Conjunctions is a slippery, difficult journal, and its current issue, “Riveted: The Obsession Issue,” is no exception. As is par for the course with Conjunctions, the writers appear heavily vested in a particular attention to language, with extremely idiosyncratic patterns and constructs of thought. Although ostensibly clustered around a theme, their writing offers broad interpretations of various obsessions that run the gamut from the expected to the unexpected, the probable to the improbable, the tangible to the intangible.
Christopher Sorrentino’s “The Cursed,” one of the most memorable pieces in this issue, invites the reader into the depressed mind of Nolan Dane, who is failed in academia, failed in life and who believes he has been cursed by Frederic Constant, an underground filmmaker. One of Nolan’s friends passes off information that causes Nolan to think that Constant placed this curse on him as revenge for a detested interview with the filmmaker’s biographer. Throughout the story, Nolan suffers a series of misfortunes that he blames on the curse until, near the story’s conclusion, he decides that his situation is not the result of a curse. “This was,” he thinks to himself, “perhaps how it went. Through your very own prescription, the mechanism of your compulsions and rotten habits, your prejudices and phobias, you led yourself to your own destruction”
This story guides the reader from the concrete to the abstract and back again. It explores Nolan’s various mental states, which range from fixating on blaming others to fixating on blaming himself, as he tries to find reasons for living a life he considers failed. Sorrentino’s story interprets the theme of this issue more literally than many of the pieces, although like most of the issue, it twists the theme in a satisfyingly original way.
Another story that flirts with failure, but treats it with a more absurd touch, is the leading story in this issue, “Clear Over Target, the Whole Town in Flames,” by Fiona Maazel. In this story, which bursts with interesting, original language and one of the strongest opening paragraphs I’ve come across in ages, a woman named Nancy plans a party for her father. From that innocuous premise, the story grows odder and darker, revealing that the party is being held so that Nancy’s father can apologize for his role in the Allies’ destruction of Dresden to her daughter’s German, sort-of boyfriend. Nancy sends out 500 invitations, but only about five people show up. The party is, of course, a disaster, but the characters encountered on the road to that disaster and peculiarities of their personalities and relationships make this story an incredible read.
Perhaps the most striking story in this issue, though, is Julia Elliot’s “The End of the World,” which mocks America’s nostalgia for elusive, unremarkable, and forgotten pasts by following most of the members of a band named Swole as they travel to ask the band’s most reclusive member if he will participate on a record called Loser Bands of the Nineties that a LA producer wants to put out. While that plot could sound amusing but insubstantial, Elliot skillfully fleshes out the relationships between the band members, most particularly the banter between them as they try to push what they all know is a stupid idea—but an idea that could make them money if the project goes viral—forward.
“Riveted: The Obsession Issue” of Conjunctions contains many other fascinating selections. “Parts List Counted in Ogham” by Karen Donovan stems from the alphabetic system of 5th and 6th century in Old Irish, “in which an alphabet of twenty letters is represented by notches for vowels and lines for consonants and which is known principally from inscriptions cut on the edges of rough standing tombstones.” Donovan’s poetry is broken into twenty sections, each featuring a different letter of this alphabet. Her language envelops both the worldly and the cosmos.
Michael Sheehan’s “Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned” is as mysteriously formal as its title. It takes place in New York and investigates the condition known as “suspended animation,” where a patient shows no signs of life—paralyzed, but not dead.
Sigrid Nunez’s “Philosophers” starts with the intriguing pair of sentences, “The whole world can be divided into those who write and those who do not write, wrote Kierkegaard. Not that I’ve been reading Kierkegaard.” The story goes on to look at a life full of those kinds of qualifications.
The writing in this issue can be stylistically challenging, but it moves with a purpose. Like any obsession, fragments of these pieces will haunt the reader long after the stories are finished. Certain phrases, certain ideas, will creep in and lodge in one’s memory. In other words, this is an issue well worth puzzling over.