Wednesday, June 9, 2010

You've Done Something Again, Adam Levin & McSweeney's Quarterly Concern

I won't say I plan to subscribe to McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. I won't go that far, but after reading back issues from 2005, 16 and 18 to be precise, I will say I'm now largely a fan. The big names (The New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, Granta, Ploughshares, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, etc.) naturally are subject to increased scrutiny and so also naturally you'll probably hear from one person or another how overrated they are. It comes with the territory of being on top, to be consistently hated, too.

Because of the New Yorker and McSweeney's (Granta, too, which I'll get to in a forthcoming post) -- and the various collections in The Best American series of short stories I've yet come across -- I'm pleased to say I think they're on top for a reason / I'm not a big time hater, although I don't think the bigs are beyond reproach by any stretch, either. McSweeney's has especially impressed me with the two issues I've read. I can't speak for their entire catalog (some issues I read up about online seem a little too experimental in terms of layout for my tastes), but I'd wager they consistently churn out one of the best products in the lit mag biz. And I'll look into further, you can be sure. Point is, I like what I'm seeing so far. OK.

I cite as the latest (in my own reading experience) evidence of this quality of content McSweeney's 16. Adam Levin once again outdoes himself with a short story called, "Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls." Reality is hard to pin down. Is Susan Falls a brilliant lunatic with a spectacularly strange imagination? And what the hell is the "true" story of how she came to be legless at such a tender age as fifteen, she who is a precocious student already enrolled in college? Susan Falls comes in contact with a young female student, presumably at least several years older, named Carla, whom the narrative introduces to the reader as someone Susan has pined for and lusted after in daydreams. Eventually, in a flukey set of circumstances occurring in class one day, they become acquaintances and friends -- all of this if the narrative is to be believed, and it simultaneously asks you to question its validity in a number of ways, which I base on Susan's comments and the general erraticism of the narration itself, unusual but very effective.

One example of what I'm talking about occurs when Carla and Susan are captured in the throes of a faux opium high (which they are unaware the opium is not opium at all but an opium substitute called "Nopium," the narration reveals). Susan has explained to Carla the origin of the loss of her legs in several possible scenarios, and not settling absolutely on one being the cause. This inspires Carla to ask, "Do you have any memories of walking?" To which Susan replies, "I have millions of memories of walking, but I also have memories of dreams, of flying." "Those are dreams, though." "But they feel similar enough, dreams and memories, that it wouldn't be rigorous to trust the distinction." Trust the distinction enough to see that it's an arbitrary one, to a certain extent. That's what Susan is saying. The legs like her gift of flight will still be gone upon returning to the present.

The other stories included in this issue are worth a look, also. Some in particular, although I won't labor over their meaning with as much detail as I provide for Levin's. Some of Denis Johnson's early writings from his National Book Award winner "Tree of Smoke" appear here as "Lucky," which I admit after reading this chapter or so excerpt it did make me want to read the entire novel a great deal more than I had previously (sorry, geez, but it just seems awfully long for Denis Johnson, "Tree of Smoke" does, I mean). Miranda Mellis' "The Doctor of Mental Health" is really neat, and I liked Kevin Moffett's "Medicine Man" a lot also. Roddy Doyle has shown up repeatedly lately in my readings. I have to admit I could not get into his novel "The Commitments" -- although I enjoyed the theatrical version. But I find his short stories more agreeable. "Home to Harlem" in this particular case was a definite highlight. Questions of belonging and the insider / outsider status get explored with new depth in it. All good things.

I've been thinking a lot about why I enjoy reading, short stories in particular. Part of it has to do with a sensation, and I wonder if others know something about what I'm experiencing. I find myself involuntarily reverting to this sensation, like a rush of memory bound to the emotion that triggered its standing out in the first place. Of course this gets abstract and is hard to convey in words, but I will try. Here's trying: my sensations inspired by stories are similar to those I experience when recalling dreams.

Some dreams you have while sleeping likewise feel to me as though they are meant to be shared. Even when, as is often the case, they can't properly be articulated to the receiver, because that person can't appreciate the gamut of feelings tied to it. No doubt all of which contributed greatly to its substance in your own mind to begin with. Usually this accompanies eye-rolling in the receiver, and who could blame them? The idea's expunged and probably won't come back to you in the same way it could have, had it been more difficult to immediately relate.

Alternatively, there are other dreams that aren't meant to be shared, at least at first. These dreams are impossibly hard to relate to another person, usually because they are devoid of any logical narrative whatever, but you bottle them in -- maybe subconsciously -- stow them down somewhere inside and restricted by the mediating powers of the super-ego (Not to get Freudian, or anything), think of it as a fragment of thought detritus. And so it becomes a kind of metaphorical pearl collecting layers and reemerging in your mind's eye as something more interesting, beautiful and so forth than it was when you first stowed it away, unconsciously.

Maybe you're a writer of some talent and you share this "pearl" with others. Maybe they don't realize it's a "pearl" at all, at first, and bottle it away themselves without thought. Maybe like a dream it comes out the same way, as a new "pearl" -- meaning something significant then to that person as well. Then again, probably everything I've just said is whimsical nonsense. But I'm OK with that likelihood.

Short Stories from Around the Web:
I wanted to include a short story I read recently from The Seahorse Folk Revival called "Flickers" by Josh Goller. Maybe it's my fondness for Chicago and that I've been to several of the locales mentioned, possibly it's my appreciation for John Turturro and Coen Brothers films, or perhaps it's that I wish I'd read "The Tin Drum" by now, but this story spoke to me -- and it doesn't get much more subjective than saying that, I believe. Take a look, if your subjective leanings impel you to do so.

On A Somewhat Related Note (in the most tangential sense):
So I'm currently enrolled in education courses at National-Louis University. And one of the classes I've been taking is: "Introduction to Exceptional Children and Adolescents" -- a polite way of describing students with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, etc. As a result we've been given various written scenarios with which to test our acumen in dealing with students diagnosed with the aforesaid issues. Here is one example:

Sam is in the sixth grade and was diagnosed with autism as a young child. Along with autism he also has obsessive compulsive disorder.

He is currently in all sixth grade classes and is able to achieve at that level fairly well. In addition, he also goes to a resource room for about an hour a day.

And it just sort of goes on in that utilitarian, banal way -- which is totally fine. It's clinical and clean. I'm not exactly complaining. I've just been biding my time, hoping and waiting for something of a little more substance. And that shouldn't be too much of a surprise, given my enthusiasm for weighty narrative and all that good stuff abounding in literature. Friends here in the literary-scape I don't doubt know what I'm talking about. Nothing came, as you might imagine, BUT we were given the opportunity to create our own sketches of troublesome classroom scenarios, and I ran with it -- much to my group mates' perplexity and, perhaps, chagrin.

Here's the fruit (slightly revised) of my running with the opportunity, entitled "Jeremy" -- a play in one act:

Narrator: It begins with Jeremy seated at his desk, very early for class. It was winter. Jeremy hated winter. And worse, he didn't have anymore cigarettes, confiscated by the hated dean, Dean Mann. Also, he'd recently changed medications. He is troubled but not trouble.

(Mr Veronica Enters)

Narrator: Mr. Veronica is coming to grips with a recent breakup, his wife has run off with an ex-student whom he already despised. He's never been a fan of Jeremy, what's more.

Mr. Veronica: Didn't think you'd show up.

Jeremy: I've got my own problems, man. Quit riding me. We're four days from graduation -- grin and bear me.

Mr. Veronica: You!? Graduate?

Jeremy: All right, you're so tough? Prove it!

Mr. Veronica: I wouldn't waste the time to wipe you off my boot.

(Jeremy knocks over his desk and springs upward, raising his fist and taking a swing at Mr. Veronica's face just as the first bell rings, to the stunned expressions of the earliest arriving students bearing witness.)

Narrator: Mr. Veronica died of bone cancer later that year, after a long struggle.


1 comment:

  1. I feel you have literally hit the metaphorical nail on its metaphorical head with your stories-as-dreams comparison. What a sublime moment it is when one is able to clearly express the ethereal impressions of one's slumbering subconscious. Its like stumbling upon half-remembered childhood photographs, which expose some hidden truth that we have always 'known' but never realized. Its a wonderful miracle when that happens, akin to a seeing a baby rainbow.

    It's just a shame that so many of our dreams are labeled 'unacceptable' by society or 'criminally obscene' by a court of law, and thus cannot be shared.