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.
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“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.
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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.