|Art by Sam Schechter|
"This Is for You" by Bruce McAllister (1260 words)
This is a rather creepy story, actually, and one that builds slowly and with purpose to its turn, to its moment of reveal. At first blush it might seem like a story about a boy with a crush on a girl. And...well, in many ways that’s just what it is. It’s a story where the young-ish protagonist doesn’t know how to approach a girl that he wants and so he paints her a picture. Only things aren’t quite what they seem and what could be seen as a mostly-innocent moment is really anything but. [SPOILERS] And okay, most of the complexity of the story here comes from the reveal, from the turn, where the main character shows that he’s not courting this girl exactly but seeking to possess her by capturing her physically. And...well, that’s where a lot of the discomfort of the piece comes from, from examining just how much this voice of this boy seeking a girl exists in the popular unconscious as innocent, as not inherently harmful, and yet for boys it’s so often taught that this does mean love, that this is how you go about things. You don’t want to be rejected, and so you find ways around that, here by taking away the girl’s ability to consent. This is a rape, a kidnapping, and yet for the boy it seems natural and that for him this is just him expressing himself and finding himself the terror this implies is huge. I do think that it gets at this deep perception that awkward boys are harmless, that they are victims somehow. Certainly the main character thinks of it that way, that he needs to take action to overcome this great tragedy that is his shyness. And yet no, fuck that, this guy is a kidnapper, a murderer, who deceives women and leans on their having accepted this script of “boy does nice thing for you, you owe them something” to get them to a place where he can own them. It’s very uncomfortable and concise in the way it addresses this. I’m not sure it does quite enough to really sell how it’s complicating what the main character does for me personally, but it’s certainly a little punch of a story that is worth checking out.
"The Heart's Cartography" by Susan Jane Bigelow (5107 words)
This is a sweet story about friendship and time travel. In it, Jade is a young transwoman who spends most of her time in the woods, to escape the discomfort of her peers and the disappointment of her father. It’s a situation that’s not incredibly violent—Jade doesn’t live under the constant and specific threat of violence—but the world is still not really accepting of her. There’s change, but especially where she lives there is a sense of isolation which she deals with by embracing the natural world and really enjoying the woods around her house. When a strange family moves in nearby, though, some of her isolation is broken when she meets and befriends Sally, a girl her age. Of course, that Sally and her family are time travelers makes for a slight wrinkle in things. But, really, Sally being a time traveler is handled with a light touch, Jade quite used to living in a situation where passing completely isn’t really possible. So her and Sally strike up a friendship, finding in each other just the compassion and hope that they’d been looking for. And I love this central relationship in the story, the way the girls affirm and support each other and the way that they are both outcasts in many ways but are able to bond and find comfort in their friendship. That their relationship must end is part of how I see the story looking at change, how Jade finds this comfort only to have it taken away. The future here is implied to be better, to get better (in some ways at least) and yet the road to that future isn’t entirely positive. Especially now, when the course of history seems at a tipping point, when so much progress might be erased, to hope that things can get better again is important, and I feel that the story does a great job of that, of holding to this hope in the moments of joy and understanding amidst a situation that is not certain. That it can give hope and that hope can then help to make a better future happen. A sort of self-fulfilling-prophecy of hope and resistance. It’s a beautiful story, and you should definitely give it a read!
"James, In the Golden Sunlight of the Hereafter" by Adam-Troy Castro (6380 words)
Ah, and then we come to the story that I’m not sure I can review. Probably just skip this review and read the story for yourself. There are [SPOILERS] all over. It’s not a pretty story, and is about a man who reaches heaven only to learn that the criteria for entry is unknowable and only through some random chance was he able to get in, but that no one else that he knows, not the family that died horribly with him in a car accident, are in Heaven. They are all in Hell, being eternally tortured. The story, to me, deals a lot with privilege. James has it. He’s in Heaven. It’s good. Almost no one else does. Which...well, it makes for a dramatic case, an instance where we can all so clearly see the tyranny of the system, but...but fuck, why does it have to be James? Why does it have to be the man, the father? The story is all about his pain, his comfort, his conflict. Yes, the situation is set up so that he is the only person that can have agency, and even that is pressured at all times to give in to the unearned rewards of Heaven. But he’s brave and he’s tough and he’s a martyr and he refuses to stay blissfully ignorant in Heaven for too long. Maybe. He does stay a really, really long time. But no, then he wants to push back, to see what’s happening to his family in Hell. And the story does not flinch from revealing in intricate detail what’s happening to his family. At least to the women of his family. They are being tortured and the reader is treated to the vivid descriptions of it. So his wife and young daughter are being brutally tortured and we have to see. But his infant son is being tortured (even worse! we are assured, than anything the women face) and we are denied seeing it. It’s too much. And the story does this a fair amount, assures the reader that there are things that we don’t understand/can’t understand. It says “it’s like this but not, unknowably not” and I personally have a problem with that because I don’t find such descriptions helpful. They pretend at this vast complexity when it’s always pretty simple. Heaven is corrupt and arbitrary. It imagines no justice. But wait! There is the chance for James (poor, conflicted James who can no longer enjoy Heaven because of what’s happening to his family) to do something. Something! He can save one person as long as he spends nearly an eternity washing them clean of the taint of Hell in a sea of his own tears. He literally must use male tears to wash someone clean. But who? Just. Guess. Now, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this is all parody, that it’s just taking the idea of Heaven and twisting it, throwing in some Dante and calling it a day. But what I read is a confrontation of a male character with his privilege and his need to still be right, to still be good. It’s someone saying “why don’t you do anything with your goddamn privilege” and him answering “but I can’t! I’m just as much a prisoner, just as much a victim! See, my pain at knowng my privilege is its own Hell!” And while I appreciate that the story does have him do something, I don’t personally find it noble or just, what he’s doing. There’s no justice here. He is literally not angry at the angels for maintaining this system. He doesn’t try to break it down. Even if it’s “impossible,” he just accepts that’s true when he knows the angels have been keeping things from him the entire time. And I’m sorry, but this story has apparently provoked a reaction. Probably a success then, because it seems a story designed to do so. I guess I just expected it to be a subversive story, and I don’t find it to be so. It doesn’t question the system. It makes the system a given, impossible to displace. And I find that painful and disheartening.
"Octopus vs. Bear" by Kendra Fortmeyer (5240 words)
This story is a rather difficult one to follow up the last story because here again the piece is about a man finding himself in a situation he didn't really expect and then finding out slowly that the way that he's perceived the world hasn't exactly been correct. It's a story where a man wakes up in the body of a woman one day and in many ways seems to leap out of dude-discussions about what that might be like. The title is not about octopuses or bears, after all, but about toxic masculinity and misogyny and how these things flourish and prop each other up. There are plenty of men who would say, after all, that women have it so much easier than men because they don't get rejected as much, because they must have so much power over men. But this power, the main dude of the story soon learns, isn't actual power. Sure, he gets more attention in a woman's body, but any power that comes with that is quickly destroyed in the face of how people want to use him. How he has to change the way he talks, the way he acts. How just being means there being at fault for anything bad that would happen to him. And it's an uncomfortable story in part because most people can probably guess how this experience goes. Trigger warnings, okay? And here again, slightly like the last story, I understand the choice of casting this guy as the main character. There seems almost a certain kind of justice about what happens. However, the story never really deals with the fact that he's in someone else's body. [SPOILERS] An actual other person whose life he's fucked up. Whose body has now been raped to teach this guy a lesson. The ending does an interesting job of breaking from the implication that everything will just return to "normal" but he will be wiser, but it doesn't really face what's happened to the woman whose body he's in and how her fate is still rather important. Because while the guy having to deal with his mess might be seen as just, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that this woman will be happy becoming this sad dude just because he has more privilege. That, too, feels like a violation, but never one that the story circles back to. Still, it's a layered and dark story and your mileage might vary.