"Phallex Comes Out" by Brent Hayward
"Keybones" by Vylar Kaftan
"Rahim" by A.M. Muffaz
In "Phallex Comes Out," Brent Hayward constructs an interesting little tale about the vagaries of human sexuality and the dark nature of the human soul by combining two standard tropes of the fantasy and science fiction genres: a witch burning story and robot-slave story, respectively.
The sex robot, Phallex, serves as an ideal viewpoint, offering the reader a sentimental journey in which the robot must discover the fate of his mistresses. The author does not sustain the mystery for very long, abandoning the usual formula of a protagonist overcoming obstacles, and relies on flashbacks to convey the robot’s wide range of surprisingly human emotions—so tangible that they seem to float off the page.
The narrative jerks and stutters at times in its attempt to find an uneasy balance between the comical moments and deep pathos, but by the end, the story finds its footing; one sentence in particular that threw me out at the beginning of the story was the description of a limp penis being inflated by silicone, out of place among the descriptions tinged with more somber emotions such as isolation and trepidation.
Many might find the sexual fantasies in this story offensive, which includes necrophilia, lesbianism, masturbation while watching homosexual acts, and pretended non-consensual sex. However, those able to transcend their personal sexual bugaboos will experience a powerful commentary on sexuality, conformity, and human nature summed up by the character, Camille, towards the end of the story. Do we have the right to tell others what is appropriate sexually and what is not as long as both parties are willing? Can one person’s perverse be another person’s norm? Those are some of the questions that linger at the end of the story.
"Keybones" by Vylar Kaftan is a fragmentary ghost story about a woman who betrays her husband, and a husband who thinks of betraying her. Nineteen sections in the shape of a numbered list form the structure, transforming the story into a self-referential metafiction. "Making lists helps me feel better when I cannot control something. My wife is the same way, except her lists are the way she controls things." We can’t help but wonder who is controlling this list that presents us the story, and whether we should completely trust whomever that might be.
Sometimes the sections seem to switch between first person and omniscient, creating an uncomfortable ambiguity between the narrative structure and the times when content is presented through first person. "Numbered lists break down when items are crossed off." Perhaps this line explains some of the narrative ambiguities, suggesting that this narrative "list" is an amalgam of the wife and the first person husband, and thus reflects how neither of them can control their world through lists, especially after her death.
Many sections fail to add much substance to the story. For example, section 4 of the story reads: "I do not love her the way I should." While quibbling over a single sentence might seem silly, this information is later shown via the protagonist’s actions and serves no purpose by including it separately as exposition in the narrative.
The images of the dead woman built of keys is beautifully rendered by the author, especially in the final scene. Medieval prison imagery constructs intricate metaphors about living in the darkness of one’s sins and regrets. I think this is what irks me the most; a lot of my fiction has similar themes; a lot of my favorite stories dabble into these same themes, so I feel like I should’ve appreciated this story more. As much as I have gushed over the themes, symbolism, and technique, this story left me a bit cold when it came to actual interest in the characters or the story’s content. I found myself admiring the craftsmanship more than I enjoyed the actual story itself.
"Rahim" by A.M. Muffaz imitates those literary mainstream stories where nothing really happens, the characters mostly stand around admiring the poetically described view, and the whole purpose of the narrative is for the protagonist (if he really could be defined as such) to reflect on his life/current situation/a moving piece of landscape and undergo some undefined epiphany. Oscar Wilde dubbed these stories "Teacup Tragedies." In this case, it’s a teacup tragedy with ghosts. Rahim returns to his dead father’s house with his gay lover to clear it out for his mom. Various hints in the text imply a falling out between the father and Rahim over his sexuality, providing us with the only element resembling a conflict, though the author never states any of this explicitly. It is in these subtleties that the story almost becomes interesting.
At times the writing can be downright beautiful. At other times, an excessive amount of purple prose plagues the narrative:
"The mangoes hung like burning lanterns well above the reach of the earthbound, and were beyond their appetites in any case."
"Bougainvilleas grew over the garden paths like wild plumes of flame, partitioning the space between the trees with claustrophobic zeal."
"The two bathrooms coughed up cockroaches from every grate."
Muffaz does a nice job at capturing a unique cultural voice. At first, I wondered why the author chose not to use the actual Arabic for phrases such as: "Peace be upon you" and "And upon you be the peace," but the answer becomes clear during the final scene in which the words take on a symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, these rare moments that caught my interest get bogged down by long-winded poetic descriptions that fail to add up to anything particularly meaningful.