by Justin Taylor
Getting excited about the new issue of a magazine or journal is easy enough, but sustaining that interest is a more difficult proposition. Look at your book shelf right now- how many of the “awesome new issue[s] of” whatever it was at the time end up getting abandoned three-quarters, or halfway, or a third of the way through? Today I want to introduce you all to something that I hope will become a regular feature on HTMLGiant. (And not just a feature I write– any of us can do this, and on your own blogs, you can too.) Friends, meet COVER TO COVER, in which I (or YOU) walk the walk of digging your favorite journal by committing to actually read the entire issue from start to finish. For the first COVER TO COVER, I have chosen NOON #9, the tenth anniversary edition of Diane Williams’s and Christine Schutt’s perpetually awesome literary annual. I’ve chosen NOON in part because I just think they’re great (there are few magazines I would rather read from COVER TO COVER) but also because I think that literary annuals are especially dependent on a self-motivated readership, people interested and willing to engage with the publication over a sustained period of time. After all, this will be the “new issue” for twelve full months.
After the jump, I issue my first report on what’s been read so far: Clancy Martin, Kim Chinquee, Brandon Hobson. Also, Augusta Gross’s artwork!
Okay, I can’t find any of Augusta Gross’s artwork online anywhere, and I can only assume that she doesn’t want me to scan it out of the magazine and post it, or else she’d have probably done that herself already. In any case, it’s a nice drawing of a green-yellow chair with a bird perched on the chairback. That’s such a crappy description, I’m sorry, but I lack the technical art-language skills to relay anything of value about what I’m looking at. Thesis = it’s nice.
Onward, then, to Clancy Martin’s “Family History,” an excerpt from his memoir in progress, which I believe is to be published by FSG at some future date. The piece begins with the sentence “I could not defecate.” A very in-your-face opening for a piece of writing, especially for the first piece of writing in the magazine, especially on such an auspicious year. Maybe a little TOO in-your-face? I thought so, at first, but Martin makes it clear in short enough order that he isn’t going for shock value- apparently he had major problems with constipation growing up, and so defecation (or not) is a really big thing for him. The real focus of this excerpt is his family (hence the title), and he makes them sound like a fascinating collection of thoroughly fractured human beings. Apparently, his parents had an especially brutal divorce, and his father was some sort of egomaniacal lunatic, but Martin isn’t playing for our sympathies. He’s just telling us how it was. As a teaser for his memoir, it’s highly successful. Rare is the day when the memoirist claiming to have “a story worth telling” actually has one– rarer still is the day when that story–even when it is, from his own perspective, worth telling–is worth it to me to listen to. If I had to decide whether or not to buy Martin’s book based solely on this excerpt, I would happily lay my money down.
Next up, three short-shorts by Kim Chinquee. They’re very crisp, and the images–especially of food–are very clear, but they felt oddly flat to me, and I wasn’t sure what to make of them. I think my favorite was the first one, “Worry Free!” which seemed to concern a sort of ex-aloholics support group at a baseball game. I’m not sure I got much out of these pieces, but I’m also not sure that the blame for that can be laid at Chinquee’s own feet. Chinquee seems to write in a similar mode to Lydia Davis, another well-beloved writer who typically leaves me feeling lukewarm at best. I like the short-short as a form, but tend to prefer those writers who use the concentrated space to create an effect of super-saturation, sharp turns in tiny spaces, and exuberant blasts of language and image, as in NOON-editor Diane Williams’s own work, and certain short-short works by Evenson, early Lutz, Padgett Powell’s “state stories” from Typical, and so on. Chinquee (and Davis, et al.) seem to practice a different kind of short-short writing, extending the aesthetic of minimalism from the size of the piece to the style of the prose, and then further still, to the scale of the narrative itself.
I think Brandon Hobson’s approach to the short-short is a little bit more my speed: “Somewhere” is a quick glance into some kid’s grubby and bent coming of age– rotgut whiskey and porno magazines; the two pages of his life that we see tell us more than enough about the whole scope of his existence, thereby obviating the author’s obligation to detail it for us, and so he doesn’t. I’m not 100% sure I understand “We’re Safe Now” (owing to its form, the short-short sometimes appears to conclude with an opaque punchline, leading the reader to assume he’s missing the joke, when in point of fact, there may be no joke to get, only a writer who finished writing what s/he had to say) but I like it quite a bit. “Gas Station” is probably the weakest of the three, but it’s also the most abbreviated, and it has a very powerful conclusion.
So that’s what I’ve gotten out of NOON #9 thus far. Next up is Deb Olin Unferth’s “Pet,” which I’ve already been lucky enough to hear her read, but am excited to re-encounter, and Bill Hayward’s photography. I’m going to see if maybe I can get some Q&A out of Bill. Stay tuned…