Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: Unstuck Magazine

The inaugural issue of Unstuck Magazine remains true to its name: these twenty-odd stories and poems have come unglued and float, however precariously, in the firmament, in "otherness," in worlds almost like our own but somehow, someway...skewed.

Take, for instance, Sharona Muir's "Air Liners," concerning invisible "bioluminescent" microbes formed during the act of lovemaking; or Helen Phillips' exhilarating "R," where the lives of twins Rose and Roo diverge in mysterious and unexpected ways after they experience, for the first time, the sensation of wind. Zach Savich builds "a bridge with nothing on either end" in his poem "My Ideas Have Set Nothing on Fire - Yet." Imagine witnessing the end of the world from a continent-sized garbage dump in the middle of the ocean as the characters in Matthew Derby's "Dokken" do; now imagine that this is the happiest moment of your life.
Neatly wrapped-up endings do not fit. Instead, these pieces toy with and subvert form, structure, and what's expected from a story. Rennie Sparks's excellent nonfiction piece, "The Eel," offers the reader this insight: "All we can ever know for sure is that the things we remember, real or false, are flags stabbed into the dark fog of the brain." Is there a better statement of what this issue of Unstuck stands for? It is movement free of predictability, the story or poem allowed to go where it will.

There are, however, moments of almost-revelation here; of glimpses into "our" world, the recognizable, the root of tangible experience. In Judson Merrill's "Inside Out" a prisoner escapes into the ventilation ducts of the prison only to meet the big land spider that dwells there. An uneasiness descends on this story and refuses to let up; yes, it gets weird and weirder by the end, but there is something terrifyingly human in the narrator's fear and lonesomeness, of being trapped in small spaces, of never getting out.

Many of the stories in this collection also deal, in some way, with that stickiest of mysteries: death. Macabre opener, "Monument," from Amelia Gray explores what happens when townspeople gather to tidy a graveyard and something goes terribly wrong. Rachel Swirsky imagines what love is like in the afterlife in "Death and the All-Night Donut Shop." In Matthew Vollmer's "The Ones You Want to Keep," the tragic events of a couple's honeymoon sends the narrator to the brink of madness. Each comes at their subject differently - Gray using the mysteriousness of death, Swirsky a bit of humor, and Vollmer the tragedy of continuing to live after the one you love is gone - never forcing the kind of deeper understanding so many stories try for (and most often fail at); instead, letting the various elements coalesce, the shape of the meaning different in each reader's brain.

Yet, for all the grim-reaping, there are also stories full of life here. The narrator of Karin Tidbeck's brief but exquisite "Cloudberry Jam" grows a "carrot-baby" in a tin can, and a strange new creature is brought into the world. That the end is full of a unique sort of longing and deep sadness only illustrates the hope of life. The same may be said of "Peer Confession" by John Maradik and Rachel B. Glaser. Here, a young girl must choose between the church she's known (and the painful, unfashionable braces she wears) and Church Hello - where practically anything goes, including braces-free boys and promiscuity. Is life all about the moment, this story seems to ask, or can we love life even with a little pain?

Perhaps just as interesting is Matthew Domiteaux's artwork which acts as bookends between the stories and poems. Mostly abstract, the drawings add texture and deepen the mood of each piece while preparing the reader for whatever is next. In particular, the wave-like drawings that separate the verses of Kaethe Schwehn's "Sea Air Breezy; Nothing Dreadful," mirrors the length-descending lines of each consecutive verse while heightening the sense of dread.

Ultimately, Unstuck has managed to gather a collection of stories and poems that relate and play off each other in exciting and often surprising ways. If there is one thing that ties these stories together, however, it is not a common theme but an intimate attention to detail and a sense of wonder of the world we live in or might live in, even if only briefly. Highly Recommended.

-Dustin Monk

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