Issue forty-six of literary magazine Fiction International boasts a theme of “Real Time/Virtual” – a prompt that has been interpreted with a pleasing degree of imagination and creativity by the twenty-two writers and poets whose works appear within its pages. This is evident from the very first piece: “Apps & Tags” by Tyrone Nagai is a list of eye-wateringly expensive smartphone applications – not quite the kind of article that you might expect to find in a magazine which bills itself as literary. Further investigation reveals hints of a story behind this unusual piece – the entries are copied from an online list of expensive apps, with tags and a dedication added by Nagai. These additions give the exorbitant descriptions a cynical, anti-capitalist ring. It took me a little longer than might have been ideal to really “get” the point of “Apps & Tags”, and I couldn’t help but feel that presenting the story a little differently (perhaps with the contextualising note at the beginning) could have done it a favour. All the same it intrigued me, and was a promisingly unusual opener.
Reading on, I found that Fiction International really hits its stride mid-way through, with a series of stories that circle similar themes. “ROBOTS” by JS Kierland – an eerie story set in the Nevada desert which follows a drone pilot on his way to work – is the first piece of fiction that felt truly assured. It is followed swiftly by several others. There’s the somewhat-pointed but still-compelling “Approved Combat Narrative” by Shane Roeschlein (which gives another angle on drone warfare) and “How It Is Between Us” by Thomas Fuchs, a story which tracks a relationship backwards in time to its innocuous beginnings.
Another strong entry was the short but well-formed story “Tranquility” by Michael Hemmingson, which features a protagonist deprived of his memories by a futuristic justice system. It is swift, attention-grabbing, and defies expectations by dodging what might seem like the most obvious ending. The three-part tale “What Happens” by Paul Forristal accurately captures the atmosphere of Las Vegas as it narrates its protagonist’s trip there, and makes use of some truly unique textual innovations, including several screen-grabs and a ticker tape of tragic news that runs across the bottom of the page. “After The Almost End Of The World” by Tara Stillions Whitehead and “Appointments” by Thaddeus Rutkowski also stand out as particularly strong stories.
I was absorbed and amused by the range of unusual formats on display in Fiction International. You’d be hard pressed to find a more experimental or explorative journal. Inevitably when writing takes chances with form and voice there is a risk that a particular story will miss its mark. I felt that this was the case with several entries in this issue. I was, for example, delighted to see a graphic short story in the form of Norman Conquest’s “Raymond Queneau’s Story Of 0”, but disappointed by how brief and impenetrable it was. “Drones” by Larry Fondation fantastically evokes the wandering mind of its narrator, but then doesn’t really go anywhere else. The voice of the central character in “Our Warm Peach” by Charles Lowe is as unsettling as it is compelling, but the ending to the story left me feeling merely a little nonplussed.
That’s not to say that I didn’t immensely enjoy all of these pieces. I read each with excitement and a genuine sense of joyful discovery. Some stories are more successful than others, and some could definitely have used a little more work, but I’d rather read a dozen stories that take risks and end up a little rough around the edges than as many neat and unchallenging “safe” pieces any day. Innovation is at the centre of Fiction International’s approach, and the result is a read that will leave you anything but bored.
Christopher Frost now lives in Stoke-on-Trent, after studying at nearby Keele University. He is a freelance writer, and spends most of his time working for a local charity. In his spare moments he reads furiously, and writes book reviews.