A type of story that never ceases to entertain us is one that contains surreal elements, where the reader must suspend disbelief, sometimes to a significant degree. We cite below some pieces we've recently come across having surreal qualities, writing that really got us thinking. In most cases, we were able to extract underlying meaning. In the others, though the intention of the story escaped us, simply going along for the ride was sufficient. If you read any of the prose pieces below, we'd be interested in your comments. If you have not, we welcome you to try a few and hope you appreciate us calling them to your attention.
In the Fall 2012 issue of Crazyhorse, a story by Karen Munro titled "Boat Party": Many parents of children in the neighborhood have apparently died on a boat in a bad storm, and these parents are found in their respective homes in dirty, stained, wet clothes, their skin exhibiting a strange marble color. This was one of those stories where a clear underlying thought escaped us, but the narrative style was so simple and sharp, it was a joy to take in. There was one survivor, a woman who served tea. She is asked to give a speech in an event at the end of the story, sending off the victims in the recovered boat: "I don't know why they want me to say something. I'm nobody special. All I did was swim like the devil was at my heels. I've been a tea lady for the boat parties ever since I retired from the machine press, and I've never seen a storm like I did that day. Everything went green, then black. Thunder like Satan's bowling alley. Lightning like the sky was on fire. I told them not to put that damn cross up, but there you go. I was wearing the same shoes I've worn to work for twenty years, and they were sucked right off my feet. Best pair of shoes I've ever had."
In Issue 76 of Cutbank, 2012, a short-short by J. David Stevens titled "The Evangelicals Go Bungee Jumping": The Glad Tidings Battalion of God's Royal Rangers crowd the rail, a youth group come to watch their pastor jump. A problem develops. With each recoil of the bungee line, he ascends higher and higher. The cord eventually snaps, with the Pastor "shrinking skyward, a lost balloon." The group agrees, it's how the Pastor wanted to go—straight line, sure ascent.
In the same issue of Cutbank, a story by John Denslow titled "Not Everyone is Special": A man searches for his "Power," seeing others about him each with their particular own. Billy Ray can control birds with his mind. Monica can get wrinkles out of clothes by simply patting them lightly. Candace knows when people are lying. His doctor and power-channeler says, "Possibly you weren't meant to discover your Power. Why not concentrate on what you do know? Your family." He questions this. "Are you giving up on me?" he asks. "Of course not," the doctor says. "Then do your job," the man says.
Michael Czyzniejewski has an intriguing story in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Gulf Coast titled "The Brother-in-Law and the Beach." A man is obsessed with his brother's fiancée, Darla, and steals a photo of her frolicking under a waterfall on her Caribbean honeymoon. Photo Darla, which he displays in his house, occupies the dominant part of this man's life and eventually materializes into a Little Darla walking about, speaking to him, preparing his meals.
The Fall 2012 issue of Eclipse shares several complex stories. In "Revival," by Clark Knowles, a son leaves home and a sheeting rain develops, causing a significant flood in the basement. Not just any flood, but one trapping the husband down there, where he inflates a camping raft to stay afloat, catches and fries fish. He communicates with his wife who ventures no further than the portal at the top of the stairs. The quirkly elements of the story point to the odd, confounding effects of a family growing apart.
Also in this issue, "Sometimes They Talk Back," by Dina Guidubaldi, revolves around a girl with a fascination for her father's robots. She struggles with her own identity, wonders frequently about the concept of light and her own shadow—"If I could see it there on the grass, on the wall, on the sidewalk, then I must be somewhere too." Though the story is fairly short, there is a lot going on here, and the prose is nicely broken up into many tight sections, each carrying unique and thoughtful extractions. The piece does not take on a surreal quality, though, until the end, when we see a blending of references to her boyfriend and one of the robots she holds in fond affection.
Likewise, in the Spring 2010 issue of the Indiana Review, a story titled "Blue Christmas," by Matt Sadler, also does not introduce a surreal element until nearly the end. An outgoing woman enjoys lounging in hot tubs and meeting new people. Her best friend, Jane, hints of leaving. As the protagonist slowly develops a relationship with a man she met in the tub, Jane packs her orange suitcase, and the eventual departure is more unorthodox than the woman simply exiting the front door.
Perhaps a little unsettling is a story in the Winter 2009 issue of American Short Fiction. Titled "The Execution Trick," by Laura C. J. Owen, the piece is a bit reminicent of Steven Millhauser's "The Knife Thrower" from his 1998 collection. In Owen's story, the reader is constantly asking if the magician's beheading occurring every night at the posh European hotel is real. There may be an underlying thought here of failure experienced when a person takes on more than they should, or this may just be a story designed to simply haunt you.
A curious piece involving body and mind rejuvenation appears in a 2011 issue of Conjunctions, a story titled "Regeneration at Mukti" by Julia Elliot. Those attending a remote camp are induced with multiple viruses. They are expected to recover through calculated treatments. "Reach into the core of your misery," the orientation guru says, "and you will find a shining pearl." There's beautiful language in the story, and a dreamy last scene, enough to make the ride through nasty skin sores and itches enjoyable.
The winner of the 2010 Fiction Prize at the Mississippi Review, Cheryl Alu's story titled "Driving While Blind" isn't technically surreal—everything happening could indeed happen—but the combination of characters and circumstances make it all hard to believe. There is a lot going on in this short piece: the death of a son, some bitterness between the parents, museum tours for the blind, love affairs, even one with an underage boy losing his sight and driving a car. It's enough to make your head spin, but also set one thinking about all that could happen in one's life, at one time, although likely not all of it will.
In an anthology of recent writing from the Iowa Review, an issue titled "Discoveries" from 2012, there is a short-short, "Alter Ego," by Amy Leach: A woman struggles to understand her heart. She dreams of a man tearing his chest open and handing her his very own. She holds it, throbbing, still connected to the man by arteries. She wants to pull out her own and inspect it, but is scared she would not be able to put it back in correctly. She takes careful note of her surroundings: a museum's collection of loud paintings, her dog's behavior, her darkened bedroom. She spends a contemplative hour in a dollar store looking at buttons.
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