Review: “Camera Obscura” Winter 2010 Fiction – Part I

by Rio Liang

"Camera Obscura" Winter 2010 Issue

This is my first time reading “Camera Obscura,” and I’ve gotta say that it’s gorgeous. A journal of literature and photography, it combines well-written stories with some very arresting imagery. It’s like reading at an art gallery (something I’ve never done, but which I feel like I have after reading this journal). Pick up a copy of the winter issue and enjoy the experience.

Scott Nadelson’s “Backfill.” As foreman, Robert has been tasked with oversight of the excavation of a former rock quarry. It’s filled with garbage, which makes it a tough dig. The pressure is on for him to get the job done fast, but he is beset by various hobbles. Two of his most essential workers should really be spending time off–Teo’s father has just passed away, and mainline digger Al is developing the flu–but unsaid expectations keep them at work. The presence in the crew of an obnoxious young man named Walsh, so full of unwarranted bravado, aggravates Robert’s problems even more. On the home front, Robert had recently been asked by his wife Lisa to move out of the house, reason unknown to him. He has borne life’s sufferings quietly and tried to earn his happiness, but at this juncture in his life, things are obviously anything but stable. He comes to realize by story’s end that the foundation he’d paved for his life mirrors the flimsy foundation of the crew’s current dig site. Things seem to fall apart when a too-sick Al at the controls of a backhoe accidentally pulls up a cable from the ground, spelling hazard for the crew. But things are set right at the last minute, counter to Robert’s expectation, who must forgive himself “for the way his feet were planted, his mouth shut, his mind clear and eager, waiting for the snap.” Overall, a great story, one of my favorites in this issue. The detailing of scenes has an authenticity to them, such as Robert’s brush with the drunk prom attendee. Mr. Nadelson writes with an ease, a certain sophisticated accessibility that keeps you reading on.

Thisbe Nissen’s “Deer at Rest.” Our narrator, a woman driving home from visiting her daughter at a clinic for eating disorder patients, sights a doe swathed around its baby on a highway median. They look serene, and the narrator worries about the moment they will face the danger of oncoming cars as they set out back to the forest. But closer examination reveals they’d already been run over, and our narrator weeps at the good and bad fortune of the mother deer having died with its daughter beside it. Short but sweet. An in-and-out story, as I like to call it. We know little backstory with the mother driver and her daughter whom she placed in the clinic to save her life; but to ask for that would be moot. Just the presentation of the deer as analogues to the mother and daughter gets the job done with the right amount of emotional impact.

Samantha Stiers’s “Elektra.” This is a tricky one to critique. And actually, dear readers, I ask you to help me out here. Part of the beauty of literary reviews is that they can help you see the beauty of a story. For a change, perhaps the readers might impart some direction to this critic to better understand this story (ha!). Part of me thinks this story is meant to defy any synopsizing. Are we meant only to go along for the ride, and be distant viewers who appreciate for some unknown reason such moments as “algebra of wool,” or funny oddities like Walpurga the dentist chair? Who is Elektra? What is up with Dr. Tzig? I am humbly stumped. Thoughts, anyone?

La Mariee mise a nu par ses Celibataires, meme

K.R. Sands’s “Half Life.” An intriguing fictionalization of an encounter between the renowned physicist Marie Curie and surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp. Marie, of course famous for her pioneering efforts in the field of radiology, is in Philadelphia for another presentation during an American tour. She finds these events mind-numbing, meant to either pacify attendees’ egoes or bruise hers; but it’s a necessity, as the tour serves as a way to tamp down a recent scandal she’d been embroiled in with her married colleague, Paul Langevin. Enter Marcel, a self-proclaimed “non-artist” who sneaks up on Marie as she prepares herself for the night’s presentation. By using the radiology of her studies as a metaphor for desire (at one point suggesting she view her critics in the audience as mere suitors desiring her as a figurative bride), he stirs something inside Marie, who had long been numbed by life (the death of her husband, the scandal with Paul, the torturous lectures). Sadly, Marie dies not knowing the identity of the stranger, though we are told by story’s end that the stranger was the famous artist Duchamp, whose iconic work of art, “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” we now come to realize had been influenced by his conversation with Marie (at least in this re-imagination of events). Ms Sands’s story creates an interesting intersection between science and art (or non-art). I don’t know much about the real Marie Curie’s life story, but Ms Sands has painted an affecting portrait of her as bruised, somewhat wilting. Sands’s Marcel, perfectly bordering on pretentious and/or ridiculous, is also intriguing. A definite recommend.

Sunshine LeMontree’s “Two Lovers Stand in Museum.” What a very intriguing piece. Two lovers, as the title tells us, are at a museum; the man has been offered a job in another country and has (albeit reluctant) plans to leave the woman, who must stay behind to finish her art school studies. Neither know yet about the looming break-up, as this is a fragment in time before that storm. The museum, filled with sculptures, serve as a perfect backdrop for the situation, its many statues suspended in animation echoing the couple’s desire to hold on and delay the progression of time. Upon thinking about Pygmalion and Galate, the woman wonders, “If one who was made of stone could be loved into life, could one made of flesh be loved into stone, to keep? Could she love the man into a statue to keep him just as he is?” Meanwhile, her lover thinks, upon looking at the incomplete forms before him: “What if it was the sculptors, he thinks, carrying away pieces of their own creations?” A sad and well-written story worth a read.

Henriette Lazaridis Power’s “Uruguay.” With a marriage on the rocks back home in the States, Andrew attempts suicide while vacationing in Uruguay. But failing at his attempt, he is thrust back to his wife and children back home, who not only have to care for his injury but must also adjust to his “betrayal.” It’s an intriguing situation, especially for his wife Joan. Prior to this incident (which in its own warped way had brought the family together) the marriage had already been heading downward, and Joan hadn’t expected him to return. Now with him back (not of his own volition necessarily), husband and wife are in limbo, not knowing how to react to each other. Andrew is like an escaped convict brought back to jail after his attempt at escape had been foiled; surely for Joan, the metaphor that she is the prison from which her husband has been trying to escape must be unsettling, to say the least. The story has no big explosions, but the minor implosions that do occur are very intriguing. Ms Power’s handling of Andrew’s Sisyphean struggle with his sock (ha!), and Joan’s passive-aggressive stance, her awkward embrace at solitude, make for quite a good read.

* * *

Stay tuned for part two of this review, which covers stories by Mark Budman, Peter Tieryas Liu, Amanda Yskamp, Greg Oaks, E.M. Schorb, and Rosebud Ben-Oni.

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