The journal subTERRAIN is published thrice annually by the sub-TERRAIN Literary Collective Society in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although the journal originated in 1988, to a reader in the United States, it appears to be a somewhat Northern combination of the 1970s Mother Jones magazine with its funky typeface and riotous paper and Harper’s Magazine with its editorial composition. Despite its funding from various governmental entities, I don’t think its writers or its editorial collective really tend to bow or mew to anyone in particular.
Generally, I perceived that there were a lot of sharp edges to some of the fiction and memoirs in the journal. Like the fabulous punk haircuts of the 1990s, the construction or design some of the pieces romp along in a reliable braid and then suddenly veer into a metallic green, a sunset red. For example, I kept looking for a neat ending and sensible conclusion in Nathaniel Moore’s short fiction “In a Lonely Place.” The story is thematically rich—in fact, I felt the mood of the story moved its dramatic action along in ways that a tab of its events did not, and yet the story ends in a kind of desperate dystopia. Even the protagonist’s lover is somehow arid. Reading the sharp ending that concludes exactly like a mohawk, you long for something else, something that you might have been warned against by considering the short story’s title.
Mood drove my reading of Leah Bailly’s “Spiritus Mundi” which won the Vancouver International Writers Festival for fiction. The sentence length (roiling, like the waters where the story is set), the subject matter (a fire, a coming of age), and the narrative voice (first person, plural) pull the reader along at a steady tide while the raw drama is kept at bay. I would argue that the treatment of such drama is not atypical of the publication, especially in concert with Moore’s story and some of the others discussed herein.
In Patrick MacKenzie’s “Halfway to Happiness,” a memoir of his father’s struggles with bipolar disorder, I noticed a great deal of restraint with regard to the description of symptoms or more outlandish behaviors that one sees in so many of the narratives of mood disorders. One has heard the litany before, but not in this way, and I think MacKenzie’s work is masterful in taking a well-trod road somewhere else.
Michael Turner’s “441 Powell,” also a memoir, is innovative in the point-of-view. The memoir starts out in the third person, and I was happy beyond reason when the narrative stayed there. The technique forced me to seek out the story itself—not the confessor—and read it more objectively.
The work in this journal is cinematic in many ways; the overtones in Gaye Fowler’s “Something for You Today” (creative nonfiction), and Marianne Apostolides memoir “Coming of Age” left me looking for the kind of narrative order you might discover in the films of Quentin Tarantino and Ingmar Bergman, respectively. The scenes set in both pieces of nonfiction were vivid, the characters haunting. And as much as I hate the word “haunting” when applied to a work of art, you see the richness of abuse and destruction in the protagonists in such a way that you are reminded of it later—it comes back at a stop light, in the row of tenderloin at the grocery store, behind closed eyes.