A Public Space showcases a splendid selection of stories that balance plot, pacing, and literary innovation without sacrificing what makes classic short fiction remain essential. From the first story in the volume, “American Lawn” by Jessica Francis Kane, to the last, a translation, “Something in Us Wants to Be Saved” by Patricio Pron, the reader glides through the narrative. There is enough drive in the stories, metered without sacrificing the thrall of language, to make you read endlessly, wanting to know the end, but letting the powerful pacing direct your review—allowing all truths in its own time.
John Haskell’s short story “DOA” tells the story of a man who abandons love for a kind of soulless calculus: “I try to explain my theory about habits and establishing new habits and about imprinting habits on the brain.” With an aimless abstraction—and by that I mean without clear drive or spirited motivation—he travels to Los Angeles, leaving his lover and his paper-pushing job behind. The story does not fail—we witness a party and models in the art world and we flee iridium researchers and stumble into a homicide detectives’ office—but the end will shock you because you have been with the narrator so long, caught in his polyester point of view, that you will see how easy it is to fracture meaning, to move without any significance to your footsteps. Someone would call it an existential crisis, but the gross beauty of the story’s execution is that the narrator’s experience should prompt an existential crisis, but it is not there.
Megan Cummins short story “We are Holding Our Own,” is masterfully drafted with a richness of metaphor that I almost wanted to quantify to see how she managed to accelerate the narrative without sacrificing the lines that reveled in her own rich prose. You see the power of place in her opening: “Oscoda was a town of passing through.” She starts with place that at the end becomes a metaphor for its people, and her links, which are rich and moving, are not “heavy handed” at all. In fact, I think her opening paragraph helps condition the reader into gossamer interpretation—we are in a small town with small town shopkeepers and raspy-throated barflies—and so when we read “Her heart was as small as a postage stamp,” we stop, consider the line, and continue, not thinking about the role that language plays in making us feel at home with the story. And the key success of Cummins’s story is that we do not slip into any stereotypical “Our Town” or “Zorba the Greek” moments; for sure, the construct made me suspicious, but I’m pretty sensitive to the romanticized small town America framework, and as far as my radar goes on this tightrope, I can say that Cummins’s story evaded any such traps.
Another story in the volume that navigates a tightrope with the universe teetering on its shoulders is Kane’s “American Lawn.” The story weaves together themes of class, ethnicity, community, and a strangely beautiful parallel of a burgeoning backyard garden and the development of a young family. As I did with most stories in this volume, I found it to be accessible on multiple levels. Kane’s achievement is at once a commentary on the United States at a time of transition, but you feel the shadow of war-torn Europe against the grasses and the fecund patch of land that a refugee is cultivating. And yet, we are not sure whether it is Europe or whether the refugee is a refugee, and the ambiguity is rich with meaning for the reader. Are we all so blinded as to believe that the world beyond us is unrecognizable—a Bosnia in a pinch, a Barcelona in a guesswork—and how is it that those whose lives are entwined with ours have bulking blanks as to identity? And yet the garden grows.
I had a hard time pulling away from the fiction for the poetry and the translations because I felt the journal had a unique advantage as a publication of fiction as classical literature—as far as structure goes, you couldn’t ask for more. But the poetry will arrest you as wonderful epiphanies among the verdant fiction.
Suzanne Buffam’s “Altered Proverbs” is a joy to read. One line reads, “To forgive is human, to forget divine.” Another line, “The grass is always greener over graves.” The poems are smart and surprising. “A Song” by Ghassan Zaqtan (translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah) is small enough to fold into a locket, but it ends with fire: “. . . so you can roll / and smoke your whole / tobacco pack / before the next war comes.” I like that the poems in this collection that are from Palestine are, like the rest of the work in this journal, not driven by any agenda that is not first a human longing that transcends nation or identity. I enjoy the richness of the language and the gentility that these writers are tying together eight themes that one can interpret in her own script—while these are wise craftsmen, they endeavor to succeed on the first bar, with any transpositions only making the melody richer.