Review: “Zyzzyva” Fall 2010 Fiction

by Rio Liang

Zyzzyva‘s winter issue may already be out, but that’s no reason to not savor its fall fiction offerings. Enjoy!

Mark Van Proyen’s “Theda’s Island” (novel excerpt). Very interesting setup for a novel. Fresh off a sabbatical, art school professor Jay Fowler treads through a sea of his often quirky colleagues at an Academic Senate meeting. Three important things happen during the course of the meeting: The introduction of the new president, Theda Vohn der Pahder, who has ambitious plans for the school; the dean’s announcement of his retirement; and our narrator’s sudden and unwanted ascension to the role of faculty representative by way of a unanimous vote by his fellow Senate members. I would imagine we are being set up for a conflict between the faculty and the president, with Jay caught in the middle.  I’m interested to see Theda more; she seems like a prime antagonist here. I’m also interested to see where Van Proyen takes Kathy Penngrove, who is to be Jay’s teaching assistant. She gets the handwritten letter treatment, so I’m guessing by drawing attention to her in that manner the author is cluing us to the fact that she will play a significant role in the plot somewhere along the way. Though, Kathy’s a bit of an afterthought by the time you reach story’s end, as you’re inundated by all the professors in attendance. There was a point initially when the number of characters streaming in to the Senate meeting frustrated me–it felt like stalling via endless character introductions–but that became moot by excerpt’s end. You truly get a (perhaps necessary) sense of the size and diversity of the faculty body. Interesting introduction to a novel.

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Mistakes were Made, Errors Happened.” Absolutely hilarious stuff. Japan turns out to be quite a limbo for our half-Japanese/half-American narrator when he returns to his second home the year after he graduates from high school in America. Things go wrong when an errand to buy some speed for a call girl friend results in him coming back empty-handed, with neither her speed nor her money. Her essentially ordering a hit on him doesn’t help our narrator much in his pitifully inexpert attempts at raising enough money to buy a plane ticket ride back to America. He is perpetually “in the middle.” By the end, the author has had our narrator suffer through all sorts of humiliations, from doing gay porn to being strangled by a boa constrictor-like Nigerian. The narrator is a perennial scrub, lovably wet behind the ears. Greenfeld interweaves the several characters and scenes of the story rather expertly, bringing our narrator’s story arc to a satisfying happy ending of sorts. I’m not going to give away the ending, but it’s rather resonant and ties back in a cool way to the theme of being in the middle (it involves a soccer field). High recommend.

Gina Hanson’s “Deadstick Landing.” A simple enough story of heartbreak. We follow narrator Livie and her friend Georgie as they have trysts with other WASPs (that is, Women’s Airforce Service Pilots). This was of course before DADT, during a time when homosexuality was even less tolerated. As can be expected during such a time, Livie’s lover, Buffy, questions the immorality and sinfulness of their actions, and retreats to a compulsory heterosexuality. It’s a devastating breakup for Livie, who is urged by the more headstrong Georgie into not going the route of Buffy and disavowing her sexuality. …Overall I liked this piece. It’s short and simple; the scene in which Georgie consoles Livie using a “deadstick landing” as a metaphor isn’t exactly the most unpredictable or original climax to a story, but it is a nice touch.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s “Rokurokubi.” What a bizarre and intriguing piece. Our narrator is a “Rokurokubi” (or “long neck” in Japanese), able to supernaturally stretch his neck to great distances. It’s a secret he’s kept since his youth, a freaky aspect of himself further made worse by the perversity of what he uses his ability for, namely for spying on others. The opening scene (which is so odd and attention-grabbing) has him with webcam in mouth voyeuristically watching his newly transsexual friend Ayaka having sex with her lover Luka. Though Ayaka and Luka know (and are apparently accepting) of his elastic neck, his wife Sayuri does not. But Sayuri actually is keeping a secret of her own–she is cheating on her husband with her manager. Both secrets have ruined their marriage, which we witness self-destruct through the course of the story. …Nagamatsu does a great job of depicting the seaminess of the narrator’s secret life, its dirtiness. (In fact, talking about dirtiness, the narrator even stretches his head down toilets). The odd elements that make up this story are its strengths (one memorable scene is the narrator’s encounter with Ken, a “nukekubi,” or someone with a detachable head); yes, the narrator has an elastic neck, but by story’s end that fact loses its initial ridiculousness and you are left pondering the bigger point of the story, the tragedy of it all.

Miyoko & Tom Wesley’s “Western People Manners Book.” It’s Japan in the 1950s, and Miyoko meets Richard, an American. Not too versed in the ways of Westerners, she consults with her “Western People Manners Book,” according to which, the way of Occidentals can be expected to be the opposite of everything Japanese. Not so much deluded as just misinformed (something having been lost in translation somewhere along the way), she entertains ideas of being taken to a ballroom party by Richard, even going so far as to tailor a princess-y ball gown. She fails to pick up little hints here and there that Richard is not quite what she thinks he is. Not quite the Prince Charming she dreams of, he is in fact a Salvation Army type of guy (which she knows nothing about, and mishears as the “Savage Army”). Everything comes to a head when for Christmas he disappoints with home-cooked chili (an American cuisine, according to him, haha), and with his place being far from decked out for the holidays. A poor man’s Christmas, though ironically Richard proclaims this to be his best Christmas yet. Miyoko, upon realizing the truth, feels the complete opposite way that Richard feels. …I enjoyed this much. So delightfully funny with a bittersweet ending. I liked that Miyoko wants to be away from Richard, to keep her idea of a Western dream, but is unable to express her true feelings (as is customary for the Japanese, so as to not insult). She instead acquiesces to a kiss. The complete opposite of a fairy tale ending. The refreshing way the story returns to the concept of opposites mentioned earlier in the story was a welcome surprise. A well-constructed piece. A definite recommend.

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