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Seven Stories I Think More People Should Read

…Because what the internet totally needs is another year-end list.

I was thinking about some of the online writing from the past year that, for whatever reason, I’ve found most memorable… stories I read maybe once but kept thinking about, or ones I kept coming back to again and again. With a few exceptions, most aren’t pieces I’ve ever heard anybody else mention, so I began to wonder what it was about these that dug under my skin. I thought maybe if I compiled them here, in addition to possibly drawing some more attention to (underrated??) work, I might also notice some shared characteristics, patterns, etc, across or between these pieces… so if you read these, and notice anything, gimme a heads-up, will you?

And please feel free to comment on them here, generate some discussion.

I am presenting these in no particular order, and have included lines of text from each…

1. The Parents They Have Lost their Daughter, by Molly Gaudry (Kartika Review)

the mother, now she is the one who is sad; the father, his sadness is unimaginable; he does not want to be in this strange land holding what remains of his daughter between his hands, he does not want to be in this country of people who look like his daughter, who remind him of his daughter who shot herself in the face and doesn’t look like anyone or anything he knows or understands or sees before him now

I love that rhythm-pacing-repetition thing that happens in pieces like this with long, semicolon and comma-driven sentences a la Peter Markus, or Lily Hoang, or Nicholas Montemarano is his Pushcart-winning “The Worst Degree of Unforgivable” (is there a name for this technique?).  Molly’s story is haunting. I’m moved by the tension between how, on the one hand, this story begins and ends in incomplete sentences, fragmentation, despair, but is also circular, resolved, as the daughter’s story begins and ends in her country of birth; her parents return her ashes from whence she came.

2. Baby Love, by Sara Levine (Necessary Fiction)

I pulled off the blanket I’d draped over my stroller, where plastered in sleep, the baby lay, one eye leaking fluid, his face a wrinkled turnip on a platter.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” she said. “You certainly did have a baby. You did. Fucking Jesus Christ.”

This story is lucidly whacked. I love the frantic monologue quality, how it sort-of sings. I feel like the text itself is like… syncopated?? I think it bops around, produces in the reader a sensation not totally unlike the alienation/adoration this mother feels from and for her baby.

3. Boys with Insurance, by Thomas Kearnes (Wigleaf)

“I kiss him and slide off the bed. My body glows from within, like a Japanese lantern, and I wonder how many other rooms in this motel hold people like us, people just wanting another person inside them.”

This is my friend Thomas at his best, depicting dysfunctional relationships, disease, isolation, and just a hint of emotional vulnerability with startling honesty. I feel like his language is also becoming sharper, more efficient. I feel this story possesses many of the qualities I find admirable in stories by Mary Miller and Sam Ligon.

4. Motherfuckers, by Roxane Gay (decomp)

“Sometimes, Gérard sits on the edge of the bathtub and watches his father because it reminds him of home. He has the routine memorized—his father splashes his armpits with water, then lathers with soap, then rinses, then draws a damp washcloth across his chest, the back of his neck, behind his ears. His father excuses Gérard, and then washes between his thighs. He finishes his routine by washing his face and brushing his teeth. Then he goes to work. Back home, he was a journalist. In the States, he slices meat at a deli counter for eight hours a day and pretends not to speak English fluently.”

I do not think I can talk about this story without talking about content, because it’s the expression of an often-invisible immigrant experience that makes this story feel necessary, but of course this is a story about ass-kicking and agency and survival, not a story about victimization, and I cannot talk about its content without talking about language, right? For instance, I think the beauty of the above excerpt is the tension between the beauty and arduousness of Gerard’s father’s ritual, as rendered with words like, “splash,” “lather,” “rinse,” “draw,” words that, when placed in a comma series, evoke almost-erotic physical sensations in the reader (or in me anyway), at once thrilling and exhausting.

5. Emerald, by Meg Pokrass (elimae)

He asked her to choose a shade of green. He liked the way she stooped to tie her shoes like an old man, as though she could fall over very easily.
“Go,” he said.
The window was open and she screamed it. There was always a system to his punishments. He asked again.

…The excerpt above is actually the entire story. It’s micro. It’s by far the creepiest thing Meg has ever written, its white space haunts me. Punishments? What kind? …And that they are systematized. That choice of words. Chills. “The window was open and she screamed it,” is a startling and strange sentence. The window? What? She screamed? What did she scream? What does the window have to do with screaming? Totally scares and amazes me.

6. Throat too Small, by Cybele Knowles (DIAGRAM)

“Jill was silent. After a while, Ray lifted his face out of his hands to see what was going on. Jill was just sitting there and looking at him. But what eyebeams she was sending him, full of stern pity, as if she was a different and higher being from him. Right then she looked eerily like Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, specifically the moment when she gives warnings and gifts to the hobbits in preparation for their perilous journey to Mordor. Ray had watched the DVD special features and knew that when they were shooting Cate’s close-ups, they strung up Christmas lights behind the camera so her eyes would contain the tiny sparkling reflections of light. Ray knew he was in for it now.”

The first time I read this, I was not expecting to read it, I was just clicking around DIAGRAM, scanning and skimming, a bit impatient, and then I got totally sucked in… this one riveted me, held my attention the way few long stories do online, given all the sources of stimulation vying for my attention. I love this couple’s unusual relationship. The challenges they face. How they confront them. This felt like one of the most recognizable depictions of long-term intimacy I’ve ever encountered. There’s a casual warmth to Knowles’ narration. At first, her voice seems rather conversational and improvised. But upon closer inspection, it’s clearly carefully-crafted. I especially like her use of  unexpected juxtapositions — for instance, in the excerpt above, “sparkling reflections of light” and “in for it now.” I don’t remember anyone else ever mentioning this story, and I am doing a shitty-ass job identifying what I loved about it,  so I hope others will read it and offer their own thoughts.

7. What it Means to Disappear, by Angi Becker Stevens (Necessary Fiction)

“I never warn women about my shoulder before they see it, maybe because I don’t know how, or maybe because I enjoy being something unexpected, if only in the smallest of ways. They always try not to gasp or look too disturbed when they ask me what happened. I tell them I have a condition. Some of them will place their own fingertips into the holes, though they never fit just right. They ask if it hurts. I never tell them I wish that it did. I never explain what my condition is: that the only girls I love are the ones who make things disappear, who will take a part of me away.”

I feel like I use the word “haunt” too much… but that said, this is another story that “haunts” me, a fairytale-ish, Aimee Bender-ish exploration of its male protagonist’s rather compromising desires. His longing for a woman to erase him is both lovely and scary. I think this story struck me in part because stories that so candidly depict heterosexual male vulnerability seem incredibly rare… but my attraction to this story was profoundly emotional, not just political. That last paragraph — holy crap.

20 thoughts on “Seven Stories I Think More People Should Read

  1. Re: “The Parents They Have Lost their Daughter”, by Molly Gaudry:

    There is a percussive quality to the recursions, the embedded repetitions that literally drum the images into the reader’s mind. Check out Kamby Bolongo Mean River for another recent, but different approach, that is, one that relies on minimal punctuation rather than Molly’s maximal approach to same. I also like the way we’re ushered, no, thrown into her story in media res.

    1. percussive, yes, this makes sense.

      I definitely see the Kamby Bolongo thing also and greatly appreciated that book. ‘

      I like the in media res thing, too, and also that the piece ends mid-sentence… I think that’s what I was trying to get at, how form-wise and language-wise it’s unresolved and chopped, but story-wise, there is this circularity and resolution that comes from returning the daughter’s ashes to her place of birth. I think that’s really cool.

      Also, I was looking at Lily’s book last night, and realized she rocks the ampersands, not the commas or semicolons, to achieve a similar effect.

  2. There’s a lot of repetition in “Baby Love” as well. The words “baby” and “babies” appear many times. The story kind of reminds me of Barthelme, one of the masters of this kind of absurd comic register. I like these descriptive passages from the story:

    “where plastered in sleep, the baby lay, one eye leaking fluid, his face a wrinkled turnip on a platter.”

    “Our perfect baby, with his short habit of living, lay whiffling in the crib, a miraculous compression of human nature, cute and amazing and wondrous, capable of evolving into anything, permitting us to gaze on him in repose.”

    “Now I spied Young Mother and, like an octopus scenting chemical along the ocean’s current, drew close.”

    “For my feelings substitute the emptiness of a rain barrel, its wood drying out, its metal staves creaking; an unbidden, arid silence after two years of learning to hold the rain.”

    1. The Barthelme comparison is interesting. I think I see it, although this piece feels a little less poker-faced and formal than the Barthelme I’ve read, the narrator seems more aware of her absurdity.

      I love the repetition of the word baby. I feel like much like an actual baby, the word becomes alien, familiar, worried, worried over… acquires meaning, becomes meaningless, etc.

      I too like those descriptive passages.

  3. What I like most about “Boys with Insurance” is its deft handling of the metafictional elements. Each “intrusion” is somehow unobtrusive:
    “I’m in the story now, but I don’t tell him that. I don’t tell him I’m in the story, and in the story I’m not alone.”

    1. Definitely! …This metafiction is maybe a little bit of a departure for Thomas, he is usually very traditional in his approach to narrative. I think he handles it really effortlessly and it really adds depth to the piece.

  4. Yes, what is unsaid is what creates much of the tension in “Motherfuckers”. I like how the title reveals one of things left implicit, stating what the boy added to his “Yippee Kai Yay.”

  5. I kept thinking about Mary Caponegro’s Ill-Timed while reading “Throat Too Small.” Her novella deals with how an illness, in this case chronic fatigue syndrome, tests a relationship to its breaking point.

    I would love to have seen this passage developed further:
    “He felt entirely lost and helpless and down, so truly down that the feeling was literalized in visions he had been experiencing of himself at the bottom of a deep hole in the earth. He did not intentionally create these visions. They just flashed on him, and they felt like messages and warnings from his animal mind.”

    1. Yes, when I reread it yesterday another passage that stood out was this:

      “I don’t remember feeling sad those days, but I remember wanting her to make me disappear. It didn’t feel like a death wish, exactly. But I saw the way her eyes flared in the instant before something vanished, and I wanted to be in the center of that. To know how it felt for everything inside of her to be aimed only at me.”

      I reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Dennis Cooper’s “Try”:

      “A huge part of… sexual, abuse, at least for him, is how he loves being a target for such intense feelings, especially from someone who knows him, and isn’t just stupidly thinking he’s cute or whatever.”

      I feel I’m for some reason drawn to characters who desire a certain intensity of others’ attention, to the point of potentially compromising their own well-being, and who speak that desire really candidly.

  6. Thanks, Tim, for including my story. Motherfuckers is part of a collection of stories called Ayiti. Sadly, I cannot seem to find a home for it but I will try to work on the manuscript so that it finds a loving home. I love all the stories included in it.

      1. Yup, that story is in there too… It’s a bunch of short stories and shorter stories and a few poems and hybrid things about the haitian diaspora and haiti. I think it might be too.. ethnic for most small publishers. The manuscript is also (and this is me assessing myself) too uneven. It needs to be longer and I think some of the stories need polish. What it really needs is an editor who is willing to take a chance on the project and work with me to make it the amazing thing I think it is and can become.

  7. Tim, thank you for sharing what I find to be stories with a definite connection. Each story’s narrator speaks in a forever present. Meanwhile, the narrators are afforded great leaps in time because of the rhythm of the phrasing and punctuation, and the definitiveness of the dialog. These are parables condoning an internal form of escapism, I think.

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