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?



Intertext as Fan Fiction

“You guys ever read ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’?
– Shane the ghost hunter on Buzzfeed

In setting out to read and to write about a random selection of 14 recently published short fictions, I was curious to see what sorts of engagements they would provoke in me. I intentionally suppressed the urge to judge. Each of the stories had already  been deemed worthy of publication by a literary magazine, distinguishing it from most of the other submissions competing for display in the textual gallery. In reading these stories I wanted to regard them neither as competitors to be judged by my own personal standards nor as case studies by which I might hone those standards, but as colleagues in an imaginary collective of writers and readers.

Writings about recently published works so often take the form of a review, evaluating the merits and flaws of the text and assigning it an overall rating. There’s merit in the review textual form: I acknowledge that I’m more likely to read a book that gets excellent marks, especially from respected sources. Presumably the writers too benefit from glowing reviews, not just in attracting readership to the reviewed text itself but in accumulating prestige, which can hopefully be be cashed in as opportunities for wider readership, greater critical recognition, and more money on subsequent efforts. The litmags too are ranked in terms of prestige, judged primarily on the perceived excellence of the works they publish. And how is the level of a magazine’s authorial excellence judged? Mostly by proxy: manuscript acceptance rate, a “by invitation only” solicitation of new submissions, a higher honorarium paid to published authors — like the evaluation of universities’ prestige based on their students’ average GPAs and test scores and the number of Merit Scholarships awarded.

To publish is to make public. Newly launched into the public sphere, a short story can strive for accolades and audience, competing with other published stories for attention. But a public story also joins the wider fictional society, encountered by readers not only as a separate and distinct work but as a nexus of strands, linking it to the readers’ lives and to other stories they’ve read or will read. Implicitly or explicitly, the public story might extend its influence to other stories not yet written. Even a critical review embeds the story in a public ecosystem, comparing it with other published texts, evaluating the strength and length of the strands woven through it, linking it to the broader public sphere. Intertextuality.

Over a 3-week interval I wrote 14 posts in which I responded to strands traced out by 14 recently published short fictions. These posts could be deemed intertextual commentary, but I think of them as fan fiction, where I appropriated a public work of fiction as the basis for spinning my own derivative piece of writing. Fan fiction spans a wide range of texts, from the preteen’s romantic fantasy linking two Harry Potter characters to Shakespeare elaborating theatrically on an old Scandinavian legend and calling it Hamlet. Some of my fanfics were idiosyncratic and personal; others linked me through the story into broader cultural and literary trajectories. In a few cases my text prompted the story’s writer to respond in writing: degree 2 intertextuality.

My favorite fanfictional event might have been this one. I found the short story perplexing and made no bones about it in my post: “The fuck?” it begins, followed by a brief synopsis of what I deemed the story’s most puzzling aspects. It was certainly the most negative and sarcastic of the 14 fanfics I wrote. The next day, walking through a cemetery, I stopped to inspect a headstone commemorating the deceased’s service as a Confederate soldier. I referenced the epitaph in my next post:

I thought about the perplexing short story I’d read and posted on the day before. It began with a young couple jumping together off a bridge. Maybe all of the hallucinatory fireworks that followed had been another occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

A few days later Shawn Goldberg, the author of the perplexing story wrote a comment on my post acknowledging the intertextual influences woven into his story:

It should be noted that Cathay refers to Hart Crane’s Atlantis and his Romantic America. Rereading it now, I do believe the final image is taken from the end of Fellini’s 8½.

In response I wondered whether Fellini’s distinctive cinematic style owed a debt of influence to the Catholic pageantry of Mardi Gras. In his earlier comment Shawn had provided a link to his website, where he now posts his stories. I clicked through: the first story I found there begins at a party where a farcical performance of a Catholic Holy Week ritual is being staged.

Writers of fiction think about their own literary influences; rarely, I suspect, do they consider the possibility that their fictional texts influence readers or other writers. Shawn’s comment began:

Sure is weird to get a random email from a guy I don’t know, asking about a story that I thought was lost on the internet, but it sure did cheer me.

It cheered me too.


Entry 038::After Ash Wednesday>>Moon Quincunx Pluto by Sade LaNay

Today’s randomly selected short fiction 1.17.1, from Aadoreehere’s the link. This time the sortilege sent me back to a text I read and posted on back in March, during an earlier phase of this website. I’ll interpret the apparently random turning of the literary wheel on this, the fourteenth station of my personal Via Legerosa, as a sign that I’ve reached the end of this cycle and perhaps the beginning of another.

Last time I excerpted from the first part of this piece — I’ve deemed it a fiction but it might more accurately be regarded as a poem — which concerns a tooth extraction. I had recently undergone such a procedure myself, and two days before reading LaNay’s text I’d read and quoted from a story by Salvatore Difalco called “The Teeth,” which begins: Arto awoke to discover that his upper two front teeth had fallen out during the night. This time I think the planchette is pointing at the second part of the story/poem.

Moon Quincunx Pluto an astrologer could tell me what it signifies but I don’t have one on call. same birthday as Jesse James & John Cage September the 5th, two days ago. anger is so indigestible maybe all emotion is indigestible it comes back up, the return of the repressed. what if my therapist is a ghost? Hamlet’s dead father, Lacan’s dead hand. I know my therapist is not a ghost denial. the temptation to doubt reality doubt is real, the real is dubious. it means nothing to tell my therapist the litany of awful things that have happened it makes you worthy of the ghost’s attention. it feels like reporting the weather to an open empty room I know a poet who improvises poetry aloud and alone in his empty house for hours at a time every day. maybe it’s scarier if you believe me if you take me seriously if you notice things about me if my feelings matter jouissance, the terror of desire fulfilled. because “what do you want from me?” is always going to be nagging me the therapist claims that what you demand is not what you desire. and it turns out that people are more interesting than I realized including yourself. where did this stream of water come from– does the therapist too specialize in extractions, in inflicting pain and administering painkillers, in composing six-gun soundtracks, in circling the hexagon and the square?


Big G, Little G by Kelsie Donaldson

Today’s random short fiction 29.15.1, from Mystic Blue Reviewhere’s the link (begin page 15).

I note first, from the Bio section at the end of the issue, that the author of this piece is a senior at Michigan State University — my alma mater. I was in desperate need of a drink, the story begins — it’s good to see that the tradition lives on. Ah, but soon enough it’s revealed that “I” is a schoolteacher in a beach town in South Carolina — well I guess we’ve all got our dreams. The woman seated next to him at the bar teaches at a rival high school in town. The narrator asks her where she went to school.“The University of Michigan. You?”  Clemson, he tells her, but I know it’s a South Carolina proxy for MSU. Now I’m getting an inkling of where we might be headed… She had an amused look in her eye, which bothered me for some reason. It’s that U of M arrogance: a couple of shots is plenty enough to coax it out. Puffy red eyes: At least high school teachers don’t do meth, right? Go ahead, Spartan, turn that Wolverine into a tweaker.

Oh but now what the heck? The snooty Michigan grad turns out to be a sympathetic character. Well at least the author had the good sense to kill off her doctor husband, make her suffer a little. And it’s the “Clemson” grad who’s got the magic.

The narration, the dialogue, the situation, it all flows right along. I realize the story is carried by what I’d regard as my own go-to cadence, the way regular people in my fictions go about their lives. The narration too. Is this the MSU cadence? I’m alternating between reading this story and editing something of my own. The chapter I’m working on features a girl from a large state university in the north who’s taking a year off after her junior year to undertake a personal quest. Geographically it’s probably Penn State, but of course we know what school it really is. The way she talks, thinks, interacts, is, she reminds me of the central character in this story.

Inasmuch as the random number algorithm selected this story for me to read, I feel that the fates will allow some further leeway for nostalgia. I wasn’t an English major, but I did quit college after my junior year with the intention of traveling the world and writing fiction. That future got diverted to another track in Marrakech, which serves as the setting for a fugue-like interlude two chapters following the one about the would-be college senior.

Death for Serafina by Rayji de Guia

Random short fiction 10.9.2, from Cha: An Asian Literary Journalhere’s the link. [Note: my random story selection algo came up empty 9 times in a row — the mag was poetry only, or print only, or behind a paywall, or defunct — before landing on an online fictional text I could read, interact with, hopefully discuss. Do the aleatory misfires, repeated with a frequency that strains chance itself, portend the closing of a portal?]

It’s the neat one who dies first, not the sloppy one. To the onlooker her indifference to cleanliness and tidiness carries over to marital indifference: she won’t miss him now that he’s dead and gone. But she’d also been widely recognized as the maestra of the parochial school, the most religious hermana at church. Her unwashed mumuu and unwashed body constitute not her indifference to cleanliness but her hardheaded habit — a consciously cultivated discipline. Catholicism, with its obsessive commitment to ritual, doesn’t commend indifference to routine; it is firmly committed to ritual, to consciously cultivated discipline, to the practice of hardheaded habits. Her daughters too are devoted to the ritualistic performance of their filial duties: every month, once a week.

“Death for Serafina” is the title of this story, but Serafina doesn’t die in the end. Do her sister’s ministrations, her cleaning and cooking and repairing, constitute a kind of death for Serafina, an extinguishing of her carefully nurtured disciplines of slovenliness, the swinging of the bleach-soaked mop and the moving of furniture prefiguring her own heavy corpse getting dragged through the corridor? Or from the beginning of the story is Serafina already dead, a priestess of entropy and decay perpetually administering last rites to her own body/corpse and home/tomb?


Pop by Carlo Gallegos

Random short fiction 36.18 from El Portalhere’s the link.

A spatter of phrases that ricocheted off my eyeballs:

stick skinny Terry

fired his shot precise

he barely had to look down the barrel to know where those wild projectiles would lacerate

pushed and pulled his hand toward some purpose, and he so easily hit his target dead

Jimmy’s sad heavy canter brought him down the bare wooden stairs

his sad pile of a mother another two-liter Fanta

a perfectly sorry example of someone taking advantage of the government

he was raised on slurred values and neglect

Unable to prevail, a weak power of will

a self-imposed bright future

rusting and rotting into his obesity

disappearing from his grease soaked reality

covering everything in an engulfing deprivation

his laugh hammers away, loaded with degradation

blood and chaos

You can almost piece the story together from those fragments of textual forensic evidence, though most were collected from the first half of the text. Any other witnesses care to testify?

A Deceptively Simple Word Problem by Samuel Rafael Barber

Random short fiction 20.11.5, from Green Mountains Reviewhere’s the link.

Fiction as thought experiment: it’s nice to see someone else going in for this sort of thing. I appreciate the tell-don’t-show expository narrative, the abstraction of fictional components into variables and algorithms, the exploration of hypotheticals and conditionals and alternative futures and other counteractuals.

The person called “You” waits at the bench for the simultaneous arrivals of Trains A and B. They won’t just pass each other without stopping; both trains are expected to stop long enough to let passengers board — it’s a scheduled stop. You must live near this stop, the temporal midpoint between both termini, between station N’s banal urbanity and the outermost edge of civilization at station M. Maybe there are other intermediate stops. Does You live in suburbia, exurbia, smalltownia, ruralia? Are these intermediate positions rejected as mere compromises, places without qualities, each characterized only by its relative positioning on the linear continuum between pure city and pure wilderness? Being neither hot nor cold do You and the fiancé spew these mediocrities out of their mouths?

Maybe A and B aren’t the only two trains to stop here, running their perpetual relay between the same two endpoints. Maybe another train stops here as well, heading in some direction along another vector, its termini representing extreme values of some other variable besides city/wilderness. I’ve navigated these mid-course transfers often enough on European railroads to have lost at least some of the anticipatory anxiety of finding myself lugging my luggage along the platform in futile pursuit of my connection as it eases away on down the tracks. Maybe You is sitting at a bench in some Grand Central Station, with scores of trains arriving and departing every hour, heading to anywhere from everywhere.

Choice. You’s fiancé rides aboard Train A, originating at Station M. Did he change his mind about living at the outermost edge of civilization? Couldn’t he disembark, meet You on the platform, both returning on Train B to station M? Couldn’t both give urban banality a try? If someday they decide they don’t like it then they can buy a couple of tickets for Train B and head back together to the wilderness or to one of the intermediate stops, or else veer off on a different track entirely.

Fate. Both the A train and the B train stop at You’s location in precisely two hours. Presumably they run on the same schedule every day. You could wait until next week to decide which one to board, or next month. However, You’s fiancé rides Train A only on this particular day; this is the day when, in two hours, two lines of Fate are destined to merge into a temporary node, a singularity, a portal. And hasn’t You already decided by agreeing to marry; isn’t that why the fiancé is riding to meet You here in two hours, locked onto a particular course determined by You’s decision? Is this the problem with any decision, that once it’s made You’d like to take it back, as if it had never been made, as if all routes remain open to You as pure potential, sitting on the bench reading a story?

What if, unbeknownst to You, the fiancé changed his mind and Train A pulled out of Station M without him? Now You changes her mind about meeting the fiancé and gets aboard Train B, pulling in at Station M in 1 hour and 43 minutes. Stopping at the café near station M before heading out into the wilderness, You spots the fiancé in a booth having a cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie.