…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.