Apr 20 2022

Short Story Review: “Octopus” (2022) by Nathan Willis

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia


In Nathan Willis’s short story “Octopus” (Necessary Fiction, Feb. 16, 2022) the reader must confront randomness. There’s some seemingly radical juxtaposition going on, with words, images, and ideas focusing around octopi, the theatricals of choking in public, as well as hostage negotiation. But, overall, it also involves the notion that, while children may later remember specific moments and actions done by their parents, they rarely (even upon reflection in their own old age) understand why their parents did the things they did when they did them.

So “Octopus” is about the nostalgia (grown) children have for certain memories that involve them being with their parents. The mood of the story is contemplative, combined with a detached sympathy of the narrator toward his father—things that remind me of Nicole Nesca’s poem “What would Hemingway Say?” (Let It Bleed: Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017, p. 1), as when she writes:

I never tried to be my father.

But, I was and am him.

Everything that we learned happened before we were ten years old.

But compare a character in Denis Wong’s short story “The Resurrection of Ma Jun” (Missouri Review, Spring 2018) who remarks:

Thinking about this stuff drives me crazy. Who cares about made-up ideas like God? “We can only rely on ourselves,” is what Quian and I have always believed. Not even our parents can save us. (p. 60)

Though I refuse to summarize Willis’s story that was a joy to (re)read, I will say that parts of “Octopus” have––in terms of style––a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” to some of Kafka’s short stories––particularly “Forschungen eins Hundes” (“Investigations of a Dog”) (1922) and “Der Bau” (“The Burrow”) (1933) with the way each sentence seems to take the story in a new direction than it was seeming headed beforehand.

For the plot in Willis’s “Octopus” makes incredible strives sentence-by-sentence, where, like a corkscrew, each line and clause twists the narrative more and more––and all this strongly resembles the storytelling methods found in the anonymous Tale of Aladdin, a near-novella often lodged in copies of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights but technically not an original part of that anthology.

In terms of substance—particularly the (yes, I know) surrealistic content of radical juxtaposition to be found in “Octopus”––this reader also detects some resemblances to Nesca’s short story “Child,” (from Let It Bleed), the late, great Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) and his quasi-memoir-novel Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir (Random House, 2017), as well as Me & Mr. Cigar (Soho Teen, 2020) by Gibby Haynes…. (perhaps even Terry Southern (1924–1995) and his novel The Magic Christian (1959)….)

While I won’t quote from “Octopus,” which is brief enough to be read across a single lunch break, with regard to substance, things in it can be found that are reminiscent of the way Norm could twist a seemingly ugly remark until it blossomed into revelation:

 “Yeah,” says Adam Eget. “I really wish I’d met him, but it was before my time. There are so many great Kinison stories at the Store [a New York stand-up comedy club]. It’s so unfair that guys like Sam have to die so young and a sonofabitch like Nelson Mandela lived to be an old man.”

“Nelson Mandela wasn’t a sonofabitch. He fought apartheid and they put him in prison for more than twenty years. And when they finally released him and he took power, he never exacted revenge on his enemies. Instead, he exacted forgiveness on them and brought his torn nation together.”

“I thought he stole some diamonds.” (pp. 30–31)

The randomness of “Octopus,” furthermore, harkens back to my recent reading of Gibby’s own randomness, as when in his debut novel Me and Mr. Cigar he writes:

About halfway there in the wooded hollow right before Catfish Creek (where you’re more likely to catch a washing machine than a catfish), there’s a police car on the side of the road. Halfway across the bridge, just past the cop, I sneak a look back. He’s pulled out onto the road and turned on his lights. The cab of the pickup is suddenly filled with red flashing lights. For some reason the thump-thump-thump of the metal slats on the bridge is particularly loud tonight. I pull the truck over, stick it in park and look over at Lytle and Mr. Cigar. Wide-eyed, we simultaneously mouth an elongated Ohhhh shiiiiit. (p. 141)

So check out Nathan Willis’s “Octopus”––I think you’ll like it.

Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random


Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature


I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)


One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)


All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)


At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)


Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)

Sep 4 2021

Short Story Review: “Child” (2017) by Nicole I. Nesca

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Nicole I. Nesca’s Let It Bleed (Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017) is a book of prose and poetry—of verse, vignettes, as well as short stories—and a book both Canadian and American.

In it readers will find pairs, symmetries, contrasts, and sometimes, radical juxtaposition—the kind prophesized (though not before acknowledging necessary precursors) by Bard André Breton (a prophecy which still needs hearing in 2021):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

(André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (c. 1924), trans. unknown)

In Nesca, readers can encounter this idea of radical juxtaposition of either/and with regard to structure-medium-content: similar to the way William Blake’s paintings and poetry can be absorbed with profundity individually, but, when found together, offer an intimidating sense of wonder to those modest readers who nevertheless continue their approach toward Blake’s super-art, though they learn they must approach with fear and trembling.

But in terms of content for either a poem or story—the writing’s agency that acts upon the reader when something jars that reader simply because what the reader encounters is adjacent to something else (and can also occur with painting or music or architecture)—results often in mere perplexity, though occasionally, in sound enlightenment. The results are such things as: McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (1970), a radical juxtaposition of two or three, depending on how you count them, different pieces of music; Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and the irreverence of the title to the movie itself; Metallica’s “One” (1988), which begins as a quiet, solemn dirge toward the singer’s own death, then, shifts into an loud, angry invective against Death itself; Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989), which is almost two separate movies sandwiched together, though a sandwich with almost nothing in between, so it might be better to say squished; or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with its wild rural setting in the South that then moves to the wild metro setting of the North)….

So too with Nesca’s book overall. Particularly, the piece “Child” is what stood out for me upon first-reading (certainly not the last) with its radical juxtaposition.

For here is poetry that flows into prose—but there is a vivid narrative underlying it all, one with a true beginning, middle, and end—yet here also is a clash of lyric and free verse, a clash of Nature’s organic pheasant and Humankind’s artificial rifle, a clash of daughter and father, of life and death.

Or is it not so much a clash, as a balance of all these things?—dare we say a Dao of things?––if my feeble misunderstanding of the Dao is correct? Here I’m thinking of something recently written by Alan MacFarlane, who earlier this summer explained in The Fortnightly Review:

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-doken-dosu-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

So, yes, I think Nicole Nesca is getting at something like that Dao, or balance or sense of both-and rather than either-or––in particular in her story-poem “Child,” but also, her book Let It Bleed maybe getting at something similar overall. Overall, this is a book I intend to return to. There is definitely something wild going in Winnipeg, and ’tis nothing to do with weather nor wildlife.