The Magpie’s Return by Curtis Smith

Timely literary fiction is uncommon. Stories deemed “topical” by major media outlets flicker at us as frantically as a strobe light. Literary fiction, in contrast, offers a slow burn. Lag times in the publishing industry exacerbate the situation. By the time a story ripped from the headlines reaches the reader, it can exude a whiff of old news, precisely because it’s been ripped from the headlines.

But there are exceptions, and Curtis Smith’s The Magpie’s Return (Running Wild Press, 380 pages) counts among them. Reading this novel can feel uncanny, especially the opening section, with its descriptions of “The Great Shut-In” where people are obliged to stay home or, if they venture out, wear masks. (Here, due to a nuclear conflict on the other side of the globe.) The story centers on Kayla, a precocious adolescent who excels at math. She observes:

Even beneath my mask, I hold my breath. The fear of poison all around, and even if the count is low, no one knows when an inhaled microbe could implant itself, a time bomb’s first tick, and perhaps the cells are already dividing beneath my skin.

Smith explores the fear and uncertainty (am I safe? am I paranoid? who do I trust?) that accompany such situations. Physical concerns aside, the psychological toll is considerable, and made worse by the fact that political necessity can also serve opportunism for those eager to grasp the levers of power. A demagogic politician named McNally, who advocates a form of Christian nationalism, is ascendant, and his supporters include Kayla’s new neighbor, Slater, a character who will loom large in this story.

Kayla’s family is shaken by these changes. Her father is a professor; her mother, a poet. In many respects they embody a species of well-intentioned liberal whose worldview is poorly equipped to deal with new, angry realities. What might’ve earlier made their attitudes to life seem more sophisticated or cosmopolitan actually enfeebles them now. Kayla loves her parents but she can dissect their pieties with an adolescent’s unsparing frankness. When her father counsels patience and empathy, Kayla shoots back.

“All of us have been hurt,” he said the other night over dinner. “All deal with it in their own way.”

“If all of us have been hurt, then there are some who’ve done their fair share of the hurting.” I stuck a forkful of chicken into my mouth. “It’s only logical. Law of averages and everything. I’d be glad to show you some statistical models.”

Mathematics is central to how Kayla experiences the world. For her peers, it’s a difficult subject; for Kayla, it’s her comfort zone, not just for the beautiful shapes of solved equations but for offering her a means to navigate through life. For instance, she enjoys field hockey. But she is probably the only one on the team who entertains thoughts like this:

I estimate the ball’s circumference and velocity and its travels across an X-axis, its distance impacted by variables of cleat ruts and the gouges cut into the rubber by the groundskeeper’s mower. The numbers’ dance leads to new numbers, other variables…

Or, in an arresting scene early in the novel, she gets into a fight with a girl named Missy. She is goaded by others, but Kayla’s reaction to external provocation follows an internal imprint resembling the grids of her calculus class.

The grid appears and Missy melts into a jumble of squares and rectangles, her jaw stretched into a snarling, funhouse distortion. A target that expands until it accumulates its own gravity. Her mouth opens, a maw of teeth and gum and a waggling serpent’s tongue, her threats cut short by the fist that swings so fast it hardly seems to belong to me.

The Magpie’s Return is full of such moments. Though mathematical logic can be implacable, it can also surprise. This novel features numerous twists and turns. Early on, I thought I was reading a “post-nuclear” novel, a particular kind of dystopia to which I brought various assumptions. But the story develops otherwise; Smith does not allow it to become predictable. Violent ruptures—in the family, in the community, in institutions—occur frequently, and are part of the novel’s design.

The narration shifts from first person to second person to third person, underlining the mutability of perspectives. Throughout the novel, including a period of harrowing incarceration, Kayla aches to “balance the equation.” This desire expresses not only a need to make sense of events: it is also a hunger for justice. An imposed Big Idea (here, McNally’s “Holy America”) does violence to the shared experiences of her past. Here Kayla recalls her mother:

When I was four, you told me about Lao Tzu and the journey of a thousand miles, and you laughed when I doubted you, not the concept but the unit of measure, and we researched the li, the Chinese length approximately a third of the English mile, and our private joke that a journey of three hundred thirty-three and a third miles begins with a single step, and ahead of me waits twenty-four li, and who would smile at that but you, mom, and now that’s gone too, the li and our thousand other secrets, all of them stolen.

Reading this novel, I was reminded of a phrase from George Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946), an essay written fairly late in Orwell’s life, after he’d become the political artist he is remembered as today. He’d served unhappily in the Imperial Police in Burma, volunteered for the POUM anarchists in civil war Spain, been shot through the neck by a fascist bullet, narrowly escaped assassination by Stalinist agents. It was a life, to put it mildly, not short on incident. But in this essay, Orwell returns to his childhood, to memories of when he was eight years old, when he had a crucial realization: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” It was this early insight, experienced by a child, which brought about the writer.

If The Magpie’s Return feels timely, it is not a matter of punditry or ripped headlines, but rather of Smith’s command of language and his power of facing unpleasant facts. Smith directs his gaze both without and within, documenting Kayla’s interiority in a manner that journalism could never reach. In the process, he reaffirms the vitality and importance of fiction. Smith’s telling offers no easy consolations, but it is a cry from the heart that gives the reader the satisfaction of serious art. Ambitious, inventive and uncompromising, this novel reminds us of the fragility of so much of what we take for granted.

Charles Holdefer, author of Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots, 2019

All the Useless Things Are Mine: A Book of Seventeens by Thomas Walton

WaltonFlash fiction has enjoyed a boom in recent years but sometimes overlooked are shorter prose forms which don’t respect the conventions of flash—e.g., at least an implied plot or hint of closure—in order seek out other literary effects. Thomas Walton’s All the Useless Things Are Mine: A Book of Seventeens (Sagging Meniscus, 138 pages) is an intriguing entry into this field. It is both experimental, in the sense that there isn’t really a label for the genre, and traditional, for it deploys aphorism and image in a manner which is readily accessible, despite its peculiarity.

The author calls the pieces in this collection “seventeens” because each freestanding entry is composed of exactly seventeen words. A few pieces are titled, but most are not, and the book is arranged in 26 chapters with titles like “Animal Sketches,” “Art Criticism” and “Birdsong.” The fixation on seventeen words recalls the haiku form, which in its English rendering is typically composed of seventeen syllables in three lines. Here, though, instead of relying on poetry techniques like line breaks or rhythm assisted by white space on the page, Walton opts for a “prosier” approach, working with short, punchy sentences. Continue reading

This is How He Learned to Love by Randall Brown

Was it the intention of Randall Brown or his publisher to make a statement by putting the word “stories” on the cover of This Is How He Learned to Love (Sonder Press, 88 pages)? I don’t know. Of course, it’s a convention to tag book titles with explanatory genre labels such as “a novel” or “stories” or “a memoir.” But Brown is a particular case. He is a prolific and expert writer of flash fiction as well as the author of A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. He also writes longer forms (see his novella How Long is Forever), but it’s not unreasonable to think of him as “Mr. Flash,” one of the chief exponents of the form in America. Continue reading

Flashlight Girls Run by Stephanie Dickinson

C__Data_Users_DefApps_AppData_INTERNETEXPLORER_Temp_Saved Images_content(1)When does a presence become a force to be reckoned with? A few years ago, I became aware of Stephanie Dickinson because her name often appeared in literary magazines. She was a prolific writer, popping up in many places. I’d read a few of her flash pieces, which were strong in imagery, but I’d never read an entire book of her work until now. Her latest collection of short stories, Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian, 254 pages), has made me sit up and pay attention. Continue reading

The Surprising Place by Malinda McCollum

McCollum

Good book titles play with a reader’s expectations. A short story collection called The Surprising Place (University of Massachusetts Press, 197 pages) might seem to imply an emphasis on locale, a Winesburg, Ohio-ish evocation of a town and its inhabitants. And, in fact, this volume of stories takes its title from a former promotional slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, which provides the backdrop for most of the action. Still, what is “surprising” in Malinda McCollum’s excellent new book and winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction is not a matter of geography, in the prosaic sense. Rather, it concerns a different kind of space, a province of heart and mind. For lack of a better term, you could call it interiority. McCollum offers intensely observed portraits of her characters’ internal struggles which are often unsettling and full of contradiction.
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Errata by Jacob Smullyan

To describe a book as unclassifiable is, of course, to classify it, but that fact is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Jacob Smullyan’s Errata (Sagging Meniscus, 72 pages). Comprising thirty short chapters of mini-essays, stories and philosophical aperçus, it straddles numerous genres and grapples with the process of making sense.
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Her 37th Year, An Index by Suzanne Scanlon

ScanlonCover

The abecedarium has a long literary history, and some of its best-known examples, such as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary or Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, play with the form’s implied authority for purposes of satire. Recently Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby used the template to convey hellish fragments of an environmental dystopia. Suzanne Scanlon, author of Promising Young Women (2012), turns to a woman’s experience in contemporary America and offers a probing and artful inventory in Her 37th Year, An Index (Noemi Press, 161 pages). Continue reading

The Inevitable June by Bob Schofield

Scholfield

“This morning I crossed a river on a horse made of lightbulbs.”

That’s just another day (June 4, to be exact) in Bob Schofield’s The Inevitable June (theNewerYork Press, 120 pages), an agreeably strange book structured around an unnamed narrator’s calendar for the month of June. Using text, cartoons and distinctive graphics, it is unclassifiable in terms of genre but it manages to create a self-contained world of its own. Continue reading

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

field There’s a long tradition of writing about sport that tries to be more than writing about sport. Journalism, it seems, is not enough. The events of a game and the constraints of its rules become raw materials for allegory. Much fuss has been made in recent years about the rise of nonfiction and its power over the popular imagination—but when it comes to sport, the lure of myth remains strong. Continue reading

Road to Nowhere by Józef Mackiewicz

mackiewiczEzra Pound’s observation that “literature is news that STAYS news” certainly applies to Road to Nowhere (Henry Regnery Company, 382 pages). This excellent novel, first published by a Polish exile in 1955, is consistently engaging and, for its aching, visceral power, still feels fresh. Given the unfortunate fact that Józef Mackiewicz is generally unknown in the U.S. and most of his work is untranslated or out of print, he might as well be seen as a new writer, as far as Americans are concerned. Considered in this light, he is quite simply the most intriguing new writer I have encountered in years. Continue reading