At Last--a Literary Journal for the 99%
In the coming months it will be interesting to see what sort of effect the Occupy movement might have on literature. Or, beyond the movement itself, how will our literature change in the face of America's precarious economic situation? For to read the literature of the past—even five or six years ago past—is to read narratives wholly different from the realities of today.
To a contemporary reader, a novel such as Revolutionary Road for example, that 1950s bastion of beautifully rendered middle-class angst, might seem woefully out of touch. Today’s middle class families are working two jobs, if not more. They are lucky to own their house, but might be on the brink of foreclosure. Few are the Frank Wheelers who can work at their father’s company and expect to stay there over the course of their lives, looking forward to a handsome retirement package. This is all to say nothing of the kids—their mounting college loans, the dearth of jobs available, the hours spent negotiating with health insurance companies.
I bring this up not to depress you, but merely to observe how much the beliefs and expectations of our lives have shifted so dramatically in past years. And also because I’m doing a kind of casual, non-scientific study—how will today’s literature reflect these changes? In which literary magazines do we find the reality of daily conditions? In which literary magazines do we hear the voices of those afflicted by today’s frightening, uncertain and challenging times? Which are the literary magazines of the 99%?
I am pleased to say that I’ve discovered Gargoyle, the annually published journal from Paycock Press. There is an abundance of material in this journal, a veritable schmorgisborg of voices and points of view. Flash fiction? Check. (See Meg Pokrass’s delightful cluster of short shorts.) Poetry about poetry and/or MFA programs? Check. (See Nin Andrews’ humorous “How to Write an MFA Poem” or “How to Become a Famous Poet,” or Barbara Crooker’s beautiful “Very Long Afernoons.”) Poems about daily life? Check. (See Hugh Martin’s poignant “Home From Iraq, Eating Dinner” or Michael Gushue’s lovely “The Subprime Mortgage Crisis Explained.”)
There are also essays. The journal opens with Claire Blechman’s wry and insightful “Derrida, Interrupted,” which takes a look at parallels between Derrida’s arguments and the movie “Girl, Inerrupted.” From the highly theoretical, the journal then moves along to the intensely emotional with Carolyn Cooke’s stunning micro-nonfiction piece “The Rape Parade.” After this piece comes Carmen Delzell’s “Moving Away.”
It was upon reading “Moving Away” that I began to realize that Gargoyle is doing something different than other jouranls I have read. Delzell’s piece begins “I never intended to live the way I have.” Later she tells us, “I expected to have a house, go to graduate school and eventually teach at some small liberal arts college somewhere.” Delzell outlines her search for an apartment, which proves to be increasingly devastating. But the real devastation is the biographical note at the end: Delzell informs us that the piece was written in 1988, just before the writer became homeless.
The poetry section makes up roughly half this journal. (Did I mention that this issue of Gargoyle clocks in at 590 pages?) Here you will find several poets who have never published before flush against experienced poets with numerous chapbooks to their name. You will find delightfully frank lines, such as the opening to Laurel Bastian’s “Appetites”: “Lately all I’ve wanted to do is have sex and eat gelato,” as well as heartbreakers like the opening to Jim Daniels’ “Spinning Donuts in the Universal City Mall Parking Lot, Warren, MI”: “Laid off again./ Pick a year to set this in./ Pick a recession, any recession.”
The wealth of styles, voices, and subject matter applies to the fiction section as well. There are flash fiction, experimental, magical realist, and mainstream pieces all side by side in this large magazine. Of note among the flash fiction is Robert Scotellaro’s “Beep-Ball,” which gives us, in a very short space, a powerfully moving portrait of a dysfunctional sibling relationship, the sister nearly blinded by her own narcissism.
Lovers of experimental fiction will enjoy Stephanie Allen’s “Life and Times," a visual and literary experience that manages to capture the look and feel of a silent film. In this case, the story-film explores the life of I’zbee Long, a black man who had managed to make a career in a highly segregated 1920’s Hollywood by popularizing racist stereotypes of “ill-spoken, obsequious Negro characters.” The story is ambitious, both in content and form.
One of the most moving stories in this issue, Susann Cokal’s “Perfect, For You” tells the story of Big Walter, a man who has just gotten out of jail and goes in search of Christine, a woman with whom he once flirted many years ago. Cokal takes us deeply into Walter’s point of view, so that it is impossible not to sympathize with him and worry for his fate as he makes one bad decision after another. Cokal’s writing style is refreshingly unadorned, as sweet and simple as the story’s hero.
At nearly 600 pages, featuring its hugely diverse blend of voices, it’s hard not to think of Gargoyle as The Literary Magazine That Has it All. I love this. And yet, I did occasionally wonder if it was in danger of becoming The Literary Magazine That Has Too Much.
Ramola D’s story “Adulthood” is a gorgeous story about a newly pregnant woman contemplating an affair. The language is incisive and fresh and the narrator’s insights are meaningful ones. Yet at twenty pages, this story just seemed too long, the narrator’s rich self-examination in danger of veering into unchecked self-indulgence.
Similarly Jamie Brown’s “How Do You Get to the Sixties?” could have benefited from a little more probing and critical thinking. While the story is sweet and playful—the narrator enters a time loop in which he is transported back into the 1960s’ and free sex, drugs and political radicalism abound—the element of nostalgia feels slightly absurd, if not altogether naïve. The story seems to imply that the 1960s were just a nonstop love-fest, a time in which everything was much simpler and way groovier. But were the 1960s really so much better? And if so, for whom?
These small gripes aside, Gargoyle truly is a journal publishing the writing of our time. Within its pages you will find stories, essays, and poetry about ex-convicts and the homeless, about the mortgage crisis and academia, about those home from Iraq and those disillusioned about their future, about writers learning how to be better writers, and people struggling to keep their jobs.
But also, let’s not forget the timeless themes: love, family, friendship, sex, beauty, fear, loss, hope, joy. There is plenty of that here as well. This journal is big, people. As big as, well, the 99%.