Ken Kalfus – A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006)

I read this book by accident. No, I didn’t fall, it was like this: After reading Ken Kalfus’ Three Stories from Madras Press, I ordered Thirst, his first collection of short stories recently re-released. At least, I thought I did. Turns out, I ordered this novel instead (I’ve been focusing my attention on short stories lately so I was not looking for a novel). At least I think that’s what happened. Maybe I deliberately ordered it because I knew it used 9/11 as a take-off point (though that would be more likely to disincent me), maybe I thought it was a collection, maybe I hit the wrong button, maybe I don’t know. Anyway, this book arrived, I ordered Thirst (which I’ve already talked about), and now I’m reading this, because, well, it’s here. And the New York Times review sounded interesting.

I am not a fan of 9/11 literature. Or 9/11 songs. Movies. Whatever. I have no particular moral stance on this, I didn’t even think about it until recently. It’s too soon. But, as I said, the book was here, so I am reading. And I’m commenting as I go, though I won’t post this until I’m done. The overall story concerns a couple, Joyce and Marshall, whose divorce corresponds to the immediate post-9/11 period.

Chapter One, titled “September”: On 9/11, Joyce is supposed to fly to San Francisco on the flight that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania, but at the last second the meeting is cancelled and she returns to her office in time to see the towers, in which Marshall works, burn. Both think the other has been killed. Both are happy the other has been killed. Both are wrong. Marshall helps another guy, Lloyd, as he escapes from the Tower, only to see Lloyd’s head split by falling debris. It reads like many of the survivor accounts we’ve all read. This is my problem with 9/11 literature. I don’t want to read fiction when there’s an abundance of history and biography that need to be heard. I guess I resent it. I don’t quite understand why, since I don’t resent fictional accounts of other disasters. Like I said, maybe it’s too soon. But the first chapter is good, if you don’t have my hang-up. Excellent, in fact. Their marriage, from amiable failure to war, is chronicled; “It was in a previous decade, another century, that this had started out civilly, as an agreement reached almost affectionately that their marriage was not as warm as it had been. In the six months of therapy in which they were encouraged to break down the barriers that prevented them from speaking frankly, Joyce and Marshall discovered that they hated each other.” Now that’s successful therapy. Then they move on to arbitration, and finally to cutthroat lawyers.

There are children, as there usually are. Viola, four, poops “willfully” in the park. Joyce leaves Vic unattended (in a New York park) to get her cleaned up, and this becomes custody fodder. Joyce muses: “The force of Marshall’s hatred was nearly self-validating: after all, how could a man believe with such fervor and be wrong?” Of course, such a man can be wrong, as we all learned and will review later on.

As Marshall works his way out of the crumbling Tower, he realizes “…in these moments of peril, decision, and action… something was being revealed. He could discern hope. He could, at this instant, glimpse a vision of the man he could yet be.” I understand this. So did Chekhov when he said, “Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s the day to day living that wears you out.”

“October”: We learn about terror sex. Joyce isn’t having any (she’s having terror Cherry Garcia), but a lot of her friends are: “She had come up out of the station, Dora said, and had absentmindedly looked for the towers to orient herself, but they weren’t there and the man was and he understood her confusion at once.” Joyce and Marshall are still living together separately, still not communicating except in minimal phrases about who picks up the kids today. Then Joyce’s building gets an envelope containing a white powder. Gee, I’d forgotten about the post-9/11 Anthrax. “The mail had become another kind of unsafe sex.” It’s a hoax, but Joyce thinks the handwriting on the envelope looks a lot like Marshall’s, so she goes for an interview with the FBI, gives them his name, and finds an incriminating bottle of baby powder in her bathroom. In a panic she emails the FBI agent, who flubs Reply (he hasn’t had his training yet… how much training does an FBI agent need to reply to an email?) but finally tells her they’ve located the hoaxter, at which point Joyce hits on him, all this while Marshall is pounding on the bathroom door demanding equal access as stipulated in their separation agreement. You have to read it to appreciate it. It’s good.

In “November”, the war proceeds in Afghanistan and in a certain Manhattan apartment. The baby powder turns out to be a remedy for a rash Marshall experienced. Joyce becomes enthralled with all things Afghan, including restaurants, jewelry, and “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and all the permutations thereof. And the term “high-strung” becomes important. It’s applied to Joyce, per Marshall’s doctor. To Amanda, Joyce’s mother. And to sister Flora, who is getting married, when Marshall calls fiancé Neal and gets invited to his bachelor party. He also acquires a device that allows him to listen in on Joyce’s phone calls. Joyce calls up Roger (though apparently not while Marshall is listening), half of a former-friend-couple, to return a photo album which she forgets, requiring that he return to the apartment where they get it on in Marshall’s bedroom. At which point he reveals that he has some gripe against wife Linda, and he takes Joyce’s Afghan ankle bracelet as a trophy: “…she knew she had not seduced Roger at all. He had his own reasons for making love to her, something to do with Linda….. Every human relationship was a conspiracy.”

The bachelor party, plus wedding, happens in “December” along with some very clever psychological warfare on Marshall’s part during the bachelor party to plant seeds of anti-Semitism in the Jewish groom-to-be and his Jewish friends which then spread to the bride-to-be and her family as more and more Jewish elements are added to the wedding, including a chuppah which turns out to be very complicated and is the calling card by which Marshall announces his deceit. I still don’t quite understand why. To humiliate Joyce, the bride’s sister? To prevent the marriage, any marriage (this one being the one he has some connection with) from happening at all? Just to be a mean son-of-a-bitch? It’s quite stunning in execution in that way that I never understand, since I’ve never understood how this kind of manipulation really works. A key moment is when the children “play 9/11” by jumping from the porch.

We then jump to “May” and the third-person narration shifts to Viola. The kids learn their parents are getting divorced. They know all about divorce. I’m thinking it isn’t realistic to think they’ve been living in this – they see a child counselor and spend time with their parents on alternate weekends, so they’re already experiencing shared custody, what, they never overhear anything? Are they slow? I’m being mean, but it doesn’t ring true. Kids usually know what’s going on, or at least they know something’s going on. I’m not crazy about the shift in POV of this chapter, though I suppose it’s necessary to show how Viola processes knowledge of the divorce.

In “July” we see the divorce from Marshall’s eyes: does he know his wife well enough to decide if she’s bluffing or if she’s confident? He discovers her 401k, which he guesses she’s forgotten about since it hasn’t been touched. And it’s outperformed his dismal efforts by a factor of 10. She buys an espresso machine which infuriates him. He sets out to destroy her 401k, and discovers at last he’s got the Midas touch. He earns her $300,000 in a couple of days. And Joyce appears, while he’s wrestling with Victor’s shoe, looking wonderful, and before he knows it, he’s said, “Wow. You look nice.” This is Against the Rules: they have maintained strict silence, neutral tones, custody of the eyes, for this entire period and he blew it. She swears at him, and Viola, just graduated from day care with a 30 year old soul, explains it to him. And then the boom falls: his company dies, he is jobless, and he knows the Midas touch is gone.

“August” finds Marshall jobless after his company collapses, and he becomes psychically united with the victims of a pizzeria bombing in Tel Aviv as he constructs his own suicide bomb. It does not work, although Joyce tries her best to help him check the wiring.

The final chapter, lots of months, becomes surreal. Marshall goes to a bizarre party which seems to include an Abu Ghraib guard conducting an interrogation. The divorce is finalized, and neither Joyce nor Marshall is happy, of course, which means it’s the fairest possible settlement. The war in Iraq proceeds, is won in record time (here is where I got confused – what?), WMDs are discovered (now wait a minute), Saddam is hung and T-shirts with the image of his hanging become a worldwide rage (huh?), Syria becomes a democracy (now wait a minute…), Osama is found (oh, ok, now I see, it’s a fantasy! A “clean” war to contrast to the “dirty” divorce?) and Joyce and Marshall find themselves thrown together at a street celebration.

It’s funny how time changes things, to look through the retrospectroscope, and yet, it is cool to document things in the heat of the moment. The paranoia. The confusion – what if Bush is right, what if there are WMDs? How we sold our birthright for a mess of potage. How we might never get it back.

A book worth reading.

Ken Kalfus – Thirst (Collected Stories)

Ken Kalfus – Thirst (Story Collection)

I chose to read this book after having very much enjoyed the author’s Three Stories from Madras Press, the second series. This collection was first published in 1998, then re-released in 2010 by Milkweed.

I found the collection to be extremely varied in technique and style; most are third-person but some aren’t even narratives, exactly. That’s a good thing. And they’re all weird. Some really weird, some just a little around the edges, maybe. That’s good, too. No navel-gazing man confronting his life misspent, no browbeaten woman finding the courage to change. Or, rather, there is, all over the place, but none of these stories would be characterized as such. There are a few I’d call misses, but overall I found the collection very enjoyable.

“Notice” is, maybe a story, maybe an essay, maybe a preface. This is a wonderful way to start a book of stories, with something that might be one thing but might be another, keeping the reader off balance and puzzled. It’s also very funny, whatever it is. And it reminds me how much the current generation of kids is missing, not having mimeograph papers to sniff. We had duck-and-cover, mimeograph fluid, the JFK assassination. The generation before us had the Depression and WWII. What does this generation find that links them together? Oh, wait. 9/11. Yeah, that kind of trumps everything, doesn’t it. Except there are fifth graders who are learning it, as we learned about Pearl Harbor, as history. I wonder what they’ll find. See how far a three-page not-sure-what-it-is can take you? Favorite line: “NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.”

“Le Jardin de la Sexualite” is a suite of two stories about a young Irish au pair in Paris, eager to experience life. Except she finds Paris a little too much to experience, encountering brassiere advertisements, naked art, and a very nice Algerian (who turns out to be Moroccan) who is suspect, then not. The way these stories are written, I wasn’t totally sure if her perception of sex all around her was her perception (come on, even in Paris, is there that much sex? Isn’t there any clothed art? All she sees are breasts and penises everywhere) or reality. Again, that “what do we have here” feeling, which is odd but quite enjoyable. Her reactions to the Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian – dangerous, attractive, hostile, attracted – flutter by and morph by the minute. It’s a lovely set of stories. I can’t see them separated, though they are two separate stories.

“The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz” is likewise a “what is this” story. It consists of a set of questions, the answers showing a lot more about human nature than baseball. I don’t particularly like baseball (I was scarred by 20 years in Boston) and I don’t particularly like baseball stories, but this was great. And again I was, as a non-baseball person, unsure as to whether the trivia questions were being truthfully answered or if everything was invention. Turns out, it’s all fictitious, and I suppose a baseball fan would know that. But it doesn’t really matter that much. Favorite line: “He expected to foul off balls to the end of time, forever drawing from the stadium’s supply (the management would have to call for more), forever dispensing souvenirs of this historic event among the game’s spectators. Time had stopped; each foul ball further dilated the moment.”

“Cats in Space” went by me a bit. A child’s-eye retrospective. Made me want to get some helium balloons, just to see if you could launch a cat into space that way. I’ve had cats since 1976, by the way, and my fourth (and last) is now 16. I just didn’t quite hook onto this story. Best line: The title.

“The Republic of Saint Mark, 1849” was another one of those bouncing-in-my-seat-waving-my-hand-over-my-head-“I-know-I-know-pick-me!” story. I vaguely remember reading the first aerial bombardment in wartime used balloons to drop packets of explosives, back a long time ago. I don’t remember the specifics but I won’t argue with Austria vs. Italy in 1849. Again, you’re never quite sure what you’re reading. Not one of my favorites. Favorite line: In Venice, of course, not all the suffering is done by men and women. For example, the still-red roses in the Contessa’s window box are being driven mad by the screams of her rotting gardenias.”

“Night and Day You Are The One” is the story of poor Harrah, who due to a strange sleep disorder leads two parallel lives complete with two apartments, two jobs, and two ladies in his life. Then worlds begin to collide. I enjoyed this tremendously. I remember a movie from some time in the 1980’s, I think, where Kathleen Turner (maybe) couldn’t tell which was real and which was dream, and in one she ended up in prison for murder. I kept thinking of that movie while reading this. Interesting that I can’t remember the name of it. But this story worked, the little details kept it going. I do wish there had been more to the end, but that’s probably just because I’m not sophisticated to appreciate ambiguity. Favorite line: “Harrah did not consider it to his advantage that this sleep disorder allowed him to maintain relationships with two women at once. It was often a nuisance: two birthdays to recall, two sets of personal endearments, and many complications.”

“Among the Bulgarians” changes direction completely; it’s entirely realism. A teenager returns to the US after living with his parents in Bulgaria (under communism – probably in the early 80’s, John Lennon’s murder is mentioned and seems to be recent) for the summer. What’s interesting is that the title is “Among the Bulgarians” yet the story is about him being among his old friends at home again. It’s a wonderful exposition of that old canard about travel being educational, although it isn’t educational in the way one would expect. His mother wants him to write a diary, discussing Bulgaria in various categories (Politics, Art, Sports, etc). This does not hold much interest for him. But he’s very aware of the difference between where he was and where he is. In Bulgaria he notes the Monument, erected by the Communists, that includes a giant black marble sword visible everywhere in the city. Back home he wonders just what store it was that the new Friendly’s replaced. And muses how wrong the poster he brought back for his friend is. It’s not interesting enough to hang, it’s too big. Re-entry adjustment. Being a teenager, he doesn’t articulate it, which I love, because having him articulate it would ruin it. I enjoyed this story tremendously. Favorite line: “…recording his experiences would attenuate them. It would destroy his spontaneity, making him self-conscious. And a journal would replace these images and ideas that were pouring into his brain like sunshine through a skylight with whatever language he clumsily chose to describe them, so that years later he would no longer possess the memory, but merely the inexact words.” Ok, he does articulate his lack of articulation. But that’s it.

“Suit” is another young-person realist story, though it’s written to be a little puzzling initially. Gerard Morton and his father are waiting for Benedict in a men’s clothier. Benedict is going to cost a lot of money. Gerard – a twenty-one year old – has never conceived of going to college, grad school, getting married. He doesn’t seem to have conceived of much beyond getting through the day. The first line is “How about white linen?” which reminds me of the Streets of Laredo and a cowboy so I’m wondering if I have very strange associations (Gerard thinks of it as what Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) or Gerard is feeling pretty dead. Benedict’s purpose is revealed later, though it becomes obvious by the second or third page as he runs around the shop picking a suit for Gerard. It’s a wonderful character story that doesn’t look like a character story. And I finally caught on – everything in this book looks like one thing but is probably not. Favorite line: “Benedict was about thirty-five, but his clothes and accessories gave him the appearance of someone much younger whose confidence, grace, and abilities gave him the appearance of someone much older, about thirty-five.” I’m smitten.

“The Weather in New York” is one of the shortest pieces, and one of my least favorites. Son from Florida comes to visit Dad in New York. That’s enough for me right there. Favorite line, slightly paraphrased: Father says, “Florida? Hah! It’s a hot New Jersey.” And so it is. Usually it’s the New Yorker son who visits Dad in Florida. That’s why I like this volume, everything is turned on its head.

“Rope Bridge” could be your typical cheating-husband story but there are several really interesting elements that make it more. Tom and Claire, and young son Adam, go to visit Claire’s friend Lucy. Tom considers that he and Lucy have been flirting a little for years, and he becomes obsessed with having an affair with her, something he likens to crossing a rope bridge. The way this is written – and this is his art – I’m just as unsure as Tom as to whether he and Lucy are actually flirting, or if their brief contacts are accidental. In any event, they end up in bed and in a coitus interruptus scene that works perfectly, little Adam wakes up. Or maybe he’s sleepwalking. In any event, Tom disengages and turns to talk of Star Wars and Star Trek so quickly, it’s miraculous. I’m awed by that scene. Especially since Lucy is “gasping” and tries to keep him from going. It’s really quite good. There’s another interesting scene in which Tom wonders aloud to his wife what color Lucy’s pubic hair might be, if it’s blonde. Claire assures him it isn’t, it’s dark with a bit of reddishness, and this makes me wonder, hmmm, I can’t say that I know the precise color of anyone’s pubic hair (that includes my spouse to whom I was married for 15 years, though that was a long time ago) and how did Claire learn this information and why does she remember it so vividly? Or is she making it up? Again, there’s this off-balance quality throughout that is a wonderful experience, not frustrating like “I don’t understand” but more like, “I wonder if I’m right about this.” Favorite line: it’s quite long, actually, and belongs to Lucy: “When you liked somebody when you were young, you went with them to the movies; it was just a matter of preference. Now you have to live with them the rest of your life. And when you’re younger you think you know this as a fact of life, but you don’t come close to knowing it. So now this is what they mean when they call going to work five days a week – week in, week, out, no spring break, no three-month summer vacation – a grind. So this is what they mean when they complain about getting old. So this is what they mean when they complain about death.” Yes, I get this. When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to go to work. Real work, not little jobs for neighbors. I was so proud, at 18, to have a desk and a telephone and a typewriter (yes, a typewriter, that’s how long ago it was) and it wasn’t for quite a few years that I realized this wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. And when I was a kid, my aunt would ask me to help her dust and my job would be to dust the legs of the furniture because I could crawl around on the floor without any trouble, and I’d open all the jars, and I’d thread the needles. And now I understand, it wasn’t because she wanted to give me something to do. An excellent story out of what could have been treadworn material.

“Invisible Malls” is an anti-consumerism riff on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and a clever one too. Malls of time, sleep, desire, Memory, and the Dead (who shop without hurrying). My favorite is the Indoor Shopping Mall of Desire 1, where all the wisdom of the ages, not to mention eternal life, is available. But… well, you’ll have to read the story. By itself, probably not worth it.

“No Grace on the Road” has a very different feel, to me; I kept recalling how I felt when I read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” from In Our Time though that was a long, long time ago. Still, the mix of cultures, the heartbreak, the grim reality, even at times a starkness of language, though nowhere near Hemingway’s, kept occurring to me. At any rate, it’s pure tragedy unmitigated by humor, magic, or wordplay. It’s the story of a French Indochine man who spent most of his life in Paris and the US, married a Columbia grad student, and is back in his native land for military service, required even though he has a high-level job as an economist. They are caught in a monsoon and seek shelter with a native family, whose baby is sick. It’s a clash of cultures, as the military man goes back and forth from science to myth and agonizes over some choices. There is one glaring moment when “the reader” appears, which for me felt like something horrible. I’m sure this isn’t something done by accident – “Oh, I’m going to avoid explaining these Asian ideographs by saying it would be too hard on the reader” – but whatever the reason, the effect on me was enraging. I suppose it sets the entire piece as a diary entry, gives it some metafiction appeal, and I need to get over myself, but I wish the few words weren’t in the story. I would’ve rather read three long, dense pages about the ideographs. Favorite line: the explanation of the title.

“A Line is a Series of Points” goes back to the world stage, and follows a line of refugees who have wandered so long they no longer remember where their home is. I love this story, parable, fable. When one is struggling for survival, it’s hard to see past the present, this minute, today. But no matter how short-term our outlook, we do create a history, even if it’s only available from the outside. And maybe that’s the true horror of exile, we lose entire civilizations. Favorite line: “We believed that we held claim to the sum of the world’s sympathy; that we were paragons of misery; that ages hence poets would employ our travails as a metaphor for all kinds of alienation and displacement. It is unbearable to consider now that there may be another people, in equal or even greater distress, with whom we must share our symbolism.”

All these stories deal with thirst – desire – in one way or another, but then again, virtually any story deals with desire. That’s what a story is, a character wants something and struggles to get it. For me, the unifying factor was was more about “Just what is this here?” I’m very glad I read this book. I also have his novel A Disorder Peculiar To The Country” and will get to that shortly.

Ken Kalfus – “Three Stories”

I am a major fan of Madras Press – and I have all eight of their teeny-tiny books to prove it. For the record, I have no financial interest whatsoever in the organization, and though I someday hope I will write a story good enough for Sumanth to publish, I am not holding my breath. I just enjoy the size, design, and text of the books.

From Series 2, which was just released in December 2010, we have Three Stories by Ken Kalfus. I wish there was a notation somewhere on the website and in the book that all three stories are reprints, two from AGNI and one from Harper’s. They are not available online. This volume is more than worth the $9 or $10 it will cost you to get it.

“The Moment They Were Waiting For” (first published in Harper’s, September 2003) explores the idea: what would happen to society if we all knew the exact date of our death? The story begins with the trial of Lester Ganz, who is executed for a heinous (though unspecified) crime and, as he was obsessed with knowing the date he would die, curses the town with the same fate. Everyone wakes up with a particular date on his or her mind, and as time goes on, it becomes evident that the date is the date of death for that person. Some people make efforts to avoid their fate by staying home, hiring guards, etc., to no avail. And some try to take matters into their own hands and commit suicide, but they are uniformly unsuccessful unless they do so on their fated date. And a sadness settles over people, being so firmly burdened with the knowledge of their own demise: “In their hours of greatest pleasure, sharing a good meal with friends or playing catch with their children on a hazy summer morning, no one could escape the thought: this too shall pass.”

It’s interesting that knowledge of death is the curse, not death – it is the mirror image of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil planted by God in the Garden of Eden. Knowledge of Death is brought about by a curse from Satan (there are several hints that Lester Ganz, the only named character in the story, is the Devil).

Society reacts to this in various ways: a new calendar is devised for schoolchildren so they will not worry, lovers take death dates into consideration when planning marriage, and the anniversary of one’s death is celebrated instead of birthdays. This is where, for me, the story could be so much stronger. I wish it was novel or novella length, to allow this to be played out by individuals with names and histories. It’s told at a significant psychic distance (see, I have learned something!) and is thus more abstract than real. The warden and his fiance are specified as a couple that breaks up because of her date being only four years hence (his is 93 years away) and that’s the right idea, but they don’t have names. The unnamed warden is the other main character, carrying through to the end of the story. But still, so much could be done here. Would people start lying about their dates? Would employers require dates, maybe proof of them? Would technology spring up to aid in forgetting the date, and would it work, or perhaps like the CAT scan from the moon landings serve another purpose? How does a child discover that this date in his head, “June 8 2073” is the date he will die? I think an opportunity was missed here. Though I understand Universal Pictures optioned this in 2006 so maybe the screenplay, if ever written, will have more detail.

I’m reminded of two other books that look at the prescience of doom: Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters which I read last summer, and concerns one man who, from the time he was a fetus, heard a voice that told him all manner of things including that an asteroid would destroy the earth on a certain day in the future. And how do you convince yourself that anything matters with that kind of knowledge? The title gives the hint that he manages to do so. Then there was Robert Heinlein’s “Timeline”, a short story in his The Past Through Tomorrow future history in which a scientist build a machine that would predict the date of death for a person, but had to destroy it because that knowledge was too dangerous.

The second story, “Professor Aricebo” was originally published in AGNI in Issue #67, Spring 2008, and is a study of cell phones. Now here is a very close and intimate study of an abstract idea we all wonder about: how have cell phones changed things? Do we lie more easily by saying we are one place when we are another? Is it an insult to call someone from a bathroom? Is it eavesdropping to listen to an interesting conversation, or is it rude to hold such a conversation, and if you hear yourself being discussed inaccurately, can you put a stop to it? And can you get away from the damn things anywhere? It’s fascinating, following the Professor through his day.

The third story, “The Un-” is also from AGNI, Issue #70, Fall 2009, and is about the insanity of writers. Apparently that issue of AGNI was all writing about writing, which I have been told several times is a serious no-no; I guess they figured they’d put it all in one issue and not have to deal with it for a while. It opens: “There are hundreds of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer, and young Joshua Glory knew them all.” I found it hilarious and a little embarrassing, like he’d been in my head and put some of my insecurities out there for everyone to read. I am not sure how non-writers would see this story, but I am positive writers will love it.

The story itself is rather thin: Joshua Glory, unpublished writer (no, not quite, he had a story in a college journal two years ago but the journal folded and the college is now unaccredited; damn, how did he know about The Flask Review?!?) goes through his day agonizing over all manner of writing issues. For instance, he waits for the mailman – it takes 16 minutes for the mailman to reach his door from the moment he crosses the alley, but that means he has to be watching the alley at the precise moment the mailman crosses to know when the sixteen minutes start – and might it not be better to be surprised anyway? This sounds crazy. No, it isn’t. Someone on Zoetrope once talked about “playing Duotrope” – figuring out, if you submitted a piece 38 days ago and they average 37 days per acceptance and 42 per rejection and they just listed a 36-day rejection, does that mean your chances are better or worse? I can’t deal with numbers like that, but sure, I can see the appeal. And following the rules (margins, fonts, envelopes), what is the secret (and how many writing books have I bought hoping one will tell me), it’s all in Joshua’s day. He’s a mess. Of course he is, he’s a writer.

But there’s this section that scares the hell out of me:

You could go crazy as you ascend the ladder of literary disappointment. You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you had written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you had been published but hadn’t sold many books. You could be disappointed that you had good sales but hadn’t received critical acclaim. You could be disappointed that you received critical acclaim but hadn’t won any prizes. You could be disappointed that you won prizes but not national ones. You could be disappointed that you won national prizes, but every October were passed over for the Nobel. You could be disappointed that you won the Nobel, but were one of those Nobelists no one ever read.

This is what Adam Arkin, playing Dr. Stanley Keyworth on The West Wing, called “moving the goalposts” and boy did it smack me in the face. This year Zin had flash in Pear Noir!, a print journal, and in FRiGG, a damn fine online journal. Somehow Zin is still depressed about not writing “real stories” – so, add to the above, you could go crazy if you publish stories but they aren’t real stories because they’re flash. And of course he skips the step about publications being only online instead of print, or being only stories instead of books, in low-rent journals, and on and on and on. Those of us prone to this ailment find, indeed, there are thousands of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer, and reading this story is like a hysterical person being slapped or a drunk being thrown in a cold shower to sober him up: snap out of it and write something, dammit!

All three stories have minimal plots; they are more like essays, and are about ideas rather than characters or events. I love this. Perhaps you have to be really, really good at it before it’s allowed? I don’t know, but these are stories I wish I’d written.