The Jolly Surreal of Hammerspace

In yesterday’s post I explored three interrelated aspects of Elizabeth Bruenig’s WaPo piece on millennial humor: grim jolliness, absurdity, and nihilism. These three aspects can be regarded as moods: not just subjective emotions, but ecological responses to being-there, to being immersed in a world that generates these moods.

Comedy sketches, TV ads, short stories: they’re all forms of narrative fiction. Comic routines and commercials deploy grim-jolly absurd nihilism tactically, as a means of distracting their audiences from the darker manifestations of being-there. What about short stories: do they offer distraction or immersion, lamentation or cure?

Of the 21 short stories in the latest Gone Lawn issue, the most prevalent mood is serious nihilism. The characters in those stories are immersed in a meaningless world, instilling in them a sense of loss, anomie, isolation, drift, inertia, confusion, sorrow, rage, and other variants on grimness. Arguably this mood has pervaded serious fiction for a hundred years or more. When in these narratives the realism veers into absurdity, it often takes on a symbolic cast, with the world and its denizens literally falling part, fragmented into shards, becoming collections of inanimate objects that stand in isolation from one another rather than cohering into a whole. It’s the kind of artistic move away from realism that characterized cubism and, later, abstract expressionism.

In a few of the stories the absurdity twists toward dadaism and surrealism. Things aren’t just falling apart; they’re morphing, multiplying, hybridizing, reassembling themselves into bizarre configurations, filling up of the formless void, the nihil. Creative destruction: when the old rules no longer hold and everything collapses, then the constraints are relaxed, allowing strange mutant forms to explode across a grim and barren world. The explosion might be disconcerting — it might even signal the end of humanity — but it does offer some interest, and maybe even something like anticipation, that this incongruous congeries of mutation might assemble itself into an alternate reality that’s more fecund, more alive than the desolate and dying world in which we’re immersed. Maybe this new reality assembled from the detritus of the old might even restore some sense of meaning — or else meaning itself will fall by the wayside as no longer relevant, a dead aspect of the dying world it had once inhabited before being cast off.

The surrealistic explosion of mutant plenitude might instill curiosity, awe, abstract speculation, poetics, but what about jolliness? I don’t see it, don’t feel it in these stories. They’re abstract, literary, serious. Sorrow, regret, rage — the old negative affects might fall away with the collapse of the old reality, but so too do the old positive affects. Jolliness seems like a particularly archaic mood, the manifestation of a childish innocence and delight that’s been crushed under the weight of time. Jolliness feels a lot like nostalgia, a return of the old dying world to an earlier, more vibrant and surprising era.

Maybe that’s where the absurd jolliness shows up in the neo-dadaist and the neo-surreal — not in mass destruction, exodus, and burgeoning alternate realities, but in small unexpected interruptions of the preposterous. Grandma dies on the living room sofa, a grandson tosses an ugly quilt over the body, and life goes on pretty much as it did before. Eventually the family wonders what happened to Grandma. They shrug and carry on, looking forward to Christmas. Childish innocence? It sounds hard and cold, either autistic or psychopathic. But isn’t that how children deal with the disturbing, the annoying, the uncomfortable: throw a comforter over it and act like it’s disappeared? Hammerspace in reverse: throw something in and it’s gone. Of course Freud and a panoply of B horror movies have warned us about the return of the repressed, but as the severed hand in Evil Dead II demonstrates, even the return can be a laugh riot.

Not a succession of realities, the replacement of one with another, but the irruption of an alternate reality into the already existing one, a two-way hammerspace, a bidirectional portal tenuously linking ordinary everyday reality with an alternative reality. The juxtaposition proves dadaesque, surreal, absurd; it might be grim, but it might just as plausibly be jolly.

Does an irruption of absurdity, however limited and brief its appearance, reveal a gap in the matrix of the everyday, a gap that with attention and imagination can be widened until the whole artifice crashes? Or does the irruption offer an exit strategy, a way of stepping through the portal out of this reality into a different one? Or is it a reminder that any narrative, no matter how serious and how realistic, is an invention, an illusion, a fiction, no more real than hammerspace?


Surrealist Facets in Contemporary Short Fiction

Does Breunig’s interpretation of contemporary absurd surrealism apply not only to humor but to fiction? To find out, I’m revisiting the 21 short fictions in the current issue of Gone Lawn that I posted on earlier.

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

My mind is stuck on this song, as if all meaning of life is hidden in it. I repeat it over and over. So there’s the meaninglessness, but it’s wrapped up inside the head of a character with dementia, for whom meaning, like memory and language and eventually life itself, gradually drifts away. It’s a subjective loss of meaning, but the narrator believes that the meaningfulness of life had begun to slip long before the disease set in. So I suppose there’s a kind of metaphoric nihilism at work here. What about the “grim, jolly absurdism”? It’s grim to be sure, but whatever jolliness there was is long gone, from the world and from the minds of those who occupy it. What about absurdity? Well there is an awareness that everything has become pointless, but there’s nothing incongruous or preposterous going on. Surrealism? Well, the narrator refers to herself and her partner as formerly being clouds, now transformed into trees, but it’s metaphorical — a transition from drift into rootedness.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

Grim, jolly absurdity: check. Surrealism: check. Nihilism: not really; the perspectives are too subjective for evaluating the state of the world. But then the story ends with a “purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope”: a mood of nostalgic sorrow that retrospectively embeds the whole story in a more traditional inwardness or depth psychology.

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

Decidedly nihilistic and absurd, there’s plenty of crazy incompatible stuff going on in this story. It’s self-reflexively cubist, which suggests multifaceted views of a recognizably meaningful subject, but the center cannot hold for long and the text veers onto full-on chaotic neo-surrealism. Grim? Serious to be sure, the story is too abstract and external to be grim. Jolly? To quote myself from my earlier post: “Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.”

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

This is a folk tale, which provides a traditional premise for deviating from ordinary reality. There is a kind of grim humor interspersed at times, though for the most part it’s a serious and linear narrative. The story is meaningful; it even has a moral to the story. It is posthuman though — evidently the humans didn’t get the moral, didn’t heed the warning — which gives it a nihilistic edge.


I realize in going through these stories a second time that I pretty well covered the neo-surreal aspects of each in my first post. I also see no point in building the Surrealty Algorithm and running each story through it. The idea of the stories’ “mood” seems more important, more pervasive than breaking it down into discrete variables and scores. Does the story itself generate affordances of grimly jolly absurdity? The other overriding consideration is the relationship between the world of the story and the actually existing world we all live in. Does the story, whatever fantastic and impossible contortions it describes and whatever imaginary reality it occupies, purport to offer commentary on or interpretation of the actual world?

On quick review I’d say that each of the 21 stories makes at least some commentary on the actual world. For two of them, the links to ordinary reality are particularly tangential. Still, the writers who create/discover/describe these fantastic worlds find themselves unable to escape their own humanity.

Carrao’s “Three Anomalies”: the title describes the relationship of the fantastic fiction to the actual world: anomalous. The text is self-aware; it notes its own trajectory of increasing deviation from normalcy. There are also explicit references to the text’s relationship to other artistic media, notably painting and film, drawing parallels to their previously executed exit from realism into fantasy, distortion, abstraction. While Carrao’s neo-surrealistic worlds might be born of nihilism, they’re anything but a formless void, overflowing with impossible hybrid entities exercising varying degrees of agency.  In the end: Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented: this could refer to a kind of computer engineering, but more likely it’s a reference to the online ontologies of the so-called “speculative realists,” who purport to describe objects as they are, independent of human ways of perceiving and knowing. These subjects turned objects will become meaningful in the way that Someone is not. Does this text enter a realm of meaning outside of human perspective? The text ends with this promise, or threat; it doesn’t elaborate on this new kind of meaningfulness. But isn’t meaning an all-too-human affordance; isn’t the insistence on becoming meaningful a concession, an acknowledgment that he can’t object-oriented enough?

Ives’s “In a Country East of South Chicago”: like Carrao, Ives invokes the plastic arts and the cinema as he veers sharply away from realism. Also like Carrao, Ives’s strange worlds aren’t empty but overflowing with content. Again like Carrao, Ives acknowledges his own inescapable humanity in these neo-surreal depictions, bringing him up short in his escape from the actual. Is there something else, some way of seeing or creating that isn’t human anymore? sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is. Wanting to know what it is keeps him from going over the edge, from exiting the human, from exiting himself — not unlike Carrao’s becoming-meaningful.

What about the grim jollity? There’s plenty of grimness in these 21 short fictions, along with other sombre variants: sorrow, regret, loss, anomie. There is some playfulness and wonder expressed, especially in the folk tales. There are some funny moments scattered here and there. Still, for most of these stories the overriding mood is a serious one. This is a literary magazine after all, meant for the showcasing of serious fictions. In only one of the stories does funniness figure as dominant mood: Pfister’s “A Family Reunion.” And it is a grim sort of funny, a nihilistic and absurd kind of funny. But it’s not a surreal sort of weird: the story remains resolutely embedded in ordinary reality, even when it’s past time for the denizens of that reality to acknowledge that something out of the ordinary has been happening. Kafkaesque absurdity, where someone ordinary crosses without fanfare the threshold into the realm of the inhuman.


Why is this analysis meaningful? I forget; please discuss amongst yourselves.


Contemporary Fictional Surrealism

I’m not sure how many of the 21 stories in the current issue of Gone Lawn  — stories I explored briefly in my last post — can be categorized as surrealist, or dadaist, or absurdist. My sense was that most of them manifest one or more facets of what I think of as surrealism. What are those facets; how many facets does each story manifest? I could build an algorithm and run it on each of these stories separately; I could compute an aggregate Surrealty Score to the stories collectively. I was going to say “I could, but I won’t,” but I won’t. I might go ahead and generate the algorithm, run each story through it, compute a score for each and for all. The exercise would keep me focused, grounded in actually existing fictions rather than abstracting to fiction generally or contracting into my own fictions — the ones I’ve written or might write in the future.

What variables could be incorporated into the Surrealty calculator? Plenty of surrealist manifestos were written nearly a hundred years ago, but their authors were attempting to dictate what should happen, not to document what had already happened. Besides, I’m not sure whether contemporary fiction writers consciously regard themselves as surrealists, either through exercise of an idiosyncratic aesthetic or through participation in a more widespread movement.

In August 2017 the Washington Post published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig called “Why is millennial humor so weird?” I don’t have access to WaPo online, so I’m reading the article on my wife’s mobile device. I won’t put up a link, but I will excerpt freely. Bruenig regards contemporary surrealism as a kind of affect-laden subjective orientation to the world, an orientation that seems widespread:

I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

“Grim, jolly absurdism.” Is that three variables, or one? Arguably all humor has a dark side: funny and cruel, funny and sad, funny and humiliating. There is a butt to the joke, even if it’s the jokester. But “grim” seems less interpersonal — a mood that’s more austere, serious, veering toward depressive. And “jolly” is a good-natured kind of funny; not laughing at or even laughing with, jolliness is more of like a personality trait, an open happy orientation to the world and its occupants.

It might be a mistake to characterize both “grim” and “jolly” as subjective states. The world can be grim — or, perhaps more accurately, the world can “afford” grimness, can create situations that provoke a grim mood in those who participate or witness such situations. The world can also afford jolliness, can generate situations that prompt amusement, even ebullience. Grimness and jolliness aren’t just emotions, nor are they objective features of the world; they’re ecological, generated in the interactions between people and the world they occupy. Heidegger regarded being in a mood as being attuned to the world, as being-there.

A situation doesn’t necessarily generate the same mood in everyone. In part that’s because individuals often respond differently to the same stimulus; in part it’s because situations aren’t univocal in their affordances. A situation can prompt both grimness and jolliness in the same person. How do you reconcile seemingly opposite and incompatible moods? You can eliminate the dissonance by turning up the volume on one while muting the other. Or you can try to find a middle ground: neutral indifference, for example. Or you can try to remain attuned to both poles at once, immersing yourself in opposite moods at the same time.

Maybe that’s what defines the absurd: simultaneously being attuned to opposite affordances from the world and being immersed in opposite moods. A second-order way of being-there.

That Bruenig explicitly disavows her own nihilism suggests strongly that the absurd mood she identifies in herself and her fellow millennials is associated closely with a sense of meaninglessness. Again, where does meaning reside: in the world, or in the head? Neither and both. Meaning too is an affordance, a subjective attunement to objective features of the world. Meaning could be a way to reconcile contradictory affordances like grimness and jolliness, but that would necessitate that the meaning be univocal, unambiguous. What if the same event, the same situation, can be embedded in multiple systems of meaning simultaneously? Now the failure to achieve a unified attunement to the world results not from the absence of meaning but from its surfeit — an overload of mutually contradictory meanings.

Some of those meanings are themselves meaningless — affordances generated not by the world itself but by those who would manipulate the world for their own gain. Bruenig again:

Yet the world is full of noise. Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.

How does this “mood of grim, jolly absurdism” manifest itself in fictional form?

To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

Dream world? Well, we are talking about fictions after all, even if they do stem from a mood induced by real-world contradictions between grim and jolly, between empty and oversaturated. The implication though is that these sorts of absurd fictions aren’t realistic but dreamlike, suggesting that millennial comedy, and perhaps other millennial fiction induced by the contradictory meaninglessness of the contemporary world, constitutes not an artistic depiction of that world but an escape or exit from it: not a being-there but a being-elsewhere.

Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century.

Surrealism in its original manifestation was an attempt, through the juxtaposition of radically disparate elements, to bring together the actual and imaginary worlds, the waking and dreaming states, the conscious and unconscious minds, into a single super-reality. The presumption was that these two aspects of sur-reality had been artificially divided, and so it was the task of the artist to bring them back together. Can the same rationale be inferred from today’s neo-surrealists, who jam together in preposterous admixtures the grim and the jolly, emptiness and excess, information and noise, meaninglessness and supersaturated meaning?  Do the incommensurable fragments cohere into a super-reality, twisted, incoherent, and weird though it might be? Or is the opposite impulse at work, demonstrating that even the most ordinary aspects of life become incongruous when pried loose from ordinary reality, left to dangle in metaphysical isolation or else grafted into an alternative reality? Instead of unifying the fragments into a single super-reality, the new surrealists might be bent on fragmenting the seeming unity of the everyday world, revealing that there is either a plethora of realities, or else no reality at all.

And then there’s the absurd humor it all:

this giant emptiness of meaning… this giant race to the bottom of irony… [Absurdity with humor] lol nothing matters, but things might turn out all right anyway… After all, the weird — even the exceedingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely distressing… …millennial surrealism intermixes relief with stress and levity with lunacy.

Does Bruenig’s thesis fit the short fictions in the latest issue of Gone Lawn? Tomorrow or the next day I’ll go back through each story and see.











Short Stories from Gone Lawn 30

This time I’m not using the random number algorithm to select stories, not going to notify the authors that I’ve written something about their recent works. Having previously read a story by Sal Difalco in Gone Lawn, and having read two or three other stories in that same issue, I’d tentatively slotted this magazine as encouraging short fictions that cultivate literary aesthetics without evincing strong commitment to or implications for material reality as it is, was, or could be. Unpredictable but not jarring, these stories trace strange patterns across surfaces that shift rapidly from is to could be to impossible. Maybe call it art for art’s sake, in the modern traditions of surrealism, dadaism, and pop but without the self-conscious lamentation over loss of meaning. Playful, decadent, nihilistic, absurd. Do I like it? Sure. Do I want to practice it? Not so sure. What do I think about it? That’s why I want to read the whole current issue’s worth of Gone Lawn short fictions in one go.

*  *  *

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

Already with the first story my assumptions about this magazine’s aesthetic are violated. It’s realistic, relational, introspective, spanning the duration of two lifetimes, lamenting loss of meaning both in the world an in one’s perceptions of it. The author is Greek. I just finished Outline, a novel assembled from story-length autofictions that takes place in Greece; it too is realistic, relational, introspective, lamentational. Maybe it’s Greek, or Mediterranean, or European, to uphold the longer and deeper traditions of realistic fiction. The author is a neurologist: I wonder if she practices this medical specialty, or if in referring to herself this way she enhances the credibility of her writing, especially when it takes her under the skull and into the cranium, as in this story where the first-person narrator is succumbing to dementia.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

So yeah, this is what I’m talking about. First sentence: “My girlfriend’s pelvic floor is stuffed with flowers, perfume, silver talismans, strange buildings, and a sweater she saw once while she was travelling that she regrets she didn’t buy.” It’s flash, so it could hold onto the absurdity right to the end if it wanted to. It doesn’t want to. Last two sentences: “My girlfriend stuffs all her happiness into her pelvic floor. It shines so bright but far enough away from her brain that she can’t see its purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope.”

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

This one leans hard into poetry. It’s also and immediately metafictional, reflexive: “the ekphrastic man” follows an instruction; “world devoid of footings we are used to;” “resembling a cubist.” Cubism — there’s another art genre reflected in these multiply fractured fictional surfaces, the interfaces and angles generating a simulacrum of depth. “Nightshade growing from his nostrils. Arms made from recycled dust and clothing made from papier-mâché. Body of fragile materials kissing the face of the ground.” And abstract expressionism, a successor of cubism, shapes and lines and angles decoupled from the original unifying form: “Feet locked in the horizontal bend of the green brick.” What is this art school; I recognize it more from philosophy: “He tries to see with the nerves inside of his skull — they grow and mutate into a more complex system. A network of new peripheral senses.” This too: delving under surfaces to encounter not depth but a different layer of intricacies, a subsurface. And maybe this too is part of the point: “He moves along the surface like a wheel. Curling against gravity. Arriving in an unfamiliar place. Unfamiliar in its return to familiarity.” The mundane torques into the fantastic, prompting neither horror nor awe but acceptance, gearing old adaptive mechanisms to the bizarre, crafting new routines in order to keep existing. “No longer an ekphrastic shape, the second anomaly does not resemble anything.” So now presumably the attempt is to generate text that no longer represents prior schools of the plastic arts. Narrative coherence, already tenuous, unravels. Still, almost immediately there’s a reference to “a superstructure hidden under the mask of Marienbad garden geometry” — modernist art-house cinema. And the characters are walking a stone labyrinth; “they play out the theseid like a troupe of performers.” Ancient mythic theatre. “One reaches for the altar and begins to chisel his name… But the altar is void of contents.” This isn’t a quest; it’s an expedition: simple as a quest, though it “suffers from vague goals.” Organics that are also minerals; structures that are processes; “entities that are also places.” Everything is falling apart, scrambling, intractable. “Act three is where Someone no longer resembles someone… the world is made from meat and computational errors… Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented.”

Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

It’s a folktale, a faerie story, in which the last girl standing isn’t human but fey. Straightforward storytelling, it has its funny moments but mostly it’s sad and wistful, with a moral. This writer lives in Italy.

“Meeting Place” and “Animate Objects,” by Julie Gard

Both prose poems comprise 4 numbered paragraphs. The first is about people and a river; the second, about toy creatures crafted by artisans from porcelain, wax, plastic, clay, but sentient. Nostalgic, mournful, an awareness that the inanimately made outlasts the living even after its purpose in the human world has been lost.

“Empire of Light,” by Melissa Goode

A couple, walking at night, a waking dream. It ends with wistfully reflexive intimations of mortality: “We are a blip in time and space, nothing compared with matter and history, but that does not diminish a single thing about us.”

Aftermath, by Alyssa Greene

A haunted house story, splintered and charred, told in 15 quick-cut short takes, the cinematic style acknowledged in the first scene: “No one wonders what happens after the credits roll.” Ending in regret: “Asking how far back would I go to undo it, to unlive it all.”

“In a Country East of South Chicago,” by Rich Ives

“Cubists are attacking,” I’m told in the first line — from different angles. Each sentence stands alone as a facet, a kind of aphorism, surreal, absurd, dadaist. “There’s a beauty of abandonment if it’s duly witnessed. You see, once you arrived, and I smelled your appearance, I sent you away. It was a mistake, of course, but what can you do when you’ve been surrounded by the most accomplished imitations. You get practical, and you don’t choose, you process, as nature does. From here to there is the way the wind thinks.” Then a series of disconnected scenes, each bizarre, with denizens uttering occasional remarks mostly incongruous yet spoken with an assurance verging on the confrontational. The narrator addresses me: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, but I’ve noticed how a lot of us around here just act like well-trained chairs, and I want you to think of me as a surprise, like drawers full of crayfish and rows of butterflies and beetles pinned to the wall above the bed.”

A shift into narrative, one paragraph at a time, fragmentary and fantastic, surreal cubist incursions. Derby hats and pinstripes, coffee and cigarettes, limousines and sadistic dental tools — is this the Chicagoland of the thirties introduced in the first sentence? Jazz and abstract paintings, TV in the back seat, “psychedelic disco club with Dixieland overtones,” Giorgio and ragtime blue guitar: temporal cubism. Pince-nez and absinthe,  Gothic castles and gargoyles, clock towers and sundials, metalsmiths and woodworkers. “The pinstripes continue riding in the limousine, never arriving.” Village square on market day. “A surprisingly large battery of French Country Folk begin dancing about on the frontispiece.” Surreal cubist mummers, “born near Newark, New Jersey in what appeared to be a Martin Scorsese accident.” A return to the water, entering the stream, dissolving the strange. “Think of it as I do, one scene at a time, as if a roomful of the curious were watching lantern slides projected on the wall by the old man who collected them, the room as silent as the night they found the body of the first young boy.” What young boy? Perhaps we’ll find out. Cubist thaumaturgy, bringing life back from pieces of the dead, animating monsters from an assemblage of inanimate components. Photographs of components, edited together on television. Alice arrives, or someone like her, a princess of the surreal. “She falls past shelves full of ceramic dolls and soldiers” — is this intertextual magic, extracting components from “Animate Objects” by Julie Gard, a story also appearing in this issue of the litmag?

“I know who I am, but not what I am… The emptiness in my bones grows heavier with marrow from the results of my self-seeking journey. Each step brings me closer to a different version. The darkest part of the journey is not just before the end. It is the end.” Thaumaturgy invoked by spells, creation with language, words solid as rocks, or as insubstantial. “I guess I was about up to the edge of it, and I wanted to see what was on the other side. I wanted to get closer to the danger. This thing I do, with words, it’s a little like talking to clouds, only dirtier, and it keeps me busy.” Does it work? Is it important? “I’m trying to say that there’s something final about what I’m saying if I could ever say what I’m saying right, and sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is.”

“Instructions for Specimen,” by Jennifer Kudō

Fingers, legs, lungs, genitals: some disassembly required.

“This,” by Chad Miller

This is a story about writing., about being a writer, about being married. A tight and clean narrative, it dangles the possibility of metaphor: I try to reject it, but fail. Crouching death issues its hypnotic invitation.

“Flipping,” by Gary Moshimer

Okay, the metaphor is made explicit as hell: “But they realized they were in over their heads, not merely in charge of flipping properties, but of flipping some in their graves.”

“Phantasmagoria Haibun,” by Mark Murphy

No more metaphors: “You are unable to rationalise your exit, the nurses are discussing your options, now the ward team are voting on life or death. You figure at least three of these bastards want you dead.”

“A Family Reunion,” by Joseph Pfister

Dead but not gone: “‘I’ll just throw a comforter over her, Dad suggested. ‘That ugly one she crocheted? That should get us to Christmas.'”

“Malanoct,” by Brian Randall

Bad night, becoming it.

“Various Births VI” and “Various Births VIII,” by Cindy Rinne

Death, rebirth as something else, something mythic, hidden and disguised in what remains of the world.

“Perihelion,” by Kelly R Samuels

Another grandmother quilt, warming in a frozen world. I guess the title is metaphoric love.

“Six Things You Can’t Give Up,” by Alina Stefanescu

Agency of objects and fragmentation of subjects, but rage, seriousness, dissent, love, truth, a central European putting up resistance to quotidian America.

“It’s Called Deception,” by Jan Stinchcombe

An ironic deathy parable decorated by a farcical surfeit of metaphors.

“Post-War,” “Allegheny Gremlins,” and “Snallygaster,” by Vivian Wagner

“Once upon a time…” Violence, cruelty, fear; the stories were meant to enlighten, to provoke, to warn. What are the stories good for anymore?

“Thunder gods.” and “Sky gods.” by Sanna Wani

“Do you understand?” asks the fox-dog; the narrator does.

“Bird Bones,” by Tara Isabel Zambrano

The author is a semiconductor chip designer; in the story old technologies serve as havens, as compulsions, as death traps, as paranoiac delusions.

*  *  *

That’s twenty-one short fictions. Not all of them meet the criteria I was after, but enough of them do. I’ll give them further thought, maybe tomorrow.


I Guess I’m Not Like Other Writers

In a recent post I interacted with two short short fictions selected for me by my random-numerical  search algorithm: two stories from the most recent issue of literary magazine X on page N of the Poets & Writers online listing.

I was able to find the email address for the first author on the website for a program that the writer runs — a periodic exercise in collective creation in which local artists gather to create something inspired by a shared prompt. In my email I observed that I too value collaboration among creators, and that I’d used the author’s story as a prompt for my post, to which I provided a link. Later that day the Statcounter indicated that someone from the author’s home town had visited the post in question at least twice. No one left a comment or clicked the Like button; I never received a reply to my email.

The author of the second story is a professional writer, offering contracted services on a personal website which includes the writer’s email address. I notified this author too about my post. That same day I received a reply: the author claimed to find my comments fascinating, though without elaborating or engaging. The author let me know that the published story had been excerpted from a novel, provided a one-sentence contextual note, sent me an online version of the original full chapter from which the excerpt was drawn, and offered to send me the full novel even though the author felt sure that I wouldn’t want to read it. I sent 4 follow-up emails commenting on specific features of the published short story and the full chapter, with no reply.



Nail It to the Table

Dipping back into the short fiction slipstream, I decided to read the two most recent short fictions published in the first litmag beginning with “N” listed on the Poets & Writers website, which happens to be Nailed. Almost immediately I realized that, left to my own preferences, I wouldn’t be reading these particular short stories. Could I be bothered to sift through the offerings in search of texts that meet my selection criteria — criteria that, I have to acknowledge, must be fairly restrictive? At this point I’m ready to abandon ship. Later though I started thinking more about those two stories.

In the first one, “Warm-Blooded Animals” by Kathleen Lane, a kid learns about taxidermy from her grandmother. The kid seems intrigued; Grandma laughs: “Liddy, you’re either going to be a scientist, a nurse, or a cold-blooded murderer.”  Later the kid stabs a classmate. Last paragraph:

Dereck’s hand is all shaky when he takes the knife out and now there’s blood all down his arm, red stripes clear down to his hand. The blood is bright red. It’s redder than porkchop, redder than squirrel belly, and that’s when I know for sure I’m not a cold-blooded murderer because right away, I want to stitch him back up.

A nurse then. I’m reminded of my days as a psych doctoral student, learning to be a scientist while practicing therapy part-time. I realized that I didn’t want to stitch up my clients; I wanted to eviscerate them, spread the entrails and skin on the table, and study them. A scientist then. I wonder about reading these stories: do I want to murder them in cold blood, dismantle them and splay them out for inspection, probe around inside them to see if anything needs fixing and then stitch them back up?

Second story: “Usual Rules?” by Simon Beasor. Cathy gets a run of bad cards, goes all in, loses everything. It’s never said explicitly, but strip poker is what she proposes. Alex, the narrator, is all in with it; he wonders if Cathy’s husband Stan is on board. And what I’m left wondering is this: what if it had been Stan who lost the last pot, Stan who posed the question, wondering if the other players would let him stay in the game according to the usual rules after he’d lost all his pennies, selling himself in a game of chance to those who through the luck of the draw are holding the cards and the cash? Stan who’s had a string of bad luck, who’s gone all in on a great hand and come up empty when inevitably someone else holds a better hand, who wonders if he can put himself up as the stake just so he can stay in the game. Or, better: it’s Alex, the narrator of this story, who’s going to expose himself for money. First the clothes, then the flesh. The other players: are they scientists, or nurses, or cold-blooded murderers?


Now What?

Okay, so suppose this…

I keep reading online open-access short fictions and interacting with them here. Maybe I shorten up my textual responses: instead of the 500 word average of my recent output I aim for something more like 150. At the same time I amp up my posting frequency, from 5 per week to 15 or so. I focus my attention on texts to which I experience a personal resonance and whose authors I can readily contact via social media. I continue to notify authors directly about my online interactions with their texts; this time I also follow them on Twitter etc., anticipating that at least some will reciprocate.

When the authors arrive here to read my posts, I won’t attempt to lure them into participating in online discussions or surveys. Instead I’ll invite them to consider joining forces in building an alternative fiction publishing house that’s owned and operated by fiction writers themselves.

The authors of fictions published in literary magazines can certainly generate the product. They’ve responded to publishers’ requests for submission, written and edited their own texts, formatted them in conformance with the litmags’ specs, had their work deemed worthy of publication by acquisition editors. It’s at the back end of the publication cycle that the authors’ co-op might falter.

As a cooperative can writers exercise quality control over their own collective output, ensuring that the texts have been thoroughly vetted, honed to excellence, and formatted professionally in the house style before being published? A traditionally published book gets blurbed on the back cover by other published authors, heightening the book’s attractiveness to the potential reader. Mutual blurbing probably also enhances the sense of camaraderie among blurbers and blurbees. But can fellow writers exercise editorial judgment with respect to one another’s manuscripts — a responsibility from which they’ve traditionally been buffered by agents and publishers?

I believe they can. Academic journals have historically relied on peer review in accepting and rejecting manuscripts for publication. Blind review is the usual procedure, avoiding cronyism on the one hand and vendetta on the other. With enough fiction writers in the peer network, blind review would be practicable and swift. Can fiction writers exercise reliable and valid judgment about the merits of other writers’ fictional texts? With practice they could. Many literary magazines already rely on blind peer reviewers to make a first pass through the pool of submissions. Through experience and conversation a set of house standards would surely take shape.

What about money? If the writers are doing most of the work, and if only e-books are published, then overhead costs are reduced nearly to zero. Advances and royalties? For now let’s assume that the novels published by the writers’ co-op are open access, generating no revenue from sales. Many litmags operate that way; many if not most don’t pay their authors. While many writers of short fictions hope to have a novel or compilation of their own published, often as not they expect the publisher to be a small independent operation that pays only a small advance with no additional royalties generated from sales. But a small-press publication conveys prestige on its author. The book might serve as a stepping stone to a bigger and more lucrative book deal with a commercial press; it also might enhance the writer’s credentials for securing paid work as an editor or a teacher. If the writers’ co-op publishing house can attract excellent submissions, and if the editorial selection process is rigorous, then it could convey the same sort of prestige on its authors as would the small independent publishers. In addition to the pragmatics, there are also the aesthetics and the egoistics that come into play. Being published by a well-respected outfit offers validation of the author’s art and craft; it also gives the author something to talk about at parties.

Could the authors publicize not just their own books but the co-op’s entire portfolio of literary offerings in order to attract broad readership? If the co-op publishes open-access e-books, then it wouldn’t make use of bookstores or Amazon, which generate their revenues as percentages of book sales. Online literary magazines cultivate readership through online promotion and social media; the co-op could pursue a similar strategy. Rather than relying exclusively on the publishing house’s online presence to build readership for the books, the writers themselves would take an active role in announcing book releases through their own social networks. The authors of short fictions on which I recently wrote posts generated quite a bit of traffic through their Facebook friends. If the writers were to make social media announcements not solely for their own individual works but for all of the books in the co-op’s portfolio, reader awareness could expand exponentially.

*  *  *

On the other hand…

Of the 14 randomly selected short fictions I wrote blog posts about, only one author engaged in an ongoing discussion, going beyond the specifics of her own story into the larger societal contexts of education, ecology, empirical evidence, and personal agency in which her story is embedded. Three other writers offered a single comment, focusing exclusively on their own texts, without pursuing further conversation. The other writers never engaged, never even acknowledged that I’d written a post about their stories. None of the 14 authors commented on any of my other posts in the series, or on any of the recently published short fictions written by other authors on which those posts were based. None asked me why I’d read and written about their stories, nor did they offer any reaction to my larger agenda as outlined in other fairly visible places on the website. In short, based on the limited evidence available, with one exception the authors were interested exclusively in the attention I gave to their own stories, or else they were entirely indifferent.

Participants in a writers’ collective publishing company would doubtless need to be motivated by self-interest — the collective can advance my career, or increase my readership, or make me money. A sense of outrage with the status quo would also help: the traditional publishing industry is a racket, a pyramid scheme, a false hope, a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. But wouldn’t there also have to be a sense of authorial collegiality, or at least an awareness of a shared fate, of swimming or sinking together? Even better, wouldn’t the prospects of success be enhanced if the writers’ collegiality extend to the readers, who collectively are exploited by the same industry that exploits the writers, whose own interests could be served by joining forces with each other and with the writers?

I’m not much of a rhetorician; my expectation is that, once the evidence is laid out on the table, the advantages of anarcho-syndicalism speak for themselves. In an earlier iteration of this website I marshalled evidence indicting the status quo and outlined the parameters of an alternative system predicated on collective pursuit of mutual interests. Those posts and pamphlets went nowhere, largely because so few people showed up to read them. Maybe I shouldn’t take the rejection personally: if you google “postcapitalist fiction,” Ficticities shows up on the first page of the results. The fact that so few people clicked through to my postcapitalist content tells me that very few people give much thought to the topic. It’s hard to know whether that’s because most writers and readers are satisfied with the status quo, or because they’ve not given serious consideration to alternatives.

I could perhaps launch a fiction publishing house that wasn’t collectively owned and managed. It would operate similarly to to the open-source literary magazines, specializing not in online periodicals but in e-books, mostly novels. The writers wouldn’t get paid, but then neither would I. Instead of trying to reach consensus on manuscript selection, house style, distribution, and so on, I’d decide unilaterally. My publishing house would still rely heavily on the writers for editing, formatting, and promotion, but so do other publishers. With minimal overhead costs, the house could expand its offerings more rapidly than do many of the small independent presses. I suspect that, like most publishing houses, my operation would draw a lot of interest from authors. But why would I do it? Running such an operation would be a full-time job, for no pay — a do-gooder project. Besides, I’m a novelist myself, dammit! I don’t just want to help other fiction writers to get their novels read; I want them to return the favor.

You could say that I’ve already got my own publishing company, just like every other self-published author. Mine is an open-source e-book operation: anyone can download any of my books for free. I could expand, inviting other novelists to submit their manuscripts. But doesn’t that look like precisely what it is — an expanded self-publishing endeavor? Besides, a prospective author might well ask, just how many readers have taken you up on your personal open-access postcapitalist publishing house’s free book offer?

I could set aside the publishing house idea for now, focusing instead on affiliating with a cohort of fiction writers, and maybe readers too, linked not so much on economic considerations — on explicitly pursuing alternatives to commodity capitalism in the world of fiction —  but on aesthetic ones. A decided advantage offered by open-source literary magazines is that they can feature good work that doesn’t necessarily generate commercial potential for either the writer or the publisher. There are compensatory dangers: on the one hand a suspicion that the no-pay outlet is a lower-status venue best suited for mediocrities and novices; on the other, a whiff of esoteric preciousness wafting from the self-appointed literary elite who through academic appointment are able to buffer themselves from crass commercialism and popular tastes. These are the risks intrinsic to decommodified publishing — the same risks that a writers’ syndicate would face in publishing one another’s longer fictions. Open source literary magazines provide an ongoing source of market research for postcapitalistic fiction.

Of the 14 short fictions I recently read, 3 or 4 struck me as unusually good — not far better than usual, but good in an unusual way. I could allow myself to be drawn selectively to the unusual short fictions  — the same pull I rely follow when looking at novels on the New Releases shelves at the public library. I could write about each of these unusual short fictions, notify the author, perhaps strike up a discussion, maybe even a correspondence. We might converge onto some form of collective collaboration founded on a shared appreciation for the unusual. Or, as seems equally likely, I would find that those who cultivate the unusual diverge not only from the norm but from one another. I could give this project some time — considerably longer than the 3 weeks of my latest experiment — to see what develops. Meanwhile I will have read some alluring short fictions, will have let those fictions inflect some idiosyncratic textual engagements of my own, will possibly have initiated some stimulating conversations.