“The Landscape of Pleasure” by Amanda Briggs is well written, but unappealing. It comes from the realm of shows like You’re Cut Off or the Real Housewives franchise. Rich, entitled women acting poorly with little or no consequence.
The main character, Diana, is an incoming freshman and is ready to leave home. Besides the normal teen desire to leave home, Diana is also anxious to get away from her alcoholic parents and their philandering ways. Most of the story takes place at a country club, or a bar where Diana and her friend can drink underage. The rest of the story takes place in Jaguars and convertibles, or Diana’s home. Emphasis is put on the cars and that’s partly due to Diana’s relationship with an older man who works on expensive cars.
This man, Russell, is a friend of her father’s and used to sleep with Diana’s mom. Are we supposed to be reading parallels between Diana and her mom? They both make poor choices with alcohol, have sex with the same man, and are spoiled. Are we supposed to believe Diana’s teenage display of sex as love, even when she writes back that she loves Russell? The last line of the story reads like solidified pouty, teenage angst.
Alone on her bed, in her new dorm, Diana writes back to her father. The story closes with a one line paragraph: “I loved all of them terribly once.” It’s difficult to take that line seriously, or to care much about Diana. She has no history of love. She has no context for caring.
Overall, this story is predictable and doesn’t go in new directions. The one thing that it doesn’t have in common with those shows I mentioned earlier is the train wreck quality. I don’t think a lot of people are drawn to those shows because they identify with the people on them, but because they are either entertained or have their life reaffirmed by the ugly behavior and base drama. It’s the dramatic equivalent of an accident, complete with paramedics standing by. Perhaps if “The Landscape of Pleasure” was injected with some of the over the top antics of Jersey Shore, it would at least be an entertaining read.
“Visiting” by Stuart Nadler could fall into a few categories. We could call it “divorce fiction” or “wayward middle-aged man fiction.” Either of those categories would do, but so would “father and son dysfunction fiction.”
While, “Visiting” does some things well, overall the story comes across as thin and sparse. Jonathon Cohen is a sculptor without much money, who is divorced and has a son, Marc, with a wealthy woman. Jonathon is disconnected from his son, and the tension is apparent straight away. Nadler’s ability to create tension through dialogue works well in this story; however, the story starts to become a little too neat or obvious when he introduces the purpose of Jonathon and Marc’s road trip.
The father and son interaction bends in a new direction as Marc finds out they’re visiting his grandfather whom he believed was dead. This is the explanation and hinge for Jonathon. He has shut out his father; he doesn’t want to be shut out by his son. The relationships are mirrored, and there is some slight play with the roles between the three men. The story ends focused on comparing Jonathon to his father. What does it mean? Is he less than his father or more?
“The Silence” by T.C. Boyle mixes humor with tragedy as the protagonist (it’s in third person limited, and I don’t think we ever learn his name) pays for a retreat that is to last three years, three months and three days, during which no words are to be spoken.
Each scene is titled, and follows the narrator through his initial enthusiasm and interactions with his new wife or girlfriend. It’s confusing exactly what their relationship is. However, as the realities of the desert begin to press down on the characters in the story, can they really find the inner harmony which they seek?
My introduction to T.C. Boyle began with his novel Drop City, and the characters in this story remind me of the communal hippies from the novel. Flaky, idealistic men and women seem to be a source from which Boyle can repeatedly draw. He makes the characters stand off the pages of the book, knows their strengths, and loves to humorously rip on their weaknesses.
Quiet, funny, and ultimately a sad story, “The Silence” is one to read, and read again.
Of the four stories I’ve read so far in the Atlantic Fiction 2010 issue, “Bone Hinge” by Katie Williams is my favorite. Of course, I haven’t read the story by T. C. Boyle yet.
The story is about two conjoined twins in a small town that is hard to place. It seems that the story takes place in Depression era America. I imagined a small factory town in Maine that makes paper or something. The girl’s father is the owner of the plant in town, and all we know is that they make or use all of these different kinds of dyes. What makes the exact time or place of this story difficult, is that there are mystics referred to in the town. After their birth, the girls were seen as an ill omen. People ignored them, and the mystics would place dead crows in the family’s yard. There’s a creepiness that settles over all the characters.
Getting past the mood of the story, it is really about relationships. How do the girls act toward each other? How do they live together conjoined? What happens when one of them falls in love?
Overall, this was an enjoyable story, and a departure from the other pieces in this issue.
“Hopefulness” by Ryan Mecklenburg could bring to some reader’s minds visions of Desperate Housewives, but with less attractive people and more depth. The central idea of the story is how we spend our time, or what do we do when we are released from the constraints of having to work? Is there such a thing as too much free time?
For the main character, (the story is in the first person, and I forgot his name) he decides to fill his free time by being captain of the neighborhood watch. Seems like an easy way to be active in the community and fill some time. However, that’s not how he approaches the activity. Rigidity and routine are words that describe the narrator’s behavior. It’s not just in the neighborhood watch, but in his meticulous cleaning and reorganizing of his garage.
As the story progresses, we learn that the narrator’s family has fallen apart. His wife has had an affair and left him, while the narrator watches over the neighborhood, and witnesses the house of his wife’s lover slowly crumble through foreclosure, theft, and vandalism. It makes the narrator more human to see his pettiness play out in this way, instead of forcing his strict neighborhood watch policies on the man whom he loathes. Moreover, this is a nice play on ideas. The narrator ever watchful fails to see his wife cheating on him.
Time plays out and the narrator must confront the reality that his wife has taken their son and left. It seems that while he admits to losing his wife, he realizes that once the divorce goes through, his son will be back in his life, and this pulls him through, his love for his son. By the end, the narrator is nudged back toward the man whom he was, though with work still needed.
What I enjoyed about “Hopefulness” is the tone. There’s a lightness, like an early morning in the neighborhood, that infuses the prose. It reminded me a little bit of Charles Baxter’s writing.
In “A Simple Case,” by E. C. Osondu, we have the opportunity to look at what makes a good short story. As in the first story of Atlantic’s 2010 Fiction Issue, “Lorelei,” “A Simple Case” does not seem to fit the standard, if not predictable arc of a contemporary/literary short story. Another way to say that is neither one of these stories seem to fit the mold of what is taught in creative writing programs as successful short stories.
The main character, Paiko, is caught up in a raid on a hotel/brothel where he pimps out his girlfriend, Sweet. It’s his first time being arrested, and Paiko is unsure what to expect. He’s told early on that his case is simple, and he’ll “soon be released.” The action takes an unexpected turn as Paiko and the other men in a local jail are gathered up and paraded as the men who took part in the burglary of a commissioner’s official car. It’s their word against the police. Defeated, they have no choice but to go along with the sham.
Moved to a high security prison, the new inmates are confronted by a man who is the leader of the cell block, a self styled President, who asks “Who goes there, human beings or animals?” Faced by the urgings of his fellow inmates, Paiko is told to confess to his crimes as an animal. However, he stands up for himself, and his story envokes if not kindness from the President, than at least some form of justice. He believes Paiko and uses his influence to help him exit the prison system.
But what if Paiko’s girlfriend, Sweet? Where has she been all this time? The driving force of the story is not Paiko’s arrest, but Sweet’s absence through the affair. Upon gaining his freedom, Paiko learns what has happened to Sweet.
What makes this story work is the mystery of Sweet’s absence, and the newness of the situation for both Paiko and the reader. We’re trapped in the prison with him trying to decipher the corruption of the police and the megalomania of the President of the prisoners. This is enough. Also, why this story is not like most short stories is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of resonate images. There is nothing familiar or predictable about the story.
In the short story, “Lorelei” Jerome Charyn‘s writing feels closer to the stories of Roald Dahl than most of what is written today. The story is told in the the third person and follows, Howell, an aging grifter who preys on middle-aged wealthy widows.
The premise for this story is that something has changed in Howell. Has he tired of scamming women? Is he looking for something more in life? Whichever the case may be, Howell finds himself back in the Bronx where he grew up as a Super’s son. He returns to the building, which used to be grand and still has some of its magnificence despite the changing landscape of the Bronx. Renting an apartment in the building, which is called the Lorelei, Howell is surprised to discover that the building owner and his beautiful daughter still reside in the penthouse.
Confronted with his past, and the reasons for running away from home as a teenager, Howell learns who the true con artist is.
Two articles in this issue of the Atlantic mention libraries. The first one, Pac Rat, talks about preserving video games and mentions the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. We’ve talked about preserving videos, images, websites, MP3’s, but maybe it’s time to talk video games. The second article, Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, is about the new Grateful Dead archives at Santa Clara University. Last year, when they were hiring for the archivist position, it stood out as an intriguing prospect.