The image on the cover of this issue of Saranac Review is arresting: a full-bleed shot of moldering books, their pages waterlogged and swollen, their fore edges painted green and brown with several kinds of mold. In an opening note, Editor J.L. Torres points out that the image is taken from an interesting work of art by Steven Daiber, who built a wall of books in a forest in the year 2000 and has been chronicling the books’ decay and slow transformation into compost. The installation begs several questions regarding the relationship between print and digital media. Torres invokes the ideas of Walter Fischer, “a rhetorician who argued that the human species should be called homo narans rather than homo sapiens: narrating man.” Mankind is above all a storytelling creature; the medium may change, but the instinct will not.
The storytellers in this volume often invoke characters that are concerned with the desire to escape. Whether they live in suburbia, Nigeria’s Nkisi River valley, Cairo, or America’s flyover states, these characters inhabit somewhat restrictive worlds that stifle the protagonists’ repeated attempts to create a pleasing self-identity. In her nonfiction piece “Conversations with Samar,” Madeleine Stein describes her long-term friendship with a young Egyptian woman working her way through adolescence. Stein serves as a kind of mentor to Samar for six years, serving as an example of what a bright young woman can become when she defines herself on her own terms. The relationship is rendered in a calm tone that nonetheless reveals Stein’s affection for Samar and her regret at the way the two drifted apart.
Josh Peterson’s short story “Air Supply” immerses the reader in the malaise felt by many Americans in the country’s unofficial lower middle class. The story’s first-person narrator works for an inventory retail company; he meanders through identical Midwestern cities to count products on a never-ending maze of identical shelves. Peterson’s narrator seems numb on the surface, but a torrent of emotion flows underneath, betrayed by the series of childhood memories that frequently come to his mind. Peterson’s story describes the process many men must go through in order to understand their sins and what they must do to atone.
It has long seemed to me that there is a lot of pathos in the literary character of Barabbas: the thief whose sentence of crucifixion was commuted by those gathered at Golgotha. What must it be like to hear Pilate make his offer to the crowd, only to watch Jesus Christ put to death in your place? Even non-believers can appreciate the drama in John F. Buckley’s poem “Ode to Barabbas.” I have to admit that I am partial to rhyme and meter in poetry in addition to the story of Barabbas, so the poem hit the spot. Buckley wonders:
Do you ever reflect on your
fortune and trickle some drink on the ground, saying,
“Sorry, bro, better you, better than I?” What or whom do you
wrestle, Barabbas, what or who will attend when you die?”
Faith Shearin’s poetry is similarly accessible and entertaining. In “Three Dog Night,” Shearin remembers fondly “the old days, before houses were warm, / people did not sleep alone.” The poem evokes an older and perhaps better time in which humans used fire instead of furnaces to keep themselves comfortable. Her poem “Shade” invites the reader into her parents’ yard where they “let the forest grow wild around their house / so the trees bent protectively over the roof and the ivy / licked the mailbox like flames.” Would it really be so bad if nature reasserts itself in such a way?
In all, the Saranac Review seems proud to offer a way forward for the literary-minded and layman alike. Perhaps most interesting of all, the journal happily acknowledges that, while the American experience is important to an American journal, the human experience spans geographic and political boundaries.