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Prose off: A new New Yorker story v. new Fleming story

Tuesday 2/13/24

As we like to say around these parts, there's nothing like a prose off, is there? Because nothing makes it plainer what is going on here than a prose off.


Let's return to The New Yorker this time, shall we? People enjoyed that earlier J. Robert Lennon/New Yorker prose off. Good stomping grounds.


This time we'll take a look at the beginning of "That Girl"--superlative title--by Addie Citchens, which--again, just to be thorough--you are supposed to believe, according to New Yorker fiction editors Deborah Treisman, David Wallace, Willing Davidson, and Cressida Leyshon, and of course, that model of substance and friend of fisters, David Remnick, is better than anything I've ever written in my life.


I like to make sure that we're clear about that each time we do one of these. Because I don't think you think that. And I don't think they think that. I don't think anyone could think it.


But that's how it works when we're dealing with blatant discrimination.


Ready? Here we go:


Underneath the huge, old, rusty awning, it was three shades darker and ten degrees cooler than in the street. Theo had been sitting on the porch rocker watching Shirlee go back and forth. It was strange to see a girl walking alone, but Shirlee was always out and about by herself. She always looked the same, too: once-upon-a-time-white canvas shoes, T-shirt tied above her belly button, jeans pulled up into her crotch. With one hand on her hip and the other shading her eyes, she stepped into the yard.


“Do a dude name Melvin stay on this street?”


The girl’s hair was scraped up into a short peacock, styled with gelled baby hairs and curlicues. Her lips shined like she had just eaten chicken. Theo wanted to bust out laughing, but she knew that would be the absolute wrong thing to do. Shirlee had stopped short of climbing the porch steps.


“I don’t know no Melvin.”


“Oh, he owe me some money,” Shirlee said, squinting at Theo’s lap. “I know it ain’t the summertime and you up there reading a book?”


Theo rolled her eyes and her neck. “S-so? And?”


“What’s it about?” Shirlee said, suddenly softening her voice.


“I just started.”


“Your mama and daddy in the house?”


“Nah, my big cousin.”


“Read me some.”


“R-r-read you some?”


“That’s what I said, didn’t it?”


“I can read good in my head but not out loud,” Theo said.


Shirlee clambered up onto the porch and dropped down beside her. “I don’t mind if you be stuttering. See, I’m the opposite—when I’m reading, it seem like my brain stutter—but I can count them dollars.”


“What grade you in?” Theo asked.


“Going to the ninth but supposed to be in the eleventh. Teacher at Treadwell act like she couldn’t give me one damn point, but I don’t want to talk about that. Read the story.”


What remarkable prose. No? You don't think it's remarkable? You weren't blown away by that? Are you sure you don't think that is definitely some of the best writing in the world?


Can't say I'm shocked that you feel that way, given that anyone alive who is not straight-up lying would say that they feel the same way. There's no mystery about how much it sucks. There's no, "Hmmm, I could be missing something."


Here's Citchens' bio, in which we learn that the theme of her work is "blackness and the performance thereof"--ah, got it; good thing you got that performance part in there, whatever that means--and that she's "a creative."


Imagine if I went around talking that way? Like if you came to this journal and there I was writing, "As a creative, I find it best to work early in the morning."


But I wouldn't, because I'm not a talentless poseur. "Colin Fleming performs being a mega-genius and genius things thereof." Yeah. I probably won't put that line up on the front page of this site.


And unlike the people at The New Yorker, I'm not a racist who makes decisions based on someone's skin color. I look at who they are, if it's out in life, and I look at what they do, if we're talking work.


The Paris Review hooked her up, too. Huh. Shocking.


So now you know all that she writes about, will ever write about, and why her work ran in those two venues, and also The Oxford American.


And the whole thing you just read rings hollow, doesn't it? No one walks up to anyone and just starts addressing stuttering and reading habits and sharing their academic record. It's like some canned speech, but it's not a character who does canned speeches. It's meant to be natural, and it's not natural. You can't fake things like that. All of these writers are so abysmal at voice. And always have to try to fake everything, because they are not working with anything. They have no talent. Not possessing any talent isn't conducive to the whole "I create great works of writing" thing. Nor is hardly working at it at all.


The summertime bit is just confusing. What is that supposed to mean? Wouldn't such a person be more apt to read in the non-summertime with school and homework? That's just incredibly basic common sense, right you brilliant fiction editors over at The New Yorker? Ah, but it wasn't anything about the story that was the reason you ran it, was it? It never is. Save that these stories all have to be mediocre at best, and suck much more commonly. The dialogue clangs. I'm not telling you anything you don't know after reading that. Fake fake fake fake fake. There is nothing real or of value here.


I like this part between the acts, to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf, don't you? Because we all know what's about to happen. Just as we know that the other entry we're going to see in this latest competition/revealing-of-how-these-people-operate-and-what-they're-really-up-to from this other person is going to be unique from work to work, across these various prose offs. I love a prose off.


Ready? Here we go. This is from something of mine called "Idra":


We cut Christ down from the cross and despite what you’ve heard, he was still a little bit alive.


Those who remained knew he wasn’t dead before he’d gotten to ground. The lids of his eyes would flutter and he’d cock his head as though he were listening to someone, but by then it almost doesn’t matter. Really the only part that’s interesting for most people on an occasion like that is when the nails are driven in by the man with the mallet.


The first nail gives the crowd its greatest thrill. No one spattered with blood ever seems to mind. Rather, they are regarded as worthy of envy, these wearers of a sanguineous souvenir. The careful observer will note how some lick flecked lips.  


Then the second nail creates a cry of the purest terror in the person it’s pierced like death itself has produced a sound indicating that even death may die. There’s nothing like it. We’re in a strange place with nail number two.


After that, nails are academic, you could say, because of whatever has overrun the body of the sufferer. Shock of the entire system, if that’s what it is. The big developments are over. Scarcely an utterance is heard as the third nail is hammered into the feet, and remember, that’s the biggest nail of all, given that we’re talking two body parts simultaneously, one on top of the other. There’s a lot of bone to be gotten through.  


Then you’re just waiting. Takes a long time—hours. Some scribe might try to conduct an interview, hoping that the person on the cross will have gleaned insight into the next world, as if they’re already in it, while still being able to speak to the people below should they wish to, but I wouldn’t want to share if I had the information, personally. It’d be something I had over everyone else and the possession of that knowledge would be what I focused on to see me through. Finish out my day that itself was finished before anyone else’s. Well, presumably. Someone in the crowd might die before I did. Their heart could possibly fail on the walk back home, having left early, while I was still hanging on the cross. I’m sure it’s happened.


But the plain truth is that most people won’t stick around until the technical end. I did, and so did my wife, who was pregnant with our first child, though she hadn’t started to show yet.


My wife is a small thing. Her parents must have suspected she’d be a tiny, fruitful creature, because they gave her the name of the fig tree, Idra. I married my wife for her beauty, but ultimately I loved her for her kindness. Where I was selfish, she was selfless, and in time I absorbed some of her goodness, though I have always understood that this goodness in me is because of her. To what I can lay claim within myself, I am uncertain, but the burden of this uncertainty is light.


A man we didn’t know pulled what remained of Christ’s hands and feet from the nails like so much shredded meat and cut the leather straps that bound his arms and legs to the cross, as I supported his weight and then hefted him to the ground. It’s permissible enough. People may like a good crucifixion, but no one likes the smell of rotting bodies.


You’re not vocal about things like this, but sure, I thought he’d been done an injustice and shouldn’t have been up there that day. Which isn’t to suggest I’m some radical at heart. You do have to go along to get along and anyone who tells you different lives a charmed life.


You might ask what I wanted to do for this man we had taken down from the cross to which he’d been nailed. I wished to kneel in the dirt alongside of him and merely be there as a living presence so that he did not die alone. That was my intention.


The soldiers were moving on to other soldierly concerns. They had put their backs to this affair such that you could not help but wonder what the bother was in the first place. Who would remember come tomorrow? Even now you might hear someone say, “A crucifixion isn’t what it used to be.” Then they continue, “Back in my day…” Cue the tales of how blood spurted right up to the sky and all but darkened the clouds.









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