The Conium Review takes its name from a small but significant genus in the plant kingdom. Their delicately detailed leaves and small white flowers give little indication of their danger. Why, one wonders, would the editors name their journal after hemlock? The leaves of the plant contain chemicals that disrupt the victim’s central nervous system. The lethal dose Socrates consumed caused progressive paralysis that eventually prevented him from breathing, depriving his heart and that powerful brain of the oxygen they needed. The fiction and poetry in The Conium Review inspire the same feeling as a mild dose of the drug. No worries; this kind of conium is not deadly. The stories in the journal do not draw the reader in with whiz-bang narratives and cliffhanger plots. Rather, the pieces draw you in with character work that is compelling in a calm manner.
Margarita Meklina’s short story “Buy Your Own” trades on some powerful themes. How many times have you thought about the artists behind what you find in a secondhand record shop or bookstore? Meklina’s first-person narrator finds cheap and rare LPs and auctions them on the Internet. Each of the albums has its own story; soon, friends and relatives of each artist are asking to buy the vinyl for a discount. The conflict between art and commerce is an old one, and Meklina does a good job earning sympathy for both sides. The narrator seems a bit callous in messages to people who knew and loved these obscure artists but is redeemed in the end of the piece. After thinking about all of those unpleasant messages, the narrator realizes that the businessperson can set themselves
apart from those raw and uncultivated roots from which the art itself grows. And it grows from noticing the loneliness of an old man, from seeing the first small, smiling steps of a woman who just stood up from her hospital bed, from glimpsing the bashfulness of an adult who creates dazzling and innocent kite-like paintings.
The protagonist of Isaac Coleman’s novelette “Ten Dollars” drifts through an appropriately disjointed narrative that is bookended by the acquisition and loss of the titular sawbuck. Fritz (who hates his name) just can’t seem to make any productive decisions. Fate and bad choices have left Fritz in the doldrums, and it can be very hard to get momentum going in those kinds of conditions. Fritz doesn’t seem to learn anything along the way, though he does gain some measure of introspection with regard to his situation.
In the short story “Charity,” Jen Knox employs a narrator who looks back on her senior year with longing and regret. The story is about friendship and class struggle; the narrator’s family is part of the hard-working middle class. Her friend James is robbing his own father; she disapproves, but still goes on a shopping spree with him and another friend. There is a nice scene at the end of the story in which the narrator must hide the shopping bags from her mother. (After all, mothers tend to ask questions about these sorts of things.) Instead of a confrontation, the story builds to a sweet and meaningful mother/daughter talk.
The storytellers and poets whose work appears in this premiere issue of The Conium Review seem less interested in how characters come to be what they are. Instead, these writers are content to devote attention to the small moments that reflect our true identities.