A Look at American Short Fiction Winter 2010/11 and Spring 2011

27 Jun

One of the magazines I read that is consistently excellent is American Short Fiction. Each issue presents such a fine selection of stories, always beautifully crafted, fresh, relevant.

In the Winter 2010/11 issue, “Four Calling Birds,” by Michael Martone is an exquisite set of four vignettes that deconstruct four different relationships in ways that are not only original but at the language level, these vignettes just blow me away. In the first one, “Veery,” a woman and a man are having phone sex when her daughter comes home from school. She orgasms as she runs to close her bedroom door.

“The next time they talked, she would tell him how intense it was to be moving through the spasm, all inertia, entropic, irresistible, spilling as she spilled toward the door, her momentum carrying herself and the door forward to a slamming slam he could hear clearly.”

The entire piece is filled with these elaborately constructed sentences that pull apart moments in really interesting ways.

Later, the narrator describes, with exacting detail, listening to the woman get dressed to greet her daughter.

“He listened for the zipper and heard it. Then the soft whisper as she rolled a T-shirt onto her arms, followed by that stopped-up, submerged sound as her hair, silk, slid through the abraded collar.”

In another vignette, a man and a woman are having an affair in a hotel but rather than focus on the banalities of such a circumstance, Martone once again turns to language to reveal the most interesting, uncomfortable moments between adulterers . As they engage in their affair, the unnamed couple steals moments from each other to call the spouses they’ve left behind.

“Fucking again, now, through the phone calls, silent, suppressed, turned inward, listening hard to the rasping in the ear, the receiver pressed hard against the head as if each of them, when it is their turn, hangs on to some handle of sanity, anchoring their consciousness while the body below is being dismembered piece by piece. It is a kind of sex toy, the telephone, vibrant but inert, innocuous, a chunk of putt-colored plastic molded to the ear, enzymatic magic, the fulcrum around which they turn, and turning, they both now want to say something, to speak, talk, to change the subject, bend it over something, move the conversation from the ear to the mouth, feeling the coming words come, emit the innocent protestations of longing, of feeling the distance and the night closing in, of missing you so much, of letting loose the shared formula of words…”

Every sentence in “Four Calling Birds,” is word sex–hot, messy word sex that you want to wrap your tongue and mind around.

I also loved Reese Okyong Kwon’s “The Circling Eagles, The Eager Fish,” about a man in a hospital who has been injured, listening to a child die, wryly judging how the parents of that child mourn the inevitable, revealing that he has suffered a loss of his own, but doing so without any pity for himself. The story is sharp and a fine example of what we’re always looking for–new ways of telling old stories. Everything about Kwon’s story is new.

In the Spring 2011 issue, every single story is a damn good read. In “Marie Tells All,” twin sisters go on a show where a fading rock star is looking for love. Yes, this is a story written exactly for someone like me. This story is about the falsity of “reality” television but it is so much more. The twin sisters, Teena and Marie, have a complex relationship, one sister, Marie, having just finished taking care of her dying father before agreeing to appear on the show with her sister who abandoned her father in his time of need. The writing appears effortless and the story plays beautifully against what we know about this kind of reality television without becoming a farce.

“Fancier,” by Michael Fauver tells the story of two theater owners, one married, the other in love with his competition. The story is strange but really gorgeous as we slowly begin to realize that the narrator might share the feelings he seems to rebuff. This is a story where the tension builds slowly and unexpectedly and the ending just breaks your heart as the narrator tries to hold on to something, the man he is losing.

“Then the spotlight, for a moment, illuminates stage center, and I see my hands sweating all over his hands, and I see a shape bulge through his trousers. This close, it seems enormous, but from the seats it would look small. And then the spotlight goes out, this time for good, and we are alone, he and I. An audience would see two men, one of them standing, one of them not, but they wouldn’t see the kneeling man touch the swollen shape. They wouldn’t know what he’s thinking. That the shape makes him feel insignificant.”

Shannon Cain’s “The Steam Room,” is my new favorite short story. This is an ever-changing accolade in my mental library, but I loved the hell out of this story about a mayor’s wife who is caught masturbating in the steam room of the local YMCA as she images Johnny Depp going down on her. There is, of course, an ensuing scandal but the protagonist, Helen, is so calm in the face of the scandal, so resolutely unashamed (as well she should be), that you can’t help but admire her. Toward the end of the story, she is preparing to be interviewed by a reporter who has just slept with her boss. The reporter is in the bathroom, lamenting that she went to Cornell and in that moment, wants nothing more than a shower. Helen offers the young woman a washcloth.

“When the reporter cracked open the door, Helen averted her eyes and slipped the cloth inside. She felt a firm, sisterly squeeze of appreciation on her fingers.”

The entire story is filled with those lovely moments and the ending, with Helen on a golf course with her daughter in a necessary, intimate embrace is one of the more satisfying endings I’ve come across in a short story as of late.

If you subscribe to one literary magazine (other thank PANK, obvi) I urge you to take a chance on American Short Fiction. The magazine will never disappoint you and the past two issues, in particular, really set a standard.

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