Subtropics is the literary journal from the English Department of the University of Florida, and this issue is a true mix of fiction, poetry, essay and translation. The journal is hard to define and doesn’t offer a clear editorial or mission statement to go by. One can assume, though, that they are dedicated to publishing “the best” (as the submission guidelines on their website states) as this issue offers a mix of exceptionally strong writing.
Perhaps meant to be the most provoking piece is an essay that outlines ten steps for writers and literary critics to grow toward and adhere to, Anis Shivani’s “What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?” Shivani suggests such guidelines as “overcome specialization” and “merge disciplines,” that are buzz words in the academia today but then expands on such topics to bring them beyond being just buzzwords. Two of his most controversial suggestions are “argue from personality” and “downplay politicization.” While Shivani’s argument is too broad and detailed to quickly sum up, let it say that he believes that to rethink criticism is to rethink writing and that he is not offering up trite or easy suggestions about how to approach change.
One of the stories in this issue with the strongest emotional punch, albeit, a bitter, morose one, is Emmett Shepard’s “Two Down,” which is about a forty-year-old man who lives at home with his mother, who can’t keep a job, and who, by his own admission, has nothing except his dog. The story begins with a few laments from the man about his most recent job loss, moves through some insulting, bickering scenes between him and his mother, and then ends with him outside the house, thinking that “Tomorrow will be the same as today.” The story is, yes, depressing, but also compact (three pages), moving, and effective.
Another story in this issue, also about dissolving relationships, is Timothy Cook’s “Champagne Suburban.” The story follows an unhappy couple who are taking a ferry to meet some friends they don’t want to see. The man has a near escapade that his wife makes more of than actually happened. They fight, and he’s left thinking about the difference in the colors beige and champagne of the cars on the ferry, noting that champagne has a “little sparkle to it.” Beige, the color of their car, however, does not. This is a poignant way to end a terse story, with cars as an obvious substitute for their relationship.
Allegra Goodman’s “Sheba” provides another sympathetic look at unraveling human relationships, though it also includes and revolves around the relationship of the main character, Jaime, and a dog named Sheba that she walks for her job. At one point in the story, Jaime loses the dog, that is not hers, and feels as if she’s lost everything. The story also tracks her burgeoning relationship with a young man named Simon, but at the end of the story, it’s really Sheba that Jaime is worried about (or displacing her worry onto). The story closes with all relationships left ambiguously, but devastatingly, explored.
In addition to those stand-out stories, this issue of Subtropics also contains a number of excellent poems. One of my favorites is Bruce Bond’s “The Enlightenment,” which explores the emotions of a narrator who years ago dissected a frog. That perhaps sounds a bit clinical, but the poem carries a sharp emotional crunch.
This issue of Subtropics is diverse, and the pieces in it explore a wide emotional range and broad themes. For the most part, the writing is sharp and excellent. There is no clear, pat summary for this issue, aside from the fact that the pieces are compelling.