#tobyreads: Short Works, Plus the End of the World


Writing this column poses something of a conundrum, as nearly all of the reading I’ve done this week has been for upcoming freelance assignments. So expect to see more of a focus on shorter works this time out: stories and essays I’ve encountered in publications in print and online. Plus one novel about attraction, a declining Iowa town, and giant bugs.

In the mail yesterday: the latest issue of Conjunctions, with a theme of exile. Before going to bed, I read stories from Brian Evenson, Peter Straub, and Gabriel Blackwell–maybe not a trifecta of authors to read if you don’t want your subconscious to head to strange places. Blackwell’s story “The Invention of an Island” is one of literary obsession, as his narrator mulls over the dissolution of his family and his fixation of the stories of Doctors Moreau and Morel. It’s of a piece with his novels riffing on noir and Lovecraft: obsessive works about obsessive characters, with metafiction deployed to unexpected ends.

Evenson’s story “Cult,” about a man still reeling from a horrific relationship, is subtler in the ways in which it unsettles. What impressed me the most about “Cult” was the way in which evoked a character totally invested in undermining himself without using a lot of the tropes that you might associate with it. There isn’t violence conducted against himself, nor is there is obsessive or overtly self-destructive behavior. It’s much more subtle; in the end, it’s much more unsettling.

Peter Straub’s story “The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero” focuses on a young literary prodigy; from the introduction, I found myself wondering if this was a kind of tribute to Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, which has a similar setup. That’s not the case here; instead, there’s a slow unwinding, the young writer’s initially phonetic spelling setting up genuinely creepy questions of identity, menace, and mortality. It’s the kind of work that led to a couple of glances back over my shoulder, and the prospect of a sleepless night.


Maybe it’s relevant to mention that I read Adam Phillips’s interview in The Paris Review, which incorporates riffs on literature and psychology in equal measure. Phillips is someone whose work I evidently need to check out; not long after reading the interview (which was deeply illuminating), I stumbled onto a reference to his work in something else I was reading. And a writer who I interviewed for a forthcoming piece to appear here was also reading a book of his when we met up; clearly, this is a sign of something.


As literary spaces go, I have a lot of affection towards Joyland: it’s run by excellent people, and they’ve published a couple of stories of mine. This week, I found myself returning to work they’d published again and again: first, Megan Stielstra’s “Felt Like Something,” a harrowing essay dealing with belief, bodies, and families, and then Sarah Gerard’s “Alligator,” a Florida-set story in which the underlying menace of the natural world moves into the open. Both are detailed and precise, their details tactile and vividly visual. 


I’m part of WORD’s YA Not? Book Group, which is how I came to read Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Which is a very strange book. Its narrator is a teenager obsessed with his family’s own (admittedly wrenching) history; he’s also coming to terms with the fact that he’s in love with both his girlfriend and his (male) best friend. But for all that this novel contains a realistic portrait of a fading Midwestern town, there’s also a deeply apocalyptic element here, by which I mean: six-foot-tall insects, the legacy of a mad scientist, and decades-old body parts suspended in jars, still twitching.  (I’m very tempted to say that it’s the first bizarro YA novel I’ve encountered.) I had some issues with it–the ending, in particular, introduces a number of character dynamics that deserved more pages to play out–but overall, it’s a stylish and creepy read.


On the nonfiction front, I also found Andrew Prokop’s Vox piece on Andrew Cuomo’s time as governor of New York, “Governor 1 Percent,” to be fascinating reading. There’s plenty to chew on here regardless of your take on Cuomo. And part of Prokop’s point is that Cuomo’s approach to governing can alternately repel and attract specific political groups, depending on the issue at hand. If you’re on the left, you may applaud his advocacy of marriage equality while grimacing at his handling of taxes for the wealthy; if you’re on the right, his budget-cutting tendencies may appeal even as his advocacy of gun control frustrates. (And if your politics evade easy categorization, as is the case for many, you might have an entirely different take on the man.) Prokop suggests that these contradictions point to something more significant in terms of the current state of the Democratic Party, and it leaves few easy answers. Read it now so that you’ll know what half the smart pundits you’ll read over the weekend will be talking about. Assuming you read assorted smart pundits.

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