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posted on 12.08.09

I am in at least one way what I think most non-Americans and many self-conscious Americans would call “very American.”  I am, at least when it comes to sexual terminology, something of a prude.  If words like “pussy,” “cunt,” or “cock” appear in a story, I have difficulty reading on without their aggressive salacity casting an unseemly, occluding pall over the rest of the narrative.  I remember once skimming through a book by Rick Moody and coming across a sentence like, “Then she grabbed my cock,” or something to that effect, and putting the book back, unwilling to read it. Ulysses, of course, uses all of these words, but the canonized virtue of the novel cowed me into going along with them, even, in some sense, respecting them, as if Joyce’s liberal embrace of  “high” and “low” terminologies had bestowed upon them a glowing grace.  In Malone Dies, Beckett writes, “His young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heal, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives”; I found this funny when I first read it, and I still kind of do, but the import of Beckett’s hand behind this “cunt” made me give its usage a validity – and a funniness – that I might not have allowed it were it written by, say, Chuck Palahniuk.  When Leopold Bloom refers to the Dead Sea as “the grey sunken cunt of the world,” I also found it funny, but again my trust in Joyce’s verbal acuity had more to do with this than my own sensibilities; had Palahniuk written it, my response would have been, “How is the Dead Sea like a vagina?  This metaphor does not work.”  I would have assumed that the word were just used to easily evoke a distasteful sense of something uncouth or unclean – a sense derived not from what a "cunt" actually refers to, of course, but rather from the ugliness of the word – but nothing beyond that would have given the comparison any salience.  Not liking to read “pussy,” “cunt,” or “cock” makes me feel lame.  People have said that I am an old soul, and by this they may mean that I am not contemporary enough to just be cool with words like “pussy,” “cunt,” or “cock.”  Sometimes, of course, these words are necessary to use: an essence cannot be conveyed without them; more often, though, I think writers use them without much consideration of their value: they know that the words have a certain color to them, one that can snap a reader to attention, and they use it for its vernacular and bawdy verve, they use it to draw attention to themselves.  I believe that, even if a word is ugly or offensive, it has just as much right to belong in a story as any other.  But these words still bother me; they feel lazy: there are more interesting ways to convey the sundry elements of the fact of sex without using these words, I tell myself.  I try to make it the words’ problem, not mine.  Several stories in Birkensnake I use these words; when I first read Birkensnake online, I usually skipped these stories.  Birkensnake II does not use any of these words.  But I consider it a coincidence that I prefer the second issue of Birkensnake to the first, that I prefer the one with fewer pussies, cunts, and cocks; I don’t think the absence of these words were what guided me to this preference.

It’s not an easy preference.  Both collections are phenomenal.  They are better than any literary journal I have read in a long while.  I can’t remember the last time I read a literary journal all the way through; I think it was with the 2005 issue of NOON, which makes sense because what these two journals share in common is a certain organic integrity that comes from the singular, capacious interests and preferences of its editors.  It is difficult for me to place exactly what these “interests” are.  Many of the stories share elements with what is often referred to as – and I assume writers whose work is thus codified hate the term – speculative fiction; their plots lend them an alliance with genre fiction but the prose in which these plots are couched often seems almost at odds with the narrative, as if they were, somewhat abashedly, trying to make up for the association with oblique prose.  The prose in both Birkensnakes is uniformly marvelous.  Each story works at its own tempo and with its own logic, but the tempo and logic of each has, with few exceptions, a consistent – in some instances, a consistently amorphous or protean – honesty and keenness that makes them entirely unique, even if, at various points, they may seem to wink at other sources or influences.  The "speculative fiction" brand that I had early placed on Birkensnake's fiction does not stand up to scrutiny; ultimately, what unites the stories is that they are all curious and invested in creating an immersive experience.

I read most of the stories in both Birkensnakes online before I read them in print; it wasn’t until I received the print copies that I actually read all of them.  There is a distinct difference between the two experiences.  It is often contended that the Internet breeds cyberspatial wanderlust; I think I agree with this.  I did feel a freedom in skimming or skipping over stories when reading them online that I did not feel when reading them on the page; rather, it was not the freedom to skim that was lacking when I read it in print, it was the desire to.  The stories on the website maintain a kind of sovereignty over themselves.  In print, they bleed into each other.  There are benefits to each: none of the stories in either Birkensnake needs any of the others to hold them aloft, necessarily; they each have an internal integrity that allows them to exist as singular creatures.  But I didn’t feel that I quite had as cohesive a sense of what Birkensnake so particularly and ineffably was before I read the stories in print.  The physical copies gave me a precise order in which I felt obliged to read the stories, and I am the better off for having followed them; each issue is immaculately curated.  But then there is this “bleeding” issue: the stories impact each other when read in conjunction and succession, so much so that I often had difficulty moving from the frame of mind and mental patois of one story to another: I would begin one story with the voice of the previous one still acting as narrator.  This often came to interesting effect.  But ultimately it made me take at least a half-day’s break – usually a full day’s – between each story, so that they could exist on their own, even with the residue of the preceding story and stories still in mind.

I recently read Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness, in which the narrator accepts a job offer to read 1,100 pages of first-hand accounts of a series of massacres.  The narrator is gripped less by the events recounted within the accounts than by the unusual poetic tenor in which the survivors describe them.  He keeps a journal in which he writes down “excerpts” from the accounts, so as to remember particularly evocative phrases; he is haunted less by the violence depicted within the accounts than by the language that describes them.  I felt similarly when reading the stories in Birkensnake: phrases would stick with me and I would remember them and recount them throughout the day, the story in which they appear often almost absent from my mind.  Many of these stories are accounts of worlds I was fortunate enough to be introduced to but, after the stories’ conclusions, I was left to recreate and reconsider them on my own; I held on to these excerpts as if they would guide me further into their respective universes.

Naturally, some stories have stuck with me more than others.  In the first issue these are: “A Day Out, with Stereoscopes,” an effectively second-person story by Tina Connolly that is hugely hilarious and beguiling; David Ohle’s quite differently hilarious and heartbreaking “A Case of Autotomy in a Duck Lady”; and “Part of the Wider Pacific,” by Joanna Howard, one of my favorite writers.  In the second they are: “The Children’s Factory,” which Michael Stewart fashions as a kind of amoralistic Grimm fairy tale; Danielle Dutton’s enveloping “from A World Called The Blazing World”; Christopher Boucher’s absolutely terrific “Strange Animal: Three Stories”; and Joyelle McSweeneys very funny, very engagingly unnerving “Tumor Flats.”

I read "A Case of Autotomy in a Duck Lady" on the Staten Island Ferry.  I had previously become acquainted with a pigeon who had some gruesome fungal infection on its left foot, causing it to hobble around the ferry; while reading Ohle's story, I saw the pigeon again, for the first time in several weeks: by then the fungal infection had spread to its other foot, and some long human hairs had become entangled in its fungal growths and turned each step into a careful exercise in not tripping.  After several steps, the pigeon took to flight, wisely.  This kind of fortuitous meeting between the stories in Birkensnake and any given place in which I was reading them was not uncommon; each story beckons recognition in this ostensibly more mundane world, and the best ones, like Ohle's, are eminently relatable, despite their more outré oddities.

But to bring up distinct favorites seems at odds with the experience of reading Birkensnake, which entirely engulfed me and left me without the sensation of – as is the case with so many other literary journals that are nearly indistinguishable from each other – having read discrete, cherry-pickable narratives.  Here, again, the "bleeding": many stories that I’d skipped over online necessitated further consideration in print by virtue of their Birkensnakemates, and in most instances this further consideration revealed many wonderful, hidden virtues.  This made me feel myopic in having judged them poorly so easily in advance; it made me feel as though, so many times in my life, I’ve deprived myself of stories I’ve thought I’ve understood and haven’t liked.  As testament to my critical cowardliness, I prefer not to mention the names of the stories I didn’t particularly care for, in part because it feels mean, in part because I fear it will reveal some embarrassing incapacity on my part.  And Birkensnake, ultimately, feels like an exploration and celebration of capacities; it has a beautiful, generous, and euphoric character that I would never in any way want to be at odds with.

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