After a 20-year famine, the Chicago Reader, over the New Year’s weekend, has broken with its own tradition and treated us to a feast of some 16-odd short pieces of original fiction. Without warning or so much as an editorial comment, we have been left on our own to make what we will of this compilation of work. We are given the name of the author of each piece but no hint as to the writer’s background or how it came to be that a story was selected.
Given the prohibition on fiction in Chicago magazine, the Tribune, and the Sun-Times, the importance of this gesture toward local writers cannot be treated as anything short of a miracle. It is interesting to speculate as to where you intend to take this thing. Maybe smaller doses administered on a weekly basis admidst the usual topical features and commentary would be most effective. It takes a lot of endurance to read 16 short pieces over a weekend, and there is a real danger that one just might miss a gem if someone prematurely throws the thing in with the recycling.
This being said, what about the writing? It is easy to take potshots; and indeed, there are some most worthy targets, but first let’s talk about the good stuff.
“To Clothe the Naked” is a real short story. Paul Pekin gives us a beggar/con man who is not easily forgotten as he insinuates himself into the complex domestic life of the hero. “The Merchant of Disaster Goes to the Zoo” teaches us something as it deconstructs an appealing genre of ironic short stories which are so amusing when kept at a distance but lose their fascination when brought into focus by an event that touches close to home. “The Boy in the Garden” and “Love” give us well-written personal pieces but in the end are more an examination of the feelings of the main character than the telling of a story.
There are several unremarkable pieces best described as “Coming of Age,” Sci-fi /Political, and Artze (rock ‘n’ roll as a serious art form; the sad state of contemporary poetry). There are also a few good starts that either introduce a unique character or an interesting premise but somehow just don’t pull the whole thing off, as “loops of discovery” in “Qi” and the very mysterious Ghan in “Credit and Agency.”
Then, of course, there are the real clunkers. Who would have thought up the idea of two privileged female middle-class sexual libertines cavorting nihilistically through their youth in an alcohol and drug-induced stupor? You say this is routine? You say this is trite? But wait a minute; here’s the catch; they’re Jewish and one even is a born-again Christian. Now that’s outrageous! I sentence Rennie Sparks to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
Then there’s “The Winter Casino,” which is James McManus’s short course on blackjack and wet dream of how overweight poets can still give and get the best sex in town while still remaining loyal in the heart to a devoted wife and their young child.
The Reader in breaking the taboo against publishing fiction has done this city a great service. The question is, “What is the next step?” There is a substantive difference between commenting on the local art scene through reviews and actually doing something about promoting the arts as in allowing fiction writers an audience somewhere west of Manhattan. If Forbes can publish its FYI to give its high-finance readership a quarterly dose of culture, then the Chicago Reader can surely find in its pages a weekly space for creative original fiction. I can only hope that I don’t have to wait another 20 years for you guys to decide to do this again. Thanks anyway.