Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Got the first issue of a new literary magazine in the mail a while ago. It's called ELECTRIC LITERATURE. This first issue contains five works of short fiction, some of which seem to be parts of novels.

The writers are all well established and I've read some of their work before (in mags like The New Yorker). But I have to admit, reading these five pieces in succession over a period of weeks, or more, made the strengths of each and the differences between them not only more obvious, but more of a pleasure to experience.

Jim Shepard's "Your fate Hurtles Down at You" definitely reads like part of a novel and almost an academic exercise. It's set in the Alps in 1939, but ignores the significance of that year, the beginning of WWII when Germany invaded Poland etc. to focus on a group of unlikely scientists studying snow layers for some innovative scientific discoveries about avalanches and other snow related realities that have until then been relatively ignored.

The implications of the story—which is studied, descriptively precise, slow moving (is it too obvious to say almost "glacial" or just too much of an exaggeration but one that's hard to avoid)—touch ever so indirectly on some of the issues of the time and the greater issues (death of the planet compared to totalitarian genocide etc.) but so indirectly, even discretely, it's like a class in the old "close reading" method and may, as was often the case with that technique, be unintentional anyway.

But, it turned out to be a good set up for the other four pieces in it's unique perspective and novel like feeling. The story is resolved at the end in a way that felt like I'd just read a novel and not a short story or part of a novel. Which made moving on to Diana Wagman's "Three-Legged Dog" more satisfying in a way. It's definitely a short story, and the old fashioned kind I like with an arc that ends with a resolution that leaves me feeling like I wasn't wasting my time investing in these characters.

Unfortunately, or not, depending on your taste, it's another one of those contemporary stories in which the protagonist turns out to be a loser in the usual ways, too focused on himself to appreciate someone else's perspective, especially the person he most treasures, and so he can't help... You get it, but it's done so well, it made me interested anyway, especially in how Wagman was going to pull off the reversal.

"The Time Machine" by T Cooper hits a lot of those same familiar notes—first person story told by a needy, insecure, jealous, lover who can't help destroying what he has. This story is also told not just in the usual first person monologue way but using lists and emails etc. But it's so well done, I ended it feeling like I'd just had a satisfying reading experience. And from a fiction writer whose work I've read in The New Yorker where the stories generally leave me cold at the end, wondering why I bothered, because there never seems to be any resolution or more importantly any good reason (literary, story-wise, reality check-wise, etc.) why they don't. But this one did, and though maybe predictable, and ultimately disappointing, as a little reading vacation from my own reality, it worked.

Michael Cunningham's piece from a novel, OLYMPIA, was equally satisfying as a short fiction experience. I would like to read more about these characters. But the piece here was complete as is and surprised me again with how satisfying the experience was (yes, that Michael Cunningham, THE HOURS, etc.). It gets at a sibling relationship from the perspective of the unfortunate one whose parents like the other best, ala the old Smothers Brother routine, but just like them, the less charismatic (supposedly) less physically charismatic at least, it's the narrator who is really the one who controls the situation and our reactions to it (i.e. can anyone remember the handsomer Smothers brother's name?).

But the big brother with all the natural gifts is in the end an entirely engaging and memorable character, even if we've seen versions of him many times before. I know I'll never forget him. How many fictional characters can we say that of? Well, a lot for some of us, but all for good reason.

If Cunningham's piece had been the last one in the magazine, as I expected it to be actually, the whole mag would have been admirable, but predictable to some extent. It's Lydia Millet's "Sir Henry" that was not just unexpectedly satisfying, but the most unique of the bunch for my taste. The story of a professional dog walker (in Manhattan, mainly Central Park) and what that professionalism entails that makes him one of the highest priced ones, ended up being fascinating, a total surprise to me.

If you'd asked (or described the subject matter to me) I'd have said I'll pass. But that's one of the great things about exposing yourself, or at least myself, to the arts however they happen to enter my life—whether with or without any effort on my part—I'm often surprised, and those surprises are often pleasant ones. The magazine has gotten some illustrators and animators to make little films based on one line from each of these stories and the first one is from Wagman's and can be checked out here.

The main editor is Andy Hunter and he's done a good job. Though the mag isn't great as a work of art in itself—as some books can be—the design, typeface, and the cover art isn't all that original or satisfying for my taste. But that said, it's still full of some pretty great prose that I'm glad I got to read and am thankful to Hunter and his staff for sending it to me to check out. You might want to check it out yourself.

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