Ploughshares has returned with their much anticipated annual fiction issue, which features work from the likes of Lydia Davis and Daniel Pena, as well as some new writers coming into their own. In the introduction, Guest Editor Lauren Groff says she is “hungry for voices that speak to me with real emotion; because real emotion is always new.” One can see that influence in the latest installment, which includes a wide-range of narratives where the characters are dealing with unexpected and sometimes strange incidents that showcase little slices of humanity.
One of my favorite pieces is “Taxidermy” by Vladislava Kolosova. There is something about our main character that lets us believe in her despite her off-campus job as a prostitute. Maybe it's the impression of innocence she has with being a young college student, or maybe it's the unforgiving environment of Moscow that makes it okay. She is matter-of-fact, yet has a strong sense of humor and humility about herself that attracts readers. She reminds me of that fun friend you want to keep around. A quick exchange with a classmate thrusts her into a new lifestyle: “The prettiest girl in my Human Origins class had said, ‘Why stand on your feet all day for slave wages when you can earn money lying on your back.’” The sex and nightly escapades are a lens for her to see how things work and experience the uncanny, like large, stuffed animals staring you down. It is surely an interesting read to say the least.
I really enjoyed Xuan Juliana Wang's story "Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships" which contains an aging man trying to bridge the gap between himself and his westernized daughter who has been away studying in Europe. They seem to be worlds apart, and the tension evident in their interactions during dinner highlights the opposing realities they inhabit. It is clear their conflicting mindsets stem from the lives they forged in the U.S. after moving from China when the daughter was a baby. The father, involved in the tech industry and a former professor, is programmed to think of his difficulties as mere problems that can be solved or boiled down to an exact answer. After an argument he reflects: “Always concerned with things that she has zero control over. Like missing the SATs for a hunger strike against the Iraq War, something she had nothing to do with.” Fancy wines and frequent traveling, his daughter’s new found tastes and perspective is something he cannot understand, and as a result we find ourselves in the midst of a generational and cultural divide that threatens their relationship.
The most engaging opening belongs to Kevil Wilson’s “An Arc Welder, a Molotov Cocktail, a Bowie Knife.” His first line starts with: “It was almost midnight when my girlfriend got a call about her sister who had been arrested for taking a kebab skewer at a cookout and stabbing her husband so close to his dick . . . ” I was hooked, immediately alongside the boyfriend and innocent sister who are thrown into a house in complete disarray (squirrels, piss, food, etc.), and are forced to take care of four kids living in chaos. They choose the bathtub to sleep in because it is the easiest thing to clean, and anything else would require too much effort to sanitize. Though despite the nightmare, the young couple comes closer together and the story ends with them set to embark on their own, much different path.
This newest edition of Ploughshares is out now and I strongly recommend it. These stories are sure to strike a nerve with you and linger as you consider the implications beyond the page and what the characters are showing us about ourselves and the societies to which we belong.