The Newsletter of
Century, Vol. 1, Nos. 1 & 2, 1995. Ed. R.J Killheffer, PO Box 150510, Brooklyn, NY 11215-0510. Single issues $5.95. Full color covers, no interior illos., ca. 150 pp.
I hadn't thought about tattoos in some time--not since a surgeon bragged at a cocktail party about his most impressive operation. Evidently, he had to sew up the abdomen of the circus tattoo lady. "Think about that for a minute," he said. Tattoos, Generation X, crack cocaine--these are the kinds of contemporary but marginalized topics that Century addresses. This magazine, existential in its import, deals with the hot-off-the-press Present.
And not only is Century voguish in content, but fashionable in appearance. The first two issues, definitely dressed-for-success, flaunt sharp typestyles and cover designs worthy of a coffee table. Well, hopefully, company will flip to "Martine's Room," by Holly Wade Matter--a tale in the first issue that attempts to define the X in Generation X. In this initiation story, the narrator Kali leaves Arkansas ("the middle of Bubbaland," as she says) for Seattle where she moves into Plague House, appropriately named because the sewer explodes into the basement after heavy rain. Here, Kali, armed with her Pentax and her dream of becoming a photographer, becomes, in actuality, a tourist travelling through youthdom.
Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction, then, is her roommate, the eccentric Martine and her room by extension. Martine draws chalk murals "at the espresso joint called the Metamorphosis" and then erases her creations after a few days as testimony to the ephemeral nature of art. The narrator's articulate initial reaction to Martine is beyond ParaPhrasing:
The first time I saw Martine, a walking-stick is exactly what I thought of. She was nearly six feet tall, and so thin I couldn't understand how she held up her bones. Her dead red-brown hair had been buzzed all around her head, but for a stiff tail at the back of her skull. She stood in a stale smell, a dead skin smell from grey-black clothes dusted with her own white shedding. Grey-black jeans, grey-black shirt, grey-black jacket. A pair of owl-eye wire-frame glasses pinched high on her nose. She wore a row of twist-ties through the multiple piercings in her ears, which looked painful and unnatural.
In effect, "Martine's Room" examines the creative process where even the body and the mind become mediums or tablets on which to inscribe meaning.
Kali recreates herself by establishing a new identity with the initiation rites of losing her identity followed up by nose piercing. In addition, she wishes to fashion Martine into a certain image by feeding her and getting her to switch to the permanency of oil paints. In Seattle, Kali can reinvent herself from scratch away from parental and small-town influence, as we see in this stunning segment:
Travel has a way of peeling you down to the core, as if time and distance were paring knives. By nightfall, the four-year ache of being an alien in a small town had dulled to a low-level hum. By the end of the second day, I'd forgotten that I'd ever hurt. By the third, all I could do was look forward. As Seattle pulled into view, I had a momentary flash of panic that the knives would peel back the final layer and reveal a core of ... nothing. Inside the depot, I forgot even that.
Interestingly enough, the sequence recalls the creation myth in Genesis. And it illuminates what's behind Generation X: They are creating themselves and each other and resisting and destroying old formulas.
The final story of the first issue--"Light and the Sufferer," by Jonathan Lethem--is one of my favorites as I marvel over the realistic dialogue, wittiness, and compactness. The narrator Paul has come to fetch his brother Don or Light, a crack addict, off the Manhattan streets to take him home to California. The trip home becomes a modern odyssey through the druggie underworld complete with a gallery of roguish characters--one of which is an alien named the Sufferer.
The Sufferer "hangs out" with troubled souls--something like the visible manifestation of the monkey on one's back. This being is first spotted (after the brothers steal "crash and stash") sitting on "its haunches in the dark ... like a panther, eyes shining." Later, Don compares the Sufferer to Tony the Tiger or a mascot. Witness this funny exchange occurring when Don , Paul, and the Sufferer greet Don's upscale girlfriend Annette Sweeney:
"Hi." She was staring at the Sufferer. "Light, look."
The Sufferer (whom you'll enjoy suffering) provides comic relief in a tragic tale and a totally innovative twist to what could have become a made-for-TV story. Also, the meandering plot perfectly underscores the aimless lifeof the addict. But the dialogue is the most impressive element, with a "thereness" to it.
The second issue of Century expands its fare. One resonant story--"Nothing on Earth Will Ever Be The Same," by Michael McIrvin--explores a Native American ritual. Jonny Thunder is "starving his dog to death" as "a cure prescribed by a healer named Lone Bill for what Jonny's wife calls his shitty attitude, what Lone Bill calls his disconnectedness, for what some have called his rage." Set on the South Dakota prairie--"a kind of static ocean"--this brief narrative mirrors the plainness and eeriness of the prairie in style.
But Century is not always serious. "Fuzzy Logic," by Michael Kandel, introduces issue #2. Packed with absurd humor and involving an alternate world, on a deeper level it spoofs our quest for fame, satirizing the "fuzzy logic" of current medicine. Dr. Beniamine, the protagonist, is a psychiatrist who will make a name for himself on the basis of an unusual case, his patient Felix. Even Felix has been able to achieve notoriety through his madness. The most important case at Bradford Specific, he had made it into the Psychotic Journal of the colonies, whose readership was fifty million. He was written up in the cheap but popular Mental View. He even got mentioned--three times!--on "Sanity Today." All in all, Kandel makes us think differently about the small markers used on the road to success-- memo jargon, acronyms, and trademark symbols--and how we tend to enumerate our accomplishments and divide ourselves (like multiple personalities, perhaps?) into different roles.
Each story in Century has its grand moments. A few start off with the speed and high drama of a hurricane and, toward the end, the storm breaks apart under an excess of detail. But that's okay. The magazine as a whole takes the reader upon a far-out trek into the imagination. ... Incidentally, the surgeon who worked on the circus tattoo lady, after much labor, was able to hitch together one end of the snake on her stomach to the other, so that the operation was declared a success.
|The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.|
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