Electric Literature is a new literary magazine that seeks to reinvigorate the short story through e-publishing, mobile technology, and social media. With the amazing short story collections that have been published this year, from Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy to Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, it would seem that Electric Literature is perfectly positioned for the resurgence of the contemporary short story.
And critics have responded favorably to Electric Literature‘s mission. The Washington Post calls the magazine, “A refreshingly bold act of optimism.” A.O. Scott of The New York Times writes:
Like any creative act, writing fiction carries within it an implicit belief in the future. Electric Literature was created by people who believe in the future of writing.
With all this good cheer and optimism, then, I must say it is slightly ironic that the short story which stood out for me in the second issue of Electric Literature was “The Slough” by Pasha Malla.
What comes to mind after reading the story is not “hope for the future” but the quote by Henry David Thoreau:
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
Perhaps the short story form captures the mood of the present cultural moment because it is the best literary medium for delivering the bitter truth.
Young people especially are feeling the desperation of no jobs, a weak economy, and no sign things will improve any time soon. More importantly, as the last of the Me-generation comes of age, many feel a lack of purpose in the trenches of a corporate-minded society.
Job and money is what defined their parents, and what they expected to define them, but without that, then what? No story that I’ve read recently illustrates this modern day dilemma like “The Slough” by Pasha Malla. Interestingly, the author tells the first half of the story without giving names to his characters as if they represented “everyman.”
Two young people living together find their lives beyond boring and without stimulation. They loaf through their days and weeks without a spark of enthusiasm. To kick things up a bit, the girlfriend decides to continue to apply a special kind of cream which she tells her boyfriend will give her a whole new body skin. Her skin will be changed completely.
Now, as the boyfriend watches figure-skating on the “broke-dick T.V.,” he begins to question the wisdom of their moving in together. “Do I really know this girl?” he wonders. He goes back to his T.V., hoping that just once, one of the skaters will fall to break the monotony of his very dull life. (That the skin cream may have a real purpose comes later in the story.) Their kissing and love-making are bland and stale, and he is sick to death of his commute to work where he carries a briefcase containing only a sandwich because his girlfriend wants him to look professional.
He looked in the lighted windows at the commuters: the frustration on their faces; all those briefcases on all those laps.
In sheer desperation to keep the relationship going, and from his need to spark up his own life, he decides to try the skin cream himself, until he finds out the cost, $400.00 What the reader thinks here is: what they both need is, not new skin, but a new life.
One of the most telling aspects of the story is their plan to eat alone on Valentine’s Day at different restaurants in order to experience what real loneliness feels like, and then to realize more deeply their own relationship, giving the reader the insight that real emotion eludes both of them. They do this for the seven years they live together.
The author is adept at creating an interesting subtext that lurks beneath the story-line, and he accurately conveys the emotions of his characters, even though they cannot identify their own feelings.
Left alone, he put his head in his hands and sat there like that, on the toilet lid in the stall in the bathroom, until his lunch break was over.
Chapter II of the story brings some surprises where Lee’s (the girlfriend) life becomes more realized, drastically changing the tone and texture of the story. Pasha (the boyfriend) suddenly has something to really care about, but is he capable or does he even know how?
Lee is sick, very sick, and when Pasha visits her in the hospital, we read:
She gets coughing again. I watch her and try to summon some inkling of compassion but I can’t. All I feel is impatient.
Only when Pasha realizes that Lee might actually die, does his authentic emotion pour forth. Only in the absence of life—does Pasha come alive. He is now genuinely depressed for a real reason rather than being depressed for the absence of a reason or purpose. When Pasha returns to his dark and lonely apartment, he goes to his bedroom closet and finds something he has forgotten about; something that will continue to bring real meaning to his life.
I look forward to reading the next issue of Electric Literature which is bringing back the short story in multimedia form. To find out more about this enterprise, be sure to check out their website.
Gretta Barclay is a passionate reader, writer, and lover of art in all its forms. She writes essays, short stories, poems, and novels. Her first novel, “To See a Sundog”, is an adventure story that takes place in a small Midwest town. She is in the process of writing her second novel.