Review: “The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology”

The people behind The Brooklyn Rail paper, started in 1998, are fond of sharing the original plan for the paper: a small publication, no charge, aimed at folks riding the L train to and from Manhattan, no big deal. The paper has grown significantly since then, though the "slanted opinions, artfully delivered" badge is still proudly displayed both in a recent editor’s note and in the introduction, penned by fiction editor Donald Breckenridge, to The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology, published earlier this year by BR and Hanging Loose Press.

Breckenridge writes in the introduction that this was "conceived not as a "best of" the Rail fiction section, but as an accurate overview of the various types of short fiction that have been published." The Rail has sought out fiction that defies labels, which at times results in risky, rewarding work from little-known writers, and other times results in fiction that feels like the author was straining to defy categorization, to the detriment of the writing. The pieces here are varied enough to appeal to all varieties of readers interested in something slightly outside of "normal," "mainstream" fiction.

One of the authors, Brian Evenson (author, most recently, of The Open Curtain from Coffee House Press) translates a piece by Jean Fremon and contributes his own three-part "Traub in the City," describing an artist’s madness:

Days later, back in the city, having left the mountain inn, the body buried and left behind, Traub found himself shaken. He began to see heads in the emptiness, in all the space that surrounded them, isolated and remote. On the platform in the metro surrounded by hundreds of people he saw nothing but a series of heads, each suspended in a vast emptiness, each face in the crowd parcel of a single face that was changing with a rapidity he could no longer comprehend – as if a progression in time had been instead smeared out over space, all the faces of the city a record of one man’s death.

This sort of haunted, character’s-mind-unraveling narrative is approached by these authors from multiple perspectives in this anthology. While some of the authors, like Evenson, are unambiguous about their character’s state of mind, others show their characters’ unravelings in less direct ways. A wife tries to avoid revealing to her husband, who is dealing with his alcoholism, her feelings regarding the death of her lover – difficult work that only leads to disgust, as she realizes that her role may be the easiest. A mother discovers that her fourteen-year-old daughter is a prostitute and has bought the apartment next to theirs with her ill-got earnings; as she tries to make sense of this shocking revelation, her daughter and pimp sit on either side of her, offering caring reassurances. There’s a junkie’s account of trying to give up heroin, and an account of life in Cold War-era Soviet Union, with a description of the sacrifices and choices people faced daily that reads less like a fictional account of that life and more like a first hand narrative not of a life unraveling, but of a life that has had no previous normalcy from which to unravel.

Another piece concerns the last days of a mother as narrated by the son living with her; he works in a tire warehouse, his life dead-ending all around him, and the answers he seeks only lead to more questions. The detached, clinical tone of "Family Life" makes the story of a disintegrating family even more tragic – the few good moments of family togetherness, of love, are related with the same cold observation as the emotional abuses they lob at each other, giving the reader a sense of resignation and bitterness, a sense that while the reader may gape at the dysfunction, the narrator is too far removed from himself to feel any sense of shock or loss. Sharon Mesmer’s "Revenge" is an Austeresque tail of unexpected karma, of a snobbish linguistics professor who believes himself to be doing a woman a favor with the gift of his company. Michael Martone’s Michael Martone (recently lauded online by the LitBlog Co-Op ) is excerpted.

The Rail’s interest in putting out the risky stuff sometimes results in the sort of melodramatic Beat-flavored pieces you’d expect to read over the shoulder of the goateed guy in next to you in the coffee shop. An interview with Mickey Mouse, for example, takes an idea that is slim from the start – children’s character with adult personality – and does not go especially far with the concept. This piece is in the minority, though. As a whole, the anthology more than pays for itself in the pieces that connect, and readers will likely find a handful of authors to pursue further. This is a success, artfully delivered.

The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology

Ed. Donald Breckenridge

Hanging Loose Press 2006, 432 pages, $24.00

(Note: credit is due to Anthony Sage and the folks at Small Spiral Notebook for this review copy, their patience, and their editorial guidance and suggestions on this review.) 


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