Category Archives: Fiction

Getting Out the Message To Save Himself

Don Waters | The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories | University of Nevada Press | May 2017 | 25 minutes (6954 words)

From altar boys to inmates, ranches to hotels, the characters in Don Waters’ new collection of short fiction struggle with faith and meaning as much as the landscape of the American Southwest. In this story, “Full of Days,” the protagonist’s antiabortion billboard and surrogate daughter force him to reexamine his controlling behavior and own deep loss, in a city known for sin. Our thanks to Waters and University of Nevada Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.

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“So Job died, being old and full of days.”  —Book of Job 42:17

Marc Maldonado sensed the Kingdom of God within him on Sundays, driving sun-scorched trash-scattered freeways to his temple of worship, and he felt the emptiness of his own realm whenever he set the table for one, whenever he aligned his socks in the hollow dresser drawer. In this hot, high-voltage city, with its pulsing neon, with its armies of fingers slamming on video poker buttons, he felt the loving kindness, the light ache of breath in his nostrils, and he knew he was necessary.

On that day Marc drove the freeways, analyzing angles for the best possible exposure. The great desert opened to him as he cruised I-15 North-South, I-515 East-West, changing direction where the freeways intersected and formed a concrete cross. Read more…

‘Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.’

an empty playground, in black and white

In a piece of short fiction in the Nashville Review, Paul Crenshaw brings us a teacher helping her fidgety students pass a rainy recess indoors with a familiar childhood game — don’t touch the floor, it’s lava! — who finds that the ability to pretend takes on an unexpected gravity when violence visits the school. The story is sweet and sad, nostalgic and timely, dreamy and painfully realistic.

Then Jeremy slipped from his seat on the radiator and Joel jumped from the coat hooks, not quite making it to his desk, both their feet touching the floor, and the other kids called for them to be out. In the back of the room Hannah and Jody were pretending to be statues where they stood on their sleeping mats, which Ms. Young supposed was technically off the floor. She looked at her watch. The rain still fell down. There was still 23 minutes left in recess and another hour left in the day and it was too early for anyone to be out. They’d had no recess since before noon, no time to run and throw their arms up and scream, and Jeremy would sulk and perhaps storm if he were forced to sit out, so she told them that lava sometimes cooled slightly on top, and if you were quick as a hiccup you could touch it—slightly, children, ever so slightly—as you went from place to place.

Which of course sent them swinging around the room. Clinging to the backs of chairs, flinging themselves from wall to wall. A game of it. Because it was dark with the flickering lights. Because children needed to play, to let their imaginations explode. Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.

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When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Isn’t Fiction

I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with an increasing sense of dread. While I can easily draw parallels to anti-feminist sentiment in modern society, the specifics of the story remain, for me, primarily fiction.

Not so for Hännah Ettinger, who grew up in the fundamentalist Christian “Quiverfull” movement. Ettinger first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and saw herself in the story. At the Establishment, she describes the similarities between her life under the shadow of a repressive misogynistic religion and that of the women in the dystopian novel.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community  —  the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.

And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my 13th birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.

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‘Pretend I’m Dead’ Author Jen Beagin Wins 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction

The 2017 Whiting Awards honorees have been announced. Among the winners is Pretend I’m Dead, a novel by Jen Beagin, which has been among my favorite titles from Emily Books. Every time a friend or colleague seeks recommendations for a novel that has both humor and heart, I refer them to this book about Mona, a young woman cleaning houses for a living and volunteering at a needle exchange program.

The Paris Review has a brief excerpt from the beginning of the book, when Mona has become hung up on a needle exchange client she calls “Mr. Disgusting.”

For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.

A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.

She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck.

Other honorees for the prize, which recognizes “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” include:

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Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

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I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

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Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

Law and Order, Coffee Shop Edition

In Broken Pencil, Susan Read shares short fiction centered on a Kafka-esque interrogation in the back room of a coffee shop — you know, the one where they wear the green aprons — that’s a stinging indictment of the byzantine policies, procedures, and psychology of being a low wage employee.

I wonder if my manager thinks I did this. If my friends think I did this.

I mean, I would think I did this, if I wasn’t me.

It’s hot and I feel anxious and I feel angry and I feel…guilty.

And then I feel even angrier, and I think about how hard I have worked for Tarsucks, how I am probably the best barista at my store, and instead of a farewell party, I will be walking out of this place with my tail between my legs, and my head down, hoping that no one will notice the tears that are now readily streaming down my face in fear and anxiety and frustration.

I take a sip of water.

I lift up the form I was handed and notice another beneath it.  It has a similar format: fill in the blanks and sign your name, we’ll take care of the rest.

I _________ do hereby permit __________to ________ me up the _____.

Actually, the form authorizes Tarsucks to compensate the stolen money directly from my paychecks until full restoration of funds is received.

It is a confession, typed up and waiting for me to sign.

I sit back in my chair, crying a little but no longer fidgeting, still sweating in that tiny back office, which I am free to leave at any time.  I wait for my tribunal to reconvene.

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The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction

A little over three years ago I asked George Saunders whether I could sit in on one of his MFA classes at Syracuse, and, flabbergastingly, he said okay.

This opportunity seemed particularly valuable at a time when education privatizers and MOOC-peddlers were busily attempting to equate “education” with “that which can be bubbled in on a Scantron form.” Saunders’ work is very particularly about human qualities, fallibility, the unexpected; dissonance, misapprehensions; comedy; mystery; beauty. Immeasurable and incommensurate things. What he’d already taught me, just as a reader of his fiction, was and remains the diametric opposite of anything you could answer by multiple choice.

MFA studies consist largely of working on individual students’ writing, in conditions too sensitive for me to be barging in on with a tape recorder. But George’s students were also required to take “ENG 650 (Forms): The Russian Short Story in Translation (for Writers),” a class devoted to learning structures and techniques that might effectively be pilfered from the Russian masters—and that one, I could attend.

My instructions were as follows:

Syllabii attached – looks like you’ll be there for the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – usually the best class of the year. It’s Bowne Hall 101 or 110 – it says on the sheet. The easiest thing to do is to park at the University Sheraton and have them give you a campus map – it’s a short (though uphill) walk… I’d say read the stories just a few days before and if you really want to do it the way we do it, write a little essay on each, or on the three (they’re linked).

I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.

In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.

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The Trump Story Project

Big Brother is Watching You stencil graffiti

Slate is running short stories by contemporary writers based in an imagined “Trump’s America.” This one, by Saladin Ahmed, left me hopeful and breathless at the same time:

Some of the djinn enjoyed walking like men—the slowness of it. Qumqam had never been one of them. He had never understood why the flapping bags of flesh were first in God’s eyes. They tore at each other like dogs at any chance. They starved each other to sit on piles of gold. Most unforgivably, they had taken this astonishing garden—this jagged half-paradise of leaf and ice and mountain and flower that God had made for them—and they had filled it with shit and poison.

Sidebar: If you’re on Twitter and you’re not following Saladin Ahmed, you can fix that here.

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Obama by the Books

In Vulture, book critic Christian Lorentzen suggests we dispense with terms like “postmodern” and “postwar” when discussing novels, and instead analyze them relative to the presidential administrations under which they were released.

What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).

That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.

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