Ninth Letter has a reputation. It’s the exuberant, popular-as-a-result-of-being-odd kid on this gigantic playground of literary magazines. It’s the kid you want to camp out with, eating cheese puffs and limeade, snorting over politically fueled fart jokes that are at the same time above your understanding and hilarious. The front and back covers offer photographic evidence of what this kid might look like at his senior prom, ironically carrying an orchid and non-ironically wearing a glittered turtleneck under a glittered blazer. But once you get past this exterior, this metaphorical playground persona, the brilliance of the work inside dominates all reputation. The fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art are some of the finest I have experienced all year. I read each piece with energy and took each one as inspiration and aspiration.
I must say that each and every piece in this issue is worth reading. “Tethers” by Logan Adams appeals to the Winter’s Bone lovers with its grim story of two boys who run away after the death of their mother. Michele Morano’s essay “Crushed” explores the tensions of adult-child crushes through the complexity of her attentions to a young student. “The Ascendants” by Joe B. Sills, a simple older brother-younger brother tale, experiments with craft and absurdity, stringing out a seemingly endless list of older brothers with A names—Anthony, Archie, Abe, Alex, Arthur—coupled with a plural first person point of view. “Safelight” by E.B. Vandiver, “Take Her to a Place She Knows” by Jesse Damiani, “Arranged Marriage, As Coffee Field” by Jehanne Dubrow, and “Self-Portrait As Love in Mississippi” by Roger Reeves are all expertly crafted pieces that I enjoyed beyond expression.
Above all, though, you must read Theodore Kitaif’s “Pictures,” a blend of nonfiction and fiction, delving into the fascinating back-story of Oskar Kokoschka’s painting Woman in Blue. As revealed in this narrative essay, the artist commissioned a life-sized doll to serve both as inspiration for the painting and as replacement for lost loves. Kokoschka writes to the doll-maker:
Yesterday I sent you a life-size picture of my beloved one, which I beg you to imitate nicely, and, mobilizing all your patience and sensuality, to transport it into reality. Please make it possible for the touch to enjoy those parts where fat or muscles suddenly give way to sinews, and where the bone penetrates to the surface, like the shinbone.
Kokoschka’s letters become increasingly bizarre in their wish for intimacy with the doll and its creation. Over this historical oddity, Kitaif finesses a layer of fiction; he invents an American filmmaker who investigates the doll and Kokoschka and imagines a movie he might make based on his findings. The filmmaker details scenes in the movie that speak of reality, such as Kokoschka’s reaction when he first viewed the doll. The filmmaker also muses on the back story of artistic works in general, relaying the underlying concept of the piece. And of course, there is yet another layer, the reader will wonder about Theodore Kitaif in a similar way. The essay is printed as photographs of the actual manuscript pages sent to Ninth Letter. The editors explain that Kitaif is elusive, without email, using a post office box for correspondence, but that neither this, nor the hand-corrected typed pages were the reasons for publishing it:
Ultimately, it was the story’s push towards creation—of breathing life into a thing that once had none—and the many ways in which artists might fail in that endeavor (and the irony that Mr. Kitaif does not fail in his own creative endeavor) that we decided that this story deserved a greater audience.
These editorial asides populate the issue. The editors explain that they’re “pulling back the curtain just a bit, to give you a peek at how the collective mind of 9L works when [they] put an issue together.” These “peeks” make the issue more intimate, displaying the minds behind the issue.
The level of work, the attention to layout and design, the overall sense that the editors invested more than just time into the creation of a reading experience, all speaks to the beauty and magnitude that is Ninth Letter.