The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Know-It-All” by Jeff Spitzer

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Some narrators announce their unreliability in the opening sentences of a short story (see Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral”), and in this way their skewed vision of the world serves as a stylistic lead, drawing readers in. In “The Know-It-All,” from the latest New Ohio Review, Jeff Spitzer creates a narrator whose reliability is revealed slowly, aiding the development of a satire as hilarious as it is terrifying.

We meet this narrator as he’s debating with his wife whether to attend a New Year’s Eve party with his co-workers, whom he considers “…fellow academics, the least redeemable bores in human society…” But the real reason he doesn’t want to go is Charlotte Roon, a wildly successful professor with a penchant for lording it over her colleagues. We discover that at the same party, two years ago, she’d shamed the narrator, who drunkenly quoted a stanza to Whittier.

“A surprised silence. People stared oddly in my direction as I halted, my glass poised before me.

‘Whitman,’ said Charlotte Roon.

‘Pardon?’

‘Whitman wrote it. Whittier could never have written it.’”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dark Season” by Maya Sonenberg

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Over the last few decades, it has become more and more common to find mythical narratives such as fairy tales alongside realist fiction in academic and mainstream literary journals and magazines. More publications have also opened up to stories that blend storytelling elements that previously were dismissed as “genre” into the style du jour, realism. Maya Sonenberg, in her story, “Dark Season,” from the latest issue of the Pacifica Literary Review, does a masterful job of weaving together elements of both fairy tales and realism in order to create a new, hybrid reality that in ways feels more true to contemporary life than perhaps either style could aspire to on its own.

When we meet the protagonist—under a section subtitled, “The Dungeon”—he is referred to only as “the boy” and his father as “the king.” Not naming characters is an accepted technique of fables and fairy tales, and we’d be firmly in that mythical tradition, except that woven into these approaches to characterization and storytelling are contemporary details, which push the story elsewhere:

At recess, he kicked a ball around the school yard with his buddies and when it found the back of the net, he shouted, ‘GOOOOAAAAAAL,’ the way he heard the announcers do on the Spanish language soccer broadcasts he listened to at night. He didn’t know where the voices came from…His father, the king…sometimes told him of such places, even claimed to have come from one himself.

The play-by-play reference situates us firmly into contemporary life through content—soccer—as well as style—the spelling and capitalization of the announcer’s cry. Where characters referred to simply as “the boy” and “the king” invite the whole tradition of fairy tales to help provide their characterizations, the soccer descriptions draw their power from the their relation to the present milieu.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Anna George” by Melissa Goodrich

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The traditional short story’s primary building blocks depend heavily on logic. A character’s desire meets with a series of escalating obstacles until finally a climax is reached and that desire is fulfilled (or not) in a satisfying, plausible way. Melissa Goodrich’s “Anna George” (Passages North, Issue 36) flows far more associatively through its title character’s plight; rather than escalating to a climax, the story weaves together and then unravels.

Goodrich begins with a statement that immediately undoes the reader’s expectations of a traditional story. “Your parents go on a trip overseas and your mother comes back as an orange and your father doesn’t come back at all.” This is the stuff of the real world—parents, trip overseas, orange—but the latter isn’t fulfilling its typical function. The driving question isn’t “will the character get what she wants,” but instead, “Is her mother actually an orange? Where is her father? What is he? What is happening here?” The mystery resides, to a large extent, in the nature of the story itself.

Like in Marie Helene-Bertino’s Edna in Rain (where she normalizes the literal raining of human beings with conventional detailing), Goodrich humorously normalizes the orange-as-mother situation:

“At night, you and your orange watch TV together, and you rub the orange at its nub to comfort it, and you carry it in your hands to bed, and you spritz it with water, and lay it in a cooler, arranging an ice chip beneath its head, and your mother in this way sleeps.”

Months pass by in between Anna George and the mother/orange in summary—time passing being another form of normalization—and slowly the original questions of how this story works begins to feel settled. Her mother actually is and orange, we think, and when a ghost is introduced, one that “…tails you like forests follow rain…” it stands to reason that that ghost is her father, as we’ve known he’s been missing since that opening sentence.

But before the story—mystery on the verge of being revealed—can settle comfortably into the impending resolution, Goodrich dodges it by stating our suspicions bluntly. “The ghost has been there for a while now, since an orange came home from vacation instead of your mother: you can guess what it represents.” By stating the symbolism outright, she steals the power of the metaphor of her loss and also the impetus of Anna’s grief, and with it any satisfaction the reader might have had figuring it out.

Goodrich unmoors us, with the purpose of preparing for her next move: subverting the narrator. Now, halfway through the story, she introduces another character, one that has with no previous ties or connection to the story so far. The character is an “old man in a bar in New Orleans” who “writes down everything for the ghost to do and then the ghost does it in real life, following you around like hibiscus follows the sun,” and also dictates Anna George’s action. Instead of propelling forward, Goodrich’s story changes direction completely. It’s beginning to unravel.

As it does so, momentum builds. Anna George peels the orange and begins eating it. We’re told that one seed she finds inside is the mother and the other is just a seed. It’s an associative move that both mirrors the unraveling and also openly defies the logic set forth earlier in the story. The author is no longer the author. The orange is not longer the mother. Everything is shifting.

As Goodrich faces Anna’s grief more directly, the potential meaning behind the images become more elusive:

“They say grief takes seven forms, some foggy or antlered, some idle as stovetops on low heat, some like a letter you can’t read because your eyes have turned to stars, and everything you look at imprints with a tooth of light.”

This collage of disparate images serves to show that now even the logic of patterns has been left behind. Then she subverts the author once again: “The man writing this ghost story knows nothing about how it (the story) works.”

In the end, there is no more making sense of the grief. Goodrich builds each element of this story only to then tear it down, until we’re left with only the bare emotion of the devastating last line: “And here comes Anna George, hurtling towards that howl.”

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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I’ve grown to feel that the direct address of second person point-of-view—you—feels like a forced intimacy. There’s an insistence that isn’t necessarily requited, a desperation that meshes perfectly with the plight of the main character of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s compelling “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You,” (The Iowa Review 44/3) which details a few days in the life of a teenage prostitute in New Orlean’s French Quarter.

We meet the narrator as he’s working the street corner and is approached by one of his regulars, Mr. Jellnik, “…the only one who buy you food after he do his business.” Jellnik is from Idaho, and offers the narrator to fly him back to Idaho, where he lives, where he’ll be more safe than working the streets of the Quarter. The narrator responds, “Why do you care about what happen to me?”

That question, why does Jellnik care, why does anyone care, is central to the narrator’s position. Is it for love, or at least something reaching towards it? The narrator’s world requires him to act intimately when he doesn’t feel it, force himself to pretend he’s attracted to Johns even if he feels they are disgusting. Intimacy is about money and sex is about survival. It’s a job. If someone cares, there has always been an ulterior motive. In his own words, “…if you don’t fake it, what else you got?”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Interiors” by Andrea Maturana

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Boredom could be defined as a lack of interest in the surrounding world, and as such, not a particularly fun state of mind to be in, nor a compelling trait for a protagonist of a short story. But Andrea Maturana’s short story “Interiors,” (A Public Space 22, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary) shows how fascinating boredom can be, and that there are much worse afflictions.

We meet Dr. Villagrán, a gynecologist, in the beginning of his morning rounds, and quickly discover how cynical he has become about his job. “The first patients of the morning had the privilege of an identity,” but after that they retreated to nothing more than their crass physicality: “Mrs. Cunt Six, Seven, Eight.”

He’s also jaded about his marriage to his wife, Regina, and has been for years. Out of boredom, he recently had an affair with Blanca, his secretary. Though now even that has lost its luster. “His inability to maintain interest in things or people had become a trait nothing could change, not even Blanca’s lips.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Edna in Rain” by Marie-Helene Bertino

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Marie-Helene Bertino, in her short story, “Edna in Rain,” (Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2015), goes to great lengths to make every aspect of her fictional world ordinary, in order that it might more clearly illuminate the absurdities of our own contemporary world. And making her fictional world ordinary is no small task, as by sentence three we discover that—to quote that 80s pops song—it’s raining men. The main character’s ex-boyfriend from high school falls from the sky and lands on the ground next to her.

“Kevin Groutmeyer, I said. Are you okay?
He was more than okay. Living with his partner and their twin boys in Harrisburg, and I said, Amazing! Harrisburg!”

Something unrealistic and absurd happens, then immediately the author‐through the narrator—normalizes it. To Edna, the surprise isn’t that it is raining exes. It’s that she hasn’t seen this or that one for so many years, and he’s doing so well. She’s reacting how anyone might react to meeting someone from their past on the street.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “We Knew Horses” by James Miranda

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We often call a story vivid because of its language and sensory details, whether they be in the tradition of writers like Faulkner (ornate) or Hemingway (spare). James Miranda’s story, “We Knew Horses,” in this fall’s Cimarron Review (Issue 158) does a masterful job using language and details of both traditions, setting the two at odds with each other, and in doing so creates a lush, vivid world.

Notice the opening paragraph:

“On the way out to the river I played with the loose fabric that hung down from the ceiling of the Grand Marquis…I could smell the squash sandwiches that my grandmother had foil-wrapped in a plastic bag at her feet, the rotting chicken wings and necks in the five-gallon plastic pail next to me. From up front came the tick…tick…tick of the rosary beads.”

Where the sonic quality of the words “Grand Marquis” and the ticking of “rosary beads” might both be honey to the tongue, “squash sandwiches” and “rotting chicken wings and necks” are as gruff and Germanic as the visuals they provide. This is a rich, contrasting world being created and a sensual one at that: in this paragraph alone we’re asked to imagine elements of touch, sight, taste and smell.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Night Island” by Mary Helen Specht

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I’m a believer that some story shapes lend themselves more readily to pieces of different lengths. The shape of Mary Helen Specht’s story, “Night Island” (Prairie Schooner, Winter 2014), is risky and surprising, and might not work as well in a longer story or novel. But it’s what allows her six-hundred-word flash fiction piece to resonate at the depth of a much larger story.

The author quickly situates us in tropical Panama using rich sensory details. We find Isabella and Billy, two environmental researchers, on a tropical beach stalking a leatherback turtle, “phosphorescent plankton throwing off light in response to each footstep.” They’re hoping to recover the turtle eggs from the mother’s nesting site, then move them to a more suitable place to bury them—one not easily found by poachers.

While they go about their task, we get hints of Isabella and Billy’s attraction to each other: their arms touching, their legs touching. It’s also revealed that Isabella’s mother is worried about their future together far away in Texas, and that Isabella dislikes the way Billy can become completely immersed in their conservation work to the point of forgetting her completely. The culmination of these details forms an obvious question in the reader’s mind: Is their relationship going to work out?Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Taxonomy” by Alix Ohlin

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The opening sections of Alix Ohlin’s wonderful short story “Taxonomy,” (TriQuarterly 146) shows how a simple plot can open into a compelling mystery through just a few quick descriptions.

In the first scene, the narrator Ed stops at a roadside Amish gift shop to try to find an appropriate gift for his daughter. As you might have experienced this holiday season, the more you know someone the more difficult it can be to buy a good present.

“At twenty-four, Meredith hasn’t cuddled a teddy bear in years, but the selection here is startlingly varied: gorillas, monkeys, snakes, and something that, if he squints and holds it at an angle, might be a lemur. What these animals might have to do with the Amish, he doesn’t know, but a lemur is a perfect gift, since that’s the animal Meredith is studying, in Madagascar. Studying and saving, or trying to save. As a budding conservation biologist, she’s researching the many species and subspecies of lemurs, along with their vanishing habitat. So she has explained to Ed—in, frankly, a bit too much detail—in passionate, jargon-heavy emails.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Optimism” by Angie Kim

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In Richard Bausch’s classic short story, “What Feels Like the World,” the looming grief over a mother’s death is conveyed through an impending vault at an elementary school gymnastics demonstration. In Amy Hempel’s classic, “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog,” the tragic death of a spouse is portrayed through a carpet stain that refuses to be cleaned. Similarly, in Angie Kim’s “Optimism”—from this winter’s Sycamore Review (Volume 26, Issue 1)—when the protagonist suffers a terrible loss, the trauma is shown masterfully through the concrete and mundane elements of day-to-day life. What’s created is a rich, devastating subtext.

The protagonist Laura loses her toddler Jimmy to a terrible accident. Soon after, she purchases a “computerized doll that looked and cried like her two-year-old son” and begins to re-enact the events that lead up to and followed the tragedy. She repeats these actions, with slight variations, again and again.Continue Reading