Once you’ve spent some time knocking around the world of journalism, or are just a busy reader with a shrewd and slightly suspicious eye, you realize that there are no coincidences in publishing. If an extensive and well-received book on, say, the history of grackles comes out and you realize that you just read an article in the New Yorker about the ornithologist author, and one a couple of weeks earlier in National Geographic about the bird’s introduction from Europe, and wasn’t there something in the Huffington Post about the ten worst bird names?—that’s a good publicist’s hand at work. Or perhaps more likely, in this day and age, a writer hustling.
There’s nothing cynical about that observation, unless you’re attached to the idea that ideas have their own synergy independent of any promotional intervention. It’s intriguing to follow various threads, like clues, to a book’s eventual release, reprinting, or film treatment. Sometimes they even take you by surprise. That moment of wonder, when a few disparate sources suddenly come together as if a code has been broken, can be geekily thrilling.
Over the summer I mentioned Elizabeth Strout’s Introduction to the Spring 2010 Ploughshares, in which she described discovering literary magazines in her first year of college, how they inducted her into a kind of secret society. And here I am linking to it a second time, because I love it and because she’s right. If you cast your journal-reading net widely, the you see that there’s another literary world lurking, an entire village of speakeasies behind plain wood doors.
After years of picking up back issues here and there, I finally subscribed to One Story in June. First to arrive was Reif Larsen’s “The Puppet,” the tale of Valise Retour, a young American would-be journalist in Sarajevo. It starts out vaguely detached—what is he doing there, and what concern is it of ours?—and grows pleasingly shaggy with each detail. Against the shattered backdrop of wartime Sarajevo and bad ’80s pop we get the hapless Valise, the tough-talking Brusa, and Thorgen, weird quantum physics-spouting guerrilla puppeteer. It’s an off-kilter, atmospheric story that I ended up liking quite a bit.
Next up was the Tin House Summer Reading issue which was full of good stuff, including some fiction by Lydia Millet and Steven Millhauser that I can only describe as “summer gothic”—bright and cheerful and creepy all at the same time. I generally don’t go through the table of contents ahead of time—I like the element of surprise, especially in poetry, in which case I often don’t even read the byline first. I’m not sure why that is, other than the fact that I’m a harder sell for poetry than fiction or essays, and I like the lack of bias I get from reading poems blind. So I was extra pleased to see that my favorites were from a “New Voices” writer, Alyson Sinclair, whom I’ve had strictly professional dealings with over the years—it’s always reassuring to know there are poets lurking behind the walls of day-to-day life. I liked the Etgar Keret interview as well, and was pretty much undone by Fred G. Leebron’s “Out Cold.”
And then a surprise: A story titled “It Will Happen Again,” by one R. Irgens Larsen. Three lines in, I realized that this was Reif Larsen again, with a companion piece to the One Story tale—or was that a companion to this one? “The Puppet” was straight-up fiction, whereas the Tin House feature was a postmodern article referencing the aforementioned guerilla marionette troupe, string theory and 20th-century war zones, pulling together strands from the previous story and building on them in mock-scholarly fashion. It takes over from the end of “The Puppet,” which left Brusa and Valise in the ruins of Sarajevo’s National Library waiting for the puppet show to begin, but this time around we get images of the Library’s bombed-out rotunda, some explanation of what physics has to do with marionettes, and postscripts for the characters. On its own, I’m not sure the piece would have kept my interest all the way through. But as an addendum to the first tale, “It Will Happen Again” was entrancing—both for the added explication and the unexpected delight of discovering it.
Maybe—most likely—these are chapters pulled from an upcoming work of Larsen’s, chosen for their dissimilarity. Perhaps they’re outtakes, or dead ends he didn’t know what else to do with, or riffs on notes. It doesn’t really matter. What I love about this particular reading serendipity is the feeling that there’s a whole underground river of storytelling there to be discovered, and I just happened to find two small tributaries. How many bigger stories are out there, being fed and built among all the small literary journals that show up on the bookstore shelves every few months? It’s a wonderful thing not to know. I’d keep reading them no matter what, but the suspicion of possibilities, the idea that these are pieces of greater wholes that we have to discover for ourselves, is an inspiration too.
Or, as the mysterious Thorgen, in “The Puppet,” puts it:
“But do not always believe what your eyes tell you…. We have never seen this world. We have only seen our perception of this world. In fact, we have much to learn from the quivering of the subatomic. From the uncertainty, the simultaneity of these tiny particles. The smallest parts are a prism as to how the larger system works.”
(Image is of the entrance to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Philippines.)