The Wild West Struts Its Talent
The fall 2009 edition of The Los Angeles Review includes a veritable bounty of talent. Not three or four essayists, but seven. Not 20 or even 25 poets, but 39. And you want fiction? How about 27 short story writers! Plus five reviews, one interview, and a "special feature" on poet Wanda Coleman, and you begin to understand why The Los Angeles Review costs $20 and weighs more than the average literary magazine. But does quantity equal quality? Let's find out.
Tai Dong Huai's short story "Drinking" is a glimpse into a dysfunctional relationship between a high school senior and her adoptive father. The father is a binge alcoholic who teaches all week and gets drunk on Friday nights. "You're like your mom," he tells Leah at one point, and this is what's disconcerting. Without spelling it out for us, Huai leads us to understand that (1) Leah's adoptive mom is gone and (2) her adoptive father needs Leah to take her place. When he suggests making tacos for supper, she replies, "I'll always be around for your tacos," but instantly regrets "just how true those words might be." It's not an extraordinary tale, or extraordinarily told, but it's an honest look at two people who wish things could be different.
If "Drinking" is a short story, Liz Prato's "My Son's Father" is a short short story, observing another dysfunctional family in just six paragraphs. Three-year-old Jimmy wishes he could see his father. His mother, who, like the father, has no name in the story, is on the phone because the father has "called after midnight from a telescope aimed at the Incan sky." The father's excuse is, "There's so much dust in Centaurus," as if that would validate his absence from his little boy. He's "only two time zones away, but over four thousand miles south-by-southeast, and another six thousand straight up." Prato's concluding assessment of who the man is is powerful. This is an extraordinary study of a lost soul and the family he's affecting.
And if "My Son's Father" is a short short story, then Lydia Davis's "The Sentence and the Young Man" is microfiction. I had to check the contents to be sure it wasn't a prose poem. In five lines, Davis sets up a taut fantasy scenario that holds our attention. An ungrammatical sentence "perhaps in an open trash can" says "Who sing!?!" "Perhaps" is important, because we don't know if any of this is true, just as "we" are watching the sentence "perhaps from a shadowed archway." A young man passes the trash can more than once, "eyeing the sentence curiously." We are riveted to our spot in the dark, afraid that "he will reach in quickly and fix it." What does it mean? Why didn't "we" simply rescue the sentence from the trash can? What does "Who sing!?!" mean in the first place? There's just enough logic here to draw us in, and just enough unreality to keep the scene replaying in our minds afterward. "The Sentence and the Young Man" is extraordinary on all counts.
Now here's an authentic prose poem--Gale Thompson's "Deepak Chopra." It's prose in form, but pure poetry in its content. It's a meditation on Chopra the pop culture figure and how he figures into the life of the persona. The sentences are borderline nonsensical, but they build powerfully as we consider the image of Chopra from many diverse angles: "Deepak Chopra carries two men in his hands..." "Deepak Chopra is round as a sleeping bear..." "Deepak Chopra spells the words Deepak Chopra into scattered Scrabble letters..." "Deepak Chopra is involved with the theory of hypersonic flow..." There's not much I feel confident saying about the poem because it appears to be purely interpretive, but I like it for its sheer imaginative creativity.