Meta-stories and Metaphories
I have submitted short stories to FICTION many times. It's a prestigious literary magazine, with a track record that includes authors like Russell Banks, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme. Before submitting to the journal, I had never read it. I had simply thought, "I write fiction. There's a journal called FICTION. Perfect."
My assumption could not have been more wrong. For someone who writes more or less traditional stories, with characters moving in a narrative arc toward some surprising but inevitable end, this journal may not necessarily be a good fit. Judging from this issue, FICTION stories lean heavily on the experimental side. That's a broad category, I know, and what does it mean?
Well, first there's "Lonely Tylenol" by Kristin Kearns, an inventive short story that begins "I fell in love with a palindrome. His name was Otto and he was the same front and back..." The couple communicates in palindromes. When Otto injures himself, he asks his girlfriend to injure his other leg, to make it even.
The story is plainly told, with virtually no explanation. One begins to sense that it is not the characters the reader should get attached to, but the metaphor the characters' actions serve. We see this again in Martha Schwendener's "Post-Partum." Here, a woman who is pressured into pregnancy haves a baby, but decides she doesn't want it and gives it back to the hospital. She then puts all the baby's things into the dumpster. That's that.
A similar style appears in Michael Poore's "The Fires of Krypton" which takes place in a trailer park and revolves around several characters: Verna May, her daughter Dee Dee, Dee Dee's boyfriend Ray Ponder, and the devil. After losing a bet, Ray Ponder hands his girlfriend over to the devil. Turns out the devil's not so bad afterall, and he does a few favors for Verna May, and Dee Dee seems to enjoy him in bed.
What are these stories? In all three, we meet characters who are simply names. They have minimal attributes. Mostly, they stand out in our mind for doing outrageous things like asking to be shot in the leg, or giving back a baby, or letting the devil have sex with one's girlfriend. Are these all meant to be ironic takes on the very notion of character? Are they ironic metaphors for stories? They certainly have the makings of conventional stories--character, plot, conflict. And yet they're so deadpan, the characters so undeveloped, the writing so direct and unadorned that they seem to be part of some subgenre. Irony shorts? Meta-stories? Metaphories?
For some readers, these stories may not leave much lasting impact. Without real characters to connect to, one might simply read along in a state of bemused curiosity. Other readers will enjoy the levity of the narrative, the snappy dialogue and brisk pace of these stories. These readers will also probably enjoy the larger ideological points the stories seem to be making, in some cases more overtly than others.
In "No Man's Land," Joseph McElroy tells a sincere and un-ironic story in a complex way. Ali is a little boy struggling to claim his identity within a foreign culture. This story is not an easy read. Sentences are structured in unfamiliar patterns, perhaps mirroring the choppy English of the boy Ali and his family. Point of view shifts and is never clearly identified. And paragraphs halt abruptly and change tone as in:
"Green Day Ali hears like a message, a life, a promise--because he would like to learn to play the bass like...
(Never missed school, never home sick, ‘like a chip off your old block' he will say two, three days later when I recited a Russian poet in English--‘But I love my unfortunate land/ Because I have not seen any other.'"