Short Story Review – Clelia Farris – Holes (trans. Rachel Cordasco)

It’s nice to have holes. I like having holes. Knowledge is the world falling into a hole. The human being has evolved because it has holes. Alice found Wonderland at the bottom of a hole.

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time, too much time in fact, reading bad fantasy books instead of, well, anything else.  I’m talking DragonLance, Terry Goodkind, and endless, endless Fighting Fantasy books.  None of them hold up today (Goodkind is a wannabe fascist), though I have something of a fondness for the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever (though can someone please explain why all of these series seem to come out of D&D adventures?  What does this say about them, and us for reading them?)

Anyway something I didn’t do much was read science fiction.  I tried.  I read some Asimov, and I liked the stories about robots.  I read some of Greg Egan’s short stories, and they were good.  Mind opening.  Perhaps that’s why – I wasn’t ready to be challenged?

Science fiction is – or can be – about challenging preconceived notions, putting ideas and ideals into relief to see what might happen when taken to an extreme, or when explored to its fullest.  It offers an extension of where we are now via where we could end up, and perhaps whether we do or do not is reliant on the stories we are able to tell ourselves.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive.  Or too grand.  Space operas exist, of course, and they often woefully rotten junk.  Or just plain old grand adventures, which is fine, but not really what I’m talking about here.

Holes by Clelia Farris, is an ideas story.  Specifically, the ideas of nurturing, womanhood, being a mother.  It’s contained within the prism of a robotic/machine-like egg which seeks to create holes in itself, holes to encourage understanding.  And, unfortunately, pain.

This time, the pain is piercing, ferocious. Incandescent awls hammer my body from the inside, hooks soaked in acid widen the nicks, tear the skin to shreds, small drills from the tip thin as a strand of baby hair slip into the smooth albumen of my egg and emerge from the other side after leaving me a hole of infinitesimal diameter. They’re called pores, and they bloom like little spring flowers over every centimeter of my body.

The pain was not what ‘the server’ wanted, but overall she’s – cough cough, sorry sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself – fine with it.  The pain is worth it.  It’s no accident, I think, that the paragraphs in the story become longer, the sentences more elaborate, as the egg is pierced.  There are fewer sentences which begin with “I”.  The narration is more complex, and more pleasing to the ear.

De Sade Inc. contacts me to offer their services: What is full, with us becomes empty. Do you want to tear off the mask?

Clever, clever, clever.

I think short stories are a fine medium within which to explore the confines of a single idea.  I do.  I wonder if, perhaps, this short story is a touch too short.  For me, anyway, I was left without enough context to really sink my teeth into the ideas presented.

I’m intrigued by Farris.  I think this idea was successfully explored, but at the same time, for me, I wanted a bit more meat with my egg.  A bad metaphor, but you know what I mean.  The ending, when it arrives, is pretty obvious, but it’s a nice touch and works well.  This is a complete and coherent piece, and that, while perhaps seeming like simply damning with faint praise, really isn’t.  I’ve read DragonLance, remember?

Holes is a short story by Italian writer Clelia Farris, translated by Rachel Cordasco.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Clelia Farris
Title Holes
Translator Rachel Cordasco
Nationality Italian
Publisher World Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Olga Grjasnowa – The Legal Haziness of a Marriage (trans. Eva Bacon)

This is something of a prologue to a larger novel, one that has not, I believe, been translated into English.  I suppose writing about a prologue – and about a female Azerbaijani writer – has value simply because of the rarity of the combination.  And so, here we are.

What to make of a woman who has done something utterly distasteful but suffered punishment entirely out of whack with what she has done?  Sympathy, I suppose.  But it’s hard.

Leyla is involved in illegal street racing in Baku.  It’s a pastime of the idle rich children of the monied political class and corrupt businessmen.   Supposedly, the fact that pedestrians might be run over and killed is all part of the thrill.  And Leyla loves it.  It is, she thinks, the “last remaining option for rebellion”, which is a frankly reprehensible way of looking at a dangerous and thoughtless activity.

However:

The presidential family frowned upon street racing. It was among the few offenses that couldn’t be smoothed out with money. The young drivers—none of the arrested had been older than twenty-six—were usually held at the police station, and the officers took turns giving them beatings. A common, even harmless, practice in this area of the world.

[The prison guard’s] right hand slowly wandered up Leyla’s thigh, lingered on her crotch, found its way into her underwear and there did its damage with slow determination. It only retreated to wipe off the snot that Leyla spit into his face. He might have even enjoyed Leyla’s unyielding disdain. When he was done, he hit her a few times with such force that she lost consciousness. She would wake up later with the taste of blood in her mouth and a hand on her breast.

It’s too much.  It’s too much.  She doesn’t deserve sexual assault as punishment for what she has done.  And, unfortunately, as the only woman detained, she bears the brunt of male attention.

Leyla’s thoughts fade in and out of the present as she is assaulted and beaten, coming to rest often on her history as a ballerina.  Those days are gone.  Grjasnowa creates an interesting comparison of the physical duress under which a ballerina-in-training and a prisoner suffer.

And yet and yet and yet.  I am sympathetic to Leyla.  I am.  She should not have to suffer like that.  But I am of course in moral opposition to what she has done and the enjoyment she has derived from it.  The violent games of the idle rich do not interest me, and if anything I support the state’s ability to round them up and teach them a lesson via fine and/or imprisonment.

But not the sexual violence lesson.  Or the physical violence lesson.

And I suppose this is the point.  I’m in an uncomfortable situation.  I would like to believe I have a strong moral compass, but here I am conflicted.  The easy answer is to say – stop the violence, stop the sexual assault, clean up the streets and give the kids something to do.

Really easy to type.  Really easy.

The Legal Haziness of a Marriage is a short story by Azerbaijani writer Olga Grjasnowa, translated by Eva Bacon.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Olga Grjasnowa
Title The Legal Haziness of a Marriage
Translator Eva Bacon
Nationality Azerbaijani
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

The Journal of Failure – Week 24 of 2019

Week 24 of 2019 – 3 June to 9 June 2019

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 103 / day, or 721 / week
  • Achieved – 747/707 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 0/7 – Failure!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 28 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 30 minutes/28 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 49 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 27 minutes/49 minutes – Failure!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Zero (Seven total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Twelve total for the year)
  • Rejections – One (Six total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Ah, another rejection.  This time from Hi Vis Press’ Low Light magazine, so that is a shame.  Nose to the grindstone and all that.  I’ve received a lot of rejections lately because I have been submitting a lot!  So it doesn’t bother me too much, though more than, of course, an acceptance.

Writing was ok this week, though not as good as the previous couple of weeks.  I was unwell, and that basically meant I spent two days off working playing Hollow Knight, and then when I was back at work, I went to bed very early and just recovered. That also meant I read a good chunk of Murakami because it goes down super easy, even if I don’t exactly admire his subject matter or writing style.  But I do like to read him when I miss Japan, which is often.

Still, I started work on a new short story, this one set in Minsk and concerning two friends who start an importing company under watchful Soviet eyes, and which was initially inspired by Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Far From Here, which was in one of the Dalkey Archive Press’ Best European Fiction collections.  I have about 700 words so far, and it’s at a point where I could finalise it as flash or keep it going to hit the sweet spot of 2,000 – 3,000 words.  I may just submit it around as a flash piece while continuing to work on it.  I am reasonably happy with where it is going, though I admit I need to avoid my strange tendency to fall into mawkish sentimentality.  I suppose because it is easy to write (and horrible to read)?

The novel continues apace.  It’s a 5,465 words now, so there was a modest increase from last week’s 4,865, but much of the (admittedly short) time spent working on it this week was tinkering around the edges.

I have added a front page now with a working title and an area for two questions which I need to keep in mind at all times:

What is the through-line?

What are the themes?

Themes are self-explanatory, and I believe that they will begin to reveal themselves as the piece continues.  Already I can see a focus toward art and the relationship of a father to his daughter (surprise – I write about that more now that I have a daughter!).  But a more thorough reread (and further words on a the page!) will help elucidate the themes and allow me to focus and cut away items which don’t swirl around those.

The through-line is more tenuous but more important, I think.  It’s an aspect of a novel I think about a lot when reading, and even more while writing.  Let’s take Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which is 800 or so pages of – everything!  And yet, the through-line is, to me, the search for the writer Archimboldi and the problem of the murder of women in Santa Teresa/Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.  Everything read in that book revolves in some way around those primary conceits, or near enough.  One can indulge a touch with 800 pages.  Anyway, I need to find my own through-line/s and then use that lens to view anything I write – does it align with what I’m trying to achieve?  Is it relevant in some way?  Am I progressing or commenting upon the major aspects of the novel?

I don’t know what it is, yes, which means I am fumbling around a bit.  But when I find it that will allow me to go back to what I’ve written and, also considering the themes, really hone in on what I would like to achieve.

I continue to fail writing I Remember, which means more of the mundane nothingness of my life disappears.  I started that project with the explicit intention of avoiding losing the small parts of my life, but that hasn’t worked as well as I would like.  Alas.

Reading was fine.  Nothing spectacular.  Of primary note is S. A. Chakraborty‘s City of Brass, which I picked up a while ago based on an article I’d read about up and coming fantasy writers who were taking fantasy in different and interesting directions.  And, look, if the Arabian skin had been removed from this novel it would be a mediocre fantasy novel, so that’s a real shame.  There’s not much to it and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless you really want to read the word ‘Cairo’ in a fantasy novel.  I am not in a very great hurry to read the other two in the trilogy, and perhaps never will.

I’m on track to read 50 novels by the end of June, which is, I think, about right and what I should expect with a young child.  100 novels for the year would please me.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

The Journal of Failure – Week 23 of 2019

Week 23 of 2019 – 27 May 2019 to 2 June 2019

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 102p / day, or 714 / week
  • Achieved – 785/707 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 6/7 – Failure!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 28 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 0 minutes/28 minutes – Failure!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 42 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 1 hour 29 minutes/35 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – One (Seven total for the year)
  • Submissions – Two (Twelve total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Five total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

I am pleased with how much I read this week.  Much of it can be laid at the feet of Rachel Cusk.  I finished her wonderful Outline trilogy this week, rereading the first two books, and read for the first time the third.  I think on balance the first book is the strongest, and then the third, and then the second.  The repetition throughout the books works well.  Cusk has found a melody which holds up to different interpretations.  All of this is good.

So often, though, I feel like this kind of autofiction is also endless fiction, both positively and negatively.  At its best, I want to read a thousand, ten thousand such pages.  At its worst, I feel like all of those many thousands of pages will be identical.  She says a few things at length, and says them well, but the drifting feel where nothing happens means that you really could write a thousand pages and have nothing happen.  I don’t know.  The summarised version of my argument here is that good writing is good, and bad writing bad, which is reductive, meaningless and unnecessary.  And yet. It’s the same with Knausgaard, who really did fill thousands of pages with meandering nothingness.  Is it because seeing our own banal thoughts on a page provides comfort because it implies that we have kindred spirits in the world?  Perhaps.

I wrote no short fiction at all.  Hard to get myself out there if I am not plugging away at that. I didn’t even crack a notepad or pen in that space.

I wrote almost enough I Remembers.  I need to write 7 / week to keep abreast of the time as it passes, and more to catch up.  Oh yes – my memories are stuck in March 2018, which means I look back through my photos to jog my memory of what happened then, and thus I see a lot of pregnant-wife photos, but my March 2018 self did not know I was having a daughter and knew nothing also of her personality or her name.

I did spend a good chunk of time working on the larger project, which I have given the working title of ‘Woes’.  It’s coming along well enough, I think.  I increased the word count from 2,795 to 4,864.  I don’t have an explicit word count each week, or total desired word count as yet, but it’s nice to watch numbers go up.  I think we can all agree about that.

I am starting to develop a feel for where this piece is going.  I find that 5,000 – 10,000 words is the danger zone for me when I haven’t got any planning in place because I start to just add random words and scenes in without any thought to cohesiveness.  I suppose there is an argument that a first draft shouldn’t aim for cohesion but for feel, and that matters of tightening can be attended to lately.  And in this I broadly agree, but if I have really no idea in which direction a novel is headed then I will invariably just rewrite the plot of a novel I admire.  And we don’t want that!

This week my aim is to start eliminating some of the placeholder TK texts I have throughout the work, and to develop enough of a framework that I can get beyond the 10,000 hurdle.  Once through that I hope it is smooth(er) sailing.

Of course, I have started reading Patrick Modiano this week, and now I want to be writing a gauzy fiction/non-fiction memoir about memory and loss.  Of course!

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – Still Watching; Watching, Still

Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.  

What would Father say now, seeing himself in bronze, his name on a plaque, flowers adorning our flag placed at his feet?  Did he like birds?  I don’t know.  But he’ll be surrounded by them in the park.  They’ll defecate all over his statue.  In this country, even the most sacred things become shitty.

When it takes seventy-two bullets to kill a man it is clear that perhaps the death of an ordinary man has birthed a Great Man, one whose deeds will resonate throughout history, or at least for a little while.  But Great Men have wives, and children, and what happens to them when they are dead and gone, immortalised in increasingly cloying tales and songs?

Martha Bátiz’s short story, Still Watching; Watching, Still, is a story about the young daughter of a man who glimpsed immortality through the lens of guerilla warfare and dissent.  When she was very young he was absent, returning only rarely, and exhausted, his breathing ‘devoid of peace’.  Her mother kept the house running though she, too, was a rebel.

What were they rebelling against?  It doesn’t matter.  The government, I suppose.  This isn’t about the heroics of a populist struggle but the damage it, and any military retaliation, leaves in the wake of their battles.  The adults choose death and conflict, the children suffer and die.  So it goes.

The majority of this story is set decades later, with the daughter grown now, her young son with her.  She remembers.  She can’t help it – the legend of her father has grown, and invariably she will see his face on the television.  A revolutionary becomes part of the government institution, and the wheels that grind, grind on.  She remembers.  She wants the best for her child but is constantly on the run, unable to set down roots, unwilling to relax and breathe.  The trauma of her childhood has poisoned herself as a woman, and nothing will ever be good or feel safe.

Her father – dead from seventy-two bullets.  Her mother – disappeared.  Her guardian – beaten for her silence and courage in the face of violence.  She can’t trust anyone, and knows that she has been broken beyond repair.

But, at least, there’s a statue of him now.  The filthy revolutionary has become the celebrated Great Man of contemporary history, helping pave the way from a violent Then to a peaceful Now.  Good enough substitute for a living, breathing father, no?  No.

Still Watching; Watching, Still is a short story written by Martha Bátiz.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Other stories from this collection include:

Author Martha Bátiz (Twitter)
Title Still Watching; Watching, Still
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

The Journal of Failure – Week 22 of 2019

Week 22 of 2019 – 20 May 2019 to 26 May 2019

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 101p / day, or 707 / week
  • Achieved – 856/707 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 1/7 – Failure!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 28 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 26 minutes/28 minutes – Failure!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 35 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 1 hour 37 minutes/35 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – One (Six total for the year)
  • Submissions – Two (Ten total for the year)
  • Rejections – One (Five total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Overall, a week of success.  Let’s unpack why.

Reading went very well.  I didn’t read a thing on Saturday and Sunday, because I have a seven month old daughter and that is impossible, but all other days were quite fruitful there.  My to-read pile is ridiculous – I think fifteen books – and growing larger rather than shrinking.  Happily I think I bought zero books, though, so at least I am making some headway.  But there are, I am sure, books I own now that I will die before reading.

The short story rejection was unpleasant.  It’s a story I really like, and I just haven’t found a good home for it.  Alas, alas.  This time the rejection was from 3:AM Magazine, which is a prestige publication for me.  But it wasn’t to be.  I will continue to post this story about for a little while yet, and then if there are no acceptances at all I’ll put it on ice for a couple of months and see what fresh brings in, say, 2020.

I submitted two stories, Automatic/Typewriter Keys and Liberty Leading the People, to Meanjin this week.  I saw a call for submissions and so I did.  There’s really nothing much else to it than that.

I am running low on ‘submittable’ work, though, as I haven’t written a new short story in a while, and as can be seen, didn’t spend too much time working on short pieces this week.  That can be explained by my enthusiasm for the longer piece (see below), but it is obviously quite difficult to submit short stories when, ah, I don’t have any at hand!

I have gone completely away from the flash fiction concept because I realised I just didn’t like reading them.  So, why write them?  2,000 – 4,000 words seems more my wheelhouse.  The sub 1,000 word stories seem, at times, too ephemeral, needlessly quirky, needlessly experimental, flowery without purpose, and so on. I want a bit more time to breathe a story.

I wrote quite a bit on a new, novel(la)-length piece, and I’m pleased, so far, with how it is going.  I mentioned last week that I was cribbing from Roberto Bolaño to get me started, but it has moved sufficiently away from his writing that it’s off in new territory.  So, give me another couple of thousand words and I’ll start to remove the Bolaño ties at the start and then have my own distinct piece of writing.

I took the piece from basically 0 words at the start of the week, to just under 3,000, so it has enough meat there that I can start to see a shape.  I am attempting to do rushed-writing, so I substitute names of characters or ideas with TK and just keep on writing, with the intention of returning to them later at some stage.  There are, currently, 75 TKs in the document, which is frightening – but most of those are repeated names that I haven’t yet determined.

The primary talking point this week is, I think, my shift from pen and paper, to computer.  I love writing with my pen.  I use a Mitsubishi uni-ball eye blue micro pen.  I have for years.  The feel of the pen against a notepad immediately puts me in the right frame of mind for writing.  But.  I find it very difficult to look back at what I have written and continue on, and this is mostly because my hand writing is shocking and I spend just enough time trying to decipher my writing that my brain starts to switch to some kind of editing mode, and the creative drive diminishes.  And so I am writing in a Google Docs word document.  My main concern there is, I suppose, versioning and the history of the text, but I know that Google saves these things.  And, there’s something rather wonderful about having a stack of paper of my scribbling, and I definitely lose that using my computer.

But in the end, it meant I was able to write for 1 hour and 37 minutes which, while it isn’t what I want to end up doing, is much better than the usual 0 minutes.

Oh, and I only wrote one I Remember, which is terrible, but of all the areas to fail in, that one bothers me the least.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Empar Moliner – In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More (trans. Novia Pagone)

I work alone, and I don’t keep secrets from myself.

Empar, probable homebody, is on the search for a man who will take her to the Ebro River Delta, a place where ‘boyfriends tend to take their girlfriends’.

By the third sentence of this story she’s off to a dating agency to see what they might be able to do for her.  Why can’t she find someone on her own?  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

“What don’t you like about your personality?” she ventures. “I like everything,” I tell her. And it’s the truth. When she asks me about my life goals, I declare that I don’t have any. “How important is sex to you in a stable relationship?” she wants to know. If I say five, will that look bad?, I wonder. In the end, I rate it a four, but only because I’m feeling romantic this year.

Empar, or rather, the character in the story named Empar, is an entertaining and funny woman.  Her inner self makes jokes and pokes fun at who she is and what she’s trying to achieve, though outwardly she comes across as a touch awkward and uncertain.

She seems here, at this dating agency, less to find a match, and more to understand the kinds of questions a dating agency would ask in order for her to better know the milieu that is contemporary dating.  It’s all so much to think about, so much to plan for.

The idea that we can boil down a potential partner to a series of questions and answers is absurd, of course, but it is an appealing concept nonetheless.  But how can it possibly be true if we find it difficult to boil ourselves down in such a manner?  We don’t know ourselves well enough to condense our personality on to a single page, and yet here Empar is attempting to recreate a full man from a series of yes/no.

Empar, the character, recognises this absurdity, and she loves it.  And then Empar, the writer, finishes the story with a fine comic twist, and away we go, off to write an email to a fascinating woman.

In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More is a short story by Spanish (Catalan) writer Empar Moliner and was translated by Novia Pagone.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Empar Moliner
Title In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More
Translator Novia Pagone
Nationality Spanish (Catalan)
Publisher World Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.