The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Paris Review, Winter 2007: Fiction

Posted on: February 6, 2008

As you probably know by now the winter issue of good ol’ PR arrived on my doorstep. I was most excited about the Oe Kenzaburo interview and the Liao Yiwu feature initially, but a second look at the cover a couple of days later made me squee and flip through the pages to sample a Louise Glück poem. If there’s one thing I prefer about Gourevitch’s editorship it’s the shift to including a few poems from a few writers rather than one or two from a gazillion. There’s also a short story by Jesse Ball (whose latest novel Open Letters Monthly reviewed for February).

I still miss the frontispiece of a Paris street. I miss it even more when it appears that each opening selection for some time will have a Powell’s book store ad on the facing page. The frontispiece would make this easier to tolerate.

Under Gourevitch the staff has also shown a knack for picking memorable fiction to open issues. I can only recall two of those now — Mohsin Hamid’s “Focus on the Fundamentals” (Fall 2006) and Alessandro Barrico’s “Overture to the Twentieth Century” (Spring 2006) — but at the time I read the others I was impressed. Winter 2007’s was a massive fail.

OK, it’s not awful at all. It falls rather nicely with the average quality of the fiction the magazine publishes, based on my limited experience: competent, even accomplished prose, fair stab at interesting, imperfect characters struggling with some moral dilemma and/or troubled relationship, whether familial, platonic or romantic. In Alistair Morgan’s “Icebergs” a white South African, upper-middle class widow, Dennis Moorcraft, becomes acquainted with a mysterious black businessman who goes by “Bradshaw” and who moved into one of the luxurious vacation homes next door. They become cautiously friendly, Bradshaw’s bodyguard notwithstanding, until Moorcraft’s artist daughter Melissa arrives and worst news follows not too long after about Bradshaw’s “import and export” business.

The story marks Morgan’s print debut so I do not mean to be too hard on him. I thought his prose captured Moorcraft’s voice very well, though written in third person, and I could “hear” him clearly. The mystery surrounding how things with Bradshaw turn out, especially with Melissa involved (which one could see coming from a mile away), did pique my curiosity. Everyone knows that the “import and export” line is international code for lucrative, illegal dealings. (So much so that it looks a bit odd that Moorcraft was barely suspicious. But that’s a nitpick.) And I’m…ah…sure that his isolation in that tourist town — placed on him by his dying wife who made him promise to live in the retirement home they had built together — with all his children not only physically but, it appears, emotionally distant from him, offspring who he does not really understand because he spent most of their youth working hard at the office for early retirement, probably has something to do with the story title. (Heck, it’s pluralised, throw in the constantly wary and private Bradshaw in there, too.) But I know it’s going to be one of those stories I’ll have to work to remember three months from now; and those memories will only contain one or two scenes, title and author out-of-reach.

The choice to include “Icebergs” in this issue at all, much less as the opener, seems especially cruel when one considers that the three other stories are killer. I mean who-is-this-author-when-can-I-get-his-book-ooo-pre-order killer. Graham Joyce twisted my innards a bit, György Dragomán eviscerated them and Jesse Ball, seeing as there was nothing left, settled on befuddling my brain and messing a bit with my emotions. (I also can’t help but compare Morgan to another South African author featured in PR, Damon Galgut, who knew how to lend such regular ol’ kind of stories an urgency and weight that lifted the proceedings above the mundane.)

I’m a sucker for war stories (in short fiction) that engage with more recent conflicts from the Vietnam war onwards. Graham Joyce goes full out in the first person with his British vet narrator, Seamus Todd, who relates his war experience from conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands to the first Gulf war. If you’re familiar with Joyce you know that he’s won a few British fantasy awards so “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” does not develop in a perfectly ordinary way. Todd manages to escape a dangerous and potentially fatal situation in the Iraqi desert but a consequence of this is that he acquires a winking, good humoured Arab, his supposed rescuer, as a life long companion that only he can see. He routinely reveals his presence to Seamus by briefly possessing whoever he is talking to at the time, dropping a sly wink or making veiled references that only the two of them would get.

It is no surprise that Todd is soon (honourably) discharged. What is the reader to think of his situation? One could assume that Todd’s genie, as he once called him, is a hallucination induced by post-traumatic stress disorder or whatever sort of psychological stress one could expect to find in an experienced soldier. The Gulf war was also notable for the very long periods during which soldiers were constantly on alert and being trained for anything from chemical attacks to battle with the elite Revolutionary Guards, but in actuality meeting nothing but desert. (Jarhead portrayed the exact same experience in that respect.) But this Iraqi (or maybe not, one doesn’t know for sure) is very real to Seamus, is on his mind constantly and at what point caused him to lose his job and serve jail time. The story ends in this uncomfortable space that’s both farcical and depressing.

György Dragomán story…that one was rough. I won’t spend much time on it except to say that it centres on two young boys, age 11 or 12, who are the goalies for a local football (soccer) team (in a Hungarian town, I assume, although it’s not specified). Their coach is a deranged man who had no business being anywhere near children but so it goes. He used to teach the adult team but he was so hard on them they ganged up on him one night. So he got demoted to the children.

The prose moves steadily along in the voice of the young narrator, in long sentences marked with frequent commas, not many periods, so a paragraph is often one sentence. If you have a younger sibling or spent some time with children it apes very nicely the way their sentences can rush along picking up scenes and feelings if they’re eager to tell you about their day or some memorable event. It’s unfortunate that Dragomán goes for that here since I wanted to dig in my feet and delay all the bad things I knew were going to happen while hoping I’d get some kind of Disney sports movie climax.

Ack! Still writing about it. It’s called “The End of the World”. My sense of time certainly rushed, slowed, then stopped for a terrible scene near the end and it took some time for me to even attempt finishing the rest of my chicken stir fry pita. Ugh. I feel queasy thinking about it even now. (And actually felt a bit sick for part of the evening after I read it, although that was probably due to me overeating some hours after, the logic going that food would sop up my dull mood.) That story and “Jump” from the Fall 2006 issue (which I don’t remember but you can bet I’m going back to reread) are excerpts from his second novel, The White King, in April 2008, the first of his to be published in English, I think.

One would wish for Jesse Ball to provide relief. No sir, nothin’ doing. Instead we get a revenge tale involving mistaken identity, a miscarriage and four old-timey gun duels that end in four murders. It’s written in an odd fashion, or rather to an odd effect. The parts read…detached somehow ie there are strange…gaps that separate the lines of dialogue from the ones about the action and even the characters’ thoughts seem strangely distant from the figures themselves with the exception of Carr. His thoughts seem a little more connected to him and finally coalesce into what I suppose one would call a more realistic, breathing character, whereas before they all are more obviously constructions. Hmm. Did that make any sense.

Well, for one thing the dialogue is shown by dashes rather than the more interconnected apostrophes and commas that can help to make lines flow into each other. But that’s only a part of it. Ball also starts the story’s actions immediately and doesn’t work in any background details, doesn’t flesh things out, just has his characters interact in brief sentences and you have to trust that you won’t be lost. The plot itself is also rather bizarre which highlights the story’s artificiality somewhat…and then you get plunged into what looks like a morality play, or something, but really isn’t.

I was never, ever bored though and it got to me in the end. It’s one ripe for rereading and I never reread lit mag stories so that should be saying something. No idea if it’s an excerpt of his Samedi the Deafness but “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr” definitely bumped it up my TBR pile.


3 Responses to "The Paris Review, Winter 2007: Fiction"

Every short story writer hopes for a reader like this.

Imani, I proofread Dragoman’s THE WHITE KING, and all the stories in that collection are total heartbreakers. And I just met—and profusely thanked—one of The Paris Review‘s interns who’d picked up “Jump” from their slush pile. Anyway I hope you’ll love and be affected by the rest of the book just as much!

Amateur Reader what a lovely thing to say. Thank you very much. 🙂 (I don’t think they’d want a blogger like me, though. Every time I re-check the post (it having been posted on the fly) I spy another error…)

w !!! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting stranger. You’ve heightened both my anticipation and dread at the thought that the entire book is going to break my heart but I’ll be brave. Anything for fiction.

Hard to believe that this was picked up from the slush pile. How amazingly lucky for Dragoman and his translator Paul Olchvary (whose name I forgot to stick in my post somewhere).

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