Since all month Dan Wickett and countless guests over at EWN, an ongoing tribute in the mind of Short Story Month, I figured I'd join in on my own and look at a story from one of my favorite online yearly presences, the finalists of $5 Diagram's Innovative Fiction Contest. I felt really honored last year to be included among an amazing slew of work, among them Amelia Gray's 'There Will Be Sense,' and the story I want to talk about now, Mark Leidner's ridiculously cool 'SNOW'.
The thing I've come to admire so much about Mark Leidner's writing of late is how he is able to work ideas and thoughts that on their face seem casual, even funny, into these paragraphs that, once delivered, continue to hang, having said something in a new way that not only makes the familiar strange again (which David Foster Wallace once said seemed the duty of most postmodern fiction), but to take a situation that is based in the real, possible, but also impossible, but also totally, supposedly, 'human.' (Whatever human is).
What does that mean, that I just said? Here's a paragraph from Leidner's 'Snow,' which is on its face simply a story about a man and a woman who hang out while there is snow (the saying of which reminds me of another great thing about Leidner's work: there is no way to 'encapsulate' it beyond its own body, because the speech and the ideas are the real magic, and so any attempt of saying 'oh well here's what happened' becomes immediately dashed. He's irreducible, which is another way of saying: his sentences, like Donald Barthelme's and Ken Sparling's exist for a reason.):
"The sun was low above the snow, and through the dim light the man saw movement. He plotted it from left to right, walking a circle around it. He watched it shrink into a dot when it withdrew into the background, and when it moved into the foreground, grow, into a woman. Hey! he shouted, Where are you going? The shape that was the woman slowed, changed direction, and started moving through the snow toward him. She wore so many layers of clothing, she seemed to be round, rolling. When she came to a stop she pulled a long pink scarf from around her neck, and asked him, What? He watched the snowflakes settling on her nose, melting. Where are you going? the man repeated. The woman pointed back the way she came and said, In. She turned around and started walking, adding over her shoulder, I'm getting out of the snow. He watched her shrink until she disappeared, rewinding the long pink scarf back around herself like a slow pink tornado."
Haha, what? What the fuck even just happened there? The sentences are all very clear, basic even, but what are these people doing? What are they made of? And yet, despite this strange manner of handling, this brief scene so possessed of its own logic that it seems to make no sense (like the true everyday, the true 'human') I understand exactly.
Leidner is amazing for these kinds of scenes, these logics delivered almost as if from the eyes and understanding of a very smart child, but without the inherent 'boy genius' way of speaking that comes with so many of those 'smart child' narrators.
Another thing I love about Leidner's work, and in particular here, is the way these scenes, strung one after another in a way that sustains itself, and owes no debt exactly to what comes before or after, still manage to work together in their aura, an anti-narrative narrative, that at no point attempt to have some greater truth or overpowering moment, because those moments are inherrent, and throughout, leaving no time or line wasted...
Which makes the reading fun!!!!! FUN!!!! An all too undervalued commodity in writing, I think, for the page to be so electric from one end to the other that the reader not only gets enrichment from the consumption, but has a good-ass time doing it, is entertained, but not in sacrificing any of the artifice or the language power (in fact, enhancing it!).
Here is voice without 'voice,' story without 'story,' a sense of aura without getting it stuffed down your throat, all in a package that feels both new in the telling and wakes a hunger for more.
Hell yes, Mark Leidner.
The range of delivery within all of this, in Leidner's hands, becomes even more compelling, in that from one graph to another, the tone can change as quickly as the ideas, and yet completely without feeling forced or 'authorial.'
Perhaps some of the moments that work the most beautifully are the subtle ones, such as this short scene, which again on its face seems so simple, but captures a manner of betweenness that is so rarely rendered in short fiction:
"The woman couldn't sleep, so the man hummed her a lullaby. He stared intently at the back of her head while he hummed, imagining her eyes on the other side, staring intently at nothing. When the lullaby was finished the woman asked, Do you know who wrote that? The man did not even try to think of an answer. After a moment of silence had passed between them, the woman rolled over and got in his face. Brahms, she said."
At the same time, too, Leidner is no soft duck: he can take it right back to the throat, again with grace:
"Dog Cull in China, the man read the headline aloud. The woman looked up from her oatmeal. Rabies kills three, one a girl of four. He scanned the article further then continued. Mouding County officials kill fifty thousand dogs over a period of five days, sparing only police and military dogs. Dogs being walked are taken from their owners and clubbed on the spot. After nightfall teams enter the towns, creating noise to make the dogs bark. Then the teams hone in on the sounds and beat the dogs to death. Before the teams go in, owners are offered sixty-three cents per animal to kill their own. With the aim of keeping the disease from people, we kill the dogs, say spokesmen. Outside it was snowing."
Here the violence is so smartly used, and in an encased way, putting the mode of violence on the page not for its own sake, or even for a directly applied purpose, but a story within a story, an idea.
IDEAS! Mark Leidner has ideas. And whereas so many other fictions make it their job to let you know their ideas right up front ("...here is my first sentence, slightly odd in tone and maybe funny, which in its consumption will lay bare the 'idea' that I had for writing this story (psss.... its a story about a guy with a stuttering problem who one day wakes up with an ear made of pickles!) ...") No no, no unnecessary finagling or forced fireworks from Mr. Leidner: the magic is of its own. Thank god. A fresh and new and FUN! manner of languaging and skewed storytelling that makes me glad to have my eyes. Booyah.