Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

"Antioch Review 65.3" (Summer 2007)

An "All Fiction" issue with 9 stories, each 10-20 pages. The editorial says that in 2004 they came close to refusing unsolicited material (they received 5000 stories a year and depended on voluntary "slush readers"). Luckily, new volunteers came forward and this issue is mostly from the slush pile.

They also say that "Breaking into print has never been easy and the commercial market for short fiction has shrunk dramatically in the last few years. The expansion of M.F.A. programs (on line and off) has added a new dimension in that there is a growing class of individuals who write professionally and need to publish their work in order to advance their careers", so it's not just in the UK that there are problems.

  • In "We the Girly Girls from Massachusetts" an episodic journey through memory uses as points of reference unsent postcards to JFK's daughter, a daughter who's the same age as the 4 women in this piece. First person, though diffused. Bonner, who wrote the postcards in the course of 40 years, is dead, though there's very little about the response to this. We're invited to match the characters' escapades to their revealed later occupations - installation artist, clinical psychologist, lesbian minister, and wordsmith. The first sentence is about the longest - "Of all the things people leave behind, a book of postcards to Caroline Kennedy wouldn't have seemed so strange if I had been certain that when Bonner floated to the bottom of the surfer's pool a year ago that she intended to leave them for the world's eyes."
  • The title of the next story - "Dicking the Buddha" - begins the suspense. The first sentence - "I waited for my sister to sit down, before I asked her" - is short this time and introduces more uncertainty, soon resolved when the narrator asks her sister if she can borrow the baby, but we're not told the motive. Later we discover that the baby's a cover in a mission to pick up some bags. We're never told what's in the bags, though the clues point to drugs. She's doing it to get money for her poor sister. Her brother helps set the deals up. Her moment of decision is when she sees a young mother coerced into a car at a filling station. She regrets not responding somehow, but doesn't expect anything to change. The mother reminds her of her sister (married to an unlikeable soldier currently in Iraq) and of herself, a pretend mother. In the lyrical ending as she drives through endless flat pastures she thinks about her family, its past, its role in the landscape, the turnings. It's a plot I've recently used - someone using a car journey anda child to wonder where her life's going.
  • "Believers" is, for a change, not a first-person piece. The 2 main characters have turns at attracting the third-person voice. Barry's coming out of prison after 12 years to see his estranged daughter. In the middle section we get her side of the story, and the writing rises. The rest didn't appeal to me much.
  • "Swallowfly" is a 5 year-old first-person piece using the language and comprehension of an adult. The child tells her mother's suitor what people really think about him. Shades of Tartt's style. The swallowfly is the purest symbol so far, escaping from its jar at the right moment to perform a perfect trajectory, ending in the narrator's face.
  • "That of which we cannot speak". Third person privileged. Has the best starting 4 pages so far. The "It felt as if a team of tiny elves were constructing an aquarium inside his skull" image is surprising. The piece fails only in the final paragraph, though perhaps the point is that the viewpoint becomes omniscient just when the narrator finds a new partner.
  • "The New Year's Child" emerges as a first person piece, the narrator's third-persony voice foregrounded. Deathbed, breaking with the past. At times there's narrative - he's at a kitchen table thinking back. At other times there's cinematic zooming, seeing himself. Elsewhen we are outside narrative. This range of approaches is matched by the range of subject matter and treatments.
  • "No Retreat! No Surrender!" comprises journal entries by an old famous writer in a war-torn city.
  • "In the rough" is third person, slightly privileged. In this piece, for the only time, we see people at work - father in a prison, son on an adjoining golf-course, a fence between them. The son finally shows defiance.
  • "All we have" is third person. Again, the two main characters take turns at being possessed by the narrator. A man's pent-up anger explodes on the woman he's divorcing. This story and the previous one are longer, standard pieces with suppressed feelings bursting out at the end.

They're all good reads. All use mainstream realism with sane characters whose jobs usually don't matter (or they're writers). Main characters range in age from 5 to 78. Most of the plots and tensions are familiar. The narrative modes, locations, genres and character types come from a narrow range. Back in 1997 Laura Miller wrote an article in Salon saying that Raymond Carver inspired a generation of writers whose work Aldridge condemns as "technically conservative ... and often extremely modest in scope." This is fiction full of lower-middle-class characters who light cigarettes, lean silently against their kitchen counters, and contemplate the anomie of their stifled lives and relationships. ... what Entrekin calls "the 'divorce and cancer in Connecticut' school of fiction."). This selection risks the same accusation. The quality of the writing within these constraints is what wins through. I like "The New Year's Child", "That of which we cannot speak", and "We the Girly Girls from Massachusetts" most.

The magazine depends on an annual subsidy of between $14,000 and $45,000 from the College. Though the college will close in 2008 the web site says that The Antioch Review will continue.

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