A Flash of Beauty
What a treat. This is The Kenyon Review's 70th anniversary issue, and it is, as editor David H. Lynn says in the Editor's Notes, "exemplary": "[W]e are about literature--stories, poems, and essays that matter, that move us, that strive for a deep resonance at the heart of the human. This seventieth anniversary edition of The Kenyon Review is exemplary in seeking nothing less than that." He's right. Every piece reviewed here is indicative of the best the magazine has always had to offer.
E.L. Doctorow and Joyce Carol Oates, both members of The Kenyon Review'sAdvisory Board, are represented by two excellent short stories, "All the Time in the World" and "The Spill," respectively.
In "All the Time in the World," Doctorow gives us an existential tale of a lone jogger in New York City, a sort of surreal "Notes from Underground." The unnamed narrator, obsessed with the isolated beauty of Mongolia he finds at the Museum of Natural History, tells his internist at one point, "I'm here in Times Square, there are thousands of people standing around and waiting for what I don't know and I have never felt more alone." The people he turns to for help--his internist, his psychiatrist, a priest, among others--explain to him that he has "all the time in the world" until something happens, but when he asks what, he gets the ubiquitous reply, "If we knew." But no one does know, and Doctorow's finale, more akin to Arthur C. Clarke than Dostoevsky, begs more questions than it answers. This is a haunting, beautiful work from one of our finest writers.
More than once in "The Spill," Joyce Carol Oates refers to fairy tales, "cruel fairy tales, with the terrible endings." "The Spill" itself reads like an adult fairy tale, with the Oates trademark combination of innocence and violence. The innocence comes most notably in the form of John Henry, the grown and mentally challenged nephew of Walter Braam, through whose second wife, Lizabeta, we follow the tale (though the true teller of the tale is withheld until the end). The violence is hinted at early on, then left for the reader to discover later. We're told it has to do with the Spill, a rock formation in a stream that can well up and become a cascading, treacherous spillway. Lizabeta protects her young children from harm as best she can, even to the point of reading "to her children only those fairy tales that ended And they lived happily ever after, and before beginning any story she checked the end, to see how it turned out." "The Spill" has, if not the length of a novel, the breadth of one, and the reader gets swept away in its rich narrative. It's one of the best short stories from a master.
This issue features the three winners of The Kenyon Review's Short Fiction Contest. Each is an example of sudden, or flash, fiction, stories fifteen hundred words or less, each was written by a writer under thirty years of age, and each was selected by this year's final judge, novelist Alice Hoffman. I agree with Hoffman's choices, and in the order she assigned. The first place winner, Cara Blue Adams' "I Met Loss the Other Day," is the story I want to focus on.
It's a classic of the short-short form. Not a single word is extraneous. "I met Loss the other day. I took his measurements." The speaker is a tailor, fitting Loss for a dark suit. Loss has an entourage of "six thick-necked men, boisterous for their size." Six, the number of pallbearers. "I asked him to stand relax. He nodded but remained stiff." Loss and the tailor, or seamstress, discuss Loss's operation--the employees, the administrative meetings, the warehouses, "Each person's losses filed in long skinny drawers." Like a morgue.