Thursday, January 12, 2012

Year of the LitMag: Five Points, Vol. 14 No. 2

[Note: this is the latest entry in my Year of the LitMag series. If you would like to contribute to the series, leave a comment below or shoot me an email.]

Volume 14 No. 2 of Five Points just arrived, and it’s filled with work by an impressive array of writers, including poets Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Mary Jo Salter, David Kirby, Dan Albergotti, and others. Plus there’s a very interesting interview with Kirby by Tom Hunley. I also liked the art portfolio—it seems fewer journals are doing that these days, and it must be expensive—consisting a series of photographs by Chris Verene. They tell quite a story all by themselves.

As usual, I'll concentrate on the fiction. There are four short stories, which for the most part I enjoyed. They also show a fair amount of variety.

The first story, “The Boat on the Lake,” by Lynn Stegner, is quite long, 26 printed pages. It’s a traditional story—nothing experimental about its form or language—about a husband and wife and their two sons. The husband is sick and his brother has come to help the family out, but there's some attraction between the wife and the brother. There’s also a neighbor—a handyman—who plays an important role: “Emory was a broth of a fellow, impossibly shy, his hands always stealing into his pockets, his head slinging sideways whenever it was time to name a fee for his various services, his thick curly hair long to his shoulder not for any reason other than that he hadn’t had time to get it cut.” Great description—“a broth of a fellow.” Although I enjoyed the story, it feels rather long for what it achieves.

Mark Winegardner’s “Agent Halvorsen Addresses the Space Coast Optimists” suggests that the editors don’t mind a little formal experimentation. The story takes the form of a speech, which itself is said to be an artifact left to a college library found among the speakers effects. In the speech, Agent Halvorsen gives the story of his career, which had its ups and downs, to say the least. It's an innovative piece.

“Giveaway” by Lauren Watel seems, at first, like a familiar post-partum depression story. But Joan, the point of view character, is a psychologist, and so her struggle after giving birth is perhaps a little more self-examined than it might be otherwise, and since she’s married to a psychiatrist, she gets it from him, too. Not to mention the well-meaning and helpful older sister.

Finally, the editors seem to like a bit of humor, in a melancholy sort of way, judging by “Light & Luminous” by Tania James, about a Chicago Indian dance instructor whose relevance to her students is fading even as a rival teacher is gaining fame. I like the fresh setting here.

Alas, I submit to Five Points and get nowhere. Good magazine, tied for 16th in the Perpetual Folly Pushcart Prize Ranking (Fiction).

[I liked the issue very much, but is it petty of me to point out that the verb “to lay” is misused at least twice, including two times on one page? Writers should get this right; editors should catch it when they don’t. I understand when this is done in dialogue, or in the voice of some characters, but in this case I don’t see any justification for it. This is the kind of error that drives me a little nuts. I suspect most people don’t care, but I wish everyone did.]


Anonymous said...

I don't want to slam anyone's writing. I am asking this question from a position of genuine bewilderment: What makes "a broth of a fellow" a great description?

I've been reading a lot of literary journals and I've noticed a trend in traditional stories toward descriptions that read beautifully but bottom line don't make much sense to me as a reader. As a literary journal editor yourself, can you offer any insights on what the break point is between language that elevates a short story to a literary level and language that, while beautiful, obfuscates without purpose? Thanks!

Clifford Garstang said...

One thing that distinguishes literary writing is the innovative use of figurative language. Figures of speech create the possibility of both greater clarity and deeper meaning, but they are sometimes overused or are too flowery--as you say, obfuscating without purpose. I found "a broth of a fellow" to be a simple but completely fresh metaphor that gave me clear understanding of his character in just a few words. It's hard to avoid cliche, but I thought that phrase was perfect.