Thursday, September 20, 2007

Found in Boston Review vol. 32 no. 4: Fiction by Patricia Engel

"You know how it is when you're a teenager. Just when things start getting good your mom calls you in for some urgent bullshit reason like your aunt is on the phone and wants to ask if you liked the crap she sent you for your birthday."
-from "Lucho" by Patricia Engel

"Our intellectual range distinguishes us from any political journal or literary quarterly, while our seriousness of purpose sets us apart from other general-interest magazines....We give due weight both to public reason and the independent life of the cultural and literary imagination."
-from the Boston Review mission statement

Since its founding in 1975, Boston Review has never been known to publish mediocre fiction. On the contrary, they have since the beginning published fiction from the likes of Stephen Dixon, Alan Lightman, and Harry Matthews, along with many more stunning stories from known and unknown authors. As well, BR has supplied readers with exceptional offerings of interviews (with Sontag, Paley, Appelfeld), nonfiction (on Elizabeth Bishop, pornography, and getting out of Iraq), and poetry (by Ashberry, Weir, Brock-Broido). Taken as a whole, BR has had a surprisingly fabulous literary track record for a magazine that--due to their primary and continual engagement with contemporary political issues--could easily be assumed to be a political forum that just happens to publish the occasional poem or story now and again. One need only look more closely at BR to see this isn't the case--to see that their progressive political bent is founded on humanism and literature; the cover of BR's most recent issue is backgrounded by a wash of Nabokov's butterflies.

Yet since Junot Diaz became Fiction Editor of the magazine a few years back, the quality and power of the fiction published in BR has moved up a notch on the scale of good American fiction--has gone from good to nuclear. Here is Diaz's own idea of what BR fiction should be, quoted from the BR website: "I’m looking for fiction that resembles the Thirty-Mile Woman from Toni Morrison’s Beloved: ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ Or as Takashi Murakami puts it: ‘We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.’ I’m looking for fiction in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye." Diaz is very specific in what he wants: writing so sharps it cuts the eye to read it. His publishing track record so far--electric, pop-off-the-page stories by exciting writers like Vivian Chin, the amazing Ivelisse Rodriguez, Ibarionex Perello, D. S. Sulaitis, and Padma Viswanathan--has been one of the best of any fiction editor in the nation. (BR fiction has also since Diaz came on board taken on a noticeable and refreshing aesthetic of diversity, an aesthetic in many ways representative of the contemporary moment around the global community, certainly in major cities like Boston. Many writers published by Diaz seem to have a decidedly rich and intriguing bi- or tri-national flavor to their work.)

Patricia Engel's first published story, "Lucho," flies off from the BR newsprint and into the reader's own consciousness. Like the best stories, Engel's sad tale of a fourteen year old girl named Sabina's friendship with a sixteen year old boy named Lucho is so richly told and filled with compelling characters that the story is remembered not as words on a page, but rather as an indie film the reader watched or an event heard of in youth. The simplicity of Engel's writing is reminiscent of the American dirty realist authors (as Granta named them) such as Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, and Jayne Anne Phillips--but Engel's prose is also suffused with the charm and intelligence of today's best young inner-city authors, a style also found in the writing of Nell Freudenberger, Daniel Alarcon, and Diaz himself. It is a clear, sharp prose at the same time nostalgic and cynical, sentimental and coarse. Engel's narrative seems to accurately capture the hunger and possibility of a youth at once becoming conscious of both injustice and desire.

"It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife," Engel's story begins, "and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn't want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had." The young Sabina--estranged doubly for her uncle's murder charge and her family's ethnicity ("We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos")--is soon befriended by Lucho, a new boy in town. Lucho smokes cigarettes "like an old pro," curses constantly, hardly seems to bathe, and is much more sexually aware then Sabina. As Sabina's mother comes to determine, this isn't usually the sort of young man a woman wants her only daughter hanging around with.

But hang around with Lucho Sabina does. And it is this relationship seen through the viewpoint of Sabina (a shy, introverted, extremely bright young girl) that creates the stories emotional impact. We see the enigma of Lucho, the town's gossip, the strangeness of school and parents, and the story's eventual tragedy all through Sabina's eager, confused eyes--which is how we all see everything, though we are accustomed through work, relationships, and social relations to not acknowledge this, to keep our ignorance and joy hidden. To hide our hurt, just as Sabina does. We don't wear out hearts on our sleeves, and much of the work of youth is the taking of our hearts off our sleeves and putting them far away below the chest plate where they will be (we think) protected.

Luckily we have story writers like Engel who reproduce that time in our lives when our hearts are being put away for good, when confusion and desire are so real they can be touched, tasted. Engel tells of this strange injustice we all do to ourselves called becoming civilized, called acting right, which Sabina knows isn't the point. "And I thought of Lucho," Sabina thinks in the end, "and how he'd say that was fucked."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

well, OK, I am co-editor of Boston Review, have been editor since 1991. So I am not a neutral party. But it was really thrilling to read your comments on Boston Review, and on Junot's fantastic contribution.

Many thanks for the remarkable words.

Josh Cohen