Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Madness Methods: 'Monkeybicycle' Issue 9

For the last several months, I've been generally familiar with the fiction/poetry journal Monkeybicycle, having selected some of their stories for the Instafiction archives. Going by those samples, and by my recent reading of their latest print issue, there's no explicit theme, but rather an explicit mix of styles: straightforward narratives, experimental forays into different forms and plot arcs, and the occasionally, intentionally off-kilter humorous piece. Generally, this could be a treacherous variety, since literary magazines rarely have a medium between "strict adherence to a given style" and "anything goes." However, Monkeybicycle 9's mix is fascinating, with a strong complexity that requires multiple readings. I went into it expecting breezy, "summer"-like literature (I don't mean that negatively), but what I ended up with was a challenging, diverse collection that gave me more insight into the journal's overall mission. This mission isn't a concrete, quotable statement, but rather an intangible atmosphere. Most importantly, I now have a list of writers whom I'll be eagerly following in the future.

"I later learned that my mom had waited to buy my cake until the night before at an hour when the only open store was our local erotic bakery. But at the time I suspected that she wanted to announce that Alfy Wiggins, her second-born, 12-year-old son, was the sort of boy who would want a penis cake for his birthday. This was not true (52)."

"But it was too late. Bernie had already run downstairs. I soon heard the downstairs freezer door open and shut, and then the screen door slammed. Bernie had run away twice already that year. The first time he had taken a half-eaten bag of potato chips from the kitchen and then climbed a tree in our front yard, fending for himself for a whole afternoon until Mom and Dad came out and begged him to come back inside. The second time he had run outside with a loaf of bread and a pack of cheese slices, then had climbed back into his room through the window. He sat in his room all afternoon watching everyone in the neighborhood frantically search for him while he ate cheese sandwiches (57)."

These out-of-context passages come from Rory Douglas' "The Best Birthday Party Ever," a touching, hilarious story about the awkwardness of adolescence and the quiet family troubles that never go away, even during moments of celebration. Before, had I been asked to give an example of a "usual" Monkeybicycle story, this would have been my selection. Douglas combines a knack for sometimes dark humor and strange interactions, but without sacrificing a strong grasp of good storytelling. These ideas pop up frequently in this issue, with another excellent example being Jon Steinhagen's "The Next Place," told almost exclusively in dialogue between two literal, eccentric companions. They stand outside of a potential new dwelling and through their conversations explore past apartments and hints to what they ultimately desire. As much as I tend to loathe "quirky" as a description for any piece of fiction, Steinhagen's story fits this in the best of ways:

"What will we net by relocating ourselves to this address? asked Squiller. A roof over our heads? We can get that anywhere.
A metaphorical roof, said Trill. We don't currently share a top-floor apartment, nor is this a top-floor apartment. In other words, no matter where we live, we'll have a ceiling over our heads, which is just as good as a roof--possibly better.
Better? asked Squiller.
I'm not in the mood to go into the physics and metaphysics of it, said Trill. Go on. You were warming to your subject, and I was wrong to interject.
Quite all right, said Squiller. Stop me if you disagree. Now: We will have two bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen, one living room, and one dining room. Correct?
And one porch, said Trill. Or what passes for a porch in these buildings.
The dining room will be smaller than the living room and the main bedroom will be smaller than the dining room and the second-best bedroom will be smaller than the main bedroom, said Squiller.
Don't say second-best bedroom, said Trill. That's the bedroom I always get (41)."

Some of the stories are complex, layered narratives, with an early example of this being "Shapeway" by Colleen Morrissey (pictured above). It's a fictional history of an early 20th century theater owner and his wife, told from both of their points of view, and balancing their respective views on their relationship and the history of the small theater. Throughout these explorations, the two share curious insights into Edie's (the wife) personality, which adds to and detracts from the story's conclusion, since her makeup shifts between coldness and warmth for those around her. The selected passages are beautifully written, tense looks at Edie's relationship with her various family members, the first part narrated by Tom, the second narrated by herself:

"Edie was in our bed, soaking wet, her black hair stuck like tar to her face and shoulders, her legs wide apart. She was sitting in a round black-red puddle of blood that sunk so badly into our mattress that we never could get the stain out. She was crying. The only times I have ever seen Edie cry were during that first birth and her mother's death.

Edie reached out to me, and I went right to her, kneeling beside the bed. She clutched her slick arms around my neck and shoulders, her cheeks pressing into mine.

'It's all right,' I said to her, one of my hands on her back, holding her to me, and my other one on her stomach, tryng to make her feel better somehow.

'Tom,' she said, 'Tom. I don't want it anymore. I don't want it.'

'I know,' I said.

'I want it to be just you and me (19).'"

"Yes, six years after his death I remarried. I don't like to think so, but maybe I did love Tom less than he loved me. I never did find it easy to care for people. When friends moved away or went off to school, everyone else would say how much they missed them, and I did, too, but I always got the feeling that I missed them less than anyone. Even when I was little, before my brothers and sisters were born, my mother would go into town for the day to shop, leaving me with my grandmother, and I never cried. I hardly even noticed she was gone. When she'd come back, ready to comfort me and be barreled down by a running embrace, she'd find me in the yard petting the chickens, and I'd say 'Hello, Mama,' as calm as anything. I think it hurt her feelings that I didn't bawl or scream like other children did (26)."

I was especially moved by Marshall Walker Lee's (pictured below) story "Cape Canaveral," a meticulously plotted work about a young man's relationship with his father before, during, and after a shuttle launch. Lee's work also ties nicely into my above mention of the necessity of rereading the issue. I didn't know what to make of "Cape Canaveral" at first, but my second reading allowed me to both foresee where he was going with the actions and at the same time this revealed new motives and characterizations. I also enjoyed how Lee incorporated such a specific, American event as the backdrop, using a complex moment as a support for complex relationships. I'm still amazed at how quickly my opinions changed on this story, since a little bit of time allowed me to disregard my first impressions and reassess the story's meaning.

"Three. Two. One. Liftoff. The shuttle drags against the ceiling of the world, scissoring the blue sky, opening a seam through which thick white smoke pours. The crowd goes positively apeshit. One man jumps for joy, literally jumps, again and again, as if on springs, until he trips and tumbles down and rises with his face and chest splattered with muck. The others cheer and smear their own faces with mud. They press closer to the swamp, closer to one another. They kiss their neighbors on the mouth.

At my side, my father cries softly.

I say, 'You are crying because you are happy, because you have seen this wondrous thing, because you have fulfilled a childhood ambition.'

'No, no, no!' my father wails. 'I am crying because I have failed myself. What I wanted was to be onboard the ship. To be strapped inside the nose cone and to feel my stomach tight against my spine. To be in space and see the world spin through my little window (114).'"

Thematically, the poetry in Monkeybicycle 9 also follows a balance between the standard and the offbeat. As I've mentioned before, despite my handful of poetry reviews, I'm much more confident in literary criticism as opposed to poetic critiques. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dustin Hoffman's "Amateur Paleontologist Stumbles Into My Foot," which at first seems like a strange set up for a poetic exploration, but quickly evolves into deeper conversations about chance, personality, and a much, much bigger picture, touching upon science and metaphysics in the span of a few stanzas.

"His apprentice lugs an armful of phalanges through my foot, over the arch to his makeshift table, bones like stars against my blushed tendons.
These are clues, code he must decipher. Nose slick with sweat, his
bifocals slip,
teeter the tip of his dusty nose. But he doesn't correct, lets them dangle,

slice bone-blur through his vision. Nothing matches, attaches,
the way he wants it to. He bends, fingertips lacing ligament brambles,
until a shard pricks, snapped metatarsal--the apprentice and his fat hands,
he thinks, cement grip that choked the future by cracking the past (100)."

Jessica Levine's "Day Into Night" is also a careful mix of the emotional and the scientific. Similarly to the dark humor/interactions that link some of the seemingly unrelated stories, the poems of Hoffman and Levine share these very faint similarities. So while Monkeybicycle 9 doesn't have the aforementioned explicit theme, there are very slight connections, which add to what I feel are the "intangible connections."

In the absolute unwinding of day,
in the softened pleat, the well-worn thread,
in the peace of the laundered hour--
I ride our speeding planet into darkness
advancing by splayed degrees,
obeying laws I don't understand (138)."

I would have liked more essays in this issue, only because the two featured essays are so compelling, and I'm curious to compare the themes and styles of Monkeybicycle's essays selections. Kelsi Sexton's "Rafting Event" is a stunning example of creative nonfiction, a carefully detailed look at lemur activity. She writes with a passion for zoological studies, highlighted with terrific prose, creating a work that combines both forms without being distracting.

"Some lemurs fit in the palm of your hand, others easily breach four feet. Some scratch posts with scent-marking glands in their wrists, a semipermanent 'Lemurs were here' impressed on soft bark. Others sing to each other in the waning light of the moon, brief reminders that they aren't alone. Some lemurs even kiss. It is a cast of characters no Amazonian or Sumatran rain forest has been able to match (48)."

I include A.A. Balaskovits's "Black Spots" as an essay, but it could very well be a fictionalized account. It details the life of a firefighter grandfather (her own? or the one of the unnamed narrator?) in Chicago, and even if it is fiction, there's an undeniable path of a family history, and it works both ways. If this is an account of Balaskovits's own grandfather, it's a beautiful examination of his life and career. If this is a short story, there's no doubt it could reflect the outlooks and observations of anyone who has had a firefighter in his or her own family. In any case, the prose is beautiful and evocative, and after several readings, these feelings never waned.

"I don't know much about what kind of insides it takes to go into a burning building, so I can't picture bright flames disfiguring his face. I haven't seen many photographs of him, so when I think of him I think of my father with white hair and thicker glasses. I imagine him reaching down to pick up the body of a child and holding only ashes in his big, gloved hands, his mouth open but unable to utter noise, breathing in those small black spots. He must have inhaled so much that day. He held those children inside him like the city holds the memory. I think each time Grandfather exhaled, he tasted them, that infinite sorrow of their brief lives on his tongue, and each word he said was tinged with the flavor (171)."

I feel I've given a proper range of examples to show the diversity of Monkeybicycle 9. Like almost any collection, there were some pieces that didn't work for me, some experimentation with forms and language that were too forced and too obviously "different," therefore being a slight distraction from the story in the name of creativity. However, there is nothing in this issue that's any sort of filler or throwaway piece--the stories themselves are compelling, even if I had the occasional issue with the styles. As a whole, what seems like a random assemblage has careful, emotional connections. It's always fascinating to discover new creative voices, and again, I'm excited to keep abreast of the forthcoming works of the writers featured here. Monkeybicycle 9 is a challenge, and I mean that in a very complimentary manner. Most importantly, as I continue to follow their productions, I now know what the journal is capable of doing--they're unafraid of presenting different styles and voices, but instead of a hodgepodge collection, there's an emphasis on celebrating the varying directions. For the most part, this is terrific summer reading, and a concrete example of what's out there when readers (both professional and curious) continually beg for recommendations of new readings. As a reader, writer, and bookseller, I've long championed small presses, since there's so much out there that seems to be overlooked. This is a great example of what I mean.

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