Sunday, August 29, 2010

Short-a-Day: Oscar Colchado Lucio's "The House on El Pino Hill"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 77.

Here's something I've never seen before: a story hidden within a description of a house: "The curtains are half closed over the small, barred window. A thin beam of light illuminates one side of the room and casts the rest in shadow. It's two o'clock in the afternoon." There are no characters, there is no narrator; everything is meant to be inferred from the significant objects--including the empty house. It's Peru, 1986, and the pamphlets and philosophy strewn around the room reveal this to be the home of several Shining Path members. Only in footnotes do we learn their names: "Underneath a large poster of Mao is an old photo, yellow with age but carefully framed. A couple is posing with their children, who are standing in front, two boys and a girl. They appear to be between six and nine years old.[6] [6]Hugo, Nancy, and Pedro with their parents. Pedro died in a traffic accident when he was an adolescent."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Short-a-Day: Andre Dubus's "Blessings"

Originally published in Dancing After Hours, 1997. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 98.

Deliberately slow, but with a delicate and earned pacing, this is a terrific story about survival: what that means. He hints at it from the very first line--"Early in the morning on the first anniversary of the day her family survived, the mother woke"--then spends the next several pages establishing what their life is like. Rusty (so called by her husband Cal, "because of her hair, because he was in love with her") is a practical woman, who acknowledges nature and the good intentions of people who do not: "Why didn't they know that, having killed or run off for buildings and asphalt the deer's natural predators, people had to perform the functions of coyotes and wolves?" She is not a woman whose heart is "accustomed to a soft cushion of quotidian calm," and we'll learn why, as we flash back not only to the previous year--a shark attack--but all the way to Vietnam, a time when her baby daughter almost died of pneumonia. Likewise, we'll see the funeral for the captain and his first mate before we see the actual accident--we'll see what it is like not to survive, but to be survived.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Short-a-Day: Martha Cooley's "The Month Girls"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 26.

Four vaguely themed vignettes that explore a typist's insecurities about "femaleness": "Why, I wondered, did being female seem to depend so heavily on reception, as if the radios (so to speak) of other people were always threatening to distort the the female signal or lose it altogether?" Though the stories were written years apart, the voice of this sounds like Yiyun Li's recently published "The Science of Flight," in that there's some tight summaries of life, but beyond that, too much ambling and stretching for meaning. However, at least the voices of Cooley's piece give the story some legs:

May was petite and voluptuous.... May, claimed April, was saucy--and she was, in her way. Saucy and well-organized. For her part, April was cool and aloof.... According to May, April looked like Faye Dunaway, and this was accurate: April did possess that same sexy haughtiness. June was very tall--easily six-two--and big-boned. Her appearance was relaxed, even a bit droopy; she reminded me of a contented female cow, thinking her bovine thoughts and paying little attention to other people.

FRINGE: Garage

[Reviewed for Time Out New York's Fringe Binge]

FRINGE: The Princes of Persuasion

The Princes of Persuasion: Recipes for Romance makes for an oddly entertaining concert, not a satisfying work of theater. Ithai Benjamin's music is catchy, Rebeca Raney's lyrics are delightfully twisted (think Roald Dahl), and the automated puppets are novel and neatly designed. But the show is mostly prerecorded, and the puppets, not Benjamin, are the characters: airy and deranged Linda, sensible Destiny, boyish but occasionally demonic Lil' Bo-tique, and the goofy Domingo (whose eyes and nose face a different direction from his mouth). Wouldn't this work just as well or better as an installation at a kooky tourist trap like Jekyll and Hyde Cafe (the new "Muppets Family") or as a series of high-grade YouTube clips (ala Henson Studios)? This is even truer considering that The Princes of Persuasion has no plot, no momentum: it's just a loose series of conversations that serve only to segue into songs like "Long Legs," which features this goofy verse: "Mustache, mustache/ I never grew one/ tiny hairs above my lip/ it would tickle your face/ with our noses tip to tip." But though it can't compete with the far more complete Jollyship the Whiz-Bang and Avenue Q, it's whimsically winning enough to persuade Fringe audiences to love it. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "The audience revolts against false royalty" and 5 being "All hail the king," The Princes of Persuasion gets a 4.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Short-a-Day: Yiyun Li's "The Science of Flight"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 30, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 20.

Over the years she had become accustomed to who she was in other people's eyes: she knew she would be considered a loser by her Chinese acquaintances in  America, a divorced woman toiling her life away in an animal-care facility, someone who had failed to make it; in her landlord's and neighbors' eyes she was the quiet, good-mannered foreigner who paid her rent on time, who ever Halloween put out a couple of pumpkins, uncarved but with drawn-on eyes and mouths, and who had no visitors on weekends or holidays, so there was no conflict regarding the guest parking; for her grandmother and her aging customers, who spent their days in the shack for conversation and companionship more than for the care of their thinning hair or balding heads, she was--despite being a baby who should have remained unborn, a child with little merit and an unnerving manner, and a young woman who had no respect for marriage or her own future--a proof, in the end, of the ultimate mercy of life. 
To me, that's a great and almost complete story right there. Sadly, in context, this section comes across as repetitious, and the material that follows it does little to expand on this concept: a woman who happily resolves herself into what others see in her, mainly because she's happy just to be seen, and also because she's learned not to see anything in herself: "That Zichen's grandmother had kept her in order to spite her rebellious and humiliated daughter Zichen had always known; that her mother had given birth to her in order to spite her father had become evident when they met." From her Q&A, it doesn't really look as if Li knows where this story is going, or particularly cares if it is working or not: she seems a bit like Zichen herself.

FRINGE: Faster than the Speed of White

Captain Northstar (Pushkar Sharma) and Ensign Southstar (Sathya Sridharan) are aboard the Brownstar Galactica, seeking out the Alcove of Answers, where they hope to at last answer this burning question: "Why did Shaq make Shaq-Fu?" [Insert the sound of a record screeching to a halt.] That's not really what Faster than the Speed of White is about, and yet that line is in there, holding Brownstar back from their quest to find a place for the South Asian American actor. Their only role model, seen in flashbacks, is Kal Penn Mohdi, who is either a "trailblazer" or "subcontinental degradation." These two spoken-word artists--and their bassist Chuck Aka The 3rd Dimension (Charles Kim)--are also stuck between two poles, either "imaginative" or "derivative." Sridharan, a loose physical comedian (he'd be great on Saturday Night Live), works better with the esoterically nerdy stuff than Sharma, who is stuck being the straight man (though he's funny as Van Wilder's Taj Mahal Badlandabad), but at least both are boldly going where few have gone before. If director Nick Choksi can cut down on all the dead space, and the two can tighten their search for identity around a more specific medium (e.g., Star Trek as opposed to all sci-fi), they'll have a much more arresting show. (Consider The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which used wrestling to make a broader point about ethnic identity.) They need a sleeker ship for killer lines like these : "Space Indians might not need accents, you ever think about that?" On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "This should have gone down with Alderaan" and 5 being "More astonishing than the X-Men," Faster than the Speed of White gets a 3.5.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

FRINGE: The Secretaries

At one point in the Five Lesbian Brothers' 1993 play, The Secretaries, the depressed former-secretary-of-the-month Ashley (Karen Stanion) starts chugging printer toner, the frustratingly-still-overweight Peaches (Elizabeth A. Bell) gives in to her cravings and devours some solid food, and the normally relaxed and openly gay Dawn (Virginia Baeta) starts smashing at her frozen computer--it's that time of the month. Or so you think: rather, this comic exaggeration is about women who refuse to fit in--especially to the prim secretarial roles they've been assigned to at the Cooney Lumber Company in Big Bone, Oregon: "And once a month we kill a man and chop him up." But don't be fooled by the camp: "We don't kill them because they're bad," announces their boss, Susan (Jamie Heinlein), to their new recruit, innocent Patty (Elizabeth Whitney). "We kill them because we're bad." The show is actually an attack on anything remotely ordinary or normalizing, from Slim-Fast shakes to expense accounts to Feminism itself. Mark Finley's direction isn't primal enough for this sort of rebel yell, especially since the dated comedy is no longer shocking in of itself, but the show is still fairly funny, and the cast--if it's not offensive to say so--is darling. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Find a new vocation," and 5 being "There's a new executive in town," The Secretaries gets a 3.5.

Short-a-Day: Keith Lee Morris's "Testimony"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 79.

This is a very solidly constructed tale, a courthouse drama-of-the-ordinary told from the perspective of a young-twentysomething who is testifying (in return for immunity) about the role his druggie friend Andrew Munson played in the death of his foster brother and roommate Jeremy Schiff. He's a sincere narrator, reliable in that he explains to us that he's going to be holding a few things back but that, really, this is mostly the truth, and he's as eager as we and the prosecutors are to understand what really happened. "I guess the truth was I'd been waiting for the trial all this time to understand myself what it was that really happened that day and why and who was to blame and how much. I thought the State of Idaho should be able to decide that, and I didn't want to make it easier on anyone, including myself, by helping people jump to conclusions." And really, that's how fiction should work, allowing the reader to act as a jury member--more specifically, as a peer--as we assess what's going on; the trick Morris pulls off is that despite a clear testimony, some things remain inexplicable.

Wife to James Whelan

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Teresa Deevy's Wife to James Whelan is an extravagantly simple play; perhaps that's why it was turned down by Ireland's Abbey Theater in 1942. The characters are richly drawn and full of spark, but much of the drama happens to them in the seven-year-intermission between Act I and Act II. What remains on stage is an exacting character piece that looks at the twinned paths of two former lovers. James Whelan (Shawn Fagan), who was once an eager, talkative boy, has hardened himself into a business man, frowning upon the energetic youth of his employee, Apollo (Jon Fletcher), and scorning the advice of his best friend, Kate (Rosie Benton), who urges him to be married, and his concerned colleague, Tom Carey (Aidan Remond), who wants their company to do well. Meanwhile, the spirited Nan Bowers (Janie Brookshire) who broke James's heart--she's hardened for different reasons. A widow with a baby has no time to mourn her husband (Thomas Matthew Kelley) nor the ability to deal with untoward men like Bill McGafferty (Jeremy S. Holm). Such material may have hit a too-familiar nerve back then; it is now yet another polished gem for the Mint Theater to display.

Make no mistake, however: that "gem" has been polished by the hard-working cast, specifically Brookshire, who delivers volumes of information simply by the difference in how she sits. In Act I, she cuts right through Bill's braggadocio as she stretches out on the center of a bench, taking up every breath of air in the room with her nonchalance (which extends to her untied shoes). "Am I being asked to make more room?" asks Bill. "You're being asked nothing," she replies, and it's the lightest demand you'll ever hear. In Act II, she's all but swallowed up by an office chair as she waits to beg Whelan for work, diminished by her shrouds, and pulled into herself. Things grow worse for her after Whelan catches her stealing from him: he can't bring himself to forgive her a second time--for again disappointing his unreasonable expectations for her--and he sends her to prison, unwilling to be swayed by her heartbreakingly simple plea: "The child, Mr. Whelan...." By Act III, she's now literally stooped, reduced to scrubbing floors--but even when she stands, her eyes bend to the floor, her steps are dead things where once they had spring.

Jonathan Bank works wonders with realism, so much that his direction uses the dramatically bland portions of the play to sharpen the better-written scenes. (Just look at how he uses that plain wood, brick, and stone set of Vicki R. Davis's to such transporting effect.) On her own, Nora Keane (Liv Rooth) is a cloying suitor, able to lend only her stature to Whelan's life. But as contrast for Nan, or as a physical example of what spinster Kate's suggestions for a plain, respectably married life entail, they work wonders. Apollo's comic attitude is at odds with Whelan's attitude, but that aimless writing makes for a lovely mirror; look how much Whelan has unfortunately grown up. The one exception is the quickly resolved ending, which begs for an Act IV. Then again, given how well Deevy and the Mint have sketched out these lives, we might just as easily imagine it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

FRINGE: The Great Galvani

The Great Galvani promises "the highest of high-quality acts," so it opens with the Bearded Lady (Kevlyn Hayes) and her ruminations on appearance, then shifts to Galvani (H. B. Ward), who proceeds to conjure up some high-quality feces (out of his ass, naturally). It's a giant misdirect, as is the way he summons P. T. Barnum into his own body for a monologue, and if the show were longer than a half-hour, the clever philosophical "edutainment" that writer/director Shawn Reddy sneaks in under that hammy cover might really pack a punch. (This show is only part of a quartet on "the intricacies of self-torture.") Even still, it calls to mind the rich minimalism of Will Eno's Thom Pain, what with the wry romanticism, the unavoidable habit to "love what will not last." Galvani's father issues and memories of biological experiments on frogs mix neatly together, and they're as much about nothing as they are about everything. More simply put: "Everything is monumental," he says, having just set up a little parable about the banning of pitchfork rebellions today leading to the wiretapping of tomorrow. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Hocus schmocus" and 5 being "Mind-boggling good," The Great Galvani gets a 3.5.

short-a-day: dagoberto gilb's "please, thank you"

originally published in harpers, june 2010. personal enjoyment rating out of 100: 99.

stunt writing can be a dangerous thing. drop down to short declarative sentences and strip out everything but full-stop punctuation and commas and you had better have something to back your writing up. especially since it will be harder to read. but what if the narrator is a stroke-victim who is having difficulty communicating and is at first tragically unaware of that fact?

if i tried to say something, they started asking the same questions. what is your name? what is the date? where were you born? like that. or sometimes, como te llamas? que es la fecha de hoy? like im from mexico and just crossed, not american like them. im from here! ill bet my familys been here longer than yours! i was semper fi, cabron, and then i was an ironworker for ten years, were you? always, always has made me so mad, even if i dont say it out loud to these people here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Short-a-Day: Leigh Gallagher's "The Drought"

Originally published in American Short Fiction, Winter 2009. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 75.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, from the narrative--a widow makes a rambling confession to her dead husband ("Do you remember, Paul, five months ago?")--to the profession--that of a veterinarian's euthanizing assistant--to the situations, which include a hopeful seance. But how important is any of this, considering how inward and reflective the story is? Isn't it too much to conjure up a drought just to make a point about the narrator's sexual abstinence? Are we reading because we admire the writing or because we admire the story? "I arrive for dinner alone, now, and late, to sit at their round table, to stare at my reflection in the laminated wood and sip the cheap bourbon Mark pours for me and scratch my back repeatedly through the afghan Francine has recently crocheted and set around my bare shoulders, as if my grief makes me cold." It's all trying too hard to mean something.

FRINGE: Alternative Methods

Dear Patricia Davis: Please take your lecture off its high horse. Rather than investigate the role American psychologists have played in the torture of "suspected terrorists," consider the role American playwrights have played in making ticking-time-bomb scenarios, like the one you employ in Alternative Methods, so tedious. We don't need black-and-white characters like the rule-breaking private contractor Mike Flemming (Charlie Kevin) and his yes-man doctor, Robert Wolf (John Greenleaf), showing us what not to do. We need characters with some real intelligence and depth--Alok Tewari's performance as the accused Dr. Al-Badrani is so flat and stereotypical that it makes one want to waterboard him. There's a spark of a back-story given to rookie psychologist Susan Fulton (Julie Kline), enough to explain why she bonds with Al-Badrani and tries to subvert military conduct to free him, but that sort of illogical idealism belongs in Hollywood, which is fake enough to handle such things. On the other hand, Josh Liveright's direction is nice--particularly his transitions, and the way they employ Alex Koch's video design, which never lets us forget the time. Paul Smithyman and Elyse Handelman also deliver: their rotating interrogation room of a set allows us to watch through both sides of a "one-way" mirror, and though the reaction shots are generally hammy, they at least hint at something more. That's the real disappointment: that Alternative Methods only provides more of the same. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Jack Bauer yelling" and 5 being "Jack Bauer yelling, but in a way that is somehow more convincing," Alternative Methods gets a 1.5.

FRINGE: Art of Attack

Of the many chess metaphors that overstuff Asa Merritt's Art of Attack, the big one comes down to whether or not the eight-by-eight board contains an infinite amount of space--as estranged brothers Kaz (Patrick Barrett) and Sergei (Jared Houseman) believe--or if it's just a small board, too small to throw one's life away on, which is the stance of Kaz's girlfriend Rose (Cordelia Istel). For the somewhat tedious first hour, it's both: there's an almost inexhaustible number of clever gambits, but they're all used for the exact same goal. Kaz, who was blinded in an accident, needs his brother to help him train for a tournament; Sergei, who realized he was as addicted to the game as their dead grandmaster of a father, hasn't touched a board in years--it's a stalemate. At last, however, the two set their arguments aside and actually play chess, adding color commentary and letting out all the nuances they (and director Joshua Kahan Brody) have been bottling up. It makes all the difference in the world: if the first half of the play is reading up on intellectual strategy, the second half is all about putting things into practice. It almost holds up, too--but Merritt overcommits to a second climax. The final scenes are not just confusing, with sexual tension added between Rose and Sergei and Rose going somewhat insane, but undercut the previous ones: it's the equivalent of continuing to play after losing one's king. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Stalemate" and 5 being "Checkmate," Art of Attack gets a 3.5.

Friday, August 20, 2010

FRINGE: Evan O'Television in Double Negatives

If you've watched Louie on FX, then you've seen the pinnacle of the comedy-as-therapy genre, in which laughter--especially at metacomedic tricks--serves as a sort of exorcism of whatever ails you. In the opening act of Evan O'Television in Double Negatives, "Seamus" makes it clear that that's what he and his brother (both are played by Evan O'Sullivan) are about, and his following monologue comes across as a free-associative rant against his literally incomprehensible mother. ("9/11 Truth orgy? Please tell me you mean .org.") The main act makes this even clearer: Evan spends the next fifty minutes talking to a pre-recorded version of himself. (He calls this "conceptual comedy," joking that if they called it performance art, nobody would come.) When they're in sync--or deliberately out of it, as with one gag--the performance is delightful: it's self-self-deprecating humor. (Consider one skit in which the televised Evan plays a therapist who is attempting to treat the live Evan's psychotic habit of "talking to himself.") Entertaining as this "renowned one-man duo" is at first (O'Sullivan's mirthful similarity to Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet doesn't hurt), the gimmick exhausts itself after a half-hour. It doesn't help that "both" actors are the straight man and that the live Evan often has to mumble extra text to stay on cue--the show needs some fine tuning (pardon the pun). Still, it's an original thought, a brave performance, and a moderately funny show--it's certainly worth checking out. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Canned laughter" and 5 being "Syndication, here we come," Double Negatives gets a 3.

Short-a-Day: Nam Le's "Cartagena"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

A flawless, tense story about a fourteen-year-old and his "respectable" "office job" as a sicario, i.e., a hitman. Le is very careful about the order in which he reveals information, and even when he does, we still often forget that Juan, our narrator, is so young, given the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him and his gallada (posse). At the opening, we are introduced to Luis, who is now leading the gang; Claudia, the oldest, but also a woman; Edwardo, the dumb shit-stepping muscle; and little Pedro, "who walks behind the group with his hands in his torn pant pockets in order to fondle his testicles. It is not even funny any more." There is just enough humor to make us actually mourn Juan's remembrance of other comrades, which are presented as matter-of-fact events, like: "Carlos was shot in the throat outside the Parque del Poblado: it was night and he was selling basuco to the crackheads when the rich kids came in their yellow Jeep and cleansed him." There is plenty of disassociation going on in this story, and Le's greatest strength is in looping us in despite and because of that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

FRINGE: The Conveniences of Modern Living

Love is a matter of "spontaneiality," according to one of the charming characters in The Conveniences of Modern Living; when Daniel John Kelley and Emily Plumb are at their best, they manage to conjure up a lovely mix of spontaneous reality. Best not to dwell on the talking Dryer (Jessica Love)--it's enough that an innocent face simply peers out of that door with fabric softener sheets crinkled through her hair and a long slinky-pipe of an arm. And such imagery fits perfectly with the precocious poetry of ten-year-old Bobson (Zack Palomo), who is falling for his babysitter, Agnes (Maya Baldwin)--and not just in their make-believe games. It also saves Agnes's husband, Harold (Rory Sheridan), from having to explain exactly what he's doing on those late nights with the Dryer. The less it's acknowledged, the easier it is to accept that--following the loss of their child--this is just how things are. But as the play continues, it becomes self-aware of its absurdity, veering into a farcical and campy dinner scene with Bobson's horrible parents--the selfish and sniping Bettina (Tavia Trepte) and the drugged-out and arrogant Bernard (David Ian Lee)--and runs out of things to say. Instead, it spins a bunch of hot air around and around, attempting to steal gravity from Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" and losing the unique charm of its own childishly romantic fantasy: "I would sit forever in the principal's office of your heart." On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Totally on the fritz" and 5 being "A real life-saver," The Conveniences of Modern Living gets a 3.

Short-a-Day: Richard Bausch's "The Fireman's Wife"

From The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 98.

Perhaps there's a little bit too much written about the peripheral characters in Bausch's story, perhaps the pacing feels a little too neat, a little too tended, but in the end, it's hard to complain about a single element of the story, especially given this: "Everything seems to stand for the kind of life she wants for herself: an attentive, loving husband; children; and a quiet house with a clock that chimes." Jane, Martin the fireman's wife, really is that observant--she's raking in the details of what she wants, filing it all away for the day at which she'll leave her husband. And all the while, she's unable to see what really is going on, beyond the mere data that open the story ("Among the arguments between Jane and her husband--about money, lack of time alone together, and housework--there have been some about the model planes"); that's why the tale arcs perfectly back to those model planes: "She picks one of them up and turns it in the light, trying to understand what he might see in it that could require such time and attention. She wants to understand him." 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

FRINGE: A Matter of Choice

[Reviewed for Time Out New York's Fringe Binge]

FRINGE: Cats Don't Grin

[Reviewed for Time Out New York's Fringe Binge]

Short-a-Day: Anne-E Wood's "Song of Winter"

Originally published in Two If By Sea (2006). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

Writing in a first-person child's voice isn't easy, but Wood nails it, sticking with short, declarative sentences and subbing in whimsical descriptions: "My mother had a weeping-bathing habit" or "He was not a crier like my mother. He was a sitter-smoker." The simplicity of the presentation belies the complexity of what's going on--or maybe speaks truth to how simple our relationships really are, when you boil away the pomp and circumstance that we adults make out of it. After all, what could be more innocently clearer than this: "Gino Ronconni was my father and he lost his job when I was thirteen. He did not look for a new one." Still, though the voice--and the dialogue that accompanies it--works, the story itself doesn't quite hold up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

FRINGE: Two Sizes Too Small

Jessica Kane has a great idea for a short story, but she can't write dialogue. So why oh why has she directed Two Sizes Too Small as a radio play? It's ironic that things start with Paul (John Wernke) trying to squeeze his feet into all of the shoes in his house--for Kane shoehorns in many unneeded effects, from Scott Paulson's barely-there Foley effects to Joe McGinty's character themes (for piano), which overscore an already overwritten script. The meat of the story remains the undiagnosable shrinkage of everything around Paul, and how others react to this--and there is something both creepy and charming about the way in which "normal" takes on a new meaning as his mother (Lorraine Serabian) and girlfriend (Minna Taylor, who tries her best) go about painting new clothes onto his body. It's harder to understand the inclusion of a rather flat-footed Eric Purcell as a quack doctor--save that Kane wants the mother to have a wacky love interest. It's also unclear why Paul's irrelevant co-worker Larry (Scott Janes) didn't wind up on the cutting floor. The fumbling performances--unforgivable, considering they've got scripts in front of them--aren't the biggest problem, though, nor is the smallness of their characters. Instead, it's the pedantic dialogue, which relies on the pejorative "Jesus!" to save them from all of their problems. Characters resort to summarizing their action--there's already a narrator for that (Michael Douglass)--and go about explaining their feelings, which makes the play drag, instead of sprinting with the urgency it pretends to have. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Watch out for tetanus," and 5 being "Usain Bolt can't touch this," Two Sizes Too Small gets a 1.5.

Short-a-Day: Andrey Platonov's "The Macedonian Officer"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 76.

Context is key; as the translators of Andrey Platonov (1899-1951) point out, although this short story (excerpted from an unfinished novel) is written about a Macedonian officer who is spying on a Central Asian kingdom, it's really a satire of the Russian regime. Moreover, the theme of the Focus: Russia section, in which this story appears, is "Reinventing Reality," and Natasha Randall is wise to include this story, which emphasizes not just the ability of fiction to help us see, but the urgent need--under some oppressive regimes--to be able to write several layers deep, putting the truth out in plain sight for those who are not too deluded to see it. That said, Platonov's story suffers from its incompleteness, but holds up as a series of wry observations--pointlessness is the point, so then the story can get away one-off lines, especially when they're as well put as this: "Nature had been deliberately torn out around the palace, so there would be a show of empty visibility."

Monday, August 16, 2010

FRINGE: Trick Boxing

Trick Boxing is exactly what you'd expect of a show that's been touring for the last eight years: a tight, original, charming two-hander. Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan's writing isn't quite up to the standard of Ben Hecht (The Front Page), but the rapid-fire patter is; if nothing else, Sostek should find steady work as a voice-actor. Only the dance sequences feel as if they're holding something back, though perhaps that's just because Sostek needs to breathe before pivoting back into his multiple levels of narration. One minute, he's breaking the basics of boxing down to us as Bill Buck, a trainer; the next, he's the hunchbacked ex-fighter Tommy, who is wheezing fight-fixing threats down Bill's back; moments later, here's the just-off-the-boat apple-seller who Bill's pinned his hopes on, the newly christened Dancin' Danny David, who swing-dances his way around every punch in the book. As our hero steps into the ring, Sostek becomes the announcer, using hand-puppets to show us Dancin' David's improbable matches (each more hysterical than the last); stepping out of the ring, he's being trained in the art of romance by Bella, a good ol' dame. There's a lot packed into the show--and the show consequently packs a punch; it's a winningly screwball, perfectly pugilistic performance. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A below-the-belt disqualification" and 5 being "A new world champion," Trick Boxing gets a 4.5.

Short-a-Day: Daniel Alarcón's "Second Lives"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 16 & 23, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 97.

Now this is what fiction's all about: showcasing different perspectives. Alarcón's hit upon a perfect example, too: two brothers, arbitrarily born eight years apart, one in America, one in a Spanish-speaking Third World country (itself never specifically named): "My parents set about trying to make babies: on spring nights, when they made the room smell of earth, summer nights, when the city felt like a swamp, autumn nights, falling asleep on top of the covers, winter nights, when the room boiled with sex." When Francisco leaves, the dream is that he will obtain a visa for his younger brother, but it soon becomes clear from his fewer-and-fartherer-between letters home that this is just a dream, and in fact, the future narration of his younger brother, Nelson, clarifies this: "Eventually, I got my Third World passport, the color of spilled red wine, but it was just for show. I still haven't had the chance to use it." 

FRINGE: My Name Is Ruth

The Book of Ruth is a dramatically inert part of the Old Testament, and though Stephen W. Baldwin's My Name Is Ruth drags it into the '50s, he hasn't found a way to expand or enrich the material. In fact, he's minimized it, paring the story down to two actors, Ruth (Magdalyn Donnelly) and the various men in her life (Jeffrey D. Querin), a convention filled with aimless monologues to invisible people. He's also wasted the talents of his design team--Barb Scott's only able to show off two of her cute costumes, and Pamela Querin has but one set with which to sell the department-store glamor (she does). Given the plodding pace, Baldwin's would-be quaint dialogue quickly sours. Ruth is a folksy woman, and Donnelly's a delight in that capacity--she all but redeems the phrase "You bet'cha" and sells lines like "Jeepers, if it were a man, I'd marry it"--but that's all she is. There isn't an ounce of depth; this play cries out for a stronger woman (think Mad Men's Peggy). This is doubly true given the milquetoast performance from Querin, who equates nervousness with a squeaky voice and thinks he can be a villain simply by sneering. The inevitable showdown between Querin's "good" and "bad" guy roles--Boaz and KR--isn't just anticlimactic, it's tedious. There's either enough material in the show to fill forty minutes, or room to flesh out the story so it's not stuck on a one-note romance (that currently lacks chemistry): either way, this concept needs a lot more work. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A time best forgotten" and 5 being "The golden age of theater," My Name Is Ruth gets a 2.5.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Short-a-Day: Maile Chapman's "Bit Forgive"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 45.

I like lyric magical realism, but for that reason, I am perhaps overly critical of the liberties it takes with its foundations. The grounding Chapman gives for his story is in the icily friendly rivalry between two Finlanders, Bennet and his friend Niklas, over the flirtatious Ninne. Right off the bat, he excuses himself: "This morning I received a letter ostensibly from my friend Niklas Nummelin, fifteen years almost to the day since the accidental sinking of his ship and his presumed death by drowning...." Disclaimers like "ostensibly" and "presumed" allow for the following structure, in which Bennet reads more of Niklas's letter, then responds to it. By the end, we are led to believe that a suicidal Ninne is the one who has written this letter, what with the anniversary of the Bit Forgive's sinking right around the corner. This is a good choice, but the steady revelations of their shared past are far from absorbing, and Ninne remains too much of a cipher for us to understand her mourning for the dead man (nor "his" for her).

FRINGE: Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!

In adapting Seijun Suzuki's surreal 1967 B-movie "yakuza noir" Branded to Kill, Patrick Harrison--who also directs and stars--has run with fundamental principle of Suzuki's: "There is no film grammar." This freedom from rules makes for a liberating show--and one becomes so immersed in the madcap presentation that it takes a while to realize that his company, Depth Charge, actually has a lot of structure behind their work. (It's almost disappointing to learn that this group has ties to Richard Foreman and John Zorn's Astronome.) Adam Scott Mazer's fight scenes are deliriously entertaining, and he makes the most of the way these ranked assassins run around shooting each other with cocked fingers, yelling the word "bang." Dave Harrington's live music--whether it's a schizoid remix of sampled sounds, a battering of cymbals, or the seductive plucking of a giant cello--adds to the immediacy of the atmosphere. And there's always something new: a pas de deux between a puppet bullet and butterfly as they arc in lazy circles; a slapstick sequence in which characters flee a floating cross-hair. The show is disturbingly erotic, too: Hanada (Harrison) has a boiled-rice fetish, and we see his wife, Mami (Alexandra Hellquist), tease him into violence with it; later, it will spill in slow motion out of the lips of his new lover, Misako (Margaret Odette Perkins). Don't dismiss this as pure imagery: when Mami mounts Hanada, wearing a butterfly mask and silhouetted in red light, the emotions are raw and very real. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Dis-u-grace-u-ful" and 5 being "The #1 killer," Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill! gets a 4.5.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Short-a-Day: John Berger's "A Brush"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, September 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 0.

This loose encounter doesn't feel like a story; at best, it's an overwrought impression. "I want to tell you the story of how I gave away this Sho Japanese brush," Berger begins, and already the story is cluttered--why the need to clarify that this is a Japanese brush? Surely his audience realizes this; if not, why bother with the Sho? In any case, that opening doesn't have nearly enough weight--and no momentum--to carry the next dozen paragraphs, which describe the brush and then the environment: "The setting for the story was a municipal swimming pool in a popular, not chic, Paris suburb, where, from time to time, I was something of a habitue." It's precise to the point that it veers toward technical writing, and Berger's asides don't help matters: do we really care about the bureaucratic syntax of the notices on the walls? Does context like this--"Around 1945 Fernand Leger painted a series of canvasses about plongeurs--divers in a swimming pool"--help the story, or does it pull us back? For me, a sentence like this pulls me out of the fiction: "The Chinese master Qi Basishi (1863-1957) loved drawing frogs, and he made the tops of their heads very black, as if they were wearing bathing caps." 

FRINGE: Bagabones

Bagacrap. Sorry, that's unduly harsh--Jonathan Nosan's Bagabones is mainly suffering from false advertising. If you omit the charming part, then yes, the first twenty minutes are indeed a "contortionist's charming nightmare," but the next twenty are given over to a static, pseudoscientific lecture--in Japanese, with blurry translations in English, Sanskrit, and French scrolling beneath him. Perhaps you're into that; just know that while he's being metaphoric in his references to "primal spaces," he's being literal when he says there's an "ultimately smashing end" to his show (he breaks a piece of pottery). It's embarrassing--for him--how seriously he takes this "artistic expression": he arrogantly takes his curtain call in slow motion. Despite the artful opening, in which Nosan paces the walls and ceilings of his rotating-cube set, there are no Inception-like layers to back up that empty effect; instead, it turns to cheap magic tricks (three-ball juggling). Cirque du Soleil this is not. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Just break my bones" and 5 being "Bending it better than Beckham," Bagabones gets a 0.

Friday, August 13, 2010

FRINGE: Love in the Time of Swine Flu

A title like Love in the Time of Swine Flu promises a series of themed, tightened skits. Instead, while the show has some recurring moments (an unfortunate series of parlor games a fiancee plays with his soon-to-be-parents-in-law), the ensemble Stupid Time Machine keeps it way too loose: it's obvious they've just thrown everything at the wall. On the plus side, one-note stuff (like new airport security measures that inevitably resemble grinding at a rave) remains mercifully brief; on the negative side, just as the show gets rolling (a vampire has performance anxiety and has to teethsturbate as his victim talks dirty about her veins), it cuts to something else. Jokes about making a Berenstain Bears porn (this may have beat them to the punch) repeat themselves too often to be funny. Even well-acted skits--like one in which Obama tries to explain clean energy to his hapless Senate--run into the ground, from highs (the Texan wants to know how much oil it'll take to run a windmill) to lows (the deficit is a six-eyed monster lurking beneath the sea). The highlight of the show comes from a series of mash-up movie trailers which include things like The Hangover-meets-1776, a romantic comedy set at the start of World War I (starring Matthew McConaughey as Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and a wonderfully offensive mumblecore version of The Diary of Anne Frank. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Do not resuscitate" and 5 being "Infectiously good," Love in the Time of Swine Flu gets a 2.5.

Short-a-Day: Corinna Vallianatos's "A Civilizing Effect"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 57.

"You haven't had a civilizing effect on me," says the ex-husband of our fifty-five-year-old protagonist, Edith, and the theme of the story is in her response to that unfairness: "as if there existed in men a special, tangled kind of wilderness that women were bound to unknot." So it is that Edith finds herself with Pete, who does a weird sort of sleepwalking called "confusional arousal," and which--at its wildest, shirt-cutting moment--leads him to sink into a depression, an irritation that he cannot inhabit his own wildness. Between these two men, Edith also sees her daughter, Cassandra, and her premie granddaughter, Titan. (The names are terrific.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Princes of Darkness

Bill Connington has appropriated a lot of material for his one-man show, Princes of Darkness, but none of it's appropriate. There's nothing wrong with the dime-store-magic thrown away by Lucifer; no problem with having him break into a rendition of George Gershwin's "I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise"; no shame in having Hamlet, Oedipus, and Dracula put in appearances--even if that requires the use of voice-overs and direct quotes from their source material. Or at least, it would be fine if these parlor vignettes and shreds of characterization went somewhere.

Instead, Princes of Darkness is filled with misguided interruptions-- there's no momentum, no action, and no interest. In fact, Connington spends more time adding eyeliner and swapping cloaks than he does actually inhabiting these famous characters--a surprise, given his performance in last year's Zombie. As Connington-as-Lucifer-speaking-about-Hamlet puts it, in his most eloquent moment (and that's not saying much): "What is this meaningless procession of empty activities that we call our lives? Wake. Eat. Work. Sleep. Then wake--and it starts all over again. what does it mean? Nothing. Nothing at all."

The play succeeds as a call to action, but not the political sort that Connington hints at when he shouts that we would do a better job of ruling this corrupt world than these shallow men and this absent God. Instead, after sitting through pretentious renditions of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and the wan humor of Lucifer's phone conversations with an ex-girlfriend ("I'm dead... no, literally dead, so how can we have a relationship?"), the audience is eager to produce their own theater. After all, Satan, wouldn't anything be better than your version of theatrical hell?

Short-a-Day: Rick Bass's "The Hermit's Story" (2002)

From The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

Bass is one of those rich sense-memory authors, given extra leeway because of the landscape he describes here, an arctic, magically ice-blue Montana (and later, Canada). That said, his story is overwritten: it begins with a lengthy set of descriptions--"An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow, turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice..."--and an unneeded framing device in which "Susan and I are over at Ann and Roger's house for [Thanksgiving] dinner." (Of what relevance, really, is it that Roger does not now how to read?) He'd lose nothing by simply beginning with this: "Ann has a story for us. It's about a fellow named Gray Owl, up in Canada, who owned half a dozen speckled German shorthaired pointers and who hired Ann to train them all at once." 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Short-a-Day: David Mitchell's "Acknowledgments"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

Is there anything that David Mitchell's not good at? This excellent story features a delusional narrator, Clive Pike, who is sketching out the acknowledgments page of his soon-to-be-published Book on Psychomigration, now that he's put it into practice, having just transferred the mind of his mental collaborator and hospice-ridden ex-headmaster Bernard Kelvin Nixon into his own. Mitchell sells it, as in Ghostwritten, by dedicated himself truly to Pike's well-intentioned belief, all the while allowing us to figure out what's actually going on. For one, his book isn't being published--Timothy Cavendish, who asked for a $5,000 "production fee" is obviously a scam artist, and the lawyer Mr. Davis, who has served Pike divorce papers, describes him as "a moneygrabber with a history of conning the vulnerable." Moreover, his notes are being written while hiding from the police in a barn, and he believes the cows mocking him with limericks regarding the sudden silence of Nixon. Worst of all, he's escaped a mental hospital and subsequently murdered a dying man. It's a neat twist on the strictly unreliable narrator, and the eerie plausibility of the structure--and variety of its acknowledgments--neatly hooks the reader into reading on.

TV: Weeds

Just to be clear, no matter how bad Weeds gets, if Mary-Louise Parker is in it, I'll watch it. That said, the new season--what little of it I've seen--looks like a return to old-school Weeds... but with characters who have long since (over five years) moved on in complexity; in other words, the writers are even more all over the place than before, and they need to get it together. Read the whole review over at Slant.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Short-a-Day: Yoko Ogawa's "Backstroke"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 77.

If you take your time and build up slowly enough, you can get a reader to buy anything. Ogawa begins by having her protagonist announce a special affinity for pools, promising that we'll soon find out why: "I'm aware that scrutinizing the pool doesn't serve any purpose, but I just can't help myself. No matter where I am, a pool becomes a special site for me." Soon after, she finds an incongruous pool located in the ruins of a Nazi concentration camp, and promises further revelations with this: "It was the most tragic-looking pool I'd ever seen. And it was also the most similar to the pool we once had in our own backyard." Those are high stakes, and the story doesn't disappoint--mainly because it veers off in an unexpected direction.

Monday, August 09, 2010


For her latest play, Wolves, Delaney Britt Brewer is pulling a light Pinter, dealing with the vastness of what's left unsaid, only without the viciousness. But her abortive sentences, absences in time, and subtlety of character require a steadiness of vision that she's not quite up to, and which her long-time director Mike Klar has made even trickier with an awful staging-in-the-round and a meaningless distraction of a set. (Maruti Evans has built a giant tree-trunk that hovers ominously over the stage.) Given the scarcity of information across this triptych of plays--and the weight of each bit--we can't afford to be puzzled even for a second, and yet the show is far too loosely staged to have much of an impact, let alone a sense of connectivity.

On its own, "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," holds up the best: it's the longest, and it gives Brewer the space she needs to develop the relationship between Caleb (Josh Tyson) and his girlfriend Kay (Elizabeth A. Davis). He's clingy, an undefined character with no friends, activities, or goals outside of his dedication to Kay, which is unfortunate since Kay has felt smothered for the last three years (she has "a look like someone is forcing her to breathe"), and is dying for Caleb to take action and assert himself as a man--specifically the independent jock she fell for in the first place. In a series of flashes between present and past, this tenuous relation is tested, first at a New Year's Eve party--where Caleb winds up on Ecstasy, flirting with the young Jenny (an outstandingly open Megan Tusing)--and again in the middle of the woods, after Caleb runs over a wolf and Kay demands that he put the poor animal out of his misery with a shovel. It's not perfect--Kay rather abruptly admits to a friend, Roslyn (Sarah Baskin), that she had a secret abortion, and it's never clear why they're so stuck together--but the play has legs.

"Crying Wolf," however, feels like an amputee, and "A Wolf at the Door" is a quadriplegic short. Brewer's intent is far less clear in these latter pieces, and they come across in scatter-shot fashion. In the former, Julie (Megan Hart) and her increasingly drunk brother, Elliot (Doug Roland), have come to a beach, at midnight, to scatter their mother's ashes--except that that's not what the play's about. Instead, Elliot lightly mocks Julie's sexuality (she's a lesbian) by calling her "dude," and shares the poem he's written for a girl at school (awkwardly beautiful moments like these call to mind Brewer's An Octopus Love Story and show her potential). And the play's not about that, either: Elliot goes off to get more beer, and Julie has a long conversation with her ex, Sasha (a vivid Julie Fitzpatrick), before Sasha reminds her "You know I'm not real," which leads Julie to confess to her brother: "I think I'm. Having a nervous breakdown."

As for "A Wolf at the Door," well, it turns out that Caleb and Sasha hooked up and had a kid named Wolf (Vikki Vasiliki Eugenis), which makes sense only in that it links the three plays (and their title) together. It's a shame, because Brewer's narrative is striking: Wolf reads letters written by Caleb and Sasha that show the widening gulf between them. However, it doesn't work on stage, especially since Wolf merely reads the letters, never showing a reaction. Klar works hard to fix this: he has the adults spin Wolf around (she is sitting on a dollhouse) as if she's a toy to them, and he floods the stage with crumpled letters, letters that profess love without ever meaning it. (This is a nice echo of "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing": "I love you is just the paint on the walls.") But even when the adults speak, the format leaves them distant, which only emphasizes the artifice of this play, and, through that, of Wolves. It's a game between the playwright and director: the audience spins in the middle, trying to sort through the nonsense for Brewer's original wit, only to end up frustrated by how often she cries wolf.

Short-a-Day: Masaya Nakahara's "Bloody Self-Portrait of a Beast"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 5.

"I never had anything I wanted to say to begin with and I'm completely uninterested in what I'm writing about," says Nakahara in the odd one-page interview with translator Justin Simon that precedes his very short story. Odd, then, that "Beast" seems to have a lot to say, sprawling out from the unexplained rivalry between "veteran actress Nobuko Yamamoto" and her "childhood friend Yoko Yoshida" to Yamamoto's appearance on a television show that's "for frank discussion between older people and younger people." She's there to discuss her play, which she wrote based on Yoshida's "beloved nephew Yoji" as a "song of encouragement," a paean to the dreams of a younger generation: "In her heart Nobuko prayed the word would become a place where all young people could live as they pleased, just like these little birds."

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Short-a-Day: Kazushige Abe's "The Maiden in the Manger"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 41.

Something feels lost in translation. Here's the theme, nested in the description for the rare 1989 Tingly Blowfish toy that (ironically) the all-business Thomas Iguchi has gone so far out of his way to acquire:

"The '89 model transcends its age because, and this is really the nub--in actual usage situations, its imperfect, half-baked vibrations, just enough out of joint that one is able to sense a certain crudity in its movements, communicate more authority, and when that feeling is combined with the pressure provided by the attached hand pump . . . the most accomplished virtuoso can't help being led into a flight of ecstasy so intense he can hardly keep his wits about him, into an almost frightening state of rapture."
But the story ends just before that frightening rapture, and the imperfections--the flaws in Iguchi's plan--don't actually enhance the authority or marvel of the story.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Short-a-Day: Tim O'Sullivan's "Family Friend"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 81.

"You haven't been invited inside that house for three years because Sarah--and she mentions this often to Edgar--doesn't like the way you look at their girls." That's one of the cleanest and most interesting openings to a story that I've heard in some time, and O'Sullivan's narrative tact succeeds in creating sympathy for this devil, a lonely man who prefers porn to contact (cutting to the chase, as he puts it) but isn't quite a pedophile, isn't really that bad. He just doesn't know an appropriate way to be a part of a relationship or a family, now that he's no longer coaching a little-league team, now that he goes around scaring boys off his property with an M989 Blinder, "a device designed for use by S.W.A.T. team soldiers to shine from the ends of their gun barrels and dangerous people." And his inner voice, which talks to him throughout this story, won't let him forget that: "Why do such things?" it asks. "You must stop staring," it tells him. "Do you care to explain yourself, Oscar?" it says, knowing as well as anyone else that he can't explain his own impulses. No story truly can: it can simply do its best to present them for interpretation; any idea--as you may have learned from Inception--has to come from within. A story can only plant seeds.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Short-a-Day: John Haskell's "Galileo"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 10.

So, uh, we should probably address what makes a story a story. A Public Space enjoys pushing that boundary, and props to them for that; just yesterday we talked about Barthelme, who is not always as tame as in that "Paul Klee" story. But I didn't feel as if I grew any closer to understanding the actor Charles Laughton or the playwright Bertolt Brecht as they, in 1947, translated and prepared the second American version of his play; instead, I felt informed as to the plot of Galileo and the nature of their collaboration and translation of the work, with a few parallels thrown in, specifically the way in which Galileo recants, disappointing his student (slash "son"), just as Brecht deals with his tantrum-tending "son," Laughton. Oh, and something about the true nature of heroics, with Brecht not standing up to HUAC about the content of his oeuvre, just as Galileo folds to the Church, fearing the pain of torture, yet still smuggles out his scientific defense, the Discorsi.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Short-a-Day: Donald Barthelme's "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916"

From Sadness, published 1972. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

Barthelme is always a breath of fresh air; watch him as he deals with simple ideas in simple ways, all while emphasizing the ridiculous complexity others put on it. In this story, monologues alternate between painter Paul Klee and his country's Secret Police as he transports an aircraft through Hohenbudberg and copes with its disappearance. The story winds up being about two things: war in practical terms and, more deeply, the existence of God. As Klee puts it, ending the story: "I am sorry about the lost aircraft but not overmuch. The war is temporary. But drawings and chocolate go on forever." As the Secret Police put it, standing in for God: "The pleasure of the comradely/brotherly embrace is one of the pleasures we are denied, in our dismal service." In other words, they exist by not existing, for the moment they are known--called upon to actually perform--then there may be a crack in the perfectly hidden surface of their omnipotence. To do all this in a story that consists only of dialogue--often repetitive and perfectly mundane at that--is a mark of a true fiction writer, one who has cut away unnecessary descriptions and used only that which truly enhances our deeper understanding of the characters.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Short-a-Day: David Bezmozgis's "The Train of Their Departure"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 9, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 98.

Bezmozgis has great pacing, from the mysteries of the opening ("Before the start of their affair, before he became her husband, before she knew anything about him") to a long flashback that explains not only the mechanics of her courtship ("He courted her with the measured discipline of a person climbing a long flight of stairs") but also her own complicity in them ("At the time, she had been incapable of acting differently"; "Because she didn't want to say no, she said yes"). He also manages a neat flip when he mirrors the first courtship with the second, this time from the dashing but similarly logical Alec's perspective. Though he gets a bit plot heavy toward the end, he remains romantic not just about these Chekhovian characters, but about his homeland, too. That's magical, and highly quotable, writing.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Short-a-Day: Peter Orner's "No Light"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 55.

Orner's going for mood in this microstory, using a mix of the second person and a more dramatic version of The Actor's Nightmare to put the reader into the story, as a man who has just awoken in the middle of Act II of Chekhov's Three Sisters, unsure of the character, the lines, and of himself. It's an effective use of second person, and the appropriation of Chekhov is fitting, especially in the juxtaposition between Vershinin's lines--whispered urgently from the wings--and the twin feelings of loss and need that we're meant to experience. "She retreats from you, crosses slowly to the other side of the stage, and somehow the distance her steps create is the saddest thing you've ever watched. Who needs words when you can dig a hole like that simply by walking across a room?" 

Monday, August 02, 2010

Short-a-Day: Amanda Briggs's "The Landscape of Pleasure"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 35.

Such an old, old story, not just because it's a period piece--one that feels artificial, as if it were cribbed out of an episode of Mad Men--but because the tale of rich young girls who think they know it all and then find out, after losing their innocence, that they don't, well, that's tried and true. It hardly matters that Briggs makes the college-bound Diana a first-person narrator, and maintains that no innocence has been lost--that she's made the cool, calculated choices that she's seen reflected in her father's affairs and her mother's barbed tolerance of them. The story feels as lifeless as Diana's mantra: "I already knew when to say nothing and mean it."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Short-a-Day: Kelly Link's "Origin Story"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 65.

Ah, the whimsical Kelly Link. Very much a matter of personal taste, for her story is largely dialogue-based--a conversation between Bunnatine Powderfinger and the man she calls Biscuit--so there's not much past the novelty of their conversation, or the oddness of their world. The story is entertaining enough, but it feels empty, full of open-ended revelations that, because of the tone of the story, don't really affect the reader. For instance, it turns out that Bunnatine's had a daughter with Biscuit, and he doesn't know about her; also, she was raped by--and/or lost her virginity to--the creepy Robert Potter, referred to as her mother's arch-nemesis. The setting doesn't really hit home either: Link's description of a rundown funhouse-like Wizard of Oz exhibit and her casual mention of the mutants that dwell around it (to say nothing of all the stuffed-tight-wearing superheroes) works on a comic level, but it doesn't enhance the gist of the story--unrequited love?--whatever that may be. At best, it simply doesn't distract from it.