For The Surrealist Writer in All of Us
When I was first asked to review the inaugural issue of Unstuck for The Review Review, I was flattered. Then I was wary. I hadn’t read a literary journal in a while. The word “postmodernism” still gives me flashbacks to my sophomore English seminar at Harvard, where the other kids talked about Foucault and Descartes as I sat there silently, hoping no one would ask for my opinion.
But – not to judge a book by its cover – I knew I was going to like Unstuck the moment I looked at it. The journal billed itself as “literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, the surreal, and the strange,” which would tempt anyone with an imagination as nutty and overactive as mine. I was intrigued by the front cover, which featured a foggy stairway leading to who-knows-where, the railing engulfed by either sand or snow. Like that stairway, all the stories and poems in the journal had an eerie, unsettled air running through them. They were interspersed with line drawings featuring cactus, androids, and an array of abstract objects – images that appeared sweetly bizarre without screaming “science fiction” or “fantasy.”
Ultimately, I found Unstuck had about a two-to-one ratio of truly engaging pieces to works that disappointed me. But the stories and poems I liked were so delightful that I devoured each new piece with joyful anticipation. I may not have loved whatever came next, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a boring ride.
Things started off a little unusual – though not especially fantastical – with the two poems that opened the issue. But Matthew Vollmer’s “The Ones You Want to Keep” marked the point where Unstuck stopped dipping its toes into the oddity pool and just dove in. This deadpan tale of a man being followed by his late wife’s corpse was darkly funny, poignant at points, and ultimately unsettling – and it whet my appetite for the rest of the journal’s offerings.
Matthew Derby’s “Dokken” was a superb next choice. A disturbing Garden of Eden-in-reverse tale, it describes a once-powerful and now HIV-positive CEO and his pregnant girlfriend/assistant – possibly the only two people left alive on the planet – as they struggle to survive on an island made of plastic trash. Despite the story’s fantastic black humor, its descriptions of mounds of plastic detritus still haunt me every time I throw something non-recyclable away.
I really liked “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” by Rachel Swirsky, an amusing story about a yearly ritual where the undead have quickie weddings in a seedy doughnut store. It was also the perfect foil to the subsequent piece: “Second Grade” by Charles Antin, a straightforward and captivating story about a world just like ours where second-grade students are recruited for the military, leaving behind perplexed classmates and extremely concerned teachers who await their crayon-written letters.
What got my attention after that was “Peer Confession” by John Maradik and Rachel B. Glaser. This dry, witty story full of metaphors about religion and human nature was my favorite in the whole journal. It follows a teenage girl who lives in a town with two churches: the stalwart boat-shaped church she attends, led by her quiet and kindly orthodontist Priest Paul; and the sparkling new Church Hello on the banks of Lake Weepy, led by Herb, who is both handsome and kind of icky.
The following story was another sublime and slow shuffle into weirdness. Lindsay Hunter’s “You and Your Cats” describes a woman who transitions from heartbreak to borderline insanity by taking in an ever-increasing number of cats. Further in the journal was Kaethe Schwehn’s poem “Sea Air Breezy; Nothing Dreadful,” an elegantly discordant descent into madness and fear.
However, “Six Flags” by Meghan McCarron – my second favorite story in the whole collection – astonished me. Part ghost story, part zombie story, part wickedly funny tale of the apocalypse and its anti-hero, it was an absolute page-turner and worth the price of the issue alone. Next up was “The Carrot” by Arthur Bradford, a comical story about an absurdly giant carrot, a man who loves it, and a woman who doesn’t. I’ve read Bradford’s work before and like his voice, so I dug this quirky little tale.
I found another great couplet of works in “the horses” by Patrick Haas, a poem fraught with horror about disasters natural and man-made; and Julia Whicker’s “Wonderblood,” a story of violent murderous gangs that dub themselves “carnivals” and roam what remains of the U.S. But, despite a weak beginning and ending, the next-to-last story – “The Dobbs House,” by Randy Schaub – also lingered with me. In it, the grandson of a serial killer tours the gaudy museum made from his family’s old house.
As much as I enjoyed Unstuck, the journal is not without flaws. The lack of background in Judson Merrill’s “Inside Out,” J. Robert Lennon’s “The Cottage on the Hill,” and Helen Phillips’ “R” became a liability, leaving me too distracted and confused to become fully immersed in three otherwise good stories. Only a few of the poems really sparked my interest. And I thought ending the issue with Andrew Friedman’s “The Rain Falls Down and Hits Us, So Down’s Where We Must Be” was not the best choice. Compared to the vibrancy of some of the other selections, it seemed a dull way to end a wild ride.
Overall I would heartily recommend Unstuck to anyone who appreciates tales with a weird twist, but doesn’t generally seek out hard fantasy or science fiction. It was a bit of a grab bag, but the spectacular stories and poems outnumbered – and outshone – the weaker ones. I can’t wait to see what enchanting little eccentricities next year’s issue brings.