One of the original goals of starting this new blog was to read and review (and thereby, promote) short fiction appearing in American literary and fiction journals. My reasoning was twofold. First, it is good for aspiring writers who want to be published in literary and fiction journals to read, critique, contemplate, and otherwise respond to the works these magazines are printing both to increase our own proficiency in crafting publishable stories and to get a pulse on the markets. Second, short fiction has been a staple of the American fiction lexicon for decades (without literary journals, many of the greatest writers may have gone unnoticed) and it is important–to me–to do what little bit I can to help this struggling literary form find new or lost audiences. And so, with this post, I’ll begin to delve into more contemporary/current fiction periodically, in addition to the on-going posts concentrating on older, more “classic” examples of the short story.
Monkeys of the Sea
A story by Frances Ya-Chu Cowig, in Glimmer Train #74 (Spring 2010)
When Mario Meesri falls asleep three days after the tidal wave, he dreams he is holding a fishbowl full of drowning people. They call out to him through murky water, their eyes cloudy and wide. They remind Mario of a pet American children order by mail, Monkeys of the Sea, which arrive dry in a foil pouch like instant-noodle seasoning, reproducing sexually and asexually, depending on the number of available males.
Mario’s dream of Sea Monkeys includes a transparent woman he tries to pull from the fish bowl, but out of the water she is “mummified and silent” and she doesn’t rehydrate when he drops her back into the water.
Mario wakes in the back of his taxi and refuses a game of poker with other taxi drivers. He says he needs to pick up his daughter, but he takes an airport fare. It is on the way, he reasons. The patron is an American who needs to get to Phuket International. When he gets to the airport, there is no one in the backseat.
The story shifts to the day before the tidal wave and to the perspective of Connor Crow. Connor is a matchmaker; he helps American men find Thai women to marry. (He listens to a voicemail from a man complaining that his new bride just cooked the puppy he’d bought her as a Christmas gift.) Connor has come to Southeast Asia after the suicide of both his brother and a lover.
Mario had hired a matchmaker for his daughter three years earlier, attempting to help her toward a better life, but she turned out to be a picky internet bride. None of the candidates were acceptable.
Suchinda moved from picture to picture, reading moles on men’s faces like mystics read stars.
At the time, the matchmaker (who was NOT Connor) says Mario will be lucky if he can bribe someone to marry his daughter. She’s too difficult.
Mario thinks of these things as he looks for Suchinda. He finds her in the temple and tells her that her mother is at home preparing her favorite dinner. She is one of the many hundreds (thousands?) of bodies there in the temple; she is a victim of the tidal wave, waiting to be claimed. He puts her body in the trunk of the taxi.
The American from earlier is there, outside the temple. He wants a ride to the convention center. Mario tells him he can’t trust him, since he disappeared earlier, without paying. He lets him in the taxi anyway.
Mario realizes that the man in the back is also one of the dead. He’d noticed this large American’s body near Suchinda’s remains. It is Connor, and he’s gone again when Mario gets to the Convention Center. He’s being haunted. Not just by Conner, but by all of the dead.
Mario feels dizzy, like his head is being filled with memories that don’t belong to him. He sees rice fields full of bodies, puffy and white like steamed bread, their lidless eyes watching him silently. One by one they rise and follow him home, spooning him in his sleep.
Mario shares his predicament with the other cab drivers, and they suggest offering a food sacrifice for the American, to release his spirit and end the haunting. They offer soggy chicken nuggets and french fries and sing a Beyonce song to placate the American’s ghost. They then claim the American’s body and take both of the dead to the crematorium. In an effort to speed the process–and as a sort-of apology to his daughter for his life-long lack of understanding–Mario has a Thai priest marry the dead couple prior to their bodies being loaded into the fire.
Monkeys of the Sea is both a ghost story and an attempt to begin the process of understanding the magnitude of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004 and an effort to comprehend the aftermath of that disaster. Here we have a protagonist and cast of supporting characters–both dead and alive–who give us a window into a handful of the tens of thousands of lives that were forever altered by this event. Cowhig’s ability to provide us with a vibrant and alien setting is superb, and this other-worldly quality of the piece is accomplished without overtly self-aware narration.
Structurally, the story is all over the place, and intentionally so. Flashes forward and back are combined with an intermingling of the supernatural and the result is a semi-disjointed narrative. While disconcerting–this is a story that requires a careful, slow reading and a heightened sensitivity to minute clues within the text–this technique is useful in a story that focuses on the discombobulating nature of this kind of event.
Cowhig shows a true command of both character and language, a feat made more difficult by the diverse nature of the character’s cultural and generational differences. The result is a story that strikes a not of authenticity on almost every level. This is a story packed with stunning detail, but it never feels stilted or “out of story” in the way the details of time and place are offered.
As a reader, I found the structure to be a hindrance at times. I was forced to “go back” on two occasions and re-read sections to make sure I hadn’t missed something. This is one of the Cardinal Sins of any writing workshop critique, and yet in this–very rare, I’ll admit–instance, this Cardinal Sin doesn’t sink the story. The end result is a reading experience that eclipses the momentary confusion and doubt of the reader.
Glimmer Train has a brief bio and other information related to Ms. Cowhig.