Monday, May 12, 2008

elimae/Norman Lock/Kay Sexton/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Cooper Renner

elimae began in 1996, edited and designed by Deron Bauman. When Bauman handed the reins over to me at the end of 2004, it had already had almost a decade to establish itself among writers and readers interested in what usually gets called, for better or worse, experimental or avant-garde fiction and poetry. A great deal of the fiction at elimae is flash fiction, not necessarily because I prefer it per se but perhaps because the focus of flash fiction helps writers to work at a higher level of quality. Certainly I'm far more likely to see a first-rate flash of 230 words than a longer story of 2300 words. Longer works have a tendency to become more explicative than experiential, more ruminant than direct. Explicative, ruminant stories can be powerful, in the hands of a truly gifted and hard-working writer, but more often the tendency is toward a more traditional and even conventional approach in a longer work. elimae prefers writers to work against conventional thought, not in a deliberately anarchic or iconoclastic sense, but rather in the old Modernist sense of making it new. elimae also publishes a fair amount of comic work, a mode which often opens a writer's mind to the less conventional since so much of comedy depends upon surprise. There is no money involved in the production of elimae at all. I receive no salary, the writers receive no payment, and there is no ad revenue. I don't, therefore, have to be concerned about commercial appeal. This allows me to focus on work that appeals to me, whose care with the word draws me in, rather than work that might pay bills. Even in this imperfect world, the writers' abilities may attract readers who want art as much as psychology, verbal dexterity as much as truth, whatever that truth may be. If there is an axis whose poles are Dada and Brave New World, elimae aims to lie as near the center of that axis as it can.

"Out of the Land of the Snow Men," purportedly by George Belden, but actually by Norman Lock, may not be a "typical" elimae story, if there is such a thing, but it represents the devotion to the written word that elimae strives, at its best, to embody. While the story teems with content--polar explorers, personal animosity, death at the "hands" of nature--that content is not sociological in the sense that so much of contemporary American fiction is. It is not designed to help us understand the daily lives of our fellows, or the times in which we live, or the ways in which individual men and women find meaning in their lives. It is, in my view at least, art for art's sake--it creates its own world and moves ably within it. It aims, like all of Lock's work, to use words the way gifted painters use brushes. Lock's strength is to draw the reader in with his verbal ability, no matter what his content may be. His readers don't turn to his books and stories because of his content, but rather because they know that works will always be written with a linguistic power out of the reach of all but a few writers.

Nominated Short Story: "Out of the Land of the Snow Men" - Norman Lock

Review: by Kay Sexton

The nature of this story is carried in the third line on the page, before you even get to the narrative. "Out of the Land of the Snow Men" (by) George Belden (but) Prepared for publication by Norman Lock is a hint that the reader is about to make a journey without a guaranteed destination, or even any recognisable landmarks, but it doesn’t become evident that this is a complete jeu d’esprit, until the final paragraph, when the reader is told that not only did George Belden live out his days in an insane asylum, but he never visited the Antarctic, and the journal from which this extract is purportedly taken was found at the asylum by Norman Lock who was convalescing there. Of course this is fiction, but the fiction extends beyond the narrative into the construction around the narrative: this collection of supposedly real people with apparently verifiable histories. The layers contained within the fiction ask us to question our own understanding, not just of the story, but of the nature of storytelling itself.

Belden’s journal purports to tell of travelling to Antarctica to build a memorial for those who died during Scott’s epic journey to the Pole, but the writer of the final biographical paragraph tells us Belden never got to the Antarctic. His record of the journey is therefore not just false, but - because he wrote it while insane - doubly false: it is not ‘right’ (factually) and it is not ‘right’ (mentally). His assistant to publication, Lock, is/has been mentally ill too; he found Belden’s journal at the same asylum while there as a patient, so his involvement in the tale is also suspicious because his factual/mental balance is as dubious as that of Belden.

What makes this complex layering of doubt admirable is the deftness with which Lock handles his material, and the way that he forces the reader to question their own understanding of a range of ‘facts’ without ever hammering us over the head with the surreal and experimental nature of the narrative. In fact, we are two-thirds of the way through that narrative before our first doubts are confirmed – this is not a true history. The arrival of a trolley car in the snow of Antarctica, forces us to accept that the stream of consciousness we have been sharing is false.

Until this point we’ve inhabited the head of a man afraid but also persuasive, a coward who is still determined to rescue Scott if he can, an artist who sees everything in Antarctica – a natural white void, in terms of the most complex and ‘civilised’ artefacts of the modern world - fabric, ceramic, precious metal, sculpture. Now the reader must make a decision, before reaching the end of the story; the introduction of a surreal element makes us adjust our perspective on the narrative – do we trust the narrator, and if so, how far? This device means the reader inhabits the story, somewhat uneasily, and is forced to shift their perception, taking an active part in the process of ‘constructing’ the tale.

The language used throughout the story is light – almost jolly in tone (on a second reading it’s easy to declare this is the manic phase of a manic/depressive cycle, but on a first reading it’s just elegant, joyous prose, demonstrating another way that the reader alters their relationship to the story) and works precisely to keep the reader unsettled and yet engaged by the nature of the story. On this level Lock makes the story playful and describes the scenes of death and abandonment with an eye for beauty (Belden’s eye) that leaves the reader uncertain again: is this really tragedy? On another level, this ability to transmute the horror of freezing to death into a kind of wilful immortality forces another question – how much of what we think we know is shaped by the words that frame it?

"Out of the Land of Snow Men" is a perfect example of what the short story can do that the novel cannot – it challenges the reader on many levels, without ever becoming heavy or polemic, and the seduction of the story leaves the reader uneasily complicit in a fictional reshaping of a historic tragedy into something close to humor.

Reviewer's Bio:

In the five years she has been writing, Kay Sexton’s fiction has been chosen for over twenty anthologies. In 2006 she completed ‘Green Thought in an Urban Shade’, a words and pictures exhibition with Irish painter Fion Gunn that explored parks and green space in four cities around the world. ‘Green Thought’ was shown at two London galleries, Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens and the Tsinghua University, Beijing. Recent magazine publications include Ambit, Frogmore Papers, Lichen ( Canada ), and Mindprints ( USA ). So far, in 2008, she was commissioned to write a short story broadcast on national radio in March, has been a finalist in the Willesden Herald fiction contest judged by Zadie Smith, and won the Fort William Festival Contest. Her novel, Gatekeeper, is currently with an agent and she is working on a second novel about pornography and rivers in 1920s Hampshire.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

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