This Week in Short Fiction

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Let’s talk about sentences. Let’s talk about how poets, when they let their lines run long to prose, can make sentences sing. And if we’re going to talk about those sentences, we must also talk about details. Details, details, and more details.

It all started on waking Thursday morning and reading David Ebenbach’s “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy,” which is up over at AGNI Online. The title and several sentences in the 969-word piece seem to indicate that to be the “crazy one” in a family, a community, or a relationship, is a desired position. The person making the address in this story seems almost envious of the free and unexplained histrionics and oddities afforded to the mentally unstable. In this way, the story imbues a certain power to the mentally ill. Falling always outside the restrictions of the norm becomes a currency of freedom.

But we’ve gotten away from the sentences. Have a look for yourself:

Your parents could be crazy if they had half a chance. Oh, how your mother wants to check everything a thousand times—the doorknobs, the shoelaces, even the electric stove. She wants to stand at the window and tap the frame, tap the frame, tap the glass, tap the frame. And your father wants to dig a hole in the center of the bed and bury himself alive in it, up to his neck. He wants to be unable to move. In the exhausted night the two of them hold hands and stare straight up and imagine retiring into crazy, the way some people buy houses in the woods or at the beach. But your parents lose all hope of their own special insanity whenever you open your wild eye.

Or here, with that poetic eye for details, Ebenbach writes:

Lovers enter your life and forget how they used to crash through their own. Their wilderness clearcuts itself. And whatever hair they’ve torn from their heads has to go back because it’s got to be soothing to look at them, and you need their hands free. There’s talk about being there for one another, but what window would they howl from? Under what moon that’s not already in use?

It’s a quick read, the way these sentences drive. But it’s a drive on a winding road on steep hills, and you’ll want to slow down and look over their edges. You may also want to have a look back at Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water,” which remains one of the most raw and true depictions of a mentally ill sibling and the strain of such illness on families since its first publication in 1993. You can see a reprinting of Bloom’s story over at Beyond the Couch: The Online Journal for the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work.

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It seems fitting somehow that M.H. Abrams, the editor of the first edition of the ambitious 1700+-page Norton Anthology of English Literature (1962), would live a life that spanned at least a century. But earlier this week, Abrams’s 102-year-long life came to an end.

Probably Abrams is best known for his work at reviving interest in the Romantic poets, such as Keats, Shelley, and Byron, after T.S. Eliot had effectively shut them down as “disorderly” and perhaps too emotional. But Abrams’s approach to the Norton Anthology also generated a larger movement that echoed out to studies of stories and other works in response to the purely text-based approach of the New Critics. As Huff Post Books reports, Abrams and his colleagues at Norton “believed that to understand literature you had to understand its place in history and culture.”


Jill Schepmann's stories have been read on NPR and have appeared in Parcel and Midwestern Gothic, among others. She worked as a fiction and nonfiction editor at Nashville Review while getting her MFA at Vanderbilt. She lives in San Francisco and tweets @jillypants. More from this author →