When Electric Literature was no longer releasing their print volumes with five stories each, and were instead focusing on their Recommended Reading project, I had two issues left in my paid subscription. They were kind enough to send me numbers 2 and 3, which I did not yet have. I wanted to make sure I had this particular issue of the lit mag for two reasons: Colson Whitehead and Lydia Davis.
Colson Whitehead was set to appear at Spokane’s Get Lit! Festival in April 2012, and I had yet to read his novel Zone One, so I wanted to make sure I’d read his short story “The Comedian” before seeing his event with Jess Walter. I’d followed him online for a bit and found him interesting, but I felt conflicted over not having read any of his actual printed material. Luckily, “The Comedian” was a great introduction.
One time on a talk show, before he made the change in his comedy, the comedian was asked why he started telling jokes. He took a sip from his mug and responded that he just wanted some attention. As a child he’d felt unseen. He was a handsome baby (photographs confirm) but his impression was that no one cooed at him or went cross-eyed to make him smile. Common expressions of affection, such as loving glances, approving grins, and hearty that-a-boys, eluded him. His mother told him, Hush, now, when he came to her with his needs or questions and he frowned and padded off quietly. He received a measly portion of affirmation from grandparents, elderly neighbors, and wizened aunts who never married, folks who were practically in the affirmation-of-children business. In kindergarten, he was downright appalled to find the bullies stingy with noogies and degrading nicknames. The comedian believed that he was unseen, overlooked, and not-perceived to a greater extent than other people were unseen, overlooked, and not-perceived, when in actuality he was overlooked as much as everyone else, he just felt it more keenly. The talk show host asked him what his first joke was. He said he didn’t remember, but he must have liked what happened because he did it again.
It’s a good story about the evolution of this guy’s comedy, and while I wasn’t completely smitten like I was later with Zone One, it still made me eager to hear Whitehead read in person. He’s darkly funny, and like “The Comedian,” he often seems to take the stance that “People are disappointing.” He cultivates just enough reader discomfort, and that makes him interesting.
Lydia Davis’ “The Cows” is taken from a book by the same name, a book that writer Paul Lisicky once recommended to me over Twitter, when I mentioned some sort of animal amusement. And it’s true, I do find cows amusing in their lumbering, slow-motion activity. They always seem so exhausted by the world, and that if they could just get a little peace and quiet to eat their grass, and not have to do or think about much else, life would be perfect. Davis writes about watching her neighbors’ cows through her kitchen window, and without even trying, she has become invested in their movements.
The third comes out into the field from behind the barn when the other two have already chosen their spots, quite far apart. She can choose to join either one. She goes deliberately to the one in the far corner. Does she prefer the company of that cow, or does she prefer that corner, or is it more complicated — that that corner seems more appealing because of the presence of that cow?
Their attention is complete, as they look across the road: they are still, and face us, full face.
Just because they are so still, their attitude seems philosophical.
“The Cows” is easily my favorite story in this volume, and it’s an overall strong collection of stories. I love these cows. I want to watch these cows. Since originally writing this review, I purchased the chapbook, even though it’s pretty much the same as what was printed in Electric Literature. I still loved it, the second time through.
And what of the other three stories?
Stephen O’Connor’s “Love” is a sad, yet mysterious tale of a relationship weaving together and then slowly unraveling. Alice meets Ian at a friend’s funeral. He is an ad copywriter, and she is a waitress and six years into her PhD thesis. Suddenly, she decides to quit her job and move to her family’s cabin for the summer.
“But what about Cape May?” Ian asked, referring to his father and stepmother’s offer of their beach house for his two week vacation.
“I know,” Alice said, as if forgoing the Jersey shore caused her real pain (which, in fact, it did, she assured herself). “It’s just that I’m turning thirty in September, and I’ve got to get this dissertation done so that I can start leading my real life.”
The pinch of tension between Ian’s expressive eyebrows eased somewhat at the words “real life” — a term which, Alice suspected he understood as being less about her getting an academic, or at least career-like job, than about their having children.
This is where the trouble starts, and then uneasy things begin happening during her stay at the cabin. Though it is obvious that their relationship is in trouble, the peripheral action and that ever-important What happens next? feeling kept me quite compelled to read on. I appreciated having a romantic-relationship story in this volume, since some of the other stories I’ve read in this and other Electric Literature books focus on other matters, sometimes delving into the overly strange or deliberately unclear. Lots of times, I just want to read something straightforward. “Love” is the longest story in the book, and I enjoyed getting lost in it, rather than being aware — as I am sometimes with short stories — how much information is crammed in so few pages. The story reminded me of something else I’ve read or seen, but I’m having trouble placing what that was. It was familiar in a good way.
“The Slough” by Pasha Malla is less straightforward, but I liked trying to figure it out. Plus, it name-checks Strangers on a Train, and while I’ve only seen the movie version (as of yet), we can all do with more Patricia Highsmith in our life. And Hitchcock, for that matter.
“I should probably tell you,” she said, swallowing coffee, “I’m about to lose my skin.”
“What? Is that an expression?”
“No, not an expression. People’s skin cells rejuvenate every seven years. Usually it’s gradual, but I’ve been using something to make it happen all in one go.”
“What?” He put down his knife and fork. There was something suddenly disquieting about the idea of bacon. “How does this work? What do you use?”
“It’s a topical cream,” she said.
“Topical? Do you mean like up-to-date? Current?”
“What are you talking about?”
In addition to skin — and love, and relationships, self- or otherwise — yes, this is about disorientation and communication as well. Hope and despair. It’s a surprisingly affective (and effective) story.
“Three Girls” by Marisa Silver was my least favorite in No.2 — not for any major reason. The writing is fine enough, the characters are all their own entities, but I find that three months later, it ended up being very forgettable. I had to more or less reread the whole thing to remember what it was about. I did laugh knowingly at this part though:
The house did not so much change over the years as accrue, like boulders covered with more and more layers of barnacles. Books lay on top of books, bills on top of bills. Sometimes, on a Saturday, or during the long summer months,her mother would have a burst of energy and decide to organize a closet or their tax files, but these efforts usually fell short, and a row of worn shoes would stand near the front door many months, waiting to be taken to Goodwill, or stacks of papers would occupy one side of the dining room table, forcing the family to eat their meals squeezed in at the opposite end.
(This particular habit of mine may or may not drive my mother crazy. Also, no one look at my bedroom unless you are particularly forgiving.)
It’s not a bad story, but just one I feel as though I’ve read before and wasn’t all that in love then either. It was fine and only fine. It served well enough as a lead up to “The Cows.” Another reader may feel differently.
Certainly, No.2 is worth the $10 price for a paperback copy, and it’s a steal at $5 for the eBook version, but I understand why Electric Literature wants to now focus their energies on Recommended Reading. It’s easier to know you have one stand-out, excellent story than it is to know if you have five that make up a cohesive collection — a collection that will make someone want to purchase a subscription. An online, free collection of stories can get more eyes reading (presumably) quality work, and they have worked out the finances in new ways. It will be interesting to see where it leads from here.
(A previous version of this review originally appeared at Glorified Love Letters.)