Saturday, May 17, 2008

Storyglossia/Michael J. Davis/Xujun Eberlein/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Steven J. McDermott

Richard Rorty wrote that: "What novels do for us is to let us know how people quite unlike ourselves think of themselves, how they contrive to put actions that appall us in a good light, how they give their lives meaning." I began Storyglossia in 2002 with the belief that stories matter more than novels in that regard. A novel may take you deeper into a particular perspective than a story will, but if you read an equivalent number of story pages, all by different writers, your perspective on life is certain to be enlarged more than it would have been from reading a single novel.

After 28 issues of publishing just short stories, I'm more confident than ever that stories matter, that whatever their form, style, content, that whatever voice they speak with, they embody this life we live and provide, if not always meaning, at least a challenge to make meaning out of chaos or make chaos out of meaning.

I've selected "The Man in Africa" by Michael J. Davis, a story I previously nominated for the Pushcart Prize and which was recently named a notable story for the 2007 Million Writers Award. What draws me to this story is the way it so deliciously reveals--via the tropes of surveillance and voyeurism--the chaos and paranoia pervading our culture. The affective power of the story is achieved with accretion; building up as the character/narrator descends into instability.

Nominated Short Story: "The Man in Africa" - Michael J. Davis

Review: by Xujun Eberlein

The story opens with a long blue paragraph. “Blue because I wanted love and money but got a blue plastic boat cover…” The intensity of the sad color is a little overwhelming; you wonder, naturally, what the story is about – is it another middle class love/marriage crisis? And you might begin to toy with the idea of putting it down. Almost right there the powerful hue flows into a lyrical current and fun dialog. Before long, you'd realize how colorful the character of the narrator is and you'd fall in love with the writing while finding every second-guessing you had on the story arc is wrong.

Will, a high school teacher – in a suburb of San Diego, not Africa – is forced to take a leave of absence, after an incident with a student who is a member of the football team. But you won't know that for a while.

For the time being, you are going to have fun hearing a 22-year-old solider on CNN talk about "basically, seriously, that god is a dirty bomb"; a balding French woman who didn't believe the moon landing had happened and, "It was all just simulation"; and Will's Buddhist golf caddy telling him "it is not the ball that traverses the distance, rather, it is only yourself." You ride on the fun and get lost in it temporarily, that is, until the incident is revealed in retrospect.

But neither the incident itself, nor the forced leave, is what's at stake. You read on and see school on permanent orange alert and signs of kids at war, all the time feeling something alarmingly familiar, something you have experienced that may or may not have occurred in a school environment.

Still you are not sure what the story is about, and before you form a theory you are tangled up with the internet porn and the instant messages and a candlelit prayer-in and the singing "We Shall Overcome."

Now you begin to realize that the narrator is having a number of interpretations of reality that counterplay whimsy and plausibility, and you are drawn into this web of interpretations.

At this point you already know that Will, before browbeating his student, was dumped by his ex-fiancĂ© Lori. You don’t get to meet Lori. You do get to meet her answering machine, and the possibility that Will is not completely comfortable with reality emerges, foreshadowing the coded dialogue Will is going to have with Susan.

Susan is a fellow teacher – and an odd character – from Will’s school who at first appears to be a totally paranoid personality. When Will plays along with her, you get angry with him for not having more empathy, while at the same time are delighted by the apparent delight he is taking in her fantasies. The social commentary that underlies their conversations is quite funny. Susan first calls while Will is flipping between watching pornography and CNN. When they meet the conversation goes:

"I think I'm being watched."

"That's okay." I said, "A lot of people are into that."

Now you can see pretty clearly another layer that is under the surface story. Still you are drawn in by the two characters' coded game. As they continue to meet, Will and Susan develop an odd relationship based on what appears to be meaningless intrigue.

During all of this Will wanders down a road in which he embraces big-brother and accepts paranoid delusions as just another way to think about day to day life. Eventually, as Susan turns the tables (and I won’t spoil the story by saying how), you realize you have been duped. Unlike being tricked in real life, or by a cheap dues ex machina, you'll quite enjoy the feeling.

Another odd character, Sid, appears only at the beginning and the end. Sid is both charming and a little repugnant. And you won't know the reason of his existence until the very end of the story.

Closing the screen, you try to figure out what has made you fall in love with the story. You can't forget Will, who is both compelling in his rendering of detail and at the same time unreliable. The unreliability is, after all, clear from the beginning. You realize that, every detailed observation from Will, however irrelevant it might seem at the time you read it, contributes to the layered psychological plot. During the narration you have found yourself jumping back and forth between complete confidence and utter disbelief. That back and forth keeps the story lively, and the ending, though not literally funny, makes you laugh at the absurdity of politics, everyday reality, and yourself.

Reviewer's Bio:

Xujun Eberlein grew up in Chongqing, China, and moved to the United States in the summer of 1988. After receiving a Ph.D. from MIT in the spring of 1995, and winning an award for her dissertation, she joined a small but ambitious high tech company. On Thanksgiving 2003, she gave up tech for writing. She has since won many literary awards. Her stories and personal essays have been published in the United States, Canada, England, Kenya, and Hong Kong, in magazines such as AGNI, Walrus, PRISM International, StoryQuarterly, Stand and Kwani. Her debut story collection Apologies Forthcoming won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award and is published in May 2008. More information about the book can be found on Xujun also hosts the literary and cultural blog Inside-out China.

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

1 comment:

katrina said...

Excellent review, Xujun.