Friday, October 24, 2014

My first ever review

Blake Kimzey is getting a ton of publicity from this blog--or will, when more than five people read it--as a result of having been the guy who was randomly assigned to edit a story I sent to Carve magazine. I recently read his winner of the 2013 Black River Chapbook Contest, Families Among Us

I've never done a book or story review on here, and I'll think I'll do one now. But since this blog is supposed to be mostly about writing, I'm also going to be looking at it from the view of craft (getting ideas of what to do, developing an aesthetic, uncovering strategies, etc.)

One of the most striking things about this slender book (six short stories, four of which are very short, 32 pages total) is that for a book of short stories, they mostly fit together pretty well. A lot of short story writers joke about how they try to come up with convoluted ways in which they can present their short stories as a coherent, related collection when it really isn't (because, of course, nobody publishes short stories).  Four of these six are so closely related, I really hope they were written with each other in mind. Otherwise, Kimzey uses the same idea an awful lot in his short fiction.

Because the stories work together so well, it's nice to consider this chapbook as a text to be taken whole. In this manner, we end up with an interesting structure (spoiler alert times a million, although I don't think it will ruin the book much--in most of the stories the surprise is given away early on):

Story One: A family crashes on a jet, sprouts gills and lives underwater for a long time. They decide to come to the surface to re-adapt to life on land after an indefinite amount of time. It doesn't take, and the boy and girl cast off their clothes and return to the sea.

Story Two: A boy is born with a "beetle back" and wings. He learns to fly, although he is otherwise normal. He eventually sheds his clothes, flies off, and is never seen by the family again.

Story Four: A boy is born with what seems to be a worm-like mid-section. The boy eats dirt. The boy eventually casts off his clothes and squirms away, never to be seen again.

Story Five: A boy turns into a bear. Before he completely transforms, he casts off his clothes, heads to the forest, and finds a bear companion after hibernation.

Stories three and six are the change-ups. Story six actually acts like a nice ending to stories 1,2,4, and 5. It's the story Kimzey had published in Tin House for "Flash Friday." Here, a village has gone out to seek a lost child, and they find him after he has apparently fallen from the stars. What happens next is up to interpretation.

Story three is the one story that doesn't quite fit. It was also my favorite, although I have to say if Edward Said read it, he'd probably go ape shit. (Let me save you some time. Orientalism is a million pages of stodgy prose that basically says that people tend to read themselves into the "other.") An American bicycle tour guide in Paris is fascinated by the owls who live in his neighborhood and by the burka-clad woman who lives upstairs. Turns out, the burka-clad woman who lives upstairs is hiding a part-owl body beneath her covering. He is mesmerized, but the girl's father takes her off to the forest to lay her oeufs. 

I have to admit that by story four, I was a little tired of the story cycle. The most exciting moment came for me in story #2, "Up and Away." In the first story, "A Family Among Us," we get a perspective that might technically be third-person objective: we see all the actions of the family, but do not enter their thoughts. "Up and Away," though, gives us a nice use of third-person omniscient, a now rarely-used technique that stole the spotlight of this story. Because here, we get a truly family-level perspective of what is probably the core legend of this clan. We jump from mother's brain to sister's brain to father's brain in the same paragraph, much like one might hear a family tell one of their favorite vacation stories by talking over one another.

The final story, "And Finally the Tragedy," strikes me as a fitting ending to all the stories except three, because it is as if the village has gone to try to find all those children who have gone feral and ventured off into the wild. They have found the child, but the child brings back a revelation, something indecipherable: he opens his mouth, but instead of speaking, his mouth is "as cavernous as a two-story movie theater," leaving the narrator (the only first-person narrator in the book) to fear "he would swallow us whole."

Yet this first-person narrator, the town's reverend, still feels it is his duty to interpret the meaning the boy brings: "It was up to me to make sense of the boy." And so we, as readers, must make sense of Families. 

When reading magic realism, a form to which these stories undoubtedly belong (story four even has a boy who eats dirt, a la Rebecca in One Hundred Years of Solitude), I like to think that one key to unlocking the cipher is something that George McDonald said in The Miracles of our Lord: many of the miracles of Christ were just exaggerated versions of something God does all the time in nature anyway. God always turns water into wine (okay, you need other stuff, too). God always makes fish and bread. God always  makes fig trees wither and die.

So in the magic realist story, you have an element that is like the world as we know it, but stretched out of proportion. Children may not have beetle backs or fly or have gills, but they are a part of the natural world, as much as we parents try to convince them they are not. (Is there anything more savage than the birth of a baby? How did we ever get to celebrating this event with soft blue and pink balloons?) They do eventually leave (unless they major in English).

The first story is a slightly different story arc. The family actually begins by leaving the fuselage of the plane, where they have lived, as inside a womb, beneath the sea for who knows how long. But the children chafe at wearing clothes, and long before they even see civilization, they are playing a dangerous game of seeing how long they can hold their breath beneath the ocean, wishing to re-grow their gills to get back. So we all somewhat reject being taken from the womb, and long to return to  breathing our air through gills.

Rather than emerge from pre-life and wish to go back, the boy in the final story has returned from post-life and brought something of the terrible mystery back with him to trouble civilized folk.

The stories have much more harvest to yield than this, and the best thing I can say about them is that they brought me enough of joy that I am willing to keep trying to reap from them. I have said before that I like a story that has a point, that says something a cashier or a bouncer or a Marine can carry with him or her that will make life richer or maybe even just tolerable. But I don't always need to be able to fully realize what that thing is. I want there to be something to eat. If I enjoy the atmosphere and the appetizer was appealing, I am willing to wait for the main course, even if the main course does not come for decades. Whatever treasure is hiding in these stories (enough metaphors mixed in one paragraph?), there is enough of a map here to spend some time enjoying looking for it.  

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