Dedicating myself to reading Glimmer Train means I miss out on reading truly mind-bending stories. Glimmer Train can still challenge my perceptions of the world and make me look at things in a new light— it’s just that I miss out on one of my favorite reading thoughts if I spend all my time with literary fiction. What reading thought do I mean? I’m talking about that moment when I move my head away from the page and think, “The fuck am I reading?” Sometimes when I think that, it’s a bad sign (even if that’s what the author wants me to think, like with Bleeding Edge). Most of the time, I treasure the moment I have that thought, and I end up treasuring the book. I didn’t think that thought while reading “What We Saw”… but the right ingredients are there for that kind of reaction. Which is why I find it so exciting that this type of story made it into Glimmer Train. In fact, I’m a bit envious. I’ve started this project so I can better fit in with Glimmer Train’s expectations, and here comes Kadetsky with an entirely original and different work to join the annals of this otherwise normal journal. She didn’t need to fit it, she already knew she had some great things to share.
An earthquake, before the story starts, hit New York City. I know; I looked it up, and turns out this kind of thing can happen. The earthquake was one of the biggest to hit that region in a century. But since it only registers as a 5.8, everyone refers to it as “the little earthquake,” which annoys our protagonist Natalie to no end. Natalie’s searching for Melody, a twin sister who disappeared on the night of the quake. And her search for Melody (or, rather, her day-to-day life) brings her to confront paranoia, the nature of duality, and the possibility of delusory parasitosis (meaning either there are bugs crawling all over her or it’s just in her head).
“What We Saw” is not a light read. The relatively dense prose moves about from idea to idea, and from detail to detail, with little room to breathe. Not only is this story cluttered with concepts, but it draws from pretty random sources for similes too.
Let me explain. Part of how similes and metaphors work (especially in a first person narrative like this) depends on the comparison making sense coming from the mouth of that character. The main character of David Wong’s John Dies At The End series, for example, doesn’t compare anything he sees to something from My Neighbor Totoro. For one, I don’t think that the narrator ever saw one of that director’s films. Nor would he have reason to. More importantly, nothing could be further removed from the dark and nasty world of Wong’s novels than Miyazaki. If Wong (also the protagonist as well as the writer) compared the tongue-replacing spider parasites in one of the books to a fuzzy creature from that movie, the audience would wonder why an addled and slightly macho character would watch a family film. And why Wong wants to invoke the slice-of-life cuteness of My Neighbor Totoro in a horror-comedy.
Using similes with incongruence can work, though. So when Natalie compares things in “What We Saw” to “a stuffed animal, a creature innocent besides the morning grapefruit,” (Kadetsky, 138) “[a] spiderweb cracked with jolt lines,” (139) “a toy nutcracker from the ballet,” (140) “a grapefruit knife scooping out flesh, cartilage, and bone from my chest,” (141) and “sky… forming menacing chocolate ice cream patterns” (152), you’ll notice that none of these comparisons have anything to do with each other. Individually, these metaphors describe their object well. All put together in one story, these metaphors create a weird patchwork effect that highlights how scattershot and broken the narrator’s life is. It’s a unique taste that fits the story well, especially when weird things do start to happen.
But here’s the strange thing— I’m not that big of fan of those weird parts in retrospect. The main downside to this story is that nothing in “What We Saw” seems to add up to anything. None of the plots and subplots get resolved, at least not in the world of the story (maybe in Natalie’s head?). There’s a romance with a Frenchman that comes out of nowhere, results in a pregnancy, and then drops off the tale entirely. Somehow, there’s a girl named Collette at the beginning and end that makes even less sense and leave less of an impact than that. With other stories in Glimmer Train like this— stories that have unexplained motivations and weak resolution— I tend to take an attitude of “Maybe there’s something I’m missing between the lines.” But I’m pretty sure that’s not the case here. Maybe if Natalie was going thought more in her head besides imaginary bugs, like a serious case of delusions and paranoia, the ambiguous and possibly-not-true ending would feel appropriate. For me to think, “The fuck am I reading?” I need something to ground myself on. To go off the rails, you need to lay down tracks first. Regardless, I can’t shake the feeling that “What We Saw” is hollow and incomplete. There’s a lot going on it its language and its themes, but the backbone connecting it all is buried too deep in the sand.
Elizabeth Kadetsky, an assistant professor at Penn State, has accomplished a memoir, a story collection, and a novella. There’s even more to her story at elizabethkadetsky.com. “What We Saw” is one of Glimmer Train’s most unique offerings, sometimes representing the magazine at its worst, but often representing it at its best and beyond.
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