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New Yorker "Fiction Issue" Review

The New Yorker Fiction Issue Strikes Again...


Issue Date: June 9 & 16, 2014

Every time the New Yorker Fiction Issue comes out (far too often) I feel like a one-armed busboy working the Friday lunch shift at an All-You-Can-Eat Chinese buffet. I can barely keep up with the regular weekly NYer short stories (if you've noticed I run a steady 4-6 weeks behind) and then they come out with an ENTIRE ISSUE filled with nothing but fiction??? Aye Caramba. It's like the editors of the NYer are specifically trying to torture and delight me at the same time. 

Since I'm so pitifully far behind and since there are so many stories in the Fiction Issue, I've decided to dole out a couple quick capsule reviews of what I thought were the note-worthy offerings...

Karen Russell's "The Bad Graft" -- Two Magically-Realistic Thumbs Up. This tale of two young lovers bewitched and captivated by the Mojave Desert made me positively squirm in my seat at times but kept my eyeballs riveted to the page at the same time. A powerful combination. My first exposure to Russell and definitely will not be my last. Russell paints out the portrait of our two main characters, young lovers who have just eloped from Pennsylvania, on the canvas of the alien strangeness of Joshua Tree National Park. The strangeness of the desert mirrors the strangeness of the un-mapped emotional territory that exists between these two young people who might have thought they knew each other, only to find out they are as foreign to each other as the desert is to them. Russell works in delicious elements of magical realism, as the girl becomes inhabited by one of the Joshua Trees and falls deeply in love with the desert. The two stay in the Mojave, get jobs, live their little lives until the tree leaves the girl's body and they are "free" to leave. Was it all a dream? Did they actually stop in the desert, live in a trailer, work in a bar for three months and live anonymous lives on the precipice of complete anonymity stretching out as far and wide as the desert sunset? I think it's inconclusive, which makes the story that much more interesting. Read it, if you get a chance.

Tobias Wolff's "The Beautiful Girl" -- Part of the "My Old Flame" prompt within this seasons fiction issue, Wolff relates a story about a brush with tween-age romance -- and possibly true-love -- that turns into a near-miss. Lying in the hospital after he'd cut off part of his finger, the main character becomes the object of affection for the daughter of the patient in the bed next to him. When he gets out of the hospital, the boy and girl go on a little date, of sorts, but ultimately the boy misses his "big chance" to kiss the girl and afterward she vanishes like smoke from his life. It's a bitter little story; the kind any male who has made it to adulthood has (no doubt) unfortunately stashed away among the memories he'd like to forget. Every guy remembers at least one instance when he blew his chance with a girl just because he had absolutely no idea what to do next. But in one of those sick paradoxes of life, that's the only way to learn what you're supposed to do next, by botching a chance and spending hours and hours of self-flagellation afterward examining the situation and what you did wrong. Did this story touch home for me? Yeah, you could say that...

Joshua Ferris' "Good Legs" -- I really enjoyed a couple of the Joshua Ferris stories I've read in the NYer before, but I'm 50/50 on this guy after trying (very) unsuccessfully to hack my way through one of his novels, "The Unnamed." Maybe my lingering impression of that novel started me of with a tainted impression of this short. I found it a little bit kitschy and trite, essentially all the way until the end. However, I think the ending paragraph saves this story from utter forgetability in my mind. It's essentially a shifting catalog of the narrators previous lovers -- the things he liked about them, or hated, or whatever sticks out in his mind -- that leaves us with the very Nietzsche-esque idea that he has been loving the same woman all along -- his mind's inner Woman -- and that partly what he is in love with is that inner Woman, regardless what physical and external form she takes. A very interesting concept, if you ask me, and one that -- much like staring at the sun -- a man might not want to examine for too long at a time lest he get a headache.

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