woman would react were he to kiss her; she at first indicates she’s not attracted to him but then initiates a kiss herself. After they part ways (the scenes in which they separate are just beautifully rendered), the man makes his way to Helsinki Cathedral where he imbibes and takes in what has just happened, the connection that had manifested itself perhaps sneakily and that perhaps may have left a lasting impression. From here, there are only more destinations for him ahead. …I like this for its refreshing simplicity; sometimes you don’t need the clutter of words. Mr. Elliott limns (actually quite literally; excuse the Michiko Kakutani moment here) both gloom and hope together in the simplest but most beautiful way. Our main character is a brooding, perpetual traveler, a nomad (this is earlier further indicated by the ourobouros symbol on the airplane at the beginning of the story). An epigraph to the piece quotes a passage from the Kalevala which, I learned through a bit of research, is a Finnish epic. The referenced story centers around a tragic figure named Kullervo, a boy brought into the world in circumstances of misery and who leaves it in the same manner. One can infer and imagine an entire life for the man in Mr. Elliott’s story based on the Kullervo template. …There was one error though that I noticed in one of the cells:  the spelling of the word “betrayel.” The English language is so fluid (a bit of a loose hussy) that I wondered if in fact “betrayel” had become an accepted part of the vocabulary. It’s not, though a google search did lead me to a band on MySpace whose name was similarly misspelled. But whatever, I digress. On another note, Mr. Elliott’s bio refers readers to, which showcases more of the author’s very interesting illustrations. Overall, cool! Tieryas Liu’s “Forbidden City Hoops.” A one-on-one basketball match in Beijing’s Forbidden City. One of the players is outmatched, not because he isn’t any good but rather because his partner keeps randomly changing the rules of the game. He won’t be sparring with his partner anytime soon though, as his partner is in fact his girlfriend, Sarah. He is the story’s unnamed narrator, a photographer who’s come to settle in Beijing and found a comfortable life with Sarah, a production assistant. He’s perhaps drawn to her vivaciousness; she’s what many people might call a tough cookie, very feisty. She was the lone respondent to a question about what to eat in the city that he’d thrown out to a group of models at a shoot. He’d grown weary of the photoshopped life of the photographer, and Sarah stood out as the dream figure amid the banality. Their lives are upturned however by a car accident in which Sarah is collaterally damaged. The catalyst isn’t so much the injuries Sarah sustains, but rather our narrator’s decision to help the bloodied motorist hit head-on in the accident. She wonders why her lover didn’t tend to her, didn’t even ask how she was. It was of course a mindless and seemingly innocuous reflex on his part, but this decision haunts him during her rehabilitation period, when he has to watch her slog through periods of demotivation. Periods in which she suffers apocalyptic dreams in which candy wrappers and empty soda cans swathe the world. (Very nice detail). She gradually regains her footing, so to speak, until eventually the couple can shoot hoops again. It’s during another of their one-on-one games that he confronts her with his guilt. She tries to console him by recounting a story about a Chinese province where the people treat the dream world as reality. She discards or suppresses the candy wrapper nightmares and dreams, she says, of being alive and lively. He relates to this escapism, as his life in Beijing with her, he says, is in fact a figurative dream to him. Her advice? Don’t wake up. They go about their game, resuming their dream-lives. …I liked this story, though I’m sure some might find Sarah a bit overbearing and the narrator a bit too accommodating. (But I suppose that’s modern chivalry for you, ha!). The overarching idea that he’s in essence become like the people of Gumang finding refuge in their dreams I think is nicely wrought. And I love the contrast between the reality he left behind in the States with the figurative dream world of China:  “Flaws weren’t pariah here [in Beijing], foibles were badges of character, not something to be brushed away in Photoshop.” (Bloody brilliant line, that is). Definitely one to check out.

Joshua Mohr’s “Paris, 2010.” A girl with a black eye and her boyfriend approach a Telegraph Avenue street artist for a drawing. The artist suspects domestic abuse, a suspicion further stoked by the boyfriend, Tyler, criticizing the girl as being fat and dismissing her pregnant belly.  The couple ask to be drawn with the Eiffel Tower in the background, but the artist can’t get over what he assumes and comes to believe is proof that Tyler beats his girlfriend. He draws the girl, black eye and all; but the story gets really interesting when he starts to draw her bump, with a baby outlined in it, sporting a black eye just like its mother. Needless to say, Tyler is furious when he sees this and himself portrayed as a monster with a cartoon bubble in which his caricature self says “Abort that baby.” The couple leaves, and the artist returns to his own home where a wife and a seventeen-year-old son, born brain-damaged, awaits him. He wonders if his indictment of Tyler was merited. There is spaghetti waiting in the kitchen and he fetches his son, who is watching an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos. …What an interesting premise. Seeing the couple as they are would probably elicit the same suspicion in anybody, but the artist’s reaction to them is so amped up that it’s actually the artist himself who makes the situation interesting. You get the sense that the artist is both loving (a bit “too” perhaps; the ending might be viewed as too sentimental) and conflicted in regards to his own son, his own fate. His drawing is a projection of perhaps his own concealed despair: “He wanted [the couple] stuck in their own lives the way he was soldered to his own fate, to his son who had been born brain damaged…a great innocent pathetic horrifying ever-unchanging burden he loved.” It’s the self-conflict of the caretaker of the disabled. You feel for the guy, as he’s trying to make ends meet while trying to soldier through with his imperfect family that he loves.

Dust Wells’s “The Loop.” Ana, Bicho, and Tony gather at a Buddhist funeral for their friend Dat. The high schoolers had once been a quartet that through the years had dissolved as the three guys increasingly spiraled downward into a life of petty crimes. Ana had jumped ship early on, abhorring the monsters her friends were becoming. Eventually Tony found himself in rehab and Bicho reformed through Christian school. Dat however was left behind, and it was in this vulnerable state that he found his fate: Alone, he played a game he’d invented called “The Loop,” which involved racing through the Bay and taunting cars he’d pass by. But one van in particular, holding men with guns, taunted back, shooting him. After the funeral, the three remaining members of the group go for a drive themselves. Bicho unveils a gun and a plan to seek vengeance for his friend’s death by retracing “The Loop.” Unsuspecting and disapproving Ana watches as his two friends sort their demons out. Both men feel guilt for having influenced Dat then abandoning him when it mattered. Eventually, fires are shot, but only in the air. In the end the three part ways, unable to reconcile their past friendships with who they were now. …The most rounded out character in the story ironically is the dead guy, Dat. I could really see this obnoxious Cambodian kid, a diminutive wannabe gangsta, a liar, in Vans gear and a penchant specifically for everything checkerboard (even souping up his car with checkers, which he financed through his drug dealing). I could really see him swaggering with ridiculous but yet real menace. I also liked the fleshing out of the two other guys, who were just so incredibly conflicted. Rehabilitation unfortunately failed Tony and Bicho, and to add into that mix grief, guilt, and remorse, their ensuing actions come across as both ridiculous and poignant. In one funny scene, instead of burning paper at Dat’s funeral, corpulent Tony throws in his belongings into the pyre because he felt Dat would find actual materials useful instead of paper in the afterlife. But it’s the best that he can do–we’ve all seen these guys who swagger on, so casehardened, so rigid, and it’s always interesting to see them react in moments that require emotions besides anger. I trust Mr. Wells (whose name by the way wins the award for coolest name) in the way he describes these characters; there’s a vivid realism to them that’s refreshing. If there is a potential weak point to the story however, it may be the ending; there’s a passage specifically on Tony which may come across as a misplaced last-minute explanation for his behavior. Its inclusion may have been unnecessary, as just seeing Tony and Ana walk the streets of San Francisco in different directions (Tony goes north, Ana walks west, while earlier Bicho had driven east) may have been enough of a strong image to end with. Still, despite this, the story’s a good read with very well-rendered characters.

Overall, a great issue. Check it out if you haven’t already, and let me know what you think.


  1. Hey Rio, thanks for the great review, I really loved your insight into the stories and your perspectives on the plots were so spot-on. I went through the issue another time after reading and enjoyed it all the more! And great picture of the courts, haha!
    I also enjoyed your previous review and thoughts of Dragon Age (that’s gonna be next on my list after mass effect 2!) I share with you many thoughts on games- including being moved by Chrono Trigger and the FF’s.

  2. That’s great to hear, Peter! I do hope people get their hands on this issue, as it’s got some shiners, yours included. And thanks for your comments on my video game blog posts! I’d foregone ME2 for FF13 and DAO: Awakening, so I definitely have to check that one out. I am very hopeful of what video games can evolve into in the future. In any case, thanks for visiting the Ruelle. It was a real pleasure reading your story, and I hope to review more of your works to come!

  3. Thanks Rio! I look forward to reading more of your reviews as well- and also, I’d love to hear what you thought of FF13. I’ve heard so many mixed reviews, I’ve been holding off on that one.

  4. Hi Peter, FF13 was a definite mixed bag. I’d actually been meaning to post a full-on review; there’s so much to cover for that game (the linearity issue, cinematography, etc.). So do be on the lookout for that upcoming post!

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