The first and most obvious thing to notice about Conjunctions is that its biannual print anthology is enormous. This issue is more than 300 pages, featuring work by Brian Evenson, Laura van den Berg, Robin Hemley, Gabriel Blackwell, and others. The theme of the issue, “exile,” is addressed both literally and figuratively, with work often revolving around ideas of social exile and self-exile as well as physical displacement.
The work here is innovative and complicated. The first story to catch my eye, Christie Hodgen’s “Customer Reviews,” is written—as the title indicates—in the form of customer reviews, similar to the ones you might find on Amazon or Yelp. Five men who have dated the same woman review their experiences (spoiler alert: no one came away happy) and reveal a little bit more about the woman’s character. Though reviewing women like products doesn’t sound entirely appropriate, somehow Hodgen pulls it off. The men don’t sexually objectify or commodify the woman, but instead express a very honest frustration with how they’re unable to connect with her, to break through her neuroses and oddities. Though the reviews get increasingly frustrated and angry, the first reviewer, Nathan W. (who rated his date two stars and titled his experience, “In a Word: Disappointing”) expresses an earnest exasperation with their inability to connect:
Conversation was OK, though again I was expecting better. The first two dates were fine, because we’d read many of the same books and pretty much stuck to talking about those. But we were just saying all the obvious things, recycling what we’d learned in school, or the opinions we’d heard at parties and on the radio. Ayn Rand? Oh, please. Hemingway? Sort of/mostly. Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner? Well, duh.
The story is funny and heartbreaking, and it’s complicated by the fact that the woman who these men are reviewing is named Christie Hodgen, same as the author. The final entry is made by someone named Anonymous, which creates a lot of questions about who’s really reviewing Christie Hodgen after all.
Laura van den Berg’s “Havana” is a beautiful story, flawless in its prose and very nicely layered, with pleasantly unexpected turns. Elle and her husband Jeremy are struggling, so they try a vacation in Key West as a way to regain “The Thing,” the unspeakable and unknowable difference in their relationship that’s been pulling them apart. But when they hop on an abandoned yacht and are recognized as different people by a dangerous couple that comes aboard and sets sail for Havana to “do business,” the vacation becomes less of a second honeymoon and more like a nightmare. This is all complicated by the backstory of Elle’s elderly parents, who have begun forgetting things—a theme that comes into play as Elle daydreams about forgetting her old life, creating a new life altogether:
There were so many ways to stop remembering. A dip in neurotransmitters. Debris in the arteries. Sailing for so long, the starting point became a dark spot in your mind. A blow to the cortical tissue. A different set of names. Consider this equation: Rafa and Belén were no more able to recognize Elle and Jeremy than her parents were able to identify airplanes or lamps. Heatstroke. Infection of the heart valve. Getting blackout drunk. Subdural hematoma. Believing you were not yourself, had never been yourself, but always someone else in disguise. That you were forgetting in order to remember the person waiting beneath.
In another outstanding story, “A Damn Sight” by Matthew Pitt, a government worker named Perry has long been exiled from his tiny hometown in Mississippi until he’s called to shut it down. He’s sent back to confirm that there’s nothing worth keeping in the town so that its residents can be relocated and a hydroelectric plant built in its place, but what he finds is not what he expected. In his long absence, all of the town’s bluesmen have been punished for their frequent infidelities, their former lovers blinding them with lye and leaving them helpless and woeful. Instead of surveying the land with the eyes of a government employee, Perry walks the town like a man visiting home, meeting with all of the mournful bluesmen, including his step-father Asa, who his own mother left behind. Through these visits, Perry discloses details about his own past, revealing why he left his hometown in the first place and how that reason creates a kinship between him and the bluesmen:
No man’s fate is a replica of another’s. But these musicians’ yearning strums, their lashed fingers scrabbling for beans on tin-can bottoms? I know them. To toil in pursuit of your promise, in a town that refuses to recognize you until you get out of or out of joint with it? Of course, that puts you in a reckless state when you enter your own home. With a hundred ways to crack and only a few chords to patch you up.
The story is whip-smart and driven by an incredibly strong voice—one that is equally nostalgic, critical, and measured as Perry decides whether he can really erase a town with so much history, so much of his own history, and such important sorrow contained within its limits.
Conjunctions is one of those big journals that deserves all the praise that’s heaped upon it. It’s an exciting read, an important collection of some of our country’s greatest writing voices.