Monday, July 7, 2008

misery and alligators

Got my summer issue of Missouri Review and my compensation for entering the Alligator Juniper contest. I must have thumbed through issues of AJ before as its approach is similar to Scribendi. One difference is that we had color and they didn’t. Another is that we published WRHC students, they publish anyone. Another is that Scribendi normally has no theme; AJ seems definitely tipped toward the Southwest. All of which is fine; what I found terribly distracting was the poor copyediting. I found 21 errors in one prose piece alone.

Nevertheless, there are some good pieces. I wasn’t struck by any of the poetry except “Baghdad Equinox” by Lauren Eggert-Crowe. The National Winner for fiction is Matt Mendez’ “Airman,” and it’s an honor richly deserved. I wonder if this is the same Matt Mendez whose poetry class I shared, who had a spike through his ear? He was a good poet and a good writer, that Matt Mendez. This one writes a fascinating and visceral epistolary story set in Iraq in 2003. Its characters and situation are convincing, and it’s poignant and gets under your skin. If “Airman” can invoke New Mexico as a remembered place in a soldier’s memory, “The Last Day of the Boon” by Justin St. Germain is a skilled counterpart for Arizona, specifically the town of Tombstone, which it captures with weariness and satire. The sense of place in this story was great, but it petered out (as many stories do) into something unresolved.

I really enjoyed Robert Schirmer’s “Levitate,” a magical realist-cum-coming of age story. “MasterBlaster” by Richard K. Weems had great ingenuity combined with sardonic, post-apocalyptic skewering. The story, of two young lesbians sleeping rough and avoiding being beat up, raped, and starved, is unique, and the point of view told totally convincingly. Brad Crutchfield attempts a similar transference from his persona of Black male to that of a young white girl in “Monkeys,” though less successfully. The story has aspirations to Robert Penn Warren, but suffers from the same petering out as the St Germain story. Just when I was convinced the collection was all about the gritty now, the oddball of the bunch, “The Fit of Gloves” by Maija Stromberg, takes us back to the 1950s. It reminds me of “Kind” from the Winter 2007 issue of Missouri Review in tone and setting, and the conceit—a woman who fits gloves at a department store—is a good one. Yet, like several of the stories, I don’t feel it fulfills its potential.

One problem is that the essay entries were not well distinguished from the fiction, and in all the essays—“A Prayer for Earl,” “Other Dead People,” and “With Love and Careful Scrutiny”—I was halfway through before realizing I wasn’t reading fiction. This may not seem important, but it is to me, at least. For example, in “A Prayer for Earl,” I was going to excuse the somewhat awkward narration as the voice of a “lady preacher,” but find it hard to come to terms with since the narrative is real. “Other Dead People” fortunately works beautifully as either fiction or memoir, with Deborah Thompson’s lyricism over the death of her life-partner Rajiv coming off as inspiring and authentic. I would have been really impressed if Joshua Leavitt had invented the character of Vanessa in “With Love and Careful Scrutiny”—even so, the memoir is well-written.

The National Winner, “River Voices,” rather bored me, to be honest. No doubt “Elegant Universe” won the student award because of its unconventional approach to memoir—detachment and referring to oneself in the third person. Nevertheless, one of the characters has a sister named Tegan after the character in Doctor Who (it even says so in the text) so that inadvertently amused me. “Separation Anxiety” by Lisbeth Davidow is a more conventional approach to memoir, but I believe it’s what the memoir is really about. There’s death of some kind in all of these pieces, but in Davidow’s, it’s up-close and for me at the moment, very relevant. It’s the death of the author’s mother at 94, moved from home to hospital to rehab, much in the cycle my own grandmother is going through. And like my grandmother, Davidow’s mother is needy for attention from her children, equal parts guilt and affection. The maturity and the blend of objectivity and emotion in the memoir are accomplished.

At the end were some twenty pages on genre blur that made me more angry that I hadn’t submitted to that than anything else. Of these, I like Julie Marie Wade’s “Layover” the best—a sort of prose/list poem that jumps everywhere with Mozartian energy.

In the Summer 2008 issue of Missouri Review, I find less to like than in the previous edition, but still a strong outing (and one typo). The cartoons are still unfunny, I find. A long excerpt from James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin reminded me of many people I knew, (Amaris, Greg Martin, Heidi, the memoir about the man who lived alone in Alaska for a year, O Brother Where Art Thou) even though I’ve never even been to West Virginia. It’s strange, there’s no doubt about it, but compelling and certainly made me want to read the whole book about Rice Moore’s adventures with bear hunting in the woods of Virginia. I think Mathew Chacko aims to make Mr. Ninan in “Ivy: A Love Story” sympathetic despite his obvious faults much as Monica Ali does in Brick Lane to her protagonist’s husband. He mostly succeeds, and the story is wonderfully real in terms of atmosphere. I do feel a bit cheated by an ending that’s as meandering as its drunkard anti-hero.

John J. Stazinksi’s “Lessons in Amateur Stalking” is difficult to put down, and the situation is something right out of the movies: Stazinski’s widowed mother was killed when he was 18 by a “shirtless teenager.” Later in life, as he still attempts to comes to grips with the loss, he begins stalking the now-grow-up killer. It’s effective because it both explains and implicates us in the guilty pleasures of his obsession. The ending is one no Hollywood movie could predict, and for that it’s a wonderful revelation to look at life—how it really is. I think David McGlynn’s “Hydrophobia” is having a crisis of existence: it purports to be about fear of a house being consumed by damp in Wisconsin whereas it’s actually about the birth of a chromosomally-complicated child. I know it should be ironic to hinge on such counterpoints, but I don’t think it does that effectively. As two separate memoirs, it would be fine.

I wasn’t really moved by any of the poetry by Scott Coffel, Paisley Rekdal, or Rebekah Remington. There’s an interesting, but short, article on designer/artist Norman Bel Geddes which proves he obviously deserves closer attention. Stuart Dybek is sadly an author I had not heard of before, but the interview here proves he is another highly intellectual author. His reflections—and weariness, really—on genre-blurring make a nice counterpoint to that section in AJ. One imagines his rough stories about southside Chicago wouldn’t be out of place in AJ either. It’s important that he mentions the “fake” memoirs by the likes of James Frey, as Michael Cohen mentions that infamous name, too, in “Agonists of the Contemporary Memoir,” a fascinating article. He begins with historical precedents like Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, and Thomas DeQuincey and moves from these (all male) writers to contemporary “agonists” like Caroline Knapp, Marjorie Williams, Andre Dubus, Joan Didion, and Nancy Mairs (mostly females). It’s a fascinating genre, and I think Mairs hits the nail on the head when she says the readers of these works “puzzle” her. Is it all about feeling the relief that our lives aren’t as screwed up as these people’s? There must be more to it. Equally, is it just catharsis for the writers to write about what pains them, thus recalling all the pain a second time and categorizing it? Or is it suffering through suffering, as C.S. Lewis maintains? The only writer missing from this collection, in my opinion, is the author of Autobiography of a Face, whose haunting lifelong experience with a facial deformity displays the full range of human suffering, and the need for a writer to exploit it somehow, to make life bearable.

I’ve just sent off a check for a year subscription to Poets and Writers, too. Heaven help me.

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