Foreword | December 01, 2010

Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking describes the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, of cardiac arrest in their apartment in 2003.  Some time before her husband’s death, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, had been hospitalized for a mysterious case of pneumonia that had developed into septic shock.  Quintana was unconscious at the time of her father’s death and later, just before the publication of her mother’s book, died of pancreatitis.  With her usual close observation and detachment, Didion examines the bizarre states of mind that accompany life’s shocks, including behaviors that amount to temporary delusion and even insanity: speaking to people who aren’t there, the powerful emotional need to keep certain possessions and the magical thinking which assumes that performing particular actions can change reality. Didion gives unashamed and potent examples of how the most rational person can be made irrational when they are blindsided by such calamity.

Because much of the literature about this subject is by nature corrective-offering solutions easy answers and descriptions of “stages”-it is oddly refreshing and useful to see an author describe and fully recognize the derangement of grief and trauma. At least someone who is suffering such agony knows she isn’t the only crazy person out there.

In this issue, our authors face everything from a terminally sick child to being uprooted and living in an alien environment to abandonment by a spouse.  Dan Stolar’s story “Emma Won’t Get Better” describes how the unexpected tragedy of a child’s illness can undermine even a stable and happy family.  Jennie Lin’s “In the Quiet” is the tale of a girl who has been sent to live in China with an uncle who are farmers.  Her cousin ignores her, the uncle and aunt leave her untended most of the time while they work in the fields, and the grandmother is senile.  It is a story of being exiled in a place that seems almost in a different century, where nothing looks right or familiar. Karl Taro Greenfeld’s story “Even the Gargoyle is Frightened” is a first-person fictional narrative from the point of view of a young Japanese naval officer with high connections who has been assigned to do increasingly irrelevant work on an aircraft carrier, including investigating the murder of a pilot who failed in his assignment to fulfill a suicide mission.  This leads the young officer to even darker discoveries in the demented world of total war.

In Carol Ghiglieri’s ironically light-toned “Fergus,” her protagonist, Jackie, seems to be undergoing a terrible time, at least on the surface.  Her husband precipitously gave up his dental practice and disappeared on an extended sailing voyage.  Jackie adopts a dog that is anything but a perfect companion, yet she finds herself able to cope surprisingly well, particularly when you-know-who comes slinking back in the door.  Adam Krause’s wonderful “Gandhi is Dead” is another first-person story with a tone of muted irony. Protagonist Sampuran runs a slum tourism business in New Delhi, exploiting both altruistic tourists who want to help in the developing world and the people of the slums, from whom he receives large kickbacks.  Yet he defends himself as someone who at least has some positive influence, providing infrastructure and facilities that improves lives in the neighborhood.

Danielle Ofri’s essay “Unstrung” describes her experience as an ER doctor dealing with a patient who has apparently experienced a psychotic break.  The woman is a middle-aged Polish janitor who has up to now led a seemingly normal life.  In the ER she violently resists all drugs to sedate her and continues to fight and scream and threaten the doctors and nurses trying to administer her tests.   It is a story about puzzling through a diagnosis made all the more difficult by sheer physical desperation and about how the mind can suddenly snap without warning or apparent reason.  In his essay “I’m OK, You’re OK,” Danielle Mueller recalls hitchhiking as a young man to Alaska, under the illusion that he is going to make a small fortune during the fishing season.  He is picked up en route by a man who works as a clown at children’s parties, and while the young Mueller is seemingly oblivious to it, the reader senses the ominousness of the situation.  It’s an essay both about the blessing of youthful naïveté and, paradoxically, the potential danger of it, as a seemingly harmless person may out of the blue become something else.

In his interview with Polly Rosenwaike, writer Michael Byers talks about his recent novel Percival’s Planet.  Byers is a former Missouri Review Editors’ Prize winner, whom we are happy to have published four times over the years.  His story collection The Coast of Good Intentions was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and both it and his first novel, Long for this World, were New York Times Notable Books.  His new novel is set during the Depression and moves between the tales of Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas kid who became famous for his discovery of Pluto, and the Harvard astronomers who preceded him at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, as well as a couple of connecting stories, including one occurring at an archaeological dig for dinosaur bones.  As in his other writing, Byers in his new novel makes intimate and interesting observations about human creativity, obsessive pursuit and selflessness, as well as about some of our less attractive traits.

Tarfia Faizullah’s poems are profoundly visceral, with their central image being the body and its response to different scenarios.  “Reading Tranströmer in Bangladesh” is an elegy to her grandmother as well as a narrative about the sudden death of a young boy.  Its final line is a central theme in all of her work: “There are so many bodies inside this clumsy one.”  Faizullah evokes the disorienting transitions between countries, languages, and between the past and the present.   Many of Brian Brodeur’s poems are also narratives of extremity.  The widower in “He Asks the New Owner to Look After his Trees” is still in shock after losing his wife and is embarrassed that people will think he is “tapped.”  Another of them is a brutal narrative recalling the rape of a Tutsi woman, about how she cannot convince her rescuers of the violence she has lived through; “Kandahar” is an elegy for a returning soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who tries to come to terms with the loss of a brother. Maria Hummel’s group of poems concern a son who is “beautiful and ill.”  They are frank looks at the vulnerability and pain that are involved in parenthood.

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