Expectations: Satisfied Real Hard
Review of The Strip, Volume 1 by D. Tupper McKnight
Let’s talk about expectations, because that’s what you get when you found a new literary magazine: a shit ton of reader expectations. To keep readers, those expectations need to be satisfied; satisfied real hard. We live in a world of I’ll-give-this-a-shot-only-because-I’ve-clicked-through-everything-on-my-favorite-websites-twice-and-I’m-still-bored-slash-procrastinating-at-work. In this world, you better be real clear about what you’re trying to do and you better deliver. Something new is only a click away.
So what sort of expectations does The Strip deal in? The editors promise to promote “writing that doesn’t have to be anything in particular.” This doesn’t exactly sound encouraging, but in literary world that too frequently pigeon-holes authors, it’s a bold editorial move to let an author’s work breathe. Then, there’s the editors’ decision to let everyone know their selection process is totally subjective. Sure, we all know editors prefer certain writing styles; as humans (allegedly), editors are influenced subconsciously and consciously by everything — the place they grew up in that they’re trying to escape or by the dry-ass bagel they ate for breakfast. This isn’t a great big revelation, but it’s nice to have a magazine start with transparency instead of bullshit. This sort of transparency sets up expectations that the magazine just might be as a straight-shooting as the editors.
(To straight-shoot myself, as a reader, I’m partial to “Sometimes a Great Notion,” all of Salter, some of Steinbeck, and you’d be hard pressed to convince me that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” isn’t the best American book, ever. I realize this makes my tastes sound real white and real male, but now you know what I like; that’s the point, transparent confessions of subjectivity let readers know what to anticipate.)
So a reader of The Strip gets some honest transparency from the editors. Add a couple dashes of irreverent writing and a magazine name indebted to Hunter S. Thompson and his “decadent and depraved” city, and you have some sense of what the magazine is working towards. As the editors say, they like works that are “funny, sincere, and kind of fucked up.” Which sounds like a winning combination, if the editors actually deliver.
The Strip’s bookend pieces, “The Live-Action Role Playing Convention is Decadent and Depraved” by Parke Cooper and “Tuesday” by Christian Winn, deliver.
In “The Live-Action Role Playing Convention is Decadent and Depraved,” Parke Cooper introduces us to Live-Action Role Playing, “LARPing” in the jargon of the gaming world. As the narrator explains, a LARP “is something of a dangerous hybrid between acts of artistic expression such as Improvisational Theater and pen-and-paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.” (Confession: in my glorious youth, I spent whole nights on D&D quests in my friends basements; we rolled a lot of dice and ate a lot of Cheetos mixed with Mountain Dew, it was pretty great.) Like D&D, a LARP Game Master (“G.M.”) provides character descriptions and oversees a general plot outline. The players fill in the rest. Unlike D&D, in a LARP, the players become their characters and act in real time. If it’s a World War II scenario, that means you’d see people walking around dressed like Nazis. Real charming. In the story, the narrator and his friends Andrew and James aren’t just regular LARPers, they’re meta-gamers. Meta-gamers try to game the game, or as the narrator says, “we wanted to derail The Plot . . . and the G.M. would get a face full of hilarious banana crème pie, metaphorically speaking.”
The idea of gamers gaming the game works on a technical and philosophical level. Technically, it provides the writer with an outside voice of analysis. As a meta-gamer, the narrator is able to step back and analyze the game as a whole instead of completing abandoning himself to the LARP. This distance allows the narrator to wax philosophical about reality in LARPs: “When I laugh at LARPS, I sometimes wonder if I’m the oppressor.” While thoughts like this could veer into half-baked dorm room philosophizing, the solid, often hilarious, voice keeps the story on track. This voice, like the title of the piece, pays homage to Hunter S. Thompson; Cooper clearly has a good sense of the rhythm and language of Thompson’s prose. But it’s the moments when the prose diverges from Thompson’s style that really stand out. I’ve always believed a writer’s real voice can be found in the diversions he takes from the main story. Here, Cooper finds the time to slow down and detour from his gonzo pace into some lovely lyricism when he considers Neil Armstrong LARPing on the moon. It’s only tangentially connected to the story’s theme, but that’s ok. This kind of moment comes when an author can write something “that doesn’t have to be anything in particular” and The Strip has done well to start off with Cooper’s story.
The final story, “Tuesday” by Christian Winn also stands out because of the strong voice. Unlike Cooper’s work, the pace of the prose in “Tuesday” is easy, with a halting rhythm. After a night of too much bourbon, Lyla and Carlton wake up together. It’s their first night together, but the nights they’ve spent hanging out in a local bar have been building up to this. Carlton, the narrator, is just happy to be with someone. Lyla is removed, upset by a picture in the newspaper of an elk herd frozen to death in the local reservoir. Their morning conversations starts off in fits and starts. They have some coffee, drive to meet Lyla’s brother, head up the reservoir to see the dead elk. But this wandering pace is just technical acumen from Winn. By the end, it’s clear Winn has been easing the reader in slowly, like Lyla and Carlton’s romance has eased in at a leisurely pace. And Winn’s pace earns the “odd open-ended joy” that Carlton feels holding Lyla and observing the dead elk. This is the sort of sincere resolution that I hope for as a reader.
The rest of The Strip’s first issue doesn’t work out quite as well as the first and last stories. The other pieces have flashes of sincerity. Jane Edwards’s piece, “A Story I’ve Told Before,” nails the tired, blasé teen voice suggested by the title. The work “Translated: All is Wisdom” paints a wonderful picture with odd and lyrical phrasing like “out the nettle.” And the poem “Better to Drown in the West” by Michael Price, upends a classic structure with sincere and cleansing cynicism in the last stanza. Some of the works in the issue are funny to good effect; “Whyfe” by Melissa Gutierrez uses black humor to examine a gold-digging wife. And some of the pieces are fucked up, in a good way. “Ratstar” by Jane Edwards builds a hypnotic and circular world with stanzas constructed of palindromic lines. Likewise, “The Other Cummings” by Stephen Ramey, the excerpt “From: Of Sondry Folk” by Bruce Robinson, and “Spoken Bolt” by Marius Surleac work through raw emotions in their verse. These works are solid, but these works don’t nail that magic amalgam of “funny, sincere, and kind of fucked up” that The Strip’s editors found in the works by Cooper and Winn.
But that’s to be expected in a first issue of a new literary magazine. Expectations in literature aren’t about total success; even Ty Cobb failed in sixty percent of his at-bats. The real victory for The Strip is setting up some editorial targets and nailing those with Cooper and Winn’s works in the first issue. And that’s the good thing about expectations, once you get a little taste of being satisfied, you’re happy to come back for more.
Egoists’ Note: D. Tupper McKnight responded to an open call for readers for Volume 2. Everyone who responded to the call was asked to make an honest review of Volume 1 to be considered as a reader.