A High-Quality Lit Mag Represents Status Quo
Of the various wrongs postmodernity has done us, the greatest might be it's vaulting of the quotidian to the level of high drama at the sacrifice of literary entertainment. This is a rhetorical exaggeration - the modern world is filled with worse horrors than less-than-inspiring literature - but I think it's a metaphor for something, or at least an indication of a worrisome outlook that defines the experience of the Harvard Review-reading version of the postmodern world. Maybe I'll get around to explaining this in my last paragraph and phrase it as a half-answered rhetorical question imbued with a leading sense of moral ambiguity. But for now we'll stick to tangibles.
It's easy to write Harvard off as an exclusive club defined by elitism, stuffiness, and self-righteous liberalism. This isn't fair, but when you're presented with evidence like the Harvard Review it becomes awfully hard to shake the assumptions. The Harvard Review's 45th issue is a polite collection of stories and poems defined by present-tense narration and limited contractions. It's focus is overwhelmingly white and middle-class (except when it's not), and its attitude has all the experimental edge of a Porcellian Club luncheon. If you are into curse words, bath salts (the dangerous kind), or the occasional dropped "g," The Harvard Review is probably not for you. If you enjoy middle-aged women suffering their boorish middle-aged husbands, children reading 1970s sex-ed pamphlets, or African boys watching losing soccer games, then you are in for a slightly ambiguous and immaculately grammatical treat.
To call The Harvard Review "pretentious" would be unfair, because it is in many ways defined by "unpretentiousness." The spectacular and the difficult have no place here. At no point in my reading was I anything close to confused. A better word might be "establishment" - and, given that about half of its contributors are MFA professors and that all of them are previously published, this makes sense. This is not a journal for young guns and alt-lit revolutionaries. One gets the impression that The Harvard Review intends to be the official manual on "how stories in 2014 are written." Maybe the Ivy League name on the cover forces the impression, but the striking conformity of the stories does nothing to counter it.
If I can say anything for The Harvard Review, it's that it's consistent. There is a style here, and there is a type of story. You know what you are getting into from the journal's first clause ("the mini-skirted waitress keeps insinuating herself into the knot of people in which my husband holds court…" Eileen Pollack, "Women's Tissues") and you keep getting that until its very last ("In my dreams I tell my aunt all this and more as the rain rinses Tokyo, and she listened and nods and understands," Mako Yoshikawa, "Tokyo Monsoon"). The prose style is so documentary in nature that it's difficult to tell sometimes whether or not one is actually just reading a documentary. There are several stories that according to the back cover are in fact "essays," but so little separates them from certified fiction like Pollack's and Suzanne Matson's ("Your Best Yet") that one is forced to question what fiction actually is these days. Which I suppose might be the point.
The Harvard Review also contains poetry; like the fiction, it's formally straightforward and frequently about marriage (or, as the 21st century would have it, divorce). Some of it is interesting (Laurie Duggan's "Allotments" - "a park bench, empty / on the slope / suitable enough / for pathos") some of it contains lines like "Shaved / her legs with Ockham's razor" (Chard Deniord, "Anchorite in Autumn"). On average it seems to be less sterile than the stories, but still cripplingly polite. There are also several visual art spreads, printed in black and white without commentary, a practice that has always baffled me - what good is a canvas going to do me in low-resolution matte? But they serve nicely to break up the content.
The highlight of the journal for me is "Metaphor Studies" in which Lia Purpura takes several seemingly arbitrary correlations and makes elaborate broken metaphors out of them. The most profound is her comparison of the "greening" of Staten Island's Fresh Kills Landfill to the healing human body: "A dump restored is a body healed. A scar is a plaque on the body's field." The bizarreness of Purpura's metaphor adds to its emotionalism - I am unsure what to feel as my daily struggles are heightened to the aversion of environmental calamity, and I am something close to exalted.
The everyday battles of middle-class life are real, and we - as everyday middle-class soldiers (I'm being reductive of my audience here, but - I mean -) - experience them as real. The dissolution of marriage earns the agony brought on by hanging ambiguity; the challenges of parenting a child who is not one's own deserves the formal respect we give to the subjects of long-form journalism. But there's something so false to me about the seriousness of The Harvard Review's treatment of these things. There isn't a single point in my reading where I even feel invited to laugh, or gasp, or cringe. The challenges of everyday life have been exalted into Significance, but the Significance seems to exist only in name and form. The metaphor can't stretch beyond ambiguity, and the form can't push anywhere beyond real life. We're left with something flat and weighty and excruciatingly empty - but in this version of postmodernity, what more could we possibly want?