Free Reading

Three stories from the Eyeshot archives

by Robin Graham

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Years of sitting bored in classrooms and cubicles browsing web-based lit publications has mainly taught me one thing: the sheer amount of online fiction that exists vastly outweighs what even the most dedicated reader could ever hope to accomplish reading. Trust me, there’s a lot of it. It can be pretty daunting sometimes.

Even just among “trusted” lit sites like Ubu, Granta and The New Yorker lies an immense resource bed of free, attention-worthy fiction. But of course more content means more garbage, and if you’re not careful where you direct your attention, you may end up wasting your valuable browsing time on something pretty sucky.

One site that has consistently drawn me into its readership over the past few years is Eyeshot.net, or, Eyeshot's Hindenburg Complex of Infidels & Crusaders. For what it’s worth, it is a site I think you should visit. Eyeshot is a weird little “semi-literary” website that intermittently publishes stories, essays, and the occasional interview. According to their history page, it was started in August 1999 by “some reader/writer dude in his mid-to-late 20s” publishing his own stories under various pseudonyms. However, submissions started rolling in and readership steadily expanded. The site became wildly successful (by lit-mag standards) in the early aughts upon publication of a few very strange pieces, including an interview with an autofellator and a piece about American writers and their hair. Throughout the following years, Eyeshot developed its own particular brand of wordy and offbeat, irony-tinged fiction. In a way, it’s kind of like McSweeney's wacky, Internet-savvy younger brother.

Eyeshot's ‘About Us’ page opens with a quote from Vince Passaro: “With the Internet comes the possibility of such an inexpensive distribution system of large blocks of language that writing essentially will become volunteer work, and similarly oriented toward triage for victims of our culture.” This view is pretty idealistic of course, but I think it sums up much about what Eyeshot is all about. Instead of making a fuss about the illiteracy of Internet culture or clinging to print media like a captain to his ship, the Eyeshot editors spend their free time forging their own space within the web-based fiction community.

What they offer is free, universally accessible entertainment, solely in exchange for serious readership. And I know they’re far from perfect. Most of it is pretty amateurish actually (albeit admirably so). But what gets me is the thanklessness of their task. Since most of the writers featured on the site will probably never see money or recognition, the content seems motivated simply by the desire to do good work. You could even say their task is kind of heroic, or, at the very least, honorable.

While I could go on for ages about all the stories I’ve enjoyed, I decided to pick the first three that came to mind and let them speak for themselves. Instead of blurbing or summarizing each one, I’ve included a sample sentence to give you an idea of what you’re getting into. If you like any of these, take some time and peruse the archives. Even though Eyeshot is just one small corner of what the Internet has to offer, it’s worth your time.

---

"Meat From a Meat Man" by Lindsay Hunter

Hand me over some raw fish or alligator tail or turkey necks and I’ll hang them from these tits like the tassels your mama had nightmares about.

"Variations on a Party" by Charles Ullman

Why didn’t I bring drugs? Why haven’t I been eating enough fiber?

"The Apartment That Jack Rents" by Jennifer Amey

This is the seething resentment caused by Jack’s complete lack of fulfillment caused by the meaninglessness of his work.

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Free Reading

Three stories by Donald Barthelme

by Robin Graham

The best description of Donald Barthelme’s fiction I’ve ever heard is that it’s a lot like The Minutemen. The first time I heard this comparison it seemed totally inappropriate, as cross-medium cultural diagnosis often does, but the more I thought about it the more suitable it seemed. His stories are short. They embrace a baffling multitude of styles, sneer in the face of audience expectation, and are somehow unexplainably funny. They are wild and erratic, inventive and disorienting, hilarious and heartbreaking. Over the course of his career, he published well over one hundred stories and by the late ’70s he had already changed pretty much everyone’s idea of what a short story could do.

To some, he may come across as a typical postmodernist — slapping together ‘found sentences’ from an array of both high- and low-brow sources, gathering together odds and ends, calling it pastiche. But in fact his stories are carefully crafted, even meticulously so. For all their crazy and irreverent content, Barthelme maintains a sense of consistency. Nothing ever bends so far it breaks. His stories, while based on absurd premises, follow their own logic. The magic happens when he transforms the absurd into something genuine. The writer Donald Antrim put it the best when he said, “Barthelme is a good example of a writer whose wild impulses register with some reality.”

To me, Barthelme represents the sheer fun fiction offers. He was a writer who truly enjoyed his work, and his stories reflect that. Every word resonates with the unbridled excitement of a child at play. Not that Barthelme isn’t a serious writer. His work demands every bit of respect as his contemporaries, but much like Pynchon’s rapacious adenoid, Barth’s goat-boy, or the outrageous fantasies of Kilgore Trout, Barthelme’s fictions seem like they were as much fun to write as they are to read.

Here are three choice cuts of online Barthelmismo:

“Game”

Originally published in the 1968 story collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, “Game” is the story of two military-enlisted men trapped in an underground bunker slowly going insane. This is probably my favorite Barthelme story.

“Departures”

Buried in the middle of Forty Stories and unpublished elsewhere, this story is terribly overlooked. In fact, I hadn’t actually read it until I was doing some research for this piece. It’s hard to say exactly what “Departures” is about. It really pushes nonlinearity to its extreme. Images unfold out of each other in a surreal, dreamy kind of way. It’s simultaneously funny and creepy, kind of like when The Simpsons gets dark.

“The Glass Mountain”

This is an interesting formally experimental piece in which the story is broken down into numbered fragments. Originally published in the 1970 story collection City Life, “The Glass Mountain” is a metafictional fantasy that uses a classic Scandinavian folk tale to highlight certain things about absurdity, symbolism and authorship.

-- BONUS --

“I Bought a Little City” (AUDIO)

Donald Antrim reads “I Bought a Little City” for the New Yorker fiction podcast.

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Free Reading

A monthly guide to gratuit online literature

by Robin Graham

Jonathan Franzen - Photo courtesy of Greg Martin  (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) George Saunders - Photo courtesy of thefastertimes.com

VARIOUS PRELIMINARY REMARKS ON MY INTENTIONS FOR THIS ARTICLE // COLUMN

1.
I understand how uncomfortable reading online can be. There’s the eye strain. That distracting flicker of your monitor's backlight. The way our ability to cut and edit digital text makes everything seem so mutable or subject to revision. The eerie way that letters seem to float. The millions of other things you could be reading. How transient it all seems.

2.
And doubtless you've heard a lot of about the Internet's disintegration of modern attention spans. How people just don't read anymore or how we are witnessing the very death of the printed word. But you can relax; I'm not interested in reproaching you. In fact, I don't care at all how you spend your time online. I just see great communicative potential in the massive amounts of good literature that is available online for free (I'm not talking about stuff that is published online — although that is part of it — but more like the tried and true stuff that has been previously published elsewhere and has since been made available). And what I want is to share with you some of the stuff out there that for whatever reason I think is touching or interesting or profound. The really outstanding stuff that has made me appreciate the slow pleasures good fiction affords.

3.
But, if I'm going to recommend something, I like to be able to provide; to actually put in the hands of the recommendee the material in question. The Internet is just a free and accessible way of doing this. I don't like reading online ether. In fact, I believe a large part of the beauty of literature lies in its indelibility. However, I’m willing to forgo this conviction in the name of accessibility and community (I just recommend you print whatever off and read it as a hard copy).

4.
Keep in mind this merely reflects my own personal literary tastes and is by no means meant to be an objective “best stories ever” list or anything like that.

5.
Comments are encouraged.

6.
I hope you like them.

(now,)

ON FINDING AN UNDERCURRENT OF TRAGEDY IN BARFED-UPON SNOW

1.
Good Neighbors by Jonathan Franzen can be found here.

2.
Good Neighbors is an excerpt from Franzen’s upcoming novel. It was originally published in last year’s summer fiction issue of the New Yorker. It is about a family trying to make things work in the heart of the gentrification of a rough neighborhood in premillennial St. Paul.

3.
This is one of the best short stories I’ve read recently. I’m not necessarily a Franzen Fan per say, but this piece really seems as if the author has hit his stride. It seems, I don't know, sturdier. It’s typical Franzen though, and anyone who has read The Corrections will be familiar with the way he inspires biting social criticism with an undercurrent of tragedy. The language and syntax are simple, but the story itself is deceivingly complex. The attention to detail is incredibly sharp. It’s amazing the way Franzen finds tragedy or madness in everyday American experience (“pushing a stroller past barfed-upon old snow”, “her children were ‘probably’ dying of trichinosis from pork she'd undercooked”, “if Carol was sometimes weird to her it was probably just to save her pride”). Good Neighbors, more than anything else published lately, seems to capture what it was like to be middle-class at the turn of the millennium.

(and,)

THE COMIC PSYCHOSIS OF GEORGE SAUNDERS

1.
Commcomm by George Saunders can be found here.

2.
Commcomm is about a man who lives with the ghosts of his parents. He works in a government office where secrets are being uncovered. It is a wildly surreal and comic account of American life. While it’s not quite a parody proper, it grimly teases certain western conventions about things like work, public relations and family. It was originally published in the New Yorker in 2005, but appeared later in Saunders’ story collection In Persuasion Nation.

3.
At first you won’t know what to make of this. But trust me, it’s worth seeing through to the end. I’ve been reading a lot of George Saunders lately, and this piece finds a perfect balance of everything I like about his work. It’s the ideal starting point for anyone who isn’t familiar. Saunder’s writing style is experimental but refined; he plays games with structure and language but without going off the deep-end of inaccessible avant-gardish circumlocution or cerebral metacommenting. It unfolds like a Lynchian dream sequence, revealing itself in visions and symbols that you have to kind of feel rather than understand. Enjoy.

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