Founded in 1990, the glossy literary magazine Glimmer Train Stories showcases mostly emerging talent and hosts a bevy of contests to help cull those voices. I did not appreciate the fruits of their model until I read this issue, which carried me cover to cover, through a labyrinth of sound, structure, and emotional and literary sophistication.
Amateur art critics I know will ask about the moxie or chutzpah of some of the abstract expressionists—Pollock and Rothko, to name a couple—to class experimentation with the “high art” of the Impressionists. Sometimes these conservative museum-goers will permit a Dali or Picasso show, but they simply refuse to tolerate the more then-modern schools simply because it is perceived that the technique is overrun by the concept. In this issue of Glimmer Train, we are privileged to see fine experimentation in league with classical forms. The editors have keenly addressed those conservative readers who need to see the canonic in league with the mad dreams of Alexi Zentner and Philip Tate. In this spirit, I will suggest that reading this issue is a lot like attending a beach party thrown by Fellini with the occasional visit by Charles Baxter, except that Charles Baxter does actually appear in this magazine, and Fellini does not.
Alexi Zentner tells a story (“Finis”) that is structured to convey the narrative in a simultaneous format, so that decisions made in one frame unfold into one column, while a different choice unfolds into a different column, and the reader may read both columns and follow the decisions in a bifurcated, dual story that splits and splits again. The philosophical and stylistic elements of this framework are successful to me as a reader, and while the technique is not unanticipated, I reveled in Zentner’s artistic reach and the editors’ panache in publishing it.
Philip Tate’s “Gas” also departs from standard linear form. Using numbered dreams, he creates a web of stories that are joined by the perception that some are “real” while others overlap with elements of hazy conjecture. Fortunately, Tate does not borrow a trope from the excuse of “inherent instability model” where surrealism is supported by the argument that the narrator is conveniently unreliable—Tate invents his own unreliable narrator in a potent ruse that also affects a political commentary—which is innovative and successful.
Every single story in this journal is successful—and by that I mean my life has been improved by reading them—it is the diversity of form and the complexity of the ideas and the strength of the language make it successful. In “Whiteout,” there is the systematic, driven Mason going home in a blizzard that is itself a white force, like the cocaine Mason carries in his car; there is the compassionate use in Hermann’s sketch of a healer forcing himself to be healed; there are overwhelming tides of tight prose that do not lose—in that discipline—the melody of our tradition.
In addition to the stories, Jeremiah Chamberlin interviews Charles Baxter, and Carmiel Banasky interviews Karen Russell. Baxter’s insights into contemporary literary trends are important enough that I am going to close this review now and read the interview again, word by painted word.