Skip to main content

Playboy 2014 College Fiction Contest Winner: "Something Ancient Welling Up" by Nolan Turner

Issue: Oct. 2014
Art by Daniel Zender

Story: "Something Ancient Welling Up"

Author: Nolan Turner

Rating: $$

Review: I've been reading Playboy for more years than I care to actually count and I've been a creative writer for even longer than that. So the Playboy College Fiction Contest has always been somewhat of a curiosity to me.

Like every repressed, mischievous, middle-class teenager in America, I was fascinated by college and longed for it years before I got there; not because I wanted to start my secondary education, but because I wanted to grow up, to strike out on my own...and to party. To me, college was this strange, alternate universe in which everyone was vastly more sophisticated and mature than I was; a place where people got bleary-eyed on martinis every night after class and had mature, sophisticated sex with each other in swanky apartments that I would later learn resembled nothing like actual college living conditions, while studying the stock market reports and preparing to move to New York and get rich the moment they graduated. Yes, those fantasies of college were informed by my status as a bona fide child of the 80s and they -- of course -- turned out to be a load of fantastical bullshit cooked up by my precocious imagination; however, I read the Playboy College Fiction in those days in the hopes of gaining advance insight into this mysterious and eternally fascinating world and, as now, just trying to see what kinds of fiction makes it to publication.

When I was actually in college I submitted to the contest a few times to no avail, otherwise I'd surely be writing this blog post in a palatial four-story mansion in southern California while I figured out how to spend the billions I'd earned from my wildly successful media/writing career. In all honestly, my attempts were pathetically half-baked, lacking in any kind of polish or direction, and had about as much chance of winning the contest as catching a 1,000 pound blue marlin in a swimming pool. But hey: I tried.

Now that I'm out of college, and the gulf between my current lifestyle and that of a college student grows exponentially wider each year, I read the College Fiction as more as way to "see what the young kids are up to nowadays." And...just like back when I was 13, the College Fiction Contest reveals very little useful information about actual undergraduate life and/or culture, but rather, it's provided a chance to read a standout piece of work from an otherwise unknown yet promising writer who, in terms of the literary world, is a baby. Hell, not even a baby...a fetus.

Having labored (read: written) in varying degrees of complete anonymity and abject failure for the past 25 or so years myself, I now have a far deeper appreciation for the talent, diligence, and luck that have to come together in order for a writer to get published in even the most out of the way literary magazine, let alone win a contest at a magazine like Playboy. And so I read these stories with an eye toward liking them and finding their merits, not (as I would with a New Yorker story) so that I can throw up my hands to the Fiction Gods and ask "Why o why did this or that piece of dreck make it into the magazine" and write about how I'd fix story or some such garbage that no one's ever going to read. No...having once been a college student, and still being an aspiring writer, I've got nothing but love for anybody who wins this contest.

Thus, I'm not going to offer up a "review" of this story, as such. Is it a complete universe contained within 3,000 words, with a beginning, middle and end, which develops character and unfolds an interesting yet plausible plot, while simultaneously using memorable, well-crafted prose and deft dialogue to give the reader a rich, lasting experience she will ruminate over for years to come? No. But was it dark, zany, and fun to read? Yes! Who wants the other thing all the time? Do I need to re-examine what it means to be a human being on a Sunday morning when I'm sitting in my robe trying not to freeze my ass off? No. Credit to Turner on this one: while he had me, he had me. The caretaker at a dilapidated road-side gift shop in the desert discovers a minotaur in a Uhaul truck? A minotaur who drinks and smokes and reads Graham Greene? Yes. Yes I'm definitely on board. Like any fan of pulp/noir, I love reading about seedy characters and implausible situations.

Whether consciously or not, part of the ancestry of a story like this can be traced back to guys like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen; dark humor about exiled or otherwise cracked-up fringe characters who don't really want to be saved, but feel like they ought to try once in a while, in order to keep up appearances. And the use of the minotaur to add comic relief and to render even more ridiculous the situation in the story? Why not. We're in a world of reality TV (maybe already past that, but hey...), and in which fiction has to compete with movies and TV that are being pumped into all of our orifices every moment by every device we own, not to mention that what's happening in the actual world is getting weirder and weirder every year. Fiction has to be weirder, more exciting, more bizarre, more unbelievable -- and yet still believable within its own context -- in order to get attention. Nolan Turner manages to do just that in "Something Ancient Welling Up."

I could go further and try to dig into the symbolism here, and maybe I will in my spare time (ha), but suffice it to say: hats off to you, Nolan Turner. Fine work and I'll keep an eye out for your name on the bookshelves.

Intertextuality Alert: In what I consider to be a pretty ballsy attempt at intertextuality, the minotaur in this story is found to be reading a paperback copy of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, about a soldier who debates the meaning of life and existence until finally killing himself. As if the use of the minotaur weren't enough of an attempt at symbolism, Turner has to throw in Graham Greene? Damn, bro. Again, I'm sure I could spend far far too long trying to unpack the meaning of all this, but I'm not going to. Still, I admire the attempt (even if it displays excess of hubris?) to place his work within a literary and mythological context.


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…