7 JUNE 2017 | KAREN KAO
It’s been a while since I read an issue of Glimmer Train. Maybe I’ve been cross because they haven’t accepted any of my stories for publication. Yet. But now I’m sorry. I’ve been depriving myself of a wonderful treat. The Winter 2015 issue (no. 92) is full of the kind of writing I love.
I love sentences that move across the page in unpredictable patterns, like “Transit” by Gillian Burnes. This is a collection of self-contained miniature stories, some of which are no longer than a paragraph. Together, they speak of the journey we all endure from here to there.
It occurred to a single father in Brooklyn that he’d rather be where he was – scraping his sick four-year-old daughter’s boogers off her bedroom wall with a plastic knife, a Scotch-Brite sponge, and a bottle of lavender cleaning spray – than in the other room playing marble chutes with her.
Then there’s “Number 41” by Kimberly Bunker, a story that takes the journey one step further. In Bunker’s case, it’s a journey that always starts in death.
When you were walking home from the bus station and a man stepped out from behind you, when you hesitated and he grabbed your purse and threw you on the ground, your name was Lynn.
Lynn’s story gradually unfolds and refolds into other, improbable lives. As inexplicable as that frisson you feel when you meet someone for the first time and you think, I know you.
There is something equally wonderful about shifting perspectives and unreliable narrators. Both are storytelling devices in use since the beginning of time or, at the very least, since In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Both are attempts to demonstrate the impossibility of ever knowing the truth.
Each shift in perspective refracts the light in a slightly different way, creating new shades and shadows. Ming Holden shifts perspectives in “Keller’s Ranch.” We hear from the mother, the son and both daughters, each of whom gives voice to their own, disparate memories of a family tragedy.
This is how I remember it.
Mark Hitz deploys a child narrator in “Shadehill” to bear witness to a joyful family reunion and its terrible aftermath. We watch the family disintegrate through the eyes of one sorrowful child.
I found my sister Mary sitting in the corner of the utility closet on a pile of shoes and sat down with her and we tied all of the shoes and listened to flooded voices and noises and the shredding of family seams.
In the creepy “If She Doesn’t Answer” by David Ebenbach, another unreliable narrator speaks: an unnamed woman trying to cheat fate.
If I don’t answer, it hasn’t happened, she thinks, sitting up in bed in the very dark.
a pile of manure
These Glimmer Train stories are all wonderful examples of writing that soars, seemingly free from all artifice or authorial intent. Just the way George Saunders recommends in his interview by David Naimon. Here’s a bit of pungent advice to all writers out there.
I always thought that if you keep your conceptualizing mind – the writer mind that wants to pull the big manure truck with your politics and your thematics in it and dump it on the reader – if you can keep that quiet, then things like meaning [are] like really shy animals. They’ll come out of the woods, but you have to stay very still. You have to pretend like you’re not interested in them. “Don’t bother me right now, I’m making a joke,” or, “I’m trying to make this living room.” But because the writer, of course, has all those things going on, [meaning] will leech in and come in so honestly, and they won’t be abstract, but intimately linked to action and character.
He makes it sound easy, doesn’t he?