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Interfictions Reviews – "Alternate Anxieties"

March 6th, 2008

This requires a bit of explanation. Back when I was posting my reviews of all the stories in Interfictions, I missed this one. Only lately did a few shrewd readers notice this and call me on it. At their behest, here it is. With apologies for the chronological dementedness.

“Alternate Anxieties”
Karen Jordan Allen

In the Afterword, Theodora Goss mentions this as one of the first stories she recognized as interstitial. And it is, in a very literal sense: it’s part-way between a story and the notes for a story (and/or the notes for a philosophical essay?). To me, it reads like a personal journal entry—somewhat self-indulgent, thoughts and ideas recorded for the purpose of catharsis rather than that of telling a good story. At times, the fragmented structure (numbered outlines, incomplete sentences, a lot of line breaks) meant I had to force myself not to skim. This is the challenge and the danger of this sort of experimentation in fiction: there’s always the chance of going too far, knocking readers out of the story. For me, though, the structure was only part of what contributed to that effect. The ideas involved—parallel universes, decision trees crippled by postmodern self-evaluation and unhealthy paranoia—didn’t do much to inspire me. Possibly this was because they rang a little too true.

Anxiety and self-doubt are touchy subjects, and Allen deserves respect for having the guts to lay hers out there with such frankness. (I acknowledge the possibility that this isn’t an autobiographical piece of fiction, but expect that’s not the case. Maybe it’s presumptive, but I think to write about self-doubt in such depth as this necessitates having experienced it at least once.) However, it’s because these subjects are so touchy for me personally that my reaction to them in this story was so negative. I think of Notes from Underground, a similarly bleak and even despairing work, which, when I read it, both blew my mind and angered me intensely at the same time, and which, while I was duly impressed and influenced by it, I will never read again. Why not? Because part of its influence on me was to make me wish from the bottom of my being never to become the Underground Man. How does one avoid becoming mired in self-doubt? By choosing not to wallow in it; part of which, for me, means not seeking out the type of fiction which addresses it. Not that I haven’t read and even written my share of circular-reasoning, postmodern fiction. But in every one of those stories (a total of three I can think of offhand), the object was to break the circular reasoning, to find motivation or excuse to move on with my life and accomplish something, rather than wallowing in indecisiveness and misery. “Alternate Anxieties” doesn’t seem to be about that, and in that respect, it leaves me with the unpleasant feeling of being stuck in a rut, spinning my wheels, but only getting stuck deeper.

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