Issue No. 80
Fence is a deceptively small charitable nonprofit with several complementary literary publishing programs, all of which share the mission of promulgating “very contemporary” literature. Very contemporary literature does not depend upon experiment or innovation or the quest for new forms of literature, but rather maintains that Exigency = Authenticity = The New. That a writer must feel free to follow her impulses without over-determination by market forces, be they academic or technological or even those of the nonprofit sector. At the same time Fence recognizes that these impulses are, like everything else in the world, in response to material conditions and circumstances, and that writing is, like every other art form, a conduit of information and ideas about our circumstances—oppressions, freedoms, joys and ills—here on Earth. Fence is an encouragement to writers to constantly refresh their freedoms.
When I want to publish a book, or a poem or story or text in Fence, it is because I am pleased by that writing in a special way that has to do with its lack of compromise with the mysterious forces. Like Deborah Eisenberg’s “Your Duck is My Duck.” Her brilliant story coolly articulates the positions taken by givers and receivers of patronage, and one singular episode of such at a privately owned coastal retreat far away from yet easily accessible to the coasts of Manhattan.
I love the ease with which the narrator, a painter somewhat nonplussed to find herself newly under the ill-favored wing of seasoned arts patrons, slips in and out of insufferable situations, dining rooms and clinches, almost without comment—all the while acting out the seriocomic effluvia of a lost love, one who has apparently recently sold the patronizing couple a painting she had given him, a rather large canvas.
Eisenberg’s writing is flagrant and defensive and provoked and responsive. Despondent and indicative. I am pleased by it and I want to share, to spread, to not shut up about it but to disseminate and propagate its trails and implications, make indelible the inscription of the conditions that made it possible for that writing to take place.
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By Deborah Eisenberg
Recommended by Fence
Way back—oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I’d gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth’s core to its surface—I was going to a lot of parties.
And at one of these parties there was a couple, Ray and Christa, who hung out with various people I sort of knew, or, anyhow, whose names I knew. We’d never had much of a conversation, just hey there, kind of thing, but I’d seen them at parties over the years and at that particular party they seemed to forget that we weren’t actually friends ourselves.
Ray and Christa had a lot of money, a serious quantity, and they were also both very good-looking, so they could live the way they felt like living. Sometimes they split up, and one of them, usually Ray, was with someone else for a while, always a splashy, public business that made their entourage scatter like flummoxed chickens, but inevitably they got back together, and afterwards, you couldn’t detect a scar.
Ray had a chummy arm around me and Christa was swaying to the music, which was almost drowned out by the din of voices in the metallic room, and smiling absently in my direction. I was a little taken aback that I was being, I guess, anointed, but it was up to them how well they knew you, and I could only assume that their cordiality meant either that something good had happened to me which was not yet perceptible to me but was already perceptible to them, or else that something good was about to happen to me.
So, we were talking, shouting, really, over the noise, and after a bit I realized that what they were saying meant that they now owned my painting, Blue Hill.
They owned Blue Hill? I had given Blue Hill to Graham once, in a happy moment, and he must have sold it to them when he up and moved to Barcelona. Blue Hill is not a bad painting, in my opinion, it’s one of my best, still, the expression that I could feel taking charge of my face came and went without making trouble for anyone, thanks to the fact that, obviously, there were a lot of people in the room for Ray and Christa to be looking at, other than me.
How are you these days, they asked, and at this faint suggestion that they’d been monitoring me, a great wave of childish gratitude and relief washed over me, dissolving my dignity and leaving me stranded in self-pity.
Why did I keep going to these stupid parties? Night after night, parties, parties—was I hoping to meet someone? No one met people in person any longer—you couldn’t hear what they were saying. Except for the younger women, who had piercing, high voices and sounded like Donald Duck, from whom they had evidently learned to talk. When had that happened? An adaptation? You could certainly hear them.
It was getting on my nerves and making me feel old. I’m exhausted, I told Ray and Christa. I can’t sleep. I can’t take the winter. I’m sick of my day job at Howard’s photo studio, but on the other hand, Howard’s having some problems—last week there were three of us, and this week there are two, and I’m scared I’m going to be the next to go. And as I told them that I was frightened, that I was sick of the winter and my job, I understood how deeply, deeply sick of the winter and my job, how frightened, I really was.
Yeah, that’s terrible, they said. Well, why don’t you come stay with us? We’re taking off for our beach place on Wednesday. There’s plenty of room, and you can paint. We love your work. It’s a great place to work, everyone says so, really serene. The light is great, the vistas are great.
I’m having some trouble painting these days, I said, I’m not really, I don’t know.
Hey, everyone needs some down time, they said; you’ll be inspired, everyone who visits is inspired. You won’t have to deal with anything. There’s a cook. You can lie around in the sun and recuperate. You can take donkey rides down into the town, or there are bicycles or the driver. What languages do you speak? Well, it doesn’t matter. You won’t need to speak any.
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Italo Calvino in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985
Song: “Hellfire” by Yellow Fever
Flash Fiction fete Saturday night at Litcrawl, with Grant Faulkner, Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter, DR Wagner, Fran Lefkowitz & moi
Issue No. 73
I recently had the opportunity to hear Dani Shapiro read at the release of her new book Still Writing. I showed up late to a cramped bookstore and found myself standing awkwardly in the center aisle—the only one standing, in fact, except for Dani—as she read to us about the great “human catastrophe” of daily life. Our triumphs and failures, our embarrassments and celebrations, both grand and mundane, Dani explained, are all equally important and all rich fodder for fiction. And that’s exactly what fascinates me about her story “Supernova,” its focus on the minor catastrophe that is Shenkman, a relatively prosperous man whose minor shortcomings feel, to him alone, monumental and impossible to overlook.
As can be said for most of us, life for Shenkman isn’t going to be a marvel. “Everything about him was mid,” Dani writes, “midlife, mid-career, middling marriage.” At some point his promising life drifted off course and Shenkman found himself foundering amid the trappings and chattel of middle class suburban life. Shenkman has not failed, but he is still far from the success he might have been—which is, perhaps, even more humiliating. Perfection may be boring, and failure humiliating, but god save us from normalcy.
See, Shenkman’s prospects haven’t exploded around him, rather he’s just been something of a dud—fizzling out more or less unnoticed. Despite rowing everyday, obsessively racing against an old rival in a computerized simulation, nobody even knows Shenkman is still competing. Worse still, he isn’t even trying to win anymore, just trying to transpose his sense of defeat on anyone left in the race. Shenkman’s last hope for achieving something is his son, Waldo, who spends so much time stargazing, so disconnected from the real world, that he’s slipped out of Shenkman’s reach.
But if we can learn from our mistakes, if there is wisdom to be gained in failure, then Shenkman will at least have a legacy to leave behind to his son. And if Shenkman can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes the most we can hope for is that our children will have the chance to fail more spectacularly than we have.
“Supernova” is a story that succeeds because of its remarkable treatment of the mediocre, it’s focus on the middle of the pack where most of spend our days. It reminds us that we can exalt the quotidian, and that normalcy can be something to commemorate. As Dani writes in her essay “Ordinary Life,” “If I dismiss the ordinary—waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen—I may just miss my life.” Because most of the time existence doesn’t end with a bang or even a whimper, sometimes life ends with a shrug.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
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By Dani Shapiro
Recommended by Electric Literature
Shenkman pushes back with his legs, smooth and hard. Thinks of his old coach’s word: fluid. Hinges his upper body, then slides forward, arms extended. The briefest pause of recovery as the flywheel spins. Drive, recovery. Drive, recovery. He counts. One, two. Full lungs at the catch, empty at the finish. He gives the RowPro a quick glance. Fuck. 6K into this race and two sculls are ahead of him. On the wall, the flat screen displays the deep twilight blue of a lake. He is there, gliding along Lake Winnipesaukee, the ripples cast by his blades cutting down into the depths.
Alice is on the other side of the house, and Shenkman knows she’s lonely and slightly pissed off. These are the hours of the day when she expects him to be with her. To endlessly go over the only two or three subjects they ever seem to talk about any more: there’s her father’s macular degeneration and the question of who among her siblings will take on the job of getting his driver’s license revoked before he kills someone. Then there’s the onset of Shenkman’s mother’s dementia and its likely effect on their plans to travel over spring break. And finally, always, there’s Waldo, and the indecipherable results of one full day and three-grand worth of psychiatric testing to determine whether their son has a) the same strain of ADHD which seems to be going around the fourth grade like a virulent flu, or b) something else, something more, something for which Shenkman does not yet know the acronym, and for which he is unprepared.
One, two. His trapezius muscles burn.
Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered follows three lives â an American soldier, a Korean orphan and a missionary wife â brought together by the Korean War and shaped by the violence they survived.
Can’t wait to read the new Chang-rae Lee novel…
Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892. A.L.s. to James Russell Lowell; Brooklyn, 2 Oct 1861.
Houghton Library, Harvard University
Walt Whitman writes to James Russell Lowell to offer two poems for publication in The Atlantic Monthly.
Excellent find. Thanks!