The theme of this all-fiction issue is shame and glory, “which seemed a marvelously arbitrary way to come across good stories,” writes Leslie Daniels in her introduction to the issue. “As writers, shame set us wildly in motion. And glory is . . . transformation, the alchemy involved in making art,” she concludes.
Seth Borgen, Molly Giles, Kermit Frazier, Ramona Ausubel, Mark Halliday, Rachel May, Mark Childress, Jo Scott-Coe, Alexi Zimmer, Sands Hall, Catherine Browder, and Amy Quan Barry are the writers whose versions of shame include stories about the realization and witness of racist thoughts and behaviors, family drama, accidental death, infatuation, grief, greed, confronting the appearance of “foreign-ness,” and, of course, sexuality, sexiness, sex-less-ness, lust, desire, and sex.
These are round, fully-formed, goal-oriented stories by which I mean they are plot driven, paced to lead to endings that serve as conclusions, not open-ended echoes of endings, and they are not tentative or unsure of their purpose. Their tone is natural and casual with language that does not draw attention to itself. What is most striking in these stories is these writers’ ability to capture a particular moment in time with large psychological, social, or cultural implications through a telescopic lens that focuses in on and magnifies the particulars without over indulging or exploiting their unique details.
Seth Borgen’s story of an adolescent boy’s experience of the relationship between race, sex, and his own interest in the female body as a set of disconnected parts (“Bathing Suit Parts”) and Amy Quan Barry’s story of a tourist’s view of Vietnam (“Perfume Pagoda”) treat entirely different subjects in distinct ways, but what they have in common is the masterful creation of a pivotal moment of awareness that contains a universe of large and weighty concerns with visual images and emotional responses that render these concerns intimate and immediate.
In her introduction, Daniels refers to the “magnificent and wacky human brain,” and while I did not find any of these stories particularly wacky, I cannot refrain from singling out some enticing and original openings, including Sands Hall’s “Silver Dagger,” which begins with the lyrics of a lullaby; Alexi Zenter’s disturbing and intriguing first line: “We were forever fishing tourists’ bodies out of the Malagano trees;” and my favorite, the first line of “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” by Ramona Ausubel, “I do not find Houdini downstairs.”