A look at Irreantum 9.2/10.1

Irreantum 9.2./10.1 is a double issue, containing the fall/winter 2007 and the spring/summer 2008 editions. Edited by Angela Hallstrom, it contains seven pieces of fiction, two critical essays, two creative nonfiction essays, 11 poems and four reviews. It also features art work by Maralise Petersen.

With the abundance of short stories, the two critical essays and especially the original art, this double issue, in my mind, is the closest Irreantum has gotten to becoming the refreed, (utterly) literary journal that it claims it wants to be. These changes culminate a process that began several years ago when Laraine Wilkins took over the reins from Chris Bigelow. I have very mixed feelings about this process — and my reaction was made all the more complicated by the fact that this issue marks my debut in print.

But before we get to that, some quick takes on a few pieces from the issue:

Yeah, so it’s a conflict of interest, but I like Tyler Chadwick’s poems. They’re approachable and real and funny. And the other poetry was pretty good too. I think I’m warming up to the Mormon poetry idea.

The critical essays are great. The reviews are pretty good — and I do like the more critical review type format, although it does seem like several of the reviews are way past the cultural moment (which is too bad).

Now we get to the fiction. Theric has already posted his reactions. Here are mine in an order that will soon become clear:

I like that “Gypsy Holiday” by Kristin Carson is a Mormons in Diaspora story. All the others are Intermountain West oriented (with several being rural) and I’m a little tired of that even though it needs to be done and is by no means exhausted (heh — just noticed that Theric is also sick of the rural thing). So this is a nice departure. A straightforward story about a Mormon mom who Thanksgiving tradition is broken when the Mormon family they usually host decides to go to a family member’s celebration instead. It’s a good story, but nothing really stands out and, as Theric mentions, the point of view switch at then end is lame. And in fact I’d judge it more harshly than him. I think it ruins the story. I think the mom needs to have a moment at the end rather than disappear off camera.

“Reap in Mercy” by Darin Cozzens is quite similar, actually, to his short story “Light of the New Day” in the previous edition of Irreantum (9.1). It’s all about a rural, emotionally reserved man whose life is affected by the death of a farmer father (although this time it’s another character’s father who dies). Cozzens is an excellent writer with a knack for nice images and if the ending is a little too sweet, I don’t see anything wrong with exposing what Adam Greenwood likes to call the sweetness of Mormon life. It wouldn’t be the strongest story in the collection, but I could take a set of Cozzens short stories that hang together the way these two do (albeit with, hopefully, a little more variation among them).

With “This Afternoon” by Wayne Jorgensen, I can’t help but feel that he’s making this out to be much more clever and much less trangressive than it actually is. Also seems a bit old-fashioned. Emotional infidelity is all about Second Life and Wow, these days, you know? But really, it’s an okay story. I didn’t learn much of anything from it, and I didn’t get much enjoyment out of it. It’s simply rather flat.

And now we reach where I’m really going with this post: the three best stories in issue and the ones I have the biggest problems with: “Calling and Election” by Jack Harrell, “Salt Water” by Arianne, Cope, and “Cause” by Mark Brown.

These are well-written, very literary, very modern-American-literature stories. And I didn’t really like reading them. And although they sort of got their hooks into aspects of my literary fanboy personality, they didn’t do much for me as a Mormon, and the final reading experience was one of distaste and detachment.

It’s kind of difficult for me to say why. And this is more of a personal than a lit-crit reaction. But I think has to do with the usage of Mormon materials. All three stories have searing images and symbolism. They really try to make use of some Mormon concepts and moments. But they do so without humor and without any sort of real nod to faithfulness and most of all they employ the rather annoying technique that so many literary fiction writers seem to be in love with these days of using the fantastical and/or the freakish. And it’s not done in a way that I would consider either magic realism or Mormon folk realism. In fact, I think that modern American literary fiction writers need to think real hard before they use the fantastical in their stories because too often when they do, it leads to clumsiness and cul-de-sacs of meaning.

In addition, although I completely understand the siren call of ambiguity and fascination with that certain clever (Theric invokes Jonathan Safran Foer) deployment of grotesqueness that turns out to have nothing to say about anything other than its own self. Truth be told, I don’t hate these stories or even the methods they use. But I had a particularly allergic reaction to them this time.

I also have the sense that with these stories the literary has swallowed and hollowed out the Mormonism rather than the Mormonism subverting the literary. And although that’s completely a predictable and perhaps even a desirable result, I was left wanting more from the evident talent on display. Once could remove the Mormon elements from each of these stories, and the images would be just as searing. And the searing, at least in my case, had no power to refine.

So although I can clearly call this edition of Irreantum a triumph of literary respectability, it is less clear that it has a whole lot of interesting things to say about Mormonism, or at least about LDS life, and I’m not convinced that it’s a direction that’s going to lead to anything more than literary respectability. And I’m not at all interested in being respectable.

To be clear, this is not an Orson Scott Card denunciation of all-things-literary. Although I am a fan of genre, I’m also well aware of its limits and annoyances and tendencies — limits best typified of late in Brandon Sanderson’s conclusion to the Mistborn series, which is most definitely a triumph filled with some nice Mormon resonances, but on the whole contains blunter satisfactions and shallower deepnesses than what can be achieved using more literary tools.

And all the above should read in light of two personal quirks of mine that no doubt highly influenced my reactions (because I can see myself being a lot more excited by the three stories I single out above at other times in my past — and perhaps future).

The first, as expressed in my liner notes to Speculations: Trees, is that my reading experience was no doubt colored by my own authorial anxieties about misreading of intentions, which were stirred up even more by the company my work finds itself in because of a probable non-fear that the surrounding literary ambiguity is propping up my little vignettes more than I would like because my whole idea was for them to implode in dark humor and post-post-modern absurdity (hypermodern is the term Theric uses — I’m not quite sure I like that one, but I suppose it fits) thus refracting, hopefully, some brackish light on an orthodox core.

The second is more difficult to explain but has to do with the fine-edged restlessness I find myself reaching where nothing Mormon or secular, genre or literary seems to satisfy. A needless compressing down of the radical middle into not so much a semi-precious stone as a cheap trinket that glows only under the right light most likely suggesting that I need to blow the whole thing wide again and reset the filters. Which I’m, of course, already doing. After all, both Fritz Leiber and Saul Bellow can be good for the soul, and I’m thinking it’s time for some young adult novels and, yes, some Mormon fiction again. But still. Even though it’s most definitely not burn out, I suppose it’s only natural that in refining an aesthetic, one’s going to reach a point where the palette needs a break or at least a refresher. Which now that I think about it, may be the reason for a newish, unprecedented interest in orchestral and other forms of metal (although to be honest, it’s not really doing it for me yet).

Anyway. I reserve the right to change my opinions. A rereading of Irreantum and a look at the Jack Harrell interview may make me reconsider. But this is my initial report. Oh, and I should add that I’m a big fan of Harrell’s novel Vernal Promises. It’s very much worth picking up.

5 thoughts on “A look at Irreantum 9.2/10.1”

  1. Hmmm. I guess one could sum up the entire post and save you all the angst by just stating: It’s possible that I just can’t be pleased when it comes to Mormon fiction and so my opinions should be taken with a flake of salt.

  2. .

    Well, as you know, I don’t agree with you on every point, but I do agree that all your complaints are exceedingly fair when pointed at Cope’s story so I’ll call that common ground and proceed from there.

    Two things that surprise me about my own writing are a) how little explicitly Mormon work I produce and b) how little ‘hypermodern’ work I produce.

    I’m surprised because I like both types of stories — but I also tend to be much more critical of both types of stories as well. I suffer no fools when it comes to the hypermodern (I say I like it, but I despise most of it) and I am more easily irritated by even slightly bad character development in Mormon work.

    But that said, I am, overall, loving Irreantum. It’s giving me hope for the future of the mag. I think the direction is UP now and I hope to ride it to the peak.

  3. I think one reason I struggled with these stories was because they didn’t “feel Mormon” to me. Like you pointed out, there was very little humor or optimism or any sense of progress–those are all things that are essentially Mormon to my mind and it was weird to read stories completely missing them. Now, I’m not one of those readers who is always looking for a happy ending. It just all seemed overwrought. Of course, I have yet to write any successful fiction so I guess I shouldn’t talk 🙂

    It wasn’t that I didn’t like the stories, though. It was just a struggle to read them and it wasn’t a pleasant one. But sometimes reading isn’t supposed to be that way. That said, I’m glad I read it.

  4. .

    I’ll agree with, say, “Salt Water” — it was so weighted down (were the Danish sailors really necessary? or did the author just happen across the Wikipedia page and it was too good to ignore?), but I disagree when it comes to, notably, “Calling and Election.” Yes, it’s disaster after disaster. But it’s the equivalent of the first couple chapters of Job. No, the story hasn’t a happy ending per se, but, with the Mormon perspective of endless progress and a loving God, we are left with the belief that the story’s true ending will be one of exaltation.

    And that’s the problem with the p-o-v-switching ending of “Gypsy Holiday” — it denied us that last chance to see the glory down the road. Instead we looked at a cat.

    (Which really is a shame because I’ve had that story on my mind a lot — in particular because of Wm’s “Mormons in Diaspora” phrase which feels haunting and very me.)

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