When you buy a journal, a magazine, an anthology, etc., you know that some stories will suck, and others will be priceless. But which ones are which? And is it worth the cost, in the end?
I bought Electric Literature No.2 for $9.95. It has five stories, so I was counting on each one to be worth $1.99. (EL is also available on Kindle and the iPhone for $4.95. And I should disclose that I’ve read slush for EL in the past.)
1. “The Comedian” by Colson Whitehead plows through the biography of a fictional stand-up comic as he passes from boyhood to international stardom to contemplative old age. I found this story oddly cold and detached. Whitehead racks up some astute philosophical observations about the unfunny life of a “funny man,” but the comedian—who doesn’t get a name—remains anonymous, with predictable crises of faith. Which is too bad. I normally swoon for Colson Whitehead.
2. Lydia Davis behaves very much like Lydia Davis in “The Cows,” a selection of remarks about three cows that graze outside the narrator’s window. In its precision, and in its admiration of physical forms and stasis, the story reminded me of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” But with cows. I think this one would have worked well in serial form on Twitter, like what EL did with Rick Moody.
3. I skipped “Three Girls” by Marisa Silver because it sounded, from the first paragraphs, like it would be dreadfully domestic, and the big payoff would be a teenage girl getting so worked up about her difficult family life that she (gasp!) grinds her teeth. But grinds them in a way that potentially explains all her psychological problems later in life. I’m probably a misogynist.
4. “The Slough” by Pasha Malla has two parts. The first part introduces a hapless man-boy protagonist, the kind who often stands in directly for a young male author. This guy is in a serious relationship with a breezy, intelligent woman who wants, quite literally, to shed her own skin. It’s a comedy. You’re trying, along with the narrator, to understand why his girlfriend wants to molt, and why she thinks it’s a perfectly natural thing for people to do. There is a magical element to the story that plays out in scenes where, for example, the narrator digs though a disorienting herbal shop in Chinatown, looking for an exotic skin cream that appears to be made of metal. His confusion is our confusion, and the perspective of the hapless man-boy turns out to be a brilliant way to demonstrate the out-of-body sensation of feeling anxious about changes in your lover’s anatomy. Cut to the second part, and the comedy ends. We’re following another young couple, with another protagonist who is anxious about changes in his lover’s anatomy, but this time the girl has cancer. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the two halves combine in a yin-yang of direct, emotional storytelling. This story made me go out and buy Pasha Malla’s collection, The Withdrawal Method.
5. A few months ago I was startled by how good a certain story in The New Yorker was. A good story in The New Yorker! Who’d have imagined? I felt like marking the calendar. It was called “Ziggurat” by Stephen O’Connor. And O’Connor’s got another one in Electric Literature No.2. It’s about a young woman who gets into a new relationship at a funeral, quits her job, retreats to a cabin in the woods to finish her dissertation, horses around with her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, and comes to fear that she’s being stalked by a crazy man beneath her rickety porch. It feels real. It’s intense. I don’t know what else to say. When can I read more?
So in the final tally, I paid $9.95, and it was worth $10.80.
(If I had used a Kindle or an iPhone, it would have been a steal.)
And that’s where my money goes.