Feb 1 2022

My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

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My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

After spending a month brooding on what I’ve read over the past year, I’ve determined that Mark Marchenko’s “The Feast” (Zeenith, (Wyandotte, MI: New Pop Lit, 2020) was the best short story I read for 2021.

It is a straightforward narrative of entanglement with bureaucracy (and those armed bureaucrats we call “cops”), genuinely Kafkaesque in the best sense of the word (as the LA Review of Books recently pointed out)—a nightmare of inane questioning, hindering, holding (as in being held in custody):

“Yes, I understand,” I assured him, but at the same time, to say the truth, I felt a bit lost. It is like when you explain something so simple that is not even worth explaining, and if you are not understood, you start doubting if the problem is not in reality on your side. (“The Feast”)

In other words, this is a place where all logical arguments fail to change the circumstances. The story also contains a bit of radically juxtaposed imagery, in a very dreamlike, authentically surreal manner.

And though it is a “fictional” Moscow where Marchenko’s story takes place, the endless netting and knotting of empty explanations from security officials, accompanied by a preference for nonsensical commands that must be obeyed, reminds one of Baylor professor Alan Jacob’s recent encounters with American healthcare bureaucracy—a nauseous trek and trial that led him to later compare his experiences to Dicken’s circumlocution machine. For Jacobs, “the object of these systems is the generation of despair.”

 Yet I was also reminded of the dread from Yiddish writer (originally from Ukraine) Sholom Aleichem’s (1859–1916) short story of “The Pair”––a story where a couple are doomed to be cannibalized, and yet, while in their holding cell (or coup), one explains to the other how

There is nothing in the world to which God’s creatures can’t become accustomed. Our prisoners had grown so used to their troubles that they now thought things were as they should be, just like the proverbial worm that has made its home in horseradish and thinks it sweet. (“The Pair,” trans. Shlomo Katz, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, eds. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, (New York: Viking, 1954) p. 202)

Marchenko’s “The Feast,” however, also resembled that moment in “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” chapter to The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf reads from the Book of Mazarbul the words of the doomed dwarves: “we cannot get out.” But while the circumstances are crystal clear for the characters in Tolkien, in Marchenko’s tale, the main character is trapped in convolutions of organizational documentation, entangled in endless obscurities:

The document consisted of two parts: the main text and the area below where you put your signature. The annotation said that the person who signed it was aware of the information in the text and that this person was not going to file any complaints should he decide that he in fact wasn’t acknowledged with the text. (“The Feast”)

Still, let us hope for Marchenko’s protagonist, as well as for Jacobs and ourselves, that we never get too used to these obstacles of institutionalization. Let us hope that we too, like the hardy band in Tolkien, are able to “get out.”

Oct 7 2021

Tenderness: A Writer’s Tool


Lately I’ve noticed when reading some recent works of fiction occasional moments which can only be called (at least to my mind) “tenderness.” As a reader it seems you either catch them or you don’t. Perhaps you have to get attuned, putting your ear to the ground to see if you can hear the train coming etcetra.

Take for example the opening lines from Richard Daub’s short story “The Huffy” (2021), via New Pop Lit:

Day after Christmas, 1983, fifth grade, in the attached garage at Eric’s house—

“They got you a Huffy?” Eric laughed, referring to Carl’s new bike. “Huffys are for losers. Did they buy it at Sears?”

And also this moment from Stacy Swann’s novel Olympus, Texas (Doubleday 2021):

That day, while at school, Hap had missed his brother. He’d been excited when, after walking the quarter mile from the cattle guard, where the bus stopped, his mother met him by swinging open the screen door and setting an impassive March on the porch. “Go play,” she commanded before she went back inside. (p. 18)

Like the old legal definition of obscenity, it must be admitted that while I can’t quite define such tenderness–I can’t tell you why x is tender and y is not–but I know it when it see it. And the tenderness conveyed in these examples seems to be something ephemeral, never sustained; always momentary, never stationary.

But such tenderness isn’t limited to fiction alone. Chris Arnade’s work, which I have studied for several years now, also periodically captures this delicate humanity, this non-poisonous sentimentality at which, in a seizure of squeamishness, the jaded soul too often shrieks:

While we are talking an older regular comes in, who is blind. Not somewhat hard of seeing, but completely blind. A few regulars get up and quietly map out the lay of the bar to him, explaining where he shouldn’t sit based on who else is near by. It is a very sweet moment, that isn’t especially special. Just people being decent. It happens everywhere.

I try not to overthink stuff. I try not to be all metaphorical. But I am buzzed, and it is a blind man coming to a sports bar, something he clearly does all the time. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 2: Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott,” Intellectual Inting, October 7, 2021)

Tenderness is found in those so-called “cheesy,” “cornball,” nostalgia-laced moments of life on the Backrow that more of today’s American writers need to capture (and realize why they really aren’t cheesy) if they sincerely wish to shrug off the group-think elitism they acquired while sitting in the Front Row of so-called writer’s workshops that trained them into submission. As Arnade has recently pointed out:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

So, as writers, let’s find the tender moments, but not metamorphize them. Don’t turn them into allegories, just learn to behold the present moment, be mindful of it. Learn to be, not do—focusing more on what is tender rather than what is travesty.