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No Place, U.S.A.

While trying to establish a regional identity, Midwestern Gothic loses itself in time



In the postmodern era, time has been superseded by space. Or so says Fredric Jameson in his classic 1991 monograph Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The argument, though, seems a little loopy. After all, the landscape is having a pretty rough time of it these days. Airports, McDonaldses, and Walmarts have spread across the globe, turning the most distant locales into a continuous strip of uniculture schlock. The Internet eats its way across borders like acid, dissolving traditional bonds of contiguity and erecting in their place communities based on Star Trek fandom and MILF fetishes. Postmodernism seems characterized not so much by the prevalence of space as by its yawning absence.

Into this void steps Midwestern Gothic, a new literary review edited by a couple Michiganders named Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell. As the title suggests, Pfaller and Russell have set themselves staunchly against the antigeographical zeitgeist. Their press release says that they were determined to "create a publication that focused on the Midwest and provided readers with pages upon pages that felt like they could have taken place in their own back yard." Inspired by southern gothic writers like William Faulkner and especially Flannery O'Connor, they hoped to bring "literary recognition to the place they called home."

It's a quixotic endeavor. And, as happens with most quixotic endeavors, the windmill kicks their ass.

For all its ambition, the winter 2012 issue of Midwestern Gothic (their fourth) ends up reading exactly like what it is: another utterly irrelevant literary magazine stuffed with scads of predictable MFA-program fiction and a smattering of predictable free verse. The names of relevant states—Indiana! Illinois! Iowa!—and the set pieces of narrative Americana are both deployed with a grinding, devotional regularity. Here's the girl who's "got to get the fuck out of this town." There's the dad who's been laid off from the last tannery standing, and that unrequited crush we all had at Everyhighschool, U.S.A.

It's like a team of experts dissected a Bruce Springsteen album, taking out all the hooks, leaving in all the cliches, and adding a heaping helping of boredom. Close relatives die. Young people tremble on the verge of adulthood. Endings arrive in a flurry of ambiguous poignancy. Every so often, there's a desperate little rush of genre violence, displayed with the pride of a child announcing a successful bowel movement. In short, Midwestern Gothic evokes not the midwest but any writing seminar anywhere. It's as vivid as a doctor's waiting room.

So what went wrong?

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