Friday, October 19, 2007

These Young People Today

FOUND X 2: THE UP AND COMERS, BENJAMIN PERCY AND VICTORIA CHANG

Journals where these writers' works can be found:
Glimmer Train no. 64
Ploughshares vol. 32 no. 1
The Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 3
The Missouri Review vol. 30 no. 2
The Paris Review no. 180
Tin House no. 31
Salt Hill no. 19


One of the most recognized roles of literary magazines is as publishing venues for new writers. This has been true since at least the beginning of the 20th century, when magazines like Poetry and The Double Dealer were dedicated to locating new talent--which they did in spades, publishing the early writing of such then unknowns as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thonrton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, Jean Toomer, H. D., and numerous more. Their position as discoverers of new writers is a portion of their job that literary magazines take much pride in; it is one of the main editorial distinctions separating them from the better circulated and more financially lucrative glossy magazines, who most often cannot risk print space on writers or forms of writing that have not yet proven their audience appeal. Still the literary magazine world's role in the careers of American writers seems a little publicly realized fact (though one much mentioned in these pages). One might wonder, for instance, what number of the many readers of Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning and best-selling novel Middlesex have even heard of The Gettysburg Review, where Eugenides published his first story. The same question could be posed about the first publications of such authors as Claire Messud, Sara Gruen, Junot Diaz, or Philip Roth. Certainly the literary magazine publishing complex doesn't have the cultural power it had during the height of modernism, with such things as television, the internet, and the general glut of contemporary publishing to compete with, but there are still, in the thousand plus literary magazines out there, much wonderful and powerful writing constantly being discovered and published.

Like in nearly everything, some works stand out above others. There are, at various times, writers whose works are being almost universally acknowledged by editors across the spectrum, everyone seemingly at once becoming aware of a new and exciting artistic talent. Recently, the writing of two stunning and amazingly talented writers appears in just about every literary magazine a reader might pick up (and even some wider ranging, glossier publications): 28-year-old short story writer Benjamin Percy and 36-year-old poet Victoria Chang.

1. The Short Story Writer.

"The blood in his ears buzzes, like a wasp loose in his skull. The rifle kicks against his shoulder. The gunshot fills the world." -from "Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This," originally published in The Paris Review no. 180


Benjamin Percy is undeniably the real thing. His stories are some of the most emotionally charged and gorgeously understated pieces found in print today; they seem filled with a barely controlled passion vibrating below the surface of each sentence, like the desperate shaking of a tornado shelter door as the twister passes directly overhead. Like a good Raymond Carver story (whose influence runs through Percy's writing), the emotional climaxes of Percy's stories are never sentimentalized or brooded upon, they simply happen, like things do in this world, and we move on beyond them changed, but as yet uncertain as to how. And aside from Percy's talent for moving character and plot, his language is as nuanced and delicate as the many interlocking gears of an enormous clock, each piece perfectly balancing against another. And his eye for detail is seductive in its selectivity. Here is a brief description of a couple spelunking in an opening beneath their house in Percy's story "The Caves in Oregon" from Glimmer Train no. 64: "Sometimes the ceiling would come loose with a click of stone, a hiss of dirt, nearly noiseless in its descent, but when it impacted, when it slammed to the cave floor, it roared and displaced a big block of air that made them cry out and clutch each other in a happy sort of terror." A silent falling piece of rock nearly crushes them and they cry out in a happy sort of terror, as we all do when we are scared and in love.

Nearly all of Percy's stories are an inspection of working class Oregon, a fertile ground for fiction, covered most memorably in the short stories of Carver and Charles D'Ambrosio. But it isn't only the frontier wilderness of Oregon that Percy depicts in his stories; the enduring theme of all his stories is what repressed pain does to someone, how in keeping our hurts and fears from others in an effort to protect ourselves from further injury, we are also changing ourselves, distorting, sometimes even crippling, our behaviors, perceptions, and desires. Not that Percy seems to argue that this isn't the way we should behave; he simply shows us that, in today's war-torn landscape where the gap between the rich and poor is widening every moment, this is how we live: in a forced repression of violence and fear, seeking (sometimes finding) some love and companionship to remind us we can be happy.

In each of Percy's stories there are elements of violence, either directly acted or only haunting the scenery. In some even, violence is the world's main form of currency, such as in Percy's Plimpton Prize winning story, "Refresh, Refresh," where two boys beat each other bloody every day in order to toughen themselves and make their fathers proud. Even in "The Caves of Oregon," arguably one of Percy's least violent stories, focusing around a couple dealing with a recent miscarriage, Percy begins the piece with a grotesque scene of a couple opening a meat-stocked freezer after a power outage earlier that day: "The sight of it reminds Kevin of the time he had his wisdom teeth removed. His dentist had given him an irrigator, a plastic syringe. Twice a day he filled it with salt water and placed its needle into the craters at the back of his mouth--and from them, in a pink rush, came scabs, bits of food. That is what the freezer looks like when its door opens and the blood surges from it--all down the front of the fridge, dampening their photos, glossing over their magnets, until the front of the fridge has more red on it than white." After seeing this, Kevin's wife, "makes a noise like a wounded bird....A tremble races through her body and then she goes perfectly still."

But, amidst all the violence and hurt in Percy's fiction, there is a constant desire by the characters for some undefined connection with others and an understanding of the self. This is not a conscious need, but instead it is a need the characters haven't conceptualized but just know they want, like an itch. And it is this need for others which drives the stories, this constant struggle of human needs against a violent world. The endings are usually unhappy. Sometimes the characters are allowed to see the calm surface of the world, such as in "In the Rough" from The Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 3: "He imagines he is sitting at the bottom of a pond, his pockets weighed down by golf balls, his words escaping his mouth, buoyant and drifting to the surface where everything is blue and full of sunlight." Other times, the characters aren't even than lucky, and the calm world does not even exist in the life of the imagination. In Percy's enthralling mystery tale "Dial Tone" from The Missouri Review vol. 30 no. 2, we are left only with the stark image of, "The hissing of radio frequencies, the voices of so many others coming together into one voice that coursed through you in dark conversations."

2. The Poetess.

"I wake the next morning, pretending
nothing happened. Pretending this life, this era,
with its cheap housing projects, music that makes
cars vibrate, men pouring concrete and snipping
hedges into shapes of animals, pretending."
-from "The Dislocated Theater," originally published in Salt Hill no. 19


Victoria Chang is making a great success as one of the most prodigious and continually intriguing poets around. But it is not mere ubiquity that makes readers and editors pay special attention to her work. The oeuvre of Chang's poetry asserts its importance through each individual poem's presence--like a loud fingerprint from another planet you can't help but recognize as one of your own. And, like all fingerprints, it is the zeitgeist, the roaming camera, the caffeinated, sound-bite-addled monologue in our heads.

Many of Chang's poems are unbelievably expedient in their delivery, coming at you with the speed of the contemporary, like an email made of sparkling quartz. "Each morning," her recent poem "How Much" from Paris Review no 180 begins, "I put on those shoes, legs,/ nylons, sex, black briefs with texts. Each/ dusk, there were martinis, drinks that said/ Cocktail! No choice." We are thrust immediately into the high sensual moment at Autobahn speeds.

In a recent review on Blackbird, Susan Settlemyre Williams nicely describes Chang's poetry as that which "thinks big, that harbors the best sort of ambitions, not to be acclaimed, but to stretch itself." Chang's poems are not meditations on an abandoned lover or ruminations of a single orchid on a battle-torn embankment; they seem to strive against these singular notions of the contemporary. Chang's poems resemble a sort of string theory of the poetic world, burning with a fever of multiple desires and personalities, with their hands in a variety of ages. In "How Much," the speaker of the poem is not only the victim of a lightning quick mind, absorbing a thousand sensory experiences in a New York minute, but, like ill-fated Cassandra, she can also see into the future. The narration in the poem shifts from place to place (apartments, cars, dinners) and voice to voice (answering machines, excited voices, chilling proclamations), moving from one worm hole to the next until we finally arrive at a less chaotic, taxi-cab- and cell-phone-free future, where "Somewhere in a kitchen, a mother will watch/ the last piece of beef fall off a bone." Beneath the demanding shimmering chaos forever remains the world of meat.

In her two poems from Tin House vol. 8 no. 3, "Seven Infidelities" and "Dear Professor," we again see Chang's amazing ability as a writer to leap about in a myriad of locations/events/voices/ideas in her poems, much as one would flip television channels or surf the net. Yet, just as websites and television channels are all part of one large, complex system, we never feel Chang is not weaving some intricate and important pattern with her imaginative bursts. "Seven Infidelities" discourses on a number of seemingly isolated instances of occasional want and deviance, but in the end everything converges into a thrusting violence as "houses fall into the ocean with all the people/ bumping into sofas" and "the snow falls in the shape of men and women,/ and they collide randomly in the dark." In a nearly opposite poetic representation of isolation in chaos, the landscape of Chang's poem "Dear Professor" is not the world, but the narrator's frictive mind, within which we roam between jolts of memory and ironic assertion: "Drugs are like running, someone said, when I didn't get it./ Never got it. You mean raining. Ruining. Like,/ like, like, not quite. Williams hated similes." Finally, our Chinese Emeritus narrator seems through being the conception of another's desire (the professors?) and
wants "to be Emeritus only,/ so the bullet in another chest does not hurt. So I can sink/ my mouth in, come out with it between my teeth./ So I win. So good enough."

But not all of Chang's poems have this same quality of order in randomness. One of her most powerful poems is also her quietest. "Proof," originally published in Ploughshares vol. 32 no. 1, is a subtle evocation of the almost mathematically precise weave of connections that makes up human civilization, and which seems to be a very common notion of our communal fate: now that the communication and travel have been simplified, we can no longer ignore our relations, no matter how distant, historical, or unexplained. But, if this is the case, that all our fates are linked, what happens to our individuality? Where, in this miasma of unity, is the I to be unified with? "Proof" explores the resemblances between a great-uncle who was killed in China and the narrator who is "standing in the dirt in La Jolla." Though this idea of worldwide interconnectedness is not new, Chang is able to make it intensely unique with a subtle shift from the idea connection to one of parallelity, our lives not as one, but running in pace alongside one another. And so "Our angles are equal, therefore we are parallel./ Then there must be two birds, two shores, two deaths."

2 comments:

gene said...

ben is incredibly talented and more people need to know. not to mention that the guy is incredibly nice and has a reading voice like charlton heston intoning moses. it's funny you mention charles because both of those guys are hands-down my favorite two fiction writers, hell, writers period.

ben's also written a piece for "green mountains review" and published in the previous issue of "esquire."

it's also refreshing to see someone who's willing to get out there and really push his work instead of solely leaving it to publishers and industry types.

the "writer" used to be a central figure in the cultural lexicon and i truly believe that guys like charles and ben will, hopefully, change the current tide and once again, writers will be mentioned in the same breath as musicians, artists and the like.

Todd Colby said...

What great idea for a blogspot. I'll be a regular visitor from now on! Keep up the good work.