Midwestern Gothic, Issue 4

In the postmodern era, time has been superseded by space. Or so says Fredric Jameson in his classic 1991 monograph Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The argument, though, seems a little loopy. After all, the landscape is having a pretty rough time of it these days. Airports, McDonaldses, and Walmarts have spread across the globe, turning the most distant locales into a continuous strip of uniculture schlock. The Internet eats its way across borders like acid, dissolving traditional bonds of contiguity and erecting in their place communities based on Star Trek fandom and MILF fetishes. Postmodernism seems characterized not so much by the prevalence of space as by its yawning absence.

Into this void steps Midwestern Gothic, a new literary review edited by a couple Michiganders named Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell. As the title suggests, Pfaller and Russell have set themselves staunchly against the antigeographical zeitgeist. Their press release says that they were determined to “create a publication that focused on the Midwest and provided readers with pages upon pages that felt like they could have taken place in their own back yard.” Inspired by southern gothic writers like William Faulkner and especially Flannery O’Connor, they hoped to bring “literary recognition to the place they called home.”

It’s a quixotic endeavor. And, as happens with most quixotic endeavors, the windmill kicks their ass.

For all its ambition, the winter 2012 issue of Midwestern Gothic (their fourth) ends up reading exactly like what it is: another utterly irrelevant literary magazine stuffed with scads of predictable MFA-program fiction and a smattering of predictable free verse. The names of relevant states—Indiana! Illinois! Iowa!—and the set pieces of narrative Americana are both deployed with a grinding, devotional regularity. Here’s the girl who’s “got to get the fuck out of this town.” There’s the dad who’s been laid off from the last tannery standing, and that unrequited crush we all had at Everyhighschool, U.S.A.

It’s like a team of experts dissected a Bruce Springsteen album, taking out all the hooks, leaving in all the cliches, and adding a heaping helping of boredom. Close relatives die. Young people tremble on the verge of adulthood. Endings arrive in a flurry of ambiguous poignancy. Every so often, there’s a desperate little rush of genre violence, displayed with the pride of a child announcing a successful bowel movement. In short, Midwestern Gothic evokes not the midwest but any writing seminar anywhere. It’s as vivid as a doctor’s waiting room.

So what went wrong?

Granted, the longing for a midwestern gothic reeks of a simpleminded nostalgia—a return to a time before YouTube memes and strip malls devoured not just place but literature itself. Still, nostalgia, even the simpleminded sort, has its place. It should be possible to produce an elegy at least as affecting as the glop that spews out of country radio. I like George Strait pretty well, but he shouldn’t represent an unattainable bar.

The problem, oddly enough, isn’t space but time. Performers like Strait draw their regional identity not just from geography but from tradition. Strait’s southern ruralness is built out of genre tics that came down to him from western swing, Lefty Frizzell, and the whole history of country music.

Similarly, Faulkner’s novels are saturated in history: decaying aristocracy, generational loathing, racism. O’Connor, too, sets her characters in the south by giving them a past. In her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the main character’s mother holds on to her family’s former standing and her racism as a way of placing herself. When those are lost, she’s set adrift in time. And to be set adrift in time is to lose touch with space.

O’Connor and Faulkner chronicle a world ending, a culture running down. Midwestern Gothic shows us what happens after the clock has stopped ticking, and it’s not a pretty sight. The characters in these stories exist on a kind of shallow film. They’ve got parents and neighbors, occasionally a grandparent, but there’s no sense of the generations before that, much less how history lives in the present. The influx of Latinos has been one of the most important demographic facts of the last generation or so in the midwest; surely we might see stories about that? But that would require seeing the region as it is: tied to time and change, defined by things that happen rather than by place names. Every so often a meth lab pops up or someone mentions the Internet, but the reference always feels obligatory. See? it says. I know it’s the 2010s! I’m not just recycling crappy old Joyce Carol Oates stories, damn it!

Fredric Jameson may’ve been right after all. If the contemporary world has lost its sense of place, it’s because place is a function of time. Maybe space is what’s left after time and place are gone—a drifting expanse, with no borders and no distinguishing characteristics.

Some pop culture phenomena push back against the blankness. With its Baltimore snared in political and economic change, HBO’s The Wire stakes a conscious claim to old-school community and storytelling. Midwestern Gothic, meanwhile, is hopelessly trapped in an amber literary Everywhen in which a population made up mostly of blue-collar white folks wanders out of high school and into diners. It’s a nostalgia that won’t acknowledge its past, which means it isn’t even nostalgia—just a series of amnesiac tropes, floating from nowhere to nowhere.