Glimmer Train Fall 2014: “Maghreb and the Sea” by Robert Powers

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The last story I covered, “Hialeah,” ended with the narrator swimming out from the shore “until he could no longer tell where the sea ended and his body began” (Brooks, 168). The next story in the collection, “Maghreb and the Sea,” picks that connection right up in terms of imagery. Our tale concerns two boys from the titular region of northern Africa travelling north to find both work and a better life. But on a thematic level, the story’s about water vs. sky vs. earth (or sand, in some cases) and what happens when they intermingle. Key moments in the plot focus on this dichotomy, like when our protagonist is hit by the police and is “bleeding into the sand again” (Powers, 181), or when the two boys sit in an abandoned ship and look “to where the sky meets the end of the world” (Powers, 175). This description is likely intentional on the part of the protagonist, who’s telling the story through a letter to his former traveling partner. All of this must seem like a blur to him.

Like with the previous minimalist story in this collection, “The X-250,” I find myself wanting for more description and more clarity. And this goes beyond the fact that I don’t know what these characters look like. Early on, the police beat up the main characters for throwing rocks at black cars. It’s sad, yet the boys’ behavior becomes understandable when you consider thatm, just a paragraph earlier, they were discussing how the rich don’t care about them. But two paragraphs after the black car incident, the narrator says “And then one day we were beaten again for throwing rocks at foreign trawlers” (Powers, 175). Ok, fuck the rich, I get that. But why the hell would they do the same risky behavior again? Not only does the narrator not tell us, but he has no reason to tell us; he’s writing this letter to the person who underwent the same beatings and threw the same rocks. And it’s unclear why exactly this letter is being written to the other boy besides maybe the protagonist needing to bury some demons. Does it serve the story to have it be told in this way? This might be the rare occasion that I’d encourage a story to me more vague. Minimalist writing lets you get away with less imagery and fuzzier context. It might actually fit in with the narrative’s thematic concerns: just as sky blends with sea blends with earth, so might past blend with present blend with future.

In a way, minimalist storytelling requires a minimal story. You can bury deeper meaning inside it (all you writers probably know what Hemmingway said about icebergs), but the surface-level stuff should be easy enough to grasp. I know what the story of “Maghreb and the Sea” is (what happens), but I’m unclear on the plot of “Maghreb and the Sea” (why what happens happens).

Robert Powers’ “Maghreb and the Sea” is his first published story. I found his blog at http://adumbrate.me, which had the all-too-common tragedy of a “Sorry for the late update” post as his last post to the blog… written over a year ago. I couldn’t find much else about him on the Internet.

To be honest, I read this tale a couple of weeks ago and forgot almost all of it by the time I wrote this. Maybe “Maghreb and the Sea” is your thing, but I probably won’t revisit it.

Interested in this story? Buy it and many others here!

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