Saturday, June 7, 2008

Zoetrope: All-Story Extra/Pia Z. Ehrhardt/Matt Bell/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Jim Nichols

Zoetrope: All-Story Extra was created as an online supplement to Zoetrope: All-Story, the print magazine, in 1998. It was in the early years of Zoetrope, and I believe it grew from FF Coppola's desire to make the online experience more meaningful. The way I remember things, Mare Freed, one of the most active members of the Workshop, was selected as a founding editor for the new enterprise, and she suggested me as her helpmate. In looking at the masthead of the first couple of issues, we were listed as members of a Peer Advisory Board, but my memory is fuzzy about there being a PAB in the beginning. I know there was one later on. After the first two issues Mare and I were listed as Editorial Coordinators, and then later on we appeared as Founding Editors. I really don't recall how we made those transitions.

Anyway, we were advised by Adrienne Brodeur, editor of the print Zoetrope, and Tom Edgar, who handled the web design and technical stuff. Our intention was to devise a system that would involve as many workshop members as possible and would make the selection of stories fair and diverse. What finally evolved was a pair of Guest Editors who served staggered two-issue terms, so that there was always one with an issue under his or her belt. A little later a group of five nominators was added, to help the Guest Editors find worthy stories to consider from those submitted to the workshop.

I'm proud of how many fine writers All-Story Extra published, people like Pia Ehrhardt, Roy Kesey, n.m. Kelby, Girija Tropp and Avital Gad-Cykman. I could go on. Bob Arter. Kevin Dolgin. Heather Fowler had three stories in ASE. Anyway, I chose Pia's wonderful "Running The Room" from Issue 32 in May of 2001 as the one I'd most like to nominate for Five Star Literary Stories.

Nominated Short Story: "Running the Room" – Pia Z. Ehrhardt

Review: by Matt Bell

Too often, I'm aware of the inherent falseness in the structure of my narratives, how they are things created, artifices of prose that hopefully add up to some sort of simulacrum of real life. Pia Z. Ehrhardt's "Running the Room" is obviously no different, but it manages to hide its seams and joints better than most stories. This is a story that feels like a life lived rather than a life narrated, and it is all the more impressive for the way it still manages to do all the things our clumsier structures attempt to do, littered as it is with clever structural choices, poignant details, and a story that reveals itself one line at a time rather than in predictable plot points.

Narrated by Beck, a young married woman who finds herself acting as the primary agent of the cover story for her mom's affair with a city councilman, "Running the Room" starts off strong, setting up its ending in the first few paragraphs of the story without tipping its hand. Everything the reader needs to know about Beck and what she is capable of doing is hidden inside a rebuke of Beck's mother, one that, in the span of only a few sentences, describes her parents' failing marriage, then shifts, with a meticulous attention to pronouns, into a first-person empathy followed by a second-person voice which distances Beck from her own thoughts, keeping her from the self-realization lurking beneath the surface of the story she's telling:

"My parents used to look happy. Their problems were the kind everyone's parents seemed to have, like bill paying and jealous moments, stuff that blew over, but now that I'm married I understand what can happen over time, how you run out of new material and repeat yourself, zone out of your own thoughts because they're kind of dull, and so what? You go to bed at night and say, was your day any good, dear, mine was fine and let's hope tomorrow is like today, and months go by and you lose sight of the fact that you're way out of range, a hundred miles from thrilling."

In much the same way, Ehrhardt doles out of the rest of her story in Beck's voice, complete with self-contradictory admonishments of her mother's behavior that hides her own need to be thrilled by love once again. She drops her mother off to meet Eddie Royce, then goes to the culinary arts class which has devolved into little more than the cover story they tell to Beck's father. While there, she proceeds to chat up Bob, a classmate who flirts back with a casual confidence that weathers Beck's rebuffs with practiced patience, allowing her to continue to make-believe that nothing is happening between them as they leave class together for a drink, first with the rest of their classmates and later alone together. It is only after they meet up with Beck's mother and Eddie Royce at a piano bar that their relationship begins to solidify itself, events escalated by the growing parallels apparent between themselves and the older couple.

There are details scattered throughout that add weight in all the right places, never stopping the flow for mere description but still providing symbolic depth. Throughout the action of the story, Beck wears her mother's wedding ring over her own bands, burdening her with the symbols of vows neither woman seems able to keep as well as perhaps they once believed they would. Other details and bits of dialogue show Beck's need for adventure and excitement, needs left unfulfilled by the husband she claims to love so much. She describes the kind of restaurant she wants to open with the breathless fantasy of a lifelong dreamer, and when she remembers a trip she once took with her mother, all of the details remind the reader once again of the thrills awaiting the women away from their husbands—Their talk was "different and eager," they "forgot how to get on each other's nerves," and when her mother admitted to an affair it was by showing Beck pictures taken by her lover, photos where she "still looked naked, like she trusted him with everything." Beck finishes the memory by recounting, "I asked every question I could think of and got every answer except how much less of this she had with my father. To that she only smiled and looked away."

"Running the Room" is a fine story, made finer by Pia Ehrhardt's deft narrative style and brilliant attention to detail and dialogue. The slippery slope towards adultery is rarely depicted this well, and the fact that Ehrhardt manages to do it without judging her characters, without forcing them into either redemption or damnation, only makes it better. In 2001, hardly anyone was publishing full length fiction on the internet, and those who were had to deal with the perceived stigma that what they were publishing wasn't as good as what was available in more traditional print literary magazines. "Running the Room" is a great piece of evidence on the side of the internet publishers, and a story that shouldn't be missed by anyone, regardless of where it was published.

Reviewer's Bio:

Matt Bell's writing is upcoming in Hobart, No Colony, elimae, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He is the Book Review Editor for and can be found online at

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


katrina said...

Matt, what a well-written review of one of my favorite stories.

"This is a story that feels like a life lived rather than a life narrated, and it is all the more impressive for the way it still manages to do all the things our clumsier structures attempt to do, littered as it is with clever structural choices, poignant details, and a story that reveals itself one line at a time rather than in predictable plot points.

In this you described perfectly what I love about Pia's work.

Matt Bell said...

Thanks, Katrina! I agree with you too, obviously. When I read this to review it, I actually had trouble at first finding where I wanted to start talking about the story because it seems so seamless. All the craft items I'd normally go to in a review were hidden deeper here, and it took a little more effort to find where they were all connected. It's very impressive.