Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted July 16, 2010
Alaska Quarterly Review
Volume 27 Numbers 1 & 2
Spring / Summer 2010
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Guest editor Amy Hempel selected the work of 21 writers for the issue’s special “Innovative Fiction” focus. She looked for work that was “new,” but also new to the author (poets writing fiction; fiction writers experimenting with memoir forms). And she sought work “that was visceral and visual, that joins nerve and insight, that is darkly funny, that does not back away from compassion…and that amplifies the possibilities of what a story can be.”
Many of the selections are short-shorts or sudden fiction, works of under two to three pages (stories by Peter Marcus, Paola Peroni, Daryl Scroggins, John Rybicki, Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Robert Lopez, Michael Ahn, Nick Falgout, Anna DeForest, Patricia Volk, Christopher Kennedy, Bernard Cooper). Longer stories, too, are quite short, under four pages (by Julia Slavin, Megan Mayhew-Bergman, Joe Stracci, Bernard Cooper). Bayhew-Bergman’s “The Social Life of Mice” and Stracci’s “Mirrors” and “The Day Before Christmas Eve” are the only stories with an unconventional appearance on the page, all three consist of short prose fragments separated by asterisks.
“The Social Life of Mice” is a quirky tale of unusual communication:
We had one rule at the dinner table. We could have complete honesty if we talked through the dog. We could speak without consequence. But when Jack died, our marriage stalled out like my father’s ’47 Dodge project truck.
Jack, I’d say. Tell Brad that when he comes home late without calling, I think about leaving him.
Jack, Brad would say. The thing is when Breck thinks about leaving, she’s already been thinking about it for other reasons.
Peter Markus also gives us a story (“Girl”) about an odd form of communication:
Us brothers, we love the sound of that word girl so much that one day, out of nowhere, we start calling everything that we see, girl. Let’s go, girl, we say, to each other. Let’s go down to the girl, one of us brothers will go to the other, and to the river is where we go. Let’s catch us some girl, the other brother will say then to this, and we’ll grab us our fishing poles and a muddy bucket of worms and into the river us brothers fish.
Robert Lopez, too, focuses on communication in his short-short “Chop Suey”: “Blind Betty says people in New York City used to call Chinese food chop suey instead of calling it Chinese food like everyone else in the world.”
And Bernard Cooper is also preoccupied with language. He begins, “I’ve long been fascinated with last words. They seem to compress a person’s entire history into an epigrammatic diamond.” Cooper’s story, like Tuck’s, reads more like a memoir, and the earnest voices stand in sharp contrast to many of the others you’ll find here.
Sudden fiction often seems just the right vehicle for odd or unsettling voices, which turns out to be the case for many of these pieces. Here are brief excerpts from DeForest’s brief “I Had it Out”:
I was bleeding then, but not in the way I meant to be. Pregnancy was going around. My sister caught it from some husband she’d been consistently, covertly borrowing. She called me the day before she had the thing sucked out.
And here’s the opening of Rybicki’s “Quarter”: "I place a quarter on the street where it pools and spreads. Then I go swimming inside silver. Some days I slide my quarter under a burning house so the house sinks into water and the fire hisses and pops."
A tremendously clever, entertaining, and long (nearly 90 pages!) essay, “How to Write a Good Sentence: A Manual for Writers Who Know How to Write Correct Sentences,” by ninety-one-year-old literary scholar Arnold G. Nelson, follows the innovative fiction section. Nelson gives examples of “good sentences” from dozens of writers (Roth, Twain, McPhee, Vidal, Least Heat Moon, Emerson, Stein) and publications (“The New Yorker good sentence”), with witty explanations and commentary. This is a truly wonderful and original piece (whether or not you agree with Nelson’s examples)!
Eighteen poets join Nelson and the fiction writers in this volume of AQR. Doug Ramspeck’s “School Yard” is representative in many ways, work poems rich in detail; comprehensible (which is to say not deliberately opaque), yet poetically minded (deliberately crafted language, syntax that demands attention):
The girls by the brick wall, smoking.
The gone teachers. The blackboards
inside the dark windows.
I especially liked Heather Kirn’s “The Peace Dome,” which, like many of the short fiction works cited above, ponders the meaning of language:
The bomb left one building.
The city left it standing
This is a steeple
for a demon I did not know
I had. What language
is left to pray with? Some elders
wish the building razed.
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