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Cannonball Read III: Electric Literature No. 1 Stories from Michael Cunningham, Jim Shepard, T Cooper, Lydia Millet, Diana Wagman

By Sara H. | Books | February 19, 2011 |

By Sara H. | Books | February 19, 2011 |

I’ve followed Electric Literature [Link NSFW -TU] with some interest online over the past six months or so, both through Twitter and their blog, The Outlet. Part literary journal, part literary app builder (perhaps most notably the custom app they made for Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries), they value both their writers and their readers’ method of subscribing. Of course this not to say that other journals don’t, but I’m not sure how many small lit outfits can afford to pay their writers $1000 per story and still be able to offer print editions.

That said, this isn’t a review concerning the changing business models in the literary world. I’m an avowed print-loving dino who took years to come around to using Google Reader. I’m not the person you want to ask about Kindle vs. iPad. Let us get to the stories then, shall we? Hopeless completist that I am, I wanted to start with No.1 (they now have five volumes — and the fifth cover is a NSFW amusing stunner). I already knew I liked Michael Cunningham, so at least one story out of the five I expected to enjoy.

Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” has the best title in the book, and its frosty, ominous locale reminded me a bit of another recent read, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. While studying snowpack and how it relates to avalanches, a man encounters his brother’s old girlfriend, having not seen her in years. His brother died after an avalanche while the three of them were on a school trip. While it took me a couple pages to get into it, the story is an excellent meditation on grief, blame, and coping strategies.

In “Three-Legged Dog,” Diana Wagman has the art of the intriguing first sentence down: “My girlfriend is missing her left breast.” A man describes the way he met Anne, a 29 year old breast cancer survivor whose hair has hardly begun to regrow post-chemo. He is smitten by her instantly, and the preoccupation with her body takes a rather strange turn. I’ll admit I liked this story better at the beginning than I did by the end.

T Cooper incorporates text message in a rather literary way with “The Time Machine,” and also provides an almost stream-of-consciousness view of getting in our own way. I say “almost” because the narrator is conscious of his audience. He’s aware of his unreliability, his jealousy, but also of the great and consuming love he has for the woman he’s with. He is both exasperating and endearing, and I had the opposite reaction to this compared to “Three-Legged Dog” — by the end, I was much more pleased to have spent time with the narrator. “The Time Machine” packs a lot of suspense into just a handful of pages.

And it turns out my excitement for a Michael Cunningham short story was a bit of a letdown, though only slightly. Titled “From Olympia, a novel in progress,” I recognized it as one chapter out of the recently read By Nightfall. This collection was published about a year before By Nightfall, and so a title change isn’t out of the ordinary. However, the selection was not a word-for-word copy from the book. Detailing Peter’s relationship with his brother Matthew, it also added a scene from later in life that was not included in the final publication. As someone who has had to delete many a treasured scene for the sake of overall narrative, I loved having a more detailed glimpse into the implied background of Peter’s life. Outtakes and in-betweens — it’d be nice to see more of that from some writers, when possible.

Lastly, Lydia Millet’s “Sir Henry” presents a fastidious dog-walker who is the sort to have great insight into the personalities of his charges, but holds little affection for many of their owners. He respects the dogs, but it’s not the ooey-gooey sort of puppy love one might expect. He takes his job seriously and has firm rules about the clients he takes. It’s an interesting character portrait with an ambiguous ending (I thought), and I’m still trying to work out what I think happened next. Perhaps it’s more clear to other readers.

Overall, Electric Literature’s first volume is a strong collection that has instilled the desire for more. At $10 per print issue or $32 for the year, they are certainly worth the attention.

For more of Sara H.’s reviews, check out her blog, Glorified Love Letters.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.