Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Agni/Steinur Bell/Jessica Lipnack/Short Story Review

Nominating Editors: Susan Muensterman and Alexandra Goldstein.

We think of AGNI as a forum for the “cultural conversation” of literature, but it’s up to writers to shape that conversation. We don’t choose work for its subject or setting or themes, but for its vibrancy, freshness, and honesty. We look for language that sings in a new key, that doesn’t settle for notes we’ve heard a million times before. Newness in literature is contextual, though, and a move into less-familiar territory may rely on forgotten roots, a recalling of little-heard notes from some earlier song — Cormac McCarthy comes to mind, in his reliance on Biblical cadences and language. How a subject is handled, how a story is told — these are of paramount importance. We look for obliqueness rather than straight-on journalistic telling, because nobody’s deepest experience of the world, it seems to us, lacks the curve of idiosyncrasy. PEN American Center, in awarding Founding Editor Askold Melnyczuk its lifetime achievement award for magazine editing, said, "Among readers around the world, AGNI is known for publishing important new writers early in their careers. . . . AGNI has become one of America's, and the world's, most significant literary journals" and "a beacon of international literary culture." Ha Jin (1999 National Book Award), Jhumpa Lahiri (2000 Pulitzer Prize), and Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted) are but a few who appeared in our pages first or early on, alongside already famous names such as David Foster Wallace, Sharon Olds, and Seamus Heaney. Housed at Boston University and edited since 2003 by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, AGNI publishes two 240-page issues annually. AGNI Online an electronic extension of the print magazine, features biweekly postings of new Web-only fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews.

We’ve chosen Steinur Bell’s “The Whale Hunter” for its particular combination of elements – a dull office atmosphere, an illicit affair, and an exotic adventure on the Faroe Islands. Bell lures us with the voice of his narrator, a wildly imaginative man who tells his coworkers a story he heard from an old college friend, claiming it as his own. What results is writing that entertains, a story that is excellently paced, and an adventure that the reader gladly joins in on, willing to follow wherever Bell leads.

Nominated Short Story: "The Whale Hunter" - Steinur Bell

Reviewed: by Jessica Lipnack

Steinur Bell’s literary identity theft is a triple knit.

“The Whale Hunter” leads with a description of puffin hunting in the Faroe Islands. Nonfiction, it appears, especially after the second-paragraph reference to Google that lacks a link. I google anyway and find a photo similar to the one the narrator references: a teenage boy rappels a cliff, a shawl of dead puffins draped around his neck.

Three paragraphs in, the principal fiction begins. The unnamed narrator names the puffin-hunter Olaf, speculates about his “sturdy” wife. Olaf’s image becomes the narrator’s desktop picture even as he tells us “I was not verifying my identity at work as a rugged adventurer.”

The complication arrives in paragraph four: The narrator has never visited the Faroe Islands but his friend Eric has. Herein the identity heist, the second strand. Eric’s brief visit to the Danish Islands in the northern seas becomes the narrator’s fabricated victory. A few pages later, he tells “his” story to his coworkers (unnamed industry, unnamed company, unnamed city) during a dull meeting in a conference room: In the Faroe village of Vestmanna, he once joined the Whale Hunters, slicing arteries, feasting on blubber, his socks bloodied.

The third twist of the yarn is the “affair,” which comes to the narrator’s office cube in the person of “the prize of the team,” self-involved Trish with “breasts like acorns.” Theirs is an affair rather than a simple hook-up because they’re both married, he to Jean, who tells him “You better in a Norman Rockwell,” she to Glen, perpetually watching the Sonics.

So the three strands: the journalistic introduction, the fiction with its story-within-the-story, and the obligatory office “romance.”

There are some nice touches here: Officemate “Randy” is in charge of the narrator’s “professional development.” He tells his story in Hera, the goddess of women and marriage. The Faroe Islands are, according to legend, “God’s twisted thumbnails.” “The whale’s skin…glimmering like obsidian in the sunlight.” When he tells his lie to his coworkers, he’s so nervous that his hands are “alive in my lap like kittens.” They tryst at the Sleep Here Motor In, whose neon blares Vacancy as they leave.

Need I add that I googled the author? Steinur Bell (how many can there be?) is/was in a band called The Humanoids. Multiple identities here too.

Reviewer's Bio:

Jessica Lipnack is a writer whose non-fiction work has led to a career as a management consultant (she is CEO of NetAge, a Boston based consultancy). She is the co-author, with Jeff Stamps, of six non-fiction books, including Virtual Teams, Networking, and The Age of the Network. She has written for, among others, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Harvard Business Review, The Industry Standard, Ars Medica, Global City Review, Mothering, and The Futurist. She was recently interviewed by Writers in Profile. Jessica lives in Massachusetts with her husband. When not writing, she is knitting, gardening, doing yoga, and wasting time online. For more information, visit the NetAge website, and Endless Knots, her blog.

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

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