If surrealism is a vehicle for expressing the unsaid, then The Southeast Review smartly packages its fiction in a way that says a great deal through a scrim of restraint. In this way, the magazine honors the Southern vernacular tradition of saying something poignant innocuously.
In Katie Coyle’s short story “The Tether,” the narrator’s effervescent, magical twin sister eclipses the expected through a kind of “shooting up.” Coyle foreshadows the ending with tremendous strokes, both in the emotional development of the narrator and the pull of the Genesis story arc. The trick is trying to discern, in true Southern fashion, what exactly is meant by the strong narrative cloaked in such lovely language. I like that it can be read in a thousand ways—less scripted than even the archetype of twin rivalry—and that it can be enjoyed without a key to the code. But the vehicle is more than what it seems, and what you take away is a metaphorical richness.
The story is preceded in the journal by another haunting tale, woven with its own ghosts and a wrenching sorrow. In the short story “We Didn’t Say Virginia,” Lauri Anderson Alford manages a cohesive storyline that unravels along with her narrator’s psyche in an original sequence. Disintegration marries explicit events so that the surrealism Alford achieves is as hard to fathom as one’s own recollection. It works. Her craft is so well executed that even the gentlest read of it allows for clean transitions of place, time, and character. On the one hand, one might be left with the sense of witnessing a seemingly unpreventable murder in a wasteland of failed love. But on the other hand, it is about the recklessness of self-absorption in white post-Civil Rights Southern dissolution.
In both of the less strictly realist stories, you can weigh the possibilities for hours. Placed in between them is Graham Cotten’s “Resurfacing,” a neat commentary on public space, human manipulation of the environment (and vice versa), and how one manages to come of age after one has already come of age. The ending provides the reader with a sense of happiness and longing for the final frank weave of the story’s conclusion.
And as much as my premise rests on the theory that a Southern journal honors a localized tradition of saying less to say more, the nonfiction in the journal is rather clear. Joseph Chinnock captures a manic moment—and by that I mean the staccato of his words, the rapidity of his ideas—in a florid response to Nabokov. His confession is precisely not a confession: it rolls from salacious suggestion to an outlandish dinner cumulating in the one sentence that is static— “Rachel is dead to me.”
And while Chinnock’s narration struck me as kind of manic, Ira Sukrungruang names depression in a series of incantations of what “depression says.” But even though Sukrungruang may, at first glance, be talking about depression as a mood state and biological affect, he is also at his best in talking about faith, family, and a spellbinding map of the world:
Maps were easy places to dream, and my father was a dreamer. . . .And here we were. An immigrant father and his immigrant son. Wanting the world. With a map, you knew where you stood because everything was labeled, because there were roads that connected to other roads, borders outlined with thick lines, water a pale blue, mountains and hills in slight topographical curves. . . .
Take me there.
Let me breathe the air of a foreign land.
The journal becomes more concrete at that point. I admire the story of a young man learning about basketball as metaphor. I enjoy the book reviews almost as much as one might enjoy a fine book itself. I devour Katie Cortese’s interview with Paul Harding because I have been waiting on Tinkers for a rainy afternoon when nothing but the words matter, and now I can see the exoskeleton of the genius behind it. I cycle back to the poetry that opens the volume, and it is like folk art against a politicized landscape of otherwise solidly abstract verse.
The Southeast Review does not shy away from challenge; that one might perceive the stories of the fantastic lives chronicled herein to be “well-traveled” doesn’t take away from the new presentation and approach. They come at you from innovative angles, making the somehow still canonical themes wholly neoclassical.