subTerrain has a youthful feel. But rather than the ages of the characters or speakers themselves, the feeling is borne more of a sense of dislocation and disorientation. Even when they are seen in an adult habitat—job, relationship, a rhythm that most of the over-25 set settle into—the bleakness, the weirdness, and the whimsy in these pieces recall an eighteen or twenty-two-year-old’s fantasy of what life may turn out to be like down the road, if they remain on the edge of convention either internally or in society and haven’t become more content than they are now. Perhaps the fantastic and the rootlessness are a product of the issue’s theme, “This Carnival Life,” which throws up and tears down an entire mesmerizing world in the space of a few days. And true to the chaos in a carnival, subTerrain isn’t interested in tidy structures. The stories end abruptly, the poems demand considerable powers of association from the reader, the commentary can take leaps of logic, and the book reviews sometimes grope unsuccessfully for the right word. Yet the talent of these writers is evident; the skill they have for creating worlds is a promise for greater things to come.
Jordan Turner’s “Down & Vacant,” Martin West’s “Five Cents Short,” and Brock Peters’s “Bilderberg” feature narrators or main characters with lifestyles that can broadly be characterized as irregular: a vagrant in a café at three in the morning, a teenage runaway being invited into a farcical and vaguely sinister world of adults, a reader who calls a friend at four-thirty in the morning to go to a 24-hour diner and who had lost some library books “in a freak intoxicated bonfire disaster.” Coffee and alcohol are prominent supporting actors. All three feel slightly detached from reality and even have something cartoonish about them, like a woman’s too-red painted mouth. But once the reader accepts the premise of a stylized, aestheticized experience, these stories’ powers of description become apparent. “Five Cents Short” shows exquisite control of rhythm and individuals in a group in the party scene. Like a movie director, West pans the camera from person to person seamlessly, spending just the right amount of time on each action. The language is smooth and original. The delight of “Down & Vacant” lies in the impersonality that comes from calling all the characters in the story by their appearance and not by name: the blonde, the hooker, the vampire, the college kid. Such is the city at any time, but especially at 3 a.m. The fact that they are gathered in a close space and interacting with each other with oblique hostility adds to the loneliness.
But as fun these three are to read, it is hard to pin down what exactly happens in the end; or rather, the significance of what happens in the end. Even readers who are open to experiment tend to want to know why they read what they have just read. After all, they spent time on it. The endings of these stories read as if they were just the beginning; which is a shame, because they have been so successful in building a stage all along.
The poems feel young, too. There is a lot of variety in form—prose poems, end-justified blocks, double-spaced lines, a parody of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”—and less storytelling of either the literal or the emotional world. I imagine many of the speakers in the poems to have once believed in the possibility of engagement with the world and still long to be a part of it, but have become cynical about the notion and would be embarrassed to admit to the desire. Terry Trowbridge’s beautiful “Introvert at a Party” describes the anguished negotiation between a person’s outer and inner selves:
The way he feels afterward
is what it must feel like to be an ocean
on the first day the moon is gone.
If everyone was talking about the moon
they might not notice the silence
Karl Siegler’s “Yes We Can (Just Say ‘No’ to Empire): A Parable” gives an extremely interesting and well-written condensed history of Pueblo settlements in the southwestern United States, and then hints that the abandonment of one commerce-based settlement in the 12th century augured the future of the United States. The analogy is imprecise. There is little evidence in the article supporting the notion that economic inequality led to the abandonment of the settlement. And because the reasons for the abandonment are a mystery, the choice of that particular settlement—among all the empires that have met their end partly due to internal corrosion and discontent with a class system, like pre-revolutionary France or imperial Russia—as a fitting analogy for present-day United States also remains puzzling.
It would be amiss to overlook the design of the issue: the bold fonts, Brit Bachmann’s line drawings packed with emotional punch, the gentle watercolors suggesting a tenderness underneath the “Strong Words for a Polite Nation” that is subTerrain.