Metagaming the Literary World
Review of The Strip, Volume 1 by Jonathan Levy
The three editors (self-titled: “Egoists”) of the new online literary journal, The Strip, have set out to make a bold splash in the status quo of literary magazines. Having begun The Strip out of frustration (“we think McSweeney’s is a big fat sellout”), the Egoists identify three areas that set the journal apart. First, the submission process is open and honest: submissions are online, free, and read blind (“If we don’t know you, we don’t care who you are. We only care about how you write.”) And every rejected submission will get at least one sentence of feedback justifying the rejection (tongue-in-cheek example: “I’d publish this, but if anyone is going to get published for writing about my exes, it’s me.”) Second, readers can choose to download a full volume for under $5 or any individual story, several from the whole, for $0.99. Third, the Egoists have instituted The Gamble, a process in which each contributor’s share of the profits increases depending on the number of downloads. And if the full issue hits 500 downloads, one randomly drawn purchaser also gets a cut.
As for content, say the Egoists: “We take work we fucking like.” Not sure what that is? Think “quick stories that get to the point” and “stories that knock us on our asses.” And don’t worry if you’re submission doesn’t fit into a box: “Genre divisions are stupid and for booksellers … We don’t give a shit if you want to call it a lyric prose flash short short or a novella in sestina form. We’re just going to call it writing.”
Familiar now with the Egoists’ attitude toward some lit mag practices and their promise to bring something new to the table, the question is: Do they?
In a word, yes.
The Egoists promise in the foreword to the inaugural Spring 2014 issue that it will be filled with “curse words and vagaries and also real honest feeling,” “decadence and depravity,” and “works that are funny, sincere, and kind of fucked up.” Volume 1 begins appropriately with its strongest piece and the best metaphor for what The Strip seeks to accomplish. Parke Cooper’s “The Live-Action Role Playing Convention is Decadent and Depraved” is a fun and unapologetic “memoir/essay/weirdo hybrid” (author’s words) about LARP trolls who “metagame” the pretend scenarios by acting on knowledge outside the scope of their LARP characters’ knowledge. But unlike trolls who seek to ruin others’ experience, the three main characters in “The LARP Convention” have a different goal: “[W]e try to avoid wrecking our fellow player’s fun at all costs. We do it to fuck with The Plot. We bully the game, the notion of the LARP itself.” As the story moves along, the idea of LARPing seeps into the characters’ whole lives, whether in terms of goofing off at work but pretending to be productive, wondering whether the moon landing is real, or just generally being unable to discern between truth and fiction.
It’s no accident that The Strip does not label its pieces as fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, etc. “The LARP Convention” reads like it must be a fiction at times, like an encyclopedia entry on LARPing at others, and it even breaks for a second-person “how to” section. That leaves the reader wondering what is real, with nothing to answer the question but the story itself. The Egoists promised honesty and they delivered. In the end it’s only the story that matters, not its genre and not the writer’s publication credits.
Many other entries in Volume 1 follow suit. In “A Story I’ve Told Before,” Jane Edwards tells a seemingly true story of just another drunken night out during college that goes from a silly recollection between friends to cold detachment. There is no emotion, no reflection, no moral–just the facts. But again, are they the facts? Is this in fact a story that the author has told before? “RATSTAR,” also by Edwards, is a circular piece that reads like it’s trying to discover its own identity, making the reader wonder what that identity is. In “Whyfe,” Melissa Gutierrez tells the story of a marriage made by lust and a lust for money. The most interesting aspect of the story is that it’s told from the perspective of an old grandfather ranting about his twenty-six year old spendthrift wife. One could say that the female author is LARPing as an old man. The text takes on an additional meaning when one notes that the author is also one of the Egoists/Editors. So when she writes, “Her smile was real, then, not frozen into place courtesy of Botox, which most twenty-six year olds don’t even need but which the cute plastic surgeon at The Bodyshop coaxed her into after a few drinks,” one wonders whether–intentionally or not–this parallels The Strip‘s vendetta against phoniness in the literary world. Another LARPing piece is Sheila McMullin’s “Translated: All Is Wisdom,” a prose-poem that is not actually a translation. But, just as in the act of translating itself, the piece forces the reader to spend time with the language: out of over 400 words, only 13 are more than two syllables, thus setting a deliberate pace. And in “The Other Cummings,” Stephen Ramey LARPs as E. E. Cummings’ first wife, declaring, “This is entirely true, without spin …” but appending, “The parts of this treatise that are not complete and total fact, are the portions I have invented.” Of course, the risk of metagaming is that only other gamers will appreciate it, and while this latter piece is fun and contemporary and interesting, it loses a bit of its luster for those who aren’t as familiar with E. E. Cummings’ work.
The other pieces in Volume 1 all deal in one way or another with striking out toward new territory and the fear that accompanies that. (The Strip‘s tagline: “Cross The Line.”) In fact, even the cover art represents The Strip‘s foray into unchartered literary lands. The foreground image, taken from the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign, states “Welcome to The Strip.” But rather than Las Vegas’ gaudy skyline behind it, there is only an empty desert road that disappears into the mountains. The image can be described just as the Egoists’ describe their journal: “irreverent, rough, and has a lot of room for improvement.” Michael Price’s “Better to Drown in the West” is also about crossing lines. In this case, the narrator encourages the sunrise to “Slip off the false promise” and the reader to “Go ahead and laugh when your feet / outpace the sand, your toes greet the ocean.” Bruce Robinson’s “From: Of Sondry Folk” tells of going to new places even without knowing where they will lead. Marius Surleac’s “spoken bolt” is a fast-paced piece that hurtles the reader through fear straight towards its climax. And as a fitting last entry, Christian Winn’s “Tuesday” tells the story of two nightly bar acquaintances who cross the line by spending the night together, then spend the next day testing each other and sharing new experiences together.
I would encourage anyone to get to know The Strip. The journal is new and cool, and offers some great writing to boot. Individually, none of the pieces quite knocked me on my ass.1 But taken as a whole, Volume 1 proves that the Egoists know who they are and what they want. It’s well worth the low price to download the whole thing and learn what The Strip is all about.
1For a piece that will knock you on your ass, check out “12 Shoes for 12 Lovers,” a story/exhibition by designer Sebastian Errazuriz, reposted on The Strip‘s website. This is also, say the Egoists themselves, a great example of what The Strip seeks.
Egoists’ Note: Jonathan Levy 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.