Full Unit Hookup, #3, Spring 2003

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"Waiting for Jenny Rex" by Melissa Yuan-Innes
"Dear Reader" by Stephen D. Rogers
"The Medusa Dishroom" by Eric Gardner
"Tidal Pools" by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
"Lights in the Evening Sky Like the Promise of Heaven" by Jay Lake

ImageOn the other side of the colon from Full Unit Hookup is "A Magazine of Exceptional Literature." While none of the stories in this issue hit me with retina-ripping power (and a couple of them might have benefited from a notch or two of prose-tightening) I liked them all, two in particular. A couple of them riff on familiar tropes, but the riffage itself is unpredictable and entertaining.

The opening story, Melissa Yuan-Innes' "Waiting for Jenny Rex" kicks off with a nifty idea, a young woman who had died of anorexia nervosa coming back from the dead to talk about the terrible effects of anorexia to the world. She appears in the newsroom of the "Ottawa Citizen", introduces herself as Jenny Reed, and offers her story to the journalists. A doctor comes to check her out; meanwhile the first person protagonist, Josh, asks her questions.

Yuan-Innes does a nice job of describing what a walking corpse would probably look like, but the verisimilitude of her detail just emphasizes how she coyly avoids what a walking corpse might smell like. Especially as Josh comments on Jenny's "flashing eyes" and "radiant smile", preparatory to asking her out for a date. Is she Euuw, or is he?

A couple more zombies show up, each with a cause as Josh and Jenny play touch and go with their relationship. Big questions arise all around the perimeter of the briskly told story but remain there while the narrative focuses in on Jenny and Josh's possible romance. I must admit to disappointment: Jenny and Josh were less interesting than the problem between them, leaving my desire for exploration of the raised questions such as why?, and what next?

"Dear Reader," by Stephen D. Rogers, seems on first reading to be an expedition into Pirandello territory. The unnamed protagonist certainly feels his life has been stolen, as did the six characters–but instead of invading someone else's book, he tries to capture the author who stole his life by writing the author into a scene. The story is quite short, tight, and not easily quantified. The key to my own interpretation of it was the use, or the distortion, of time. This distortion ramifies outward, causing me to see at least three possible explanations for what is happening. One of my favorites.

Next up was my second avorite, Eric Gardner's "The Medusa Dishroom." The kid in me is always going to respond instantly to "They have conquered Earth" stories. Here we see a familiar idea from a rare perspective–the dish washing room at the back of an unseen eatery where, apparently, the alien conquerors love to gobble pretty much non-stop and watch TV. So, "while some folks were damned to TV and to forever stocking the food pantry, most of Earth became one giant food service."

The hapless protagonist has been tested and placed in the dish room in a place called Medusa, famous for hairnet manufacture. (The gobbling aliens are also extremely fastidious, thus just about all humans have to wear hairnets.) He has his eye on a woman whom he calls Velma; meanwhile he's shifted to sorting linen napkins. In one he finds a note saying "Tear a napkin; join the Revolution." He eats the note, but gets others. Finally one day he tears a few threads from a napkin, hoping that would be sufficient; later he figures the notes had actually been meant for Velma. He and Velma end up partners in lower and lower positions, until they are placed in a nasty crawlspace where the big conveyer belts live, carrying unending loads of dirty dishes; their job is to break the belt . . .

It's a highly entertaining story, told from a perspective that makes the ending impossible to guess. We've been seeing conquering aliens for a century, but never from the dish room. The tone is wise-cracking and the prose mostly vivid, except for the rare retread like "a hint of a smile crossed her face" — one of those notches I mentioned up above.

Another notch: the beginning of "Tidal Pools," by Jennifer Rachel Baumer, when in the very first paragraph we encounter the verb "was" four times. But once the story draws the reader farther in, the prose–and the pace, and the stakes–sharpen intensely. A man named Dan stands moodily on the beach, staring into the water and fighting the pain of a divorce he doesn't want, while his son plays around behind, until he spots a floating form–a shark. Of course a small boy would be delighted by the prospect of a shark. The problem is that the shark is dead.

Dan tries to remove his son, but his mother-in-law, Stella, who is mandated by custody-negotiation to be with the son for this visit, insists that the shark is not dead. Or rather, that its life ended before its time, and it could yet live. Dan really cares for his mother in law, despite her well-meant and hopeful New Age rituals, but his life has proved that such rituals have no meaning–no effect.

This is the only story in the line-up that is not told in first person. The point-of-view is omniscient, and I found the story of particular interest because here, so very clearly, one sees just how point-of-view can radically alter perspective. If it's Stella's story, it is one of faith and quiet triumph; if Dan's, one of possible paradigm shift, but what about the third person in the triangle, whose motive, and perspective, are not represented? Would the implied ending be one of horror?

Last up is Jay Lake's short-short, "Lights in the Evening Sky Like the Promise of Heaven"–a title almost as long as the story.

We begin in medias res, with the protagonist strapped down and in agony for water, while a voice from the ceiling promises "Soon." In short order we discover that the protagonist is pretending to be more weak than is true; that Earth had seen lights in the sky and gathered for the expected alien encounter, and here is the crux in one of those patented Jay Lake breathtaking phrases:

"And lo, the lights they shone in the evening sky like the promise of heaven. In the end, as always, we should have looked into our own hearts first."

With exquisite prose and FTL-speed pacing Lake launches us to the end, and out into the freefall of surprise. A very tight story, perhaps too tight for the complexities touched on so briefly, for the ideas that flicker by with such speed. But well written, unpredictable, and withal a satisfying ending to the zine.