-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan-
Had you the misfortune, lack of foresight or ignorance to miss either Issue 1 or 2 of Armchair/Shotgun, all is not lost: for the Brooklyn-based magazine has returned and has come up trumps again – surpassing the expectations laid down by the first two instalments, as this literary compendium continues to go from strength to strength.
An issue of Armchair/Shotgun is a gathering of bite-size literature, poems, visual art and authorial insight. The latest issue features four short stories, as many miniature clusters of poetry, a photo-essay, a collection of Steve Chellis paintings and an interview with writer Reif Larsen – a piece on which the issue, and the magazine at large, appears to hang its hat.
One of the magazine’s managing editors, John M Cusick, extracts some of the madness behind Larsen’s method, revealing some genuinely interesting thoughts about what authors have to go through in their lives and the lengths it can sometimes take in order to craft a story. Budding writers should take note, but Larsen also fits neatly with what Armchair/Shotgun are all about – and understanding why Cusick speaks to him is to understand the magazine’s philosophy.
Their dialogue delves into a number of concepts that are clearly important to the magazine: the relationship between content and form; the doors that post-modern art has opened for the traditional writer, the roles that marginalia and visual art have to play within the written form; and the importance of telling a story for storytelling’s sake. The penny drops, and suddenly the many components of Issue 3 fall into place – that the purity of story is at the heart of what this magazine stands for.
And they really commit to it. Fiction submissions are stripped of their signature and sender, and the strength of a candidate’s submission is based on the strength of their piece alone; the veil of anonymity is only lifted when the editors have settled on the issue’s content. Once the names behind the short-form prose were finally revealed, Issue 3 threw up a fascinating coincidence: the entirety of its contributors form an all-female cast.
Of those, J.E. Reich makes a stunning debut with ‘Days of Sound’. It tells the story of a British journalist whose quest to find out more about an Islamic terrorist – responsible for assassinating an American journalist live on the internet – whom he knew from his school days, takes him down the avenues of a North London upbringing. The assignment ends – in the story, at least – by telling us how this British reporter came to lose his hearing. The power of the human faculty is brought into focus, as the journalist tries to find something in his home environment – the same home in which he played chess with the future terrorist – to trigger a lead. In the years following his ‘days of sound’, we are not only left to wonder if his other senses will one day lead him to an answer, but feel sympathy for a man who is unable to fully communicate with the woman he loves.
The primary senses are also the thrust of Debbie Ann Ice’s amusing and heart-warming tale, ‘Scrabble’. Young girl Liz is brought over to see her mother’s friend’s daughter, Elsa. She and her mother both think Liz is deaf, but their deadpan visitor can actually understand everything they are saying perfectly well. Liz doesn’t play this to her advantage as mischievously as we might hope or expect, and only does so once she’s reunited with her mother at the end of the story. Liz’s time with Elsa starts with a game of Scrabble. Like her hearing, there’s little wrong with her literacy, either, for she thrashes her opponent. That’s despite the condescending interjections of Elsa’s mother:
“Malefic?” Her mama continued, still behind me, still eating. “Is that a word? I wonder if she meant malleable. We’ll let it go. It’s best maybe to let her win.”
They then head out for an afternoon swim at the local pool. Liz manages not to react when a boy repeatedly shouts “I want to fuck you” at her, much to the amusement of everyone around them. But once out of their earshot, she’s the one who has the last laugh.
A young child is also the subject of Sarah Goffman’s ironically-titled ‘Eddie by Himself’. The story is a snapshot into the the struggle of Eddie’s parents to manage his wandering tendencies – accompanied by his imaginary friend, Hansel – and unpredictable reverie. Unlike his surly sister, Eddie eagerly anticipates the family’s camping trip to the woods. Before they set off, we are given clues about Eddie’s affinity for the natural world and all things outdoors – something that gets the better of him when he wanders into the thick of the forest. It’s a charming tale of an innocent mind giving into curiosity, and one that wonderfully conveys the power of the imagination.
So far, the short-form prose largely goes against the tone of Issue 2. There, the reader was largely greeted with a succession of stabbings, trailer park strife, motherfuckers and car chases.
But those impatient to uncover Armchair/Shotgun‘s sinister streak will be satisfied after reading ‘Pick Up’ by Diana Clark. Sharing a similar feel to the tale that closes Issue 2, it charts the journey of a troubled soul behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. A woman is ostracised from her husband since he got a fifteen-year-old pregnant, and after driving off in her former man’s uncomfortable pick-up truck, depravity ensues as she undertakes (not all willingly) a number of bizarre and sick sexual pursuits. From masturbating while driving through the provincial night, to offering one’s body to get out of prison, the closing piece of Issue 3 will raise a few eyebrows and turn a few stomachs.
Another parallel with Issue 2 is Andrew Wertz’s photo essay, ‘Twelve photographs’. Twelve urban landscapes situated in towns between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania provide a haunting journey through places devoid of any human life, as if in a post-apocalyptic silence. Fans of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later will enjoy this inclusion. In almost all the photos, something appears in the image that does not actually stand in front of the camera – such as a reflection, a light source or a shadow. For example, the silhouette of a street light and telephone wires lean eerily across the photo of an empty sidewalk in Schuylerville, New York state, a photo that bleaches across the front cover of this issue.
The second piece of visual art comes from Steve Chellis, whose seven paintings and illustrations are introduced by a helpful few paragraphs by managing editor Laura McMillan. One’s instinct is to decipher the story behind each piece, which range in style from Impressionist to Gothic. Fathoming the story behind the painting is, of course, a major reason we enjoy art at all – but Chellis appears to derive pleasure out of the futility of this search: “parts don’t always add up, but why should they?”, he asks us.
Elliott BatTzedek, Daniele Lapidoth and Alison Campbell make multiple contributions to poetry, while four more poets (Liana Jahan Imam, Alanna Bailey, Genevieve Burger-Weiser and Inge Hoonte) each earn a solitary inclusion.
Campbell’s two poems come off the back of Reich’s life-affirming ‘Days of Sound’ and this is an intelligent placement, for ‘Body’ and ‘Cemetery’ each deal with human functions and senses. True to their word after Sabotage recently interviewed Armchair/Shotgun, the poetry included in Issue 3 supports their view that the difference between free verse and traditional form should be recognised. Lapidoth’s ‘Neither’ and ‘Both’ appear somewhere betwixt the two because they are presented in organised stanzas yet still convey a loose structure, while BatTzedek couldn’t strike this balance better, with the sombre ‘After pain has taken you’ erring on the classic and contrasting heavily with ‘Earth Day’ – a lightning-quick, stream-of-conscience consideration of the relationship between a man and his pets.
Like Issue 2, the sections of poetry, prose and visual art are punctuated by agreeable etchings and illustrations. The space occupied in the last issue by old-fashioned maps is now filled with drawings of animal anatomies, parts of the human skeleton, a cross-section of half a tree trunk, and a detailed illustration of the human ear – each providing something unexpected, quirky and interesting to linger on before absorbing what comes next in the magazine.
It is this marginalia that adds to the significance of Larsen’s interview and brings home what Armchair/Shotgun are trying to do. The magazine manages to embrace so many art forms and yet remain a predominantly literary offering; storytelling is at the heart of literature, and indeed central to this publication’s mission statement. But by including the minutiae and everything outside of the verbal domain, Armchair/Shotgun show they really know how to enrich a reader’s experience.