Review of “Little Beast” by C Pam Zhang, published in Bomb

Little Beast by C Pam Zhang is propelled by a tsunami of momentum gathered and flung forth by the narrative voice of its protagonist—a paranoid, delusional, displaced, misplaced, and misguided middle/high school student who is bewildered, troubled, and so writhing with uncertainty that she can only act on base ambitions, on some level. We learn the ultimate reason for why—why all or any of what happens in the story—but not until the end, though we are clued in throughout. I’m being intentionally vague about this because the conclusion at which I arrived—meaning, what I think the story is about—only came from a gathering of several details and clues interspersed throughout that aren’t fully realized until the end, at which point we learn who this narrator is and what afflicts her wholly. Or at least we think we know. There’s so much left to question, in the best possible way.

But we can’t talk about this story without first addressing the figurative language: “My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae.” Or, “Once again a girl appeared, summoned by my blood as a shark is summoned across murky waters.” These examples, like so many other lines in the story, are so rich and multilayered that one wonders at times if what we’re reading is real or surreal. And later still, with the series of events that occur, we’re still as confused at the end as we were at the beginning, but we aren’t as confused as the narrator herself: “When the door began to open, I slopped into the breach, pleading, my mouth wide with explanations, never mind how I looked or what I spattered.” But maybe we’re not as confused as we think we are. There might be a lesson here about the mentally ill; about what happens if people aren’t given proper treatments and therapy needed to address the mental illness. Or maybe that interpretation of the story is wrong. Maybe it’s a more surface-level here’s-what-happens-in-extreme-cases-of…. Of what? Of adolescence? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be sure.

The story, on the surface, is about a young woman who winds up in Alta, an all girls school “built on progressive principles” where “senators’ daughters, screenwriters’ daughters, celebrity daughters’” etc, attend. This is also where the protagonist’s father works as a custodian and where she attends on “scholarship.” While there, she meets a host of young women in a special, “silent” group, and these women are awarded nicknames given to them by the protagonist. Names such as “mouse,” “elf,” and “armored.”

While the narrator is battling the ongoing onslaught of typical (and not-so-typical) school and adolescent issues, there’s also the father who is a wonderful character in his own right, full of heart and ambition, and perhaps what he’s guilty of is that he cares too much. But we understand why. A blue collar, working-class father who allows his daughter, who he calls “girlie,” to stand on his shoulders to reach heights he’ll never reach. It’s a common story of a parent wanting better for their children—that the child(ren) achieve the “success” that the parents weren’t able to achieve for him/herself, for whatever reasons held them back. And what’s conspicuously missing throughout is the mother who, we learn three-quarters of the way through the story, died in childbirth. What, if any, affect does that have here? Well, we’re not exactly sure.

The demise of the narrator occurs rapidly (possible cutting, anorexia, paranoia, delusions, more), but the unraveling of the parent-child relationship, while on the surface can be explained by “typical” teenage angst, in the end seems an utter misunderstanding. Again, this is only if we are to read this on face value. If read as a surrealistic cautionary tale, then we know we are no better than the selfish ambitions that propel us forward at any cost, even if those gains mean leaving behind those who have helped us the most (such as a caring father). Because in the end, really, does it matter at all?

And perhaps there’s another way to read this, which is maybe how I best understand the story. Maybe it’s not intended to be read at face value, and perhaps not as a surrealistic cautionary tale, but maybe as a modern-day fable told from the perspective of a mentally unstable young person, whose actions she’s not fully aware of because of her instability, and this causes her to act in permanently detrimental ways. A fable, traditionally, possesses some kind of lesson and often features animals prominently. They don’t always end well, but there’s a lesson to learn somewhere in the story. Maybe that’s the case here. Maybe. Oh, the vagueness! Oh, the elusive dodging of what actually happens! I know, I know. But I would feel as if I were denying you an Experience knowing I gave everything away on a platter to you, when in fact you could read this deliciously mischievous, sad, confusing, and manically paced and rendered piece on your own.

Check out the story here.

Review of “Toxins” by McKenna Marsden, published in Pithead Chapel

I suppose it goes without saying that we—the various generations that make up current society—are the social media guinea pigs. We won’t fully know or understand, if ever, the extent of its various effects on us individually and/or collectively. It’s terrifying to think of the larger and more sinister ways social media might be harming us, but rarely do we think of social media’s micro invasions and what that might do to us. Or if we do think about it, we probably aren’t doing much to avoid the ten-minute scroll through FB or Instagram.

In many ways, I think the question of how we relate to social media is at the heart of the aptly titled “Toxins” by McKenna Marsden, published in Pithead Chapel. The story is told from the perspective of Harper who, we learn later in the story, is recalling the events of the story because of the voyeuristic permission lent to her by social media, as she checks on Dani, her childhood friend: “I know from Instagram that she lives in Portland now… that she still favors dramatic eyeliner…that she has a lot of friends who post cryptic jokes to her comments.” Yes, Harper is checking in, intentionally or passively, we don’t know, with a former best friend with whom she’s lost touch. The thing acknowledged here is that the level of information known about one another is off-balance. Harper knows a lot about Dani, but Dani might not know much, if anything, about Harper who doesn’t “post much to social media.” Instead, Harper, it seems, uses it as most of us do: to scroll, to check on, and to read updates about those people in her life she once knew. And from this scrolling, we get a recollection of a childhood that these two—Harper and Dani—shared together.

The story, of course, is about much more than social media. I think the story examines very convincingly the worth of those vital and urgent relationships we have when we’re younger but now no longer exist. What do those relationships mean? What part did they play in our growing up? Even though we’ve lost touch, and we rarely think of those people anymore, does that lessen who they were to us then? Do those relationships even matter?

Even more so, I think this story examines how our home life and background drastically affect who we might be as adults and where we might go. How one differing variable, such as growing up with a hypochondriac mother, could potentially make a difference in who we are now, and what we might become. Maybe I’m pointing out the obvious here, but the story does such a thorough job at “showing” us how a child’s background and home life really do make a difference—for better or not.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I’m reading way too much into this story. Maybe it’s simply a story about two girls growing up in drastically different households who share time together because they want to fit in, they want acceptance. And these two girls go to painful, though humorous, lengths to get there –rolling fake cigarettes made of dried lawn grass and sprinkled with spices found in the kitchen drawer to attract the attention of some older classmates.

In either case, however wrong I may be (or not), I think this is the mark of a good story—one that raises more questions than answers; one that helps us reevaluate our lives and how we view our current and past relationships. What can we derive from these reflections? How might they influence how we better understand ourselves and the world? Did, or do, any of the isolated events and relationships from middle school matter? How much do they matter? Are we better off knowing what our childhood friends are up to even though our only connection is virtual? Would we be better off not knowing what these same people are doing with their lives since we’ve lost touch anyway?

I have no idea the answer to any of these questions, especially the ones related to social media, though I do think those relationships matter. Or they did matter, anyway. I hope so, anyway. Otherwise, what’s the point? And what’s the point of the story? I’m not in the habit of answering my own questions, but for this one, I’d add: the point, I think, on some level, on the human level, is that, yes, it does matter. At least I hope so.

I’ll Save that for Later: A conversation with Alida Dean, author of the story “Islanders” published in Nashville Review

Alida Dean is a writer who knows how to build compelling and fascinating places and characters. This is a writer who knows the locales and people in her story with intimate delicacy and care, and this knowing and understanding of her characters is what allows her the ability to include and, more importantly, exclude just the right amount of information. This authorial holding back of information strikes the perfect balance between us readers knowing just enough and leaving the rest to mystery. And I’m not talking about mystery in the Alfred Hitchcock sense. I’m talking about a deeper mystery that involves character motivations and how individuals’ histories with one another make up a complex undercurrent present, but not overwhelming, throughout the entire story.

“Islanders” is the story to which I’m referring. It’s is about an eccentric mother and a quiet, observant daughter, and how the two exist among the other inhabitants of the island on which they live. The story is narrated from the perspective of the daughter, and from her POV, we’re introduced not just to her mother, but to a whole host of memorable characters including the narrator’s teacher, a classmate named Sam, and Sam’s parents, among others. The characters are connected to the mother and daughter, often in significant ways, even if those reasons aren’t fully realized in the story. What we know for certain is that the mother has a long-standing history with the others on the island, and these connections affect how the others interact with the narrator. Still, the story’s most poignant and memorable moments are the ones between mother and daughter.

In one of the opening scenes, for instance, the mother lies to the school administrator about her daughter (who she calls “bug”) having a dental appointment so she can pull her from school for the afternoon. The following conversation occurs between mother/daughter as they walk from the school doors to their truck:

“It’s such a perfect day,” she said. “Let’s go fishing.”

“After the dentist?”

She squeezed my hand and said, “You don’t have to go to the dentist, bug. I just couldn’t wait till three to see you.”

This exchange gives a sense for the overall dynamic in the story, one where the mother is irresponsible, though fun-loving, and “bug” is along for the ride. It’s only now, years later, that the daughter is telling this story as a way to make sense of these events of the past.

“Islanders” is a wonderful story set in a unique and compelling place, with characters who are equally as engaging. Check out my interview with author Alida Dean, below, and you can read her story here.

Keith Lesmeister: I suppose all stories are told retrospectively, but I’m especially fond of stories that have a longer gap between the events that are unfolding in the story and the age of the current narrator. In this case, the events unfolding in the story are when the narrator is in grade school, but she is telling the story much later. We as readers get a sense for this early on when the narrator states: “I knew lying was wrong, but I was willing to do it to protect my mother’s reputation. I’m still willing to do that much for her.” This collection of lines is wonderful, but that last one points us to a narrator who is much older than grade school, much wiser to her mother’s actions, and we get occasional lines like this throughout, this pinging back and forth between the narrator of now versus who she was then. Perhaps you could comment on this particular narrative strategy used here and the way you were able to so authentically negotiate between the narrative lens zooming in and out, between the narrator of now and the events of all those years ago in grade school.

Alida Dean: “Pinging back and forth” is a nice way of putting it! I think my intention was for the adult narrator to re-inhabit her childhood mindset as she tells the story, while also acknowledging that this isn’t the only way she sees things anymore. If it feels authentic, it’s probably more because this is the way I tend to look back on memories myself than because of any clever strategizing on my part. We do grow up, sort of, but things don’t necessarily make more sense with time, and when I think back to my own childhood, I tend to relive moments and memories rather than look at them with much narrative or psychic distance. That said, I’ve hopefully learned a couple of things about people since I was in elementary school, which maybe accounts for the occasional pinging into the present.

KL: I’m also fond of the direct address, when narrator’s turn to the reader or readers to say something about the narrative itself, and in this case—I hope I’m not giving away too much here—this one comes toward the end of the story: “And if I’ve made you feel sorry for me, then I’m telling this whole thing wrong.” I mention this now because I think it harkens back to question #1 about the dual narration. I don’t even know if that’s the correct term – dual narration – but it’s one that comes to mind as the narrator negotiates that fine line between rendering life on the page as a grade school person while telling the story as an adult. At any rate, could you talk about this particular direct address and what effect it might have on you as a writer and also as a reader? And more so, did you or do you have a particular audience in mind while writing?

AD: I have to admit, I didn’t think too hard about that moment of direct address as I wrote it. I was probably a little worried that the reader would be feeling sad for the narrator by this point in the story, when in my mind her unconventional upbringing actually seems pretty fun, and ends up serving her well as an adult. I guess the line is like a check-in with the reader, where the adult narrator is saying, Hey you, stop feeling bad for me because I don’t feel bad for myself!

Sometimes I do have a particular person in mind while writing, someone I feel I need to explain myself to, but in this case the audience I was imagining was more general. I suppose I was thinking of people who might read material like this and cry, “Bad parenting!” or something along those lines, without giving the characters, the mother especially, a chance to redeem themselves.

As far as writing particular sentences goes, I do sometimes think of David Gates, who I know we’ve both worked with—what words would he cut? how would he re-arrange them? what words would he circle and write “right word?” next to?

KL: I appreciate you mentioning Gates. When I’m writing, his voice is often in my head as well, and for the same reasons. I know he didn’t come up with the term “kill your darlings” but that’s exactly what he’s good at doing. Helluva a teacher/editor.

So, getting more into the content of the piece, I thought the balance of relational mystery is prevalent throughout, especially between the mother and Sam’s parents. Was there a point in the writing process when their relational history was more pronounced? Or was it always going to be (somewhat of) a mystery to readers? For the record, I liked the not-knowing completely….

AD: Nope, there wasn’t a point when their history was going to be more pronounced, at least there wasn’t a point in the past, because I actually don’t know what that history is yet—more on this in my answer to the last question! I do think the not knowing serves the story well though because when you’re a kid you only glimpse, and understand, tiny pieces of adult relationships, and most of the past is mysterious.

KL: With these characters in mind, I thought there was a perfect blend of poignancy and humor throughout, most notably with the mother. As a writer, especially when working with these larger-than-life characters such as the mother, who are bombastic, fun-loving, deeply caring, but damaged thoroughly, how do you keep her from taking over the story completely?

AD: I’m glad you found humor in this story! It’s becoming increasingly important to me that I make my writing at least somewhat funny.

As far as not letting the mother, or any of the characters, take over the story, I think it’s just a matter of knowing I’m not going to be able to fit everything into one story. There’s so much more I could explore about the mother, or any of these characters, but not in fifteen pages. If I sense myself getting sidetracked, wanting to explore something that feels too big or too convoluted for the scope of the story, I just think, I’ll save that for later. This is probably how I get most of my ideas for other projects.

KL: I’m not sure how long this story is in terms of word count (you mentioned 15 pages just now), but it felt like a longer story with a lot of characters, situations, dynamics, and locales. When you first started this story, were you aware of its form as a short story right away, or at any point did it push for longer status as, say, a novella? Or even a novel?

And with the above question(s) in mind, and with the acknowledgement that “Islanders” is most certainly a stand-alone story, it also felt like it could be part of a larger narrative – perhaps a linked collection or a novel-in-stories. Do you have any plans to situate this story into a larger constellation of stories?

AD: Yes! So I actually wrote this story several years ago. At that time the idea of writing a novel, or even a linked story collection, felt too daunting, so I was thinking it would just be one story, leave it at that, good riddance. But then I wrote another story about these same characters when the narrator is in high school, and then, more recently, I wrote a (first draft) of a novel that has nothing to do with these characters, so now I feel ready to dive back into this world, and slightly more capable of writing something longer. I’m hoping to spin some of this material into a novel eventually. At the moment I have a lot of ideas in my head about what could happen to these characters and very little written down, so we’ll see what happens!

KL: A few questions of preference. Do you prefer:

KL: Being surrounded by mountains or open spaces?

AD: I prefer being on top of a mountain, surrounded by other mountains but also able to see far away. I don’t like feeling hemmed in.

KL: Bird watching or whale watching?

AD: Whale watching!

KL: Color red or orange?

AD: Orange.

KL: Crawdads or crabs (to eat)?

AD: Crabs, but they’re both very tasty.

KL: Dawn or dusk?

AD: Dawn.

KL: Lastly, old timey or new timey string bands?

AD: Hmm, I was going say old timey, but the truth is I probably listen to more new timey string music. I’ll take any string band! I used to play the cello and now I wish I hadn’t given it up.

Alida Dean is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program. Her story “The Off Season” was the 2020 winner of Ninth Letter’s fiction contest. She lives in Cincinnati with her dog.

Review of “Empty House” by Julia Strayer, published in the Kenyon Review Online

There are certain stories that lull you into an unbreakable hypnosis — a spell so thorough that you’ll forgot all other obligations and spend the next 20-30 minutes of your life dedicated to the story, not because you want to, but because you have to, because of the spell to which you are now beholden. I think this happens through some combination of rhythm and cadence created by the language — some auditory magic that happens on a level that we aren’t aware of yet, as readers. This is what happened to me both times I read, “Empty House” by Julia Strayer.

The story is narrated by a woman who most of the time wanders through life in her bathrobe and, who, when she needs them, drives to the laundromat for cigarettes because they still have the vending machine that you can stick coins in and watch the pack drop into the reservoir for your hand to squeeze into and claim. The woman who lives next door happens to be her mother, who the narrator refers to as “the neighbor lady,” and this “neighbor lady” tells the narrator she can’t keep going around town in her bathrobe. To which the narrator responds: “Everyone at the laundromat is used to seeing me in my bathrobe.”

In the story, the narrator is attempting her best—or what we think of as her best—to raise a precocious four-year-old who loves dogs, ducks, and the color pink. The daughter, like the neighbor lady, wants her mother to stop smoking. But the pressure the daughter, Fern, applies to the mother is more in the form of an unasked question: do I really need you as a mother? Of course the answer is yes, emotionally, but practically speaking, Fern is thriving: feeding herself, picking out paint, raising the dog, and motivating her mother.

The narrator and “neighbor lady” have a tumultuous history that isn’t fully revealed. What we do know is that the neighbor lady is now trying to make up for parental deficiencies of the past. She even tells her daughter, the narrator, when referring to her and Fern staying in the same room for the time being: “A girl should be with her mother.” And the narrator responds: “Oh that’s good coming from you.”

Which is a perfect set of lines to show the distance between the two. We don’t need to know precisely what it was that pulled them apart initially—do we ever know, or do we ever remember what those initial fights with loved one are about anyway?—but instead, we only need to know that there’s a riff somewhere, and the “neighbor lady” is trying to repair it while also trying to keep her daughter, the narrator, from losing it completely. The narrator has been damaged by the lack of sustained connections in her life, one with her mother, and the other, which becomes more apparent as the story continues, is with Fern’s father. Fern’s always asking in some way, spoken exactly or not: Why can’t we be like a normal family? And the mother/narrator has to steel herself against the idea of what a traditional family is, when in fact she has a family unit surrounding her all along: mother, daughter, dog, and ducks.

The story is lush with detail and insights so true and vibrant that many times I found myself nodding along in agreement to the narrator’s thoughts. And as timely and true as those are, they are made more so because of the wonderful dialogue throughout — those gripping, heart-wrenching conversations between the three generations of women. Writers who want to learn how to write damn good dialogue, or teachers who want an excellent example to show students, will do well by suggesting “Empty House” by Julia Strayer.

Or, if none of that matters to you and you simply want to read a damn good story, full of heart and intimate human textures, read this story.

Review of “Maeve” by Walker Rutter-Bowman, published in Hobart

A man and a woman have a chance encounter in front of a “smoked nut stand” somewhere in the city. The man was walking to the cobbler to get his shoes polished – shoes that held nostalgic value for him. The man and woman (Maeve) had been friends—maybe even more than friends—in college and now they were meeting on the street after a lengthy absence. From start to finish, if we’re to tell what happened in the story, the above mentioned would be accompanied with: they talk, they talk more, walk back to get nuts, then to a diner or a bar (“I don’t remember which,” the narrator tells readers) and then converse a bit more, and that’s it.

It’s a slightly askew story, despite the straightforwardness with which I just explained its happenings. There’s something complex about the story’s texture, its structure—we get a back story toward the end—“We’d almost slept together once” which arrives three-quarters the way through, but even that isn’t as off-kilter as maybe the way the information about the two unfolds, as if the narrator is trying in real time to make sense of things from his past: “How do you talk about the meaning of things?”

It’s the question, I think, the narrator is aware of throughout, and while we learn of Maeve—who held strong opinions, wrote movies, and at one point was quite an orator at parties, delivering her “tastes and hatreds”—we also learn a thing or two about the narrator through what Maeve declares about him: “You stood in the corner at parties…You wanted to add to the conversation…But you kept yourself buttoned.” And later, “That’s how I remember you now: sitting, licking your little lips, looking down and in.”

It isn’t all serious, however. The narrator has his moments of humor: “We sat on a bench and ate our nuts… I was pretty sure I had gum on my ass.” And on that same bench, thinking of who he was when he’d first met Maeve: “I thought of those days. I didn’t want to say anything, but I didn’t want to keep being seen as the same.”

And while the narrator shows his motivation—or perhaps we could call it his revised agenda (remember, he was going to run an errand)—we also see the evolution of the smoked nuts throughout, as the narrator tells readers:

“Still, I told her what I thought. The nuts, a mistake. But hadn’t they given us something to eat outdoors? Some flavors on a nice day? There was nothing more worthless than really good food asking for attention, getting itself talked about…The nuts had brought a pleasant pressure from the past. A memory can lodge in your throat like a stone, an unhusked drupe. It was painful but it was right. You cough it up or you swallow it down for good.”

There’s something useful for writers here on how to effectively use an object: repeat, repeat, evolve. The smoked nuts are mentioned in the first line, and thereafter, we see them appear again, and yet again, until they’re understood differently, as is the narrator’s new perspective along with what he wants for himself, as understood in the above quote.

But the narrator isn’t the only one with a privileged view of the object. Of the smoked nuts, Maeve claims to the narrator: “Those weren’t good…They smell better than they taste—that’s well known.”

Check out the full story here.

Walker Rutter-Bowman lives in Washington, DC. He earned his MFA in fiction from Syracuse University. His work has been published in Nashville Review, Tin House OnlineHarvard Review Online, and Full Stop.