Glimmer Train Fall 2014: “Here for Life” by Gil Filar

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I try to maintain a professional tone reviewing this magazine, but… hoo boy, did this one piss me off. This story’s the worst story I’ve read in a Glimmer Train magazine, and it’s difficult to think of other short stories outside of a student workshop that induced such rage in me over how much nothing there can be in ten pages.

 

What bare-bones plot there is in “Here for Life” deals with protagonist Melody moving into a new apartment and developing a relationship with her boyfriend Damien, while in the back of her head she’s still stuck on her previous boyfriends Max and Alex. But I doubt even the author would tell you that the plot, character, or even the sentences “matter.” From what I gather, this is a attempt to drop half-baked musings on gender politics that don’t add up to anything on an audience that’s too zoned-out to even notice them. Oh, there is a common thematic thread in this story, if you squint. One of Melody’s guy friends considers himself “a romantic stooge, a casualty in ‘the war of the latter-day genders’” (Filar, 195). Back when Melody would make out with Max, she felt oddly masculine. Back in the present, when Melody overhears a breakup with her neighbors, she hears “thunderous female and— by the muted gaps in argument— suggestions of silent, quailing male” (Filar, 196). And none of this means a goddamn thing, because all the characters are insufferable hipsters who text catty things about strangers at the bar when not living miserable love lives. What does this story say is male, or is female, or even what the conflict between them is? The story doesn’t know. Whether you’re a misogynist or a misandrist, you’ll hate both genders at the end of this tale, and that’s the strongest point this story can get across.

If I were to take a wild stab in the dark, maybe Melody is having a gender crisis. At the end of one section, she receives some messages from a boyfriend, and one of them reads “your pubic hair’s like red lightning” (Filar, 198). In the next paragraph, Melody’s reading graffiti in the girl’s restroom like “fuck that ginger dick” and “they’ll all be extinct in a hundred years anyway” (Filar, 198). She, like the reader, feels sad and awkward. So she’s putting herself in the place of another redhead, just one with a different social standing. Hair is certainly on the mind of the author, with all the descriptions of other people’s hair colors and the nature of other men’s beards throughout the story. Ok, now we have visual motifs, we’ve got an important social issue to discuss, and as we near the story’s end Melody has just finished a tepid email correspondence with Max that she directed to go nowhere. What does Melody do at this critical moment in the narrative? She prints out the emails between her and Max, cuts them into speech bubbles, and pastes them around her room. What the hell is she on about? The story tries to connect this ending to the rest of the piece with phrases like “she inserted some red-haired details” and “let a few strands of hair catch on the ceiling’s heating-duct grills” (Filar, 201) but that doesn’t disguise the nonsense she’s undergoing. Whatever point this story meant to make about hair and gender and whatnot, none of it has anything to do with this limp, inscrutable, pretentious conclusion to a limp, inscrutable, pretentious yarn. The constant focus on other people’s hair only ends up showing how shallow the protagonist is. In fact, it shows how shallow the writing is. Note to you young writers out there: when describing someone, move away from the hair and eyes. It’s important, you should get to it at some point, but work your magic on describing something every writer and their accountant haven’t done to death.

You know what this kind of story is? It’s the clickbait of the literary world. Let’s imagine you’re flipping through this issue of Glimmer Train. You’re not sure about what story to start with. Then around the 190-200 pages, you see sentences like “Fuck you, Littlefoot” or “I’m such a moon” (Filar, 198)[1] or “Landlord, son of Grandlord” or “you cocked at Rarcassonne last night” (Filar, 192). You see these words and you think, “That’s an interesting sentence! This must be an interesting story.” But the story’s nothing like the word choice! It’s all funny noises to grab your attention. It’s colorful artisan wrapping paper that covers up the gift of one used, damp sock. A paragraph might use the phrases “ginger Gravols,” “All You Need Is Love” “emetophobic” and “yellowish clementine,” which show attention to detail, but doesn’t build up to a coherent or clear scene.

[1] Fittingly enough, these statements are given as examples of how esoteric Melody’s friend is. This story is many things; actually, scratch that, it’s not much of anything at all; but self-aware isn’t one of them.

I’m currently reading, among other things, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong. A lot of the book focuses on the immaturity of the characters, and the story has a fairly immature sense of humor by itself. And even that book has more insight into gender relations and counterculture than “Here for Life,” and Futuristic Violence can still give us good characters, weight to its events, and oh yeah, an actually entertaining narrative. And I picked up that book as a light read for relaxing! Glimmer Train’s supposed to be the vegetables in my literary diet— not as exciting as other works, but good for you. And yet I’m getting more insight into gender politics from a book where a vital character programs a hologram of a lewd stripper to deliver messages for him (don’t take this as a knock against the novel… I love Wong’s work, and in Futuristic Violence he’s showing signs of improvement!).

The second worst thing about this story is that I know exactly what it reminds me of. It reminds me of “Broken Watch,” a story I wrote last year and put on my blog. Now I’ve increasingly grown to dislike that story, so much so that I planned a retrospective on it where I explain why my writing sucked at that period. Thing is, I couldn’t get through more than a few paragraphs of that tale before giving up. Like “Here for Life,” “Broken Watch” delivers overly dense sentences laden with over-specific descriptions in order to give the impression that’s it’s smarter than it is. So I might seem like a hypocrite for digging into a story that shares so many flaws with my own work. Here’s the thing. 1) I am now formerly apologizing for and disowning “Broken Watch,” whereas I have heard no such comment from Filar. 2) I never submitted “Broken Watch” to be published, and even when I liked the story, I would never have sent it to Glimmer Train. 3) Even for all its faults, “Broken Watch” has characters with definable personalities (meaning they’re more than just the catty things the narrative has them do) and distinct appearances (meaning I describe things other than their hair), not to mention a clear character arc for the protagonist, a dilemma that relates to the story’s thematic concerns, and a coherent statement on what motivates people to do dark things. None of that is apparent in “Here for Life.”

But the actual worst part comes from one sentence in the story: “literature was the only medium of art where superficiality couldn’t find footing” (Filar, 197). Not only is this statement not true, but I know that this statement is not true, simply because this story exists. I have never seen a more superficial story masquerade as insightful even when reading works by college freshmen… chew on that. This is probably what Glimmer Train stories look like to people who hate literary fiction and just want to read their Dan Brown style page-turners. And I don’t look down on them, because they’re at least reading better work than this shit.

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