July 29, 2013


By Daniel Alarcón
~6800 words

Two men from different social backgrounds become lovers in prison.

Rogelio is an illiterate rural kid arrested for transporting drug money for his brother. Henry is a writer jailed for a subversive play about the country's president. (The name of the country is not revealed, but it would appear to be somewhere in Latin America.) They end up in the same cell in the country's most infamous prison, called Collectors, where they become friends and then lovers. Henry is released after a year and a half, but Rogelio dies in a prison riot.

Despite a compelling plot with several potentially poignant moments, this story failed to move me. The problems begin, I think, with the divided perspective. The narrative opens in Rogelio's point of view but switches to Henry's on the second page and never returns. Henry is clearly the main character, which makes the choice of initial perspective rather baffling. And even once the POV switches to Henry, it becomes a bit fuzzy on occasion, for example:
"It was an idea that all new inmates contemplated upon first entering the prison." How would Henry know such a thing?
"She was perfect, he said, and she was…" Do we really need that secondary narrative confirmation? Ironically, it undermines Henry's POV rather than reinforcing it.
I also found the emphasis on chronological precision (three dates are mentioned: 1980, 1982, and April 8, 1986) a bit odd, especially given that details such as the name of country are never revealed.

Finally, the story felt on the unoriginal side to me. Prison stories are not exactly new, nor are those of prison love, and this one doesn't do much in my view to rise above the competition. In general, Alarcón borrows too heavily from the Latin American writers he clearly admires: the prison lovers from Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and the sweeping perspective of García Márquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude come to mind.

"Collectors" is a passable story that misses many opportunities to be exceptional.


July 22, 2013

"From a Farther Room"

By David Gilbert
~7600 words

With his wife and kids away for the weekend, a man stays out late drinking with an old friend and finds a strange visitor awaiting him the following morning.

Robert Childress wakes up with a blinding hangover and finds, in the spot by the side of the bed where he threw up in the middle of the night, an object
about the size of an eggplant, though in color more reddish brown, its body a mishmash of textures and lumps, a goulash molded into a ghoul. There was a shape that resembled a head, plus four distinct parts that roughly corresponded with two arms and two legs, further articulated by an assumption of ten fingers and ten toes, presently wriggling.
The rest of the story follows how Robert deals with this "creature," from initially trying to bury it in his backyard to eventually outfitting it in diapers and feeding it sweet potato baby food, until Becka and the kids return at the end of the story. By that point it has become reasonably clear that the creature is some sort of projection of Robert, filtered through bruised memories of childhood and reflections on a marriage that seems to be in deep trouble.

This story has many fine qualities. The plot is unusual but never strains credibility, nor does it try to pull off an O. Henry ending; at bottom it is a universal tale of a man struggling desperately for redemption. A keen grasp of human nature comes across in the complexity of the main character, who is deeply flawed but also deeply aware of his flaws:
Robert wondered if he was simply good at lying, or withholding, or whatever it was that he often did, or if Becka was too trusting and a savvier wife would have seen through him.
This type of self-reflection, as long as it doesn't cross the line into self-pity (and it doesn't in this case), makes for an ultimately sympathetic character.

Finally, Gilbert's language is beautiful. He has a knack for walking a nearly impossible line between the absurd and the heartbreaking, a talent that seeps into the story's imagery, from a turkey baster that sits "like a rogue exclamation mark" in Robert's hand to the muffled sounds coming from the creature's makeshift grave, "as if the earth were a heartbroken pillow."

My only objection to "From a Farther Room" is the ick factor. Yes, I know that's part of the point, but the descriptions of the creature are just a little too disgusting for me to say I really loved the story. But it's a powerful piece of fiction any way you measure it.


July 8, 2013

"All Ahead of Them"

By Tobias Wolff
~3700 words

A man discovers his new wife is a pathological liar.

Bud, whose real name is Thomas, is on his honeymoon with his wife Arden, whose real name is Nedra (Arden spelled backwards). Arden has a habit of inventing excuses to explain why she's perpetually late, and Bud has always explained it to himself as a sort of unspoken agreement, "that she could spin transparent yarns and he would indulge her, would even be amused by their transparency." But a phone call from his brother at the beginning of the story reveals that the problem is much more disturbing, and he spends the remainder of the narrative trying to figure out how to handle the revelation before Arden returns (of course she's late).

This is a story all about intriguing characters. Let's begin with Arden. She rips off her own bridesmaids for $250 each. She neglects to leave a tip for a waitress and then blames it on Bud. She hides her real name from close friends. And of course she can't seem to tell her husband the truth about anything. Which brings us to Bud. Sexually dysfunctional with his wife, he compares her smile to his mother's (who tells Bud about a recurrent dream of hers in which she embraces a strange man) and has a creepy attraction to a portrait of Arden's grandmother (a marijuana dealer who hanged herself in prison—the Nedra that Arden doesn't want to be named after):
In fact, she looked sort of Republican, in the way of his own grandmother and his aunts and their friends, a type he'd always been attracted to—women who smoked and drank cocktails and wore glittering rings and perfume and mink coats, which he liked to hang up for them, stroking the fur that somehow brought in the cold on winter nights.
But Bud's biggest problem is that he covers up Arden's lying to others and refuses to confront her about it. He can't even bear the thought of her knowing he knows: "She would never forgive him for knowing." He's apparently decided that he can't risk losing her because she broke off her engagement to a wealthy art dealer in order to marry Bud. It probably also helps that she doesn't complain about Bud's sexual dysfunction (though he's a little disconcerted by her remark that those things happen to men "all the time").

Both Arden and Bud, it turns out, have a serious problem with the truth, and their relationship is founded on lies. How fitting that neither of them even goes by their real name.

This brief story really sneaks up on you. You start out thinking it's going to be about Arden and her lying, and you wonder a bit about the stakes, which seem pretty low, maybe even humorous. But then it takes a serious turn, and you realize the stakes are much higher, having to do with Bud's enabling of his wife's behavior. Bud, in fact, is the only character to appear in the present timeframe (Arden shows up in backstory only). While that might normally be a problem, it works perfectly in a story about the idea a man has crafted of his wife.

My main quibble is with the mother's dream, which seems a bit shoehorned in and then, at the end, rather forced when Bud makes the comparison to Arden's smile. Actually, it seems more appropriate to compare Bud himself to his mother's role in the dream, as he no longer recognizes the woman he has married but is prepared to embrace her anyway. Perhaps the confusion is intentional, but it didn't work for me. Finally, the language of the story is decent but not exceptional.

"All Ahead of Them" is a sobering tale of co-dependency that gets high marks for its compelling, well-wrought characters.


July 1, 2013


By Joyce Carol Oates
~5200 words

A woman's companion intervenes when a mastiff turns on her.

The main character, whose name is Mariella but is always referred to as "the woman," is hiking with a man she has recently begun dating (the man's name is revealed as Simon toward the end of the story). As she hikes, the woman reflects on her ambivalence toward Simon and on her own insecurities. One such insecurity, a fear of dogs she has harbored since childhood, is triggered by a mastiff she encounters on the hiking trail. When the dog later attempts to attack her, Simon intervenes and is critically wounded. The ER doctors save him, and the woman is left to reevaluate her earlier ambivalence.

The story's strength lies in the way in which the woman, who is not a particularly sympathetic character, is forced to confront her prior feelings toward Simon. Unfortunately, various elements undermine the force of this denouement. First, the reference to the characters as "the man" and "the woman," even though their names are revealed (the woman's at the beginning and the man's at the end), is a bit baffling, generating a narrative coldness that retards character development. Second, the POV is rather lazy toward the beginning, drifting from the main character for no good reason ("The friend, closer to the man than to the woman, had said to the man…"; "The man was a little annoyed by the woman. Yet he was drawn to her…" etc.). Third, the woman's canine phobia feels like a convenient stock element—do we need her to be terrified of dogs in order to be attacked by one?—and the choice of a mastiff seems particularly stereotypical (and a bit unfair to the breed, which is not as prone to attack as some others).

Finally, Joyce's language is not at its finest here, from awkward images (the sun sets like a "broken bloody egg") to cliched language (the woman's eyelids "were so heavy she could barely keep them open") to an over-reliance on adverbs (the dog barks furiously, the woman recalls longingly and listens avidly, the man feels sharply, the dog's master shouts futilely, the woman's heart beats erratically, etc.).

"Mastiff" has a good story to tell, but it is burdened by conventional language and unsatisfying narrative choices.

Barely satisfactory.