On This Summer's Zoetrope
Last week I got a copy of the Summer 2009 edition of Zoetrope: All-Story. Sure, I had read stories from Zoetrope before (here’s one I commented on a couple of weeks ago), but I had never held the print edition in my hands. It has a striking cover, and the pages are filled with photography. This abundance of images makes the slender volume quite tiny: there are six short stories in all, one of them two pages long. (About the artwork, well, it’s contemporary; some of the blobs of paint dripping on pages 27-28 were interesting. The guest designer was Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons.)
After I read the first story, I thought I’d be disappointed by this edition. Boy was I wrong. The following four stories were all superb.
The first story was “At the Airport,” by Ryu Murakami. A woman is waiting at the airport for a customer who’s grown into her lover and with whom she is now planning to elope. She is divorced, one of the details about her life that we learn as she fills her time with scattered thoughts. The story itself didn’t strike me as anything special. It seemed like something plucked straight out of a writing exercise for a workshop, sliding into flashbacks and then being tugged back into empty, present-tense waiting. It’s like a connect-the-dots image in which you can still see the numbered points and the color code. Having said that, I liked the ending. It was to be expected, and yet it was soothingly unexpected at the same time.
Next came Kurt Vonnegut, with a short story called “The Nice Little People” that is sold individually by Random House as an e-book, and that will be collected in a volume of unpublished short fiction (Look at the Birdie). I thought Vonnegut was done with writing short stories, or so he said in Timequake. I’m glad he wasn’t. “The Nice Little People” is fantastic. Reading it was strange, though: I enjoyed the story as I scuttled from one paragraph to the next, but when I got to the end, two thoughts came up, one after another. First: That was it? I feel cheated! Second: Oh my God, this is brilliant.
It’s a story about a man who finds an object, and through that object “[w]hole new worlds […] opened up” (32). If you haven’t read the story, please skip to the following paragraph. The object is a knife-shaped spaceship peopled with tiny creatures. The man who finds them, Lowell, is an amicable man accustomed to servile decency. He feeds these little people and nurtures them. Then his wife arrives, and he finds out she’s having an affair with her boss and is going to leave Lowell for him. Lowell says he’s perfectly all right with it. He’s friendly and understanding. However, the tiny creatures fly the spaceship out of Lowell’s hand and ram into his wife’s heart. He calls the police and then he “told his story calmly, from the finding of the spaceship to the end.” The story cuts off. But here’s the ingenuity: what we get is that extremely colorful story that was told by a man accused of cold-blooded murder. If we had heard Lowell telling this tale to the police, we would’ve thought him mad. Since we get the story as a story, we are nudged into believing it, into accepting it as truth. And at the end we are forced to confront it with the grimy world of criminal confessions, where Lowell’s story will be deemed completely bogus. Ah, Vonnegut.
Then there’s “Monsters,” by Pasha Malla. It’s the tiny one of the bunch, less than two pages long. Still, it was very good. The idea of monsters comes up again and again, with variations, as if we were watching it in a kaleidoscope. The monster is a disease, it’s a man masturbating on the beach, it’s a strange sea creature. The story manages to cram into two pages a tale of a marriage that is collapsing, childhood memories, and a gathering of friends at a Chinese restaurant. It opens with an ominous sentence that seemed out of place at first (“Before the end we find a mole on your shoulder that might be a monster” ), but it’s not like that at all once you’ve read through to the end. And the rhythm is riveting: “And then the experiment was over and Laura went back to her seat across the room and then the class was over and then high school was over and then university was over and I got a job and Laura got cancer” (39).
The following story is called “An English Professor,” by Ha Jin. It’s completely different from the previous ones: sterile, bleak. And yet it’s very good. It’s about a Chinese man (Rusheng Tang) who works as an assistant professor in the English Department at a school that is “basically a teaching college.” He is submitting all the paperwork for a tenure evaluation. He’s not a very inspired teacher, but he lucked out by getting a manuscript admitted by the SUNY Press. All the departmental conspiracies are at work in the tenure process, which tow along insecurities, alliances, suspicions. Rusheng finds himself in crisis when he realizes he’s made a spelling mistake in the application: he wrote “Respectly yours,” instead of “Respectfully yours.” He scurries around every dictionary to find it as an alternate spelling, but it’s just not there. (The OED doesn’t have it, either.) He is profoundly ashamed. Not only should he know better as an English professor, but he writes a grammar column for a Chinese newspaper: “People wouldn’t treat it as a mere typo or slip. It was a glaring solecism that indicated his incompetence in English” (45). He starts thinking about turning to other professions: sales would be good, for instance, so he goes to an interview. (This seemed like a perceptive remark: “He told himself a salesman could make a good living, and that this is America, where there’s no high or low among professions as long as you can draw a fat paycheck” .) The end has a surprising element that may seem out of character, but I liked it anyway.
The fifth story is “Felix Starro,” by Lysley Tenorio. It’s about a Filipino healer who comes to the States to cure sick Filipino Americans and charge them enough money to save up and live off it in the Philippines for years. It would seem like a prime candidate for the kind of problems I’ve described in a wide array of recent (and popular) “ethnic” stories (e.g., Le and Quade). However, it’s quite good. It’s an immigrant’s tale, made more complex by its particular form of healing (which is assumed in a strictly businesslike manner), and alloyed with anxieties and disappointments that don’t turn it into a victory tale for the illegal immigrant, nor into an exaltation of the “strangeness” of the foreign. The narrator constantly struggles with his desire to settle in the States, with his disgust for the type of healing practiced by his grandfather (the title character). The story seemed to be headed clearly toward a given ending, but its inner convulsions along the way make the ending rather poignant. It’s well done.
The final story is “Tetro,” written by Francis Ford Coppola (the founding editor of Zoetrope) as the basis for his movie Tetro. It started off okay, but there are twitches as it moves along that don’t fit in well with a story. (Coppola says he’s been writing screenplays for years.) The lines in Spanish are clumsy. With more space, and the vividness of characters and cameras, it could grow into an interesting tale. I haven’t seen the movie, though.