Archives for posts with tag: short stories

Oh, Marilyn. How can we keep writing you over, how is it that you have become a palimpsest for our anxieties as we keep on  moving from your time into ours? We love you for your apparent need for us to love you, we love you for everything we’ve been told to think of you. We write about you and think about you because we must still want you, your glamourous tragedy, your elegant stabs in the darkness of what it could mean to be ever a contradiction, an unknowable sadness and a tune that people keep humming, our lips always spreading in the direction of joy.


One of my  friends paid me a nice compliment about the work I’ve done on this blog. He said that some of the photos brought to mind that famous picture of Monroe reading Ulysses, that some of the pictures I’ve posted of myself glamorized reading in a similar way. I still can’t quite accept the compliment; it seems so unreal to me that an image of me could ever activate neurons in proximity to those that have been lit up by pictures of the woman bearing the historical imprimatur of practically paranormal desirability.

I share this with you now not as an attempt to cast myself in her glowing light, nor to invite you to remind me that I’m no Marilyn (believe me, I know).  I’m telling you this because she is more than a star, perhaps even more than an icon. Well, not her, but her image. Her image continues to captivate us. Why else would we always be searching for more of her, in endless nostalgic films and magazine spreads? We’re still looking so hard at her and for our idea of her that we will ourselves to find it everywhere, in ourselves and those around us. Even in book blogs, of all places.

I can’t say I wasn’t flattered, because I obviously was. Tremendously so. But I also wanted to assert some distance between my image and hers, to say “but I’m no Monroe.” Now I’ve even said it twice here. This distancing is a function of my not knowing how to be looked at, not knowing how to be distilled in this way, I think. But it’s also a function of a desire to preserve a magic in my understanding of Monroe, to deify her allure rather than humanize it. I assert that I am no Marilyn because I can’t bear even a fraction of the weight that the idea of her carries.


How then, did Lindsay Lohan do it? I’m no Lindsay, either, but we’re around the same age and she seems of this world in a way that I recognize, in a way that Marilyn never will again, if she ever did. Justin Wolfe works through these pains  in a story of his that ran on The Awl last year, “Exquisite Corpse.” It’s about that strange photo-shoot she did for New York Mag, re-enacting the strangely playful final nude shoot Monroe did for playboy. Lohan mirrors Monroe, and we gorge on the morbid project, hungry for tragedies of the past and participating in a dark death wish for the future.

Wolfe’s story is framed, like the character herself, by the photo session. It takes place in a very close third person, and explores some of what she was feeling as she tries to be Monroe, even as she knows that to do so is a literal impossibility. She persuades herself in isolated moment that she can, she’s and actor after all, and the spell is repeatedly broken by the classless photographer, the vulgarity of our time compared with that which we imagine to be Marilyn‘s, and her own thoughts on jail, on rehab.

As you might expect from both the title and the content of this tricky little story, it’s kind of dark. Even more so in that it refers to the real world, it’s a fiction superimposed on a fact. There are pictures; this happened. One of the most technically inspired aspects of “Exquisite Corpse” is the way that Wolfe casts reality in a sort of fractured mental life, abandoning the photo-shoot mid paragraph to explore other experiences that Lohan can re-live, both in public because of who she is, and in private because who she is is still a human. Even as she tries to be Marilyn, to perform for the camera as an imagined Goddess refracted through time, the lens, and a collective misremembering, she still craves a little distance, still reflects on her mere humanness. She thinks of death, which is a fundamental impossibility for Marilyn even if she’s gone now. She lives on because we just can’t let her go.


You can read Justin Wolfe’s story here. I would also recommend this recent interview that Sheila Heti conducted with Marilyn Monroe.

This one, “How,” was written by Lorrie Moore and it is gutting. It’s in the second person, and it is about love and pain and neither, because it’s really about how to leave, how it ends, how to fall out of love.

You. What a tricky word. And love is another one of those, the kind of word that seems small but has so many nuanced meanings, and some of them are so big that they seem outsized, and the word is overloaded, a dense small thing plummeting within you. You, again.

“How” is about a woman loving a man until she doesn’t anymore, and she doesn’t know how to leave, or she if wants to, until she does. It is complicated, her relationship with this person, and her feelings about it. She is cruel to the man sometimes, even when he is nice to her, and she feels smothered by his goodness a little, maybe, or perhaps it’s something else, but sometimes she loves him and sometimes she doesn’t, and then by the end she doesn’t ever, anymore, and there is not real reason why she does or doesn’t because that kind of how it works.

I loved this story. John Chu’s “Thirty Seconds from Now” is wonderful in it’s ability to mirror the sense of destiny that comes with falling in love, especially young love. The main character, Scott, is a juggler and a college junior. He has a magical ability to sensually preview the future, well, kind of.  He is attuned to the myriad possible forms the future may take, and he can explore these possible futures with all of his senses. He’s kind of like a synesthetic daydreamer, haunted by the phantoms of what may be. And his future is love, and his future is heartbreak.

Because of Scott’s unique ability to sense the feelings of a future self, to embody the present and project that same body into the futurally orientated search for sensual experiences, Chu can rely on an inventive structure for this love story. He mixes past, present, and future tenses, overwhelming the reader in the same way that infatuation, that the early stages of love, can wreak havoc on one’s sense of linear time. We stay in the moment before Scott meets Tony, but we also wander with him through the intense build up and the break down of their love.


You can read this story in The Boston Review.

Image source.

Susan Minot’s “Lust” is about sex.  It’s made up of short paragraphs that get just a little longer, describing the intimacies  with various very young men one very young woman experiences at boarding school. And the way she comes to feel about giving herself over, “surrendering” to sex and the men she’s having it with.

In part because of the shortness of the paragraphs, and that there are a lot of different men in this story, individuated from each other  only through single actions, features, little collapsible moments, “Lust” feels very fragmentary. And also very personal. Minot’s prose is deadly in it’s clarity, there’s no poetry here to distance you from her subject. In fact, she brings you as close as possible, executing a perfect and barely perceptible transition from the first to the second person somewhere in the middle of the story. It becomes all but impossible not to recognize your history in that of the unnamed narrator towards the end.

I think that this subtle switch in voice, this mingling of histories (yours and hers), is one of the main sources of the power this story had over me. It was impossible not to think backwards, about the sex I had as a teenager, about discovering this thing “that felt like a relief at first until it became like sinking into a muck.”


This story was kindly sent to me by Nick Moran,  my co-captain over at millionsmillions.

Bookside Table, The Angel Esmeralda, EM Keeler

“The Runner,” from Don DeLillo’s first short story collection The Angel Esmeralda,  is about a young man out on a jog in the park near his apartment. While in this public space, he and a few other park patrons witness a kidnapping, which is a violent but ultimately momentary eruption; a bold ripple on the still water of their weekend leisure.

Sometimes I think that Don DeLillo can be a little show offy, that his trademark minimalism can be a bit precious, too self conscious to draw you in. But certainly not here in “The Runner.” Here it’s perfect. The elements of this story–the kidnapping; the cadence of a good run, the feeling of body and sun warming up; the way we sometimes negotiate relationships with our neighbors when there is nothing but proximity to bind us; the way we try to take care of each other, notice each other, even if we do it with kind untruths and from a distance; the immediate reliance on stories to make a little meaning out of our pleasures and our traumas– are so minutely drawn.

And, what’s more, the dialog is really good. Not for it’s verisimilitude to ‘real’ speech, but for the fractured sputter stop of sense making and connection.  “The Runner” is a finely crafted story, shivery and sad and strangely sweet, and affectingly hollowed out.

We So Seldom Look on Love, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

How come no one told me to read Babara Gowdy before now?

This story, oh God, this story. So, the narrator is a woman who gets off on cadavers, and death. She’s a necrophile, and it’s about the joy of extremes, heat and chill, life and death, and the primacy of blood as a thing that signifies both beginnings and ends, as a real thing that’s inside of us and inside of others, blood as intimacy–as elemental and animal and private and desirable.

While the subject matter may be affecting enough as it is, the little twists and structuring of “We so Seldom Look on Love” make this story into a small dark space, all weird angles and corners. The narrator reminds you occasionally that she’s pretty, blonde and everything, and that only dead men can break her heart. She talks to you like someone trying real hard to control what they reveal, but is too unsure of where they are on the sliding scale of human being<—->monster that she’s got to back track and defend and try to figure out how to tell her personal truth in a way that will be exactly the one and only way to tell you about it without you getting all freaked out and crying out ‘Oh god you’re a monster.’ That Gowdy could pull off this slippery feat is totally mind blowing. That I found myself oscillating between disgust and recognition probably says more about me than about this story. Oh God, this story.

She talks about her childhood fascination with dead things, and the scene that describes the moment of her menarche is absurdly powerful. Of course, here’s blood again, here made into that womanly thing, that potential to bear yet more life inside of your body. It happens to her while she’s whipped up into a fever over a dead thing, a chipmunk, and she’s been howling and dancing and rubbing the small dead animal all over her body, and she gets covered in blood, but it’s hers, this first time, this first time it’s her blood, and it’s extreme and compelling because what other way can you possibly describe the obsession, the compulsion, to be wild in your body and so morbid in your desire?

Oh God, this story.

The Odious Child book cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

These stories are dark. Some of them are shot through with the surreal, and all of them operate in a space of intensely self-aware psychic intimacy. Maybe self-aware is the wrong choice of word, or it’s only the right choice if we’re using it in a layered way, for the self, and awareness of the same, is presented in a layered triplicate in The Odious Child. There is a sense of Carolyn Black’s self awareness, her ability to know when to recede into the shadows of the text and when to present a full face to the world, when to provide you with the shimmer of her mindful prose and when to leave a thought unhinged or unsigned. There are the almost oppressively self-aware characters that populate these eleven stories, each of them demonstrating a strange metacognition that distances them just enough from their experiences to let you come right into the middle distance between their thoughts and their circumstances. And of course, there is the expectation that you gradually bring your own awareness, indeed your own self, into the fray. Because so many of these stores, “Serial Love”, “At the World’s End, Falling Off”, “Martin Amis is in My Bed”, for starters, are about women who spend their days collapsing things into words,  the book invites you to try and untangle experience from language.

And good luck with that. Black’s prose is sometimes spare, cerebral, and cool overall. But there is real warmth in these stories. Her work here reminded me of Sheila Heti and AM Holmes, with her ability to craft these bracing urban fables. But don’t get me wrong, Black’s voice is distinct; there is a great deal of wonderment and an empathetic sense of curiosity about the people at play in these stories. “Tall Girls”, about a man who is in the process of learning what it feels like to imagine something, to fantasize, reads like a celebration of the mystery of the mind, creepy and jubilant in equal parts. The titular story, about a woman who is so distraught and shamed by her beastly child that she fails to notice that her neighborhood is in the middle of either a massacre or an uprising, is striking in its elegance and distressing by virtue of its social prescience.

The collection is strong overall, and the stories sit well together, forming a quilted pattern of the alienation and anxiety of urban life. The Odious Child is an alluring portrait of the magic of the mind to twist and tense under the conditioning of a fractured city. Black’s work here evinces the kind of spirited control that gets my gears turning, and her ability to zero in on details, the myriad tiny fragments of thought and life, ensure that in me she has enchanted a perpetually devoted reader.