Review: “ZYZZYVA” Spring 2012 Issue Fiction

by Rio Liang

Editor Laura Cogan continues to impress at the helm of the revamped ZYZZYVA. The spring 2012 issue is filled with many felicities:

“Meditations on the Late 1970s” by Peter Orner

At first glance the title incited an “Uh-oh” from me, as the word “meditations” usually connotes rambling or a lack of focus. I figured “Danger:  Story ‘lite’ straight ahead.” And in many ways that expectation comes true. Nevertheless, the story is quite entertaining; it is indeed a ramble, but it’s an eloquent ramble, and though you’re headed nowhere in particular, you still enjoy the trip.

“What Will Do” by Lindsey Thordarson

Much to admire in this story about a grieving portraitist named Fiona Talbot who meets Elijah Pierce, a photographer during a time when the camera was still a newfangled thing. Both are in their own ways capturing images of the dead, she of a client’s apparently murdered son (via a painting) and he of Fiona’s recently drowned father (via photography). The story, with each detail set with much care onto the page by Ms Thordarson, succeeds at conveying the solitude of those who mourn, and their keen longing for keepsakes, totems, or stand-ins for those they have lost. The ending is beautiful:  Fiona ruminates on how people don’t just want to remember the good, as presented by the posed shot–they want to capture for safekeeping the image of the entire person, blemishes and all. I became enamored of this story after reading it; a very high recommend from me.

“Chemistry” by Rob Ehle

A charmer of a story. Forty-eight-year-old English teacher Ramona develops a crush on Tim, a chemist and her godchild Ariel’s fiancé. The two have, as the title suggests, chemistry together; they banter, they flirt (or so it’s perceived by Ramona). They even share a secular view of life, a bond Tim cannot have with the religious Ariel. The story culminates in a date of sorts between the two. Rapport or not however, it’s a match that, as we had suspected all along, can never be:  Though there is a bridge between Tim and Ariel, he romanticizes what essentially is a form of settling:  His love for his fiancée, he explains, “never faded out, it never went up in flames. Things just. Quietly intensified. Until she became my reference point. I can’t imagine life without her.” Their non-date unraveled, Ramona is left with a heartbreaking return to the humdrum of her life. Lighthearted, funny, and easy read. A definite recommend.

“Commuting” by Elena Mauli Shapiro

My unabashed favorite from the issue. Such a rich story, every now and then engulfing you in an attention-grabbing sentence, an arresting image. Ms Shapiro’s descriptions have grit and beauty; lines like “I am a small hailstone down your shirt collar melting its way down your shivering back as it disappears into your skin” bring literal shivers to the reader. The story:  A female adjunct professor addresses her married lover, one of the tenured professors at her university. “One must be young,” she says, “to enjoy all the waiting I do for you–a woman in my position does so much waiting.” It’s a mistress’s tale of unrequited love, touching on themes of inferiority (a mistress being of secondary worth in relation to a wife; an adjunct being of lower rank compared to a full-professor), longing for recognition (“I wonder if I leave a trace,” she muses about her students. “Teaching is not about filling blank minds. It is about inducing a flicker of recognition”), and self-disintegration (“I feel like a handout that has been Xeroxed from another Xerox from another Xerox, the original nowhere to be found, the printed letters degrading a little more each time the paper is copied, slowly growing illegible”). Interspersed throughout the narrative are memories of her childhood on the farm, of loneliness, of hunting and being hunted, of the thrill of trespassing (cf. being a mistress). Ms Shapiro does beautiful work limning the narrator’s inner conflict; at one point during her commute, a car gets run over by her train and the narrator compares herself to the driver of the unfortunate vehicle in those last minutes, caught between scrambling to get out and capitulating to her fate. Overall, the story conveys so well that airless space of “if”s (“if” he were her husband, “if” she weren’t his mistress…), that limbic state of being recognized and not. Highest marks from me for this one.

“Animal Gratitudes” by Patrick Coleman

This flash piece was the toughest nut to crack of the bunch. The story affords us disjointed glimpses of a couple, with images strewn about of roadkill and the threat of predators ready to feast; counterposing these images are the couple’s cats which, the narrator explains, “divide our love into loves–scatter it, in a way–but stitch it together, too.” An impenetrable piece, this. Thoughts?

“In This Annihilated Place” by Wanda Coleman

It’s 1965 in a neighborhood once populated by whites but now predominantly inhabited by “colored” people. The only whites remaining are thirty-something mechanic Crazy John and his elderly parents. He gets grief from the neighborhood kids but is generally viewed as an innocuous fixture in the neighborhood. That is, until Nita moves in with her 10-year-old Darryl. The boy takes a shine to John, which Nita rails against (John being white, her distrust amplified by the political unrest of the time). The worst that could happen happens when John accidentally runs over the boy, and leaves the neighborhood in a state of shock. It’s an interesting variation on the story:  The white man swapped into the role of the minority bogeyman and taking the fall for an accidental murder.

“The Rooftops of Fine Old Houses” by Benjamin T. Miller

Plaintive piece about a roofer who witnesses his girlfriend Marie’s gradual descent into madness, transforming in front of him from a winsomely impulsive risk-taker to a “wax sculpture.” We don’t know what triggered her descent, nor does it matter. He stays steadfastly by her side hoping to reawaken “worldly desires” that would revive her from her zombified state. The climactic scene in which the narrator acts on a flicker of their former love ends in heartbreak, with her neither compliant nor resistant to his advances, leaving our narrator to contemplate:  “My life has become an exercise in black-and-white: the white of working and the black of being by myself.” The ending, a memory of the two lovers paddle boating, is particularly resonant, showing for us the unchartable waters of her mind, the totality with which she has drifted away from reality and him with it.

“Deborah” by Don Waters

Dark story about a madwoman, having relocated to Arizona after the death of her husband (a victim of the 9/11 attacks, his death presumably her undoing), with a borderline religious fascination with animals, to the point where she feeds herself to a mountain lion at the local zoo. The act to her is worship-like, “the closest she’d ever come to saintliness: providing gifts, her pain blossoming into pleasure, feeling his teeth against bone, his saliva writing scripture on her skin.” It’s a deliberate mutilation that transforms her hand into a makeshift paw. She’s an animal lover gone to the extreme, unhinged. The ending is quite haunting:  We find the woman gone feral, having become herself an animal.

“March 6, 2009” by Jessie Marshall

Our narrator has a “past,” one she has difficulty divulging to her partner, Jason. She is damaged but he has no access to the backstory. He constantly coaxes the secret out of her, but she is ever evasive, shirking off his attempts at therapizing her. They reach an ultimatum:  By March 6, 2009, she must share with him her grief lest the relationship end. But having perhaps repressed too deep the traumatic event, or what she refers to as the “boulder,” she explains, “I can tell you about that fuzzy shape on the horizon, but I can’t tell you about this thing that’s crushing my foot.” The story is as circuitous and maddeningly cryptic as its narrator about what said trauma exactly is, pulling at times her same diversionary tactics (via footnotes, a play script). One may find the story hard to penetrate initially (especially the first few paragraphs), but one starts to ease in to the narrator’s diversionary tactics, appreciating what isn’t said more than what is.


Feel free to share your thoughts on any of the fiction offerings or the rest of the issue.

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