GUD: GREATEST UNCOMMON DENOMINATOR #1
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Here is a magazine that means business. Not only does the very title imply quality, this issue weighs in at almost 200 pages, with no less than thirty contributors listed at the back. One can't accuse its publishers of skimping on content! (Or on production values, as this is a handsome volume indeed.)
As for what the magazine actually publishes... Well, the postcards enclosed with the review copy say, 'Greatest Uncommon Denominator encompasses and transcends genre and literary fiction', a statement that manages to be both hopelessly vague and entirely accurate. There is diversity of approach, be in no doubt, but also a unity of sensibility in the magazine, a sensibility that might be described as taking a step or two away from reality. This results in some wonderful flights of imagination, but it can also make the job of reviewing trickier. An examination of the first two stories will show you what I mean.
Issue 1 of GUD opens with Electroencephalography by Darby Larson, in which Dean stumbles across a box of mechanical components, as you do; and decides to build himself a robot servant, as you do--and the point is that, in Dean's world, you do, because this is the kind of dream-logic world where a dead body only needs a clockwork energy converter attached for it to return to life, so of course you'd build a robot. Anyway, Dean's great idea doesn't work out quite how he anticipated; and, unfortunately, the ending of Larson's story doesn't quite live up to the beginning--but I can't really tell you why I think that; it's just how it feels. Then you've got Arrow by Nadine Darling, whose protagonist wakes up with a very visible indicator of love--namely, an arrow through the heart. Again, the author does an excellent job of convincing us that yes, this could happen in the world of the story; but, this time, the ending works. And I don't know why I found Darling's ending satisfying and Larson's not--I just did. I can't put a finger on it, any more than I can explain to you how clockwork robot servants or arrow-pierced hearts could ever be accepted features of contemporary life. Whilst that's fine for the stories (that first imaginative leap being part of the unspoken contract between writer and reader), it's not acceptable for a reviewer to go, 'Um, yeah, kind of like that, but dunno why.' Yet that's just the kind of reaction I repeatedly found myself having. So you see the problem.
All right, let's start with some of the stuff I definitely liked. Steven J. Dines contributes Unzipped, the powerful and subtle tale of a soldier returned from Iraq and trying to deal with the death of a child that he witnessed out there and feels he should have prevented. I didn't realise what Dines meant by the 'ball' that wasn't a ball until I turned the page--and it knocked me for six when I did. A top-notch character study. So is Aliens by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, set at a restaurant out in the desert where people have a tendency to see UFOs. But who needs little green men when, as Rosenfeld shows, the staff and customers of the restaurant are such misfits themselves--and, by extension, any of us could be a metaphorical 'alien', given the right circumstances.
Though some tales in GUD depict extraordinary events, others introduce you to characters with odd ways of thinking. Take Mike Procter's Item 27, whose narrator is working through a list of ambitions and has reached the one about killing someone. When it comes down to it, though, he'd really rather get someone else to do the deed--he just needs to hire them. Procter's brief tale is quite amusing and, for just a short time, makes the protagonist's thought processes seem entirely reasonable. Experiment: Love by Brian Conn is less playful in tone and (naturally) about love rather than killing, but it too puts you most effectively in the mind of another--two people, in this case, who have an unusual take on love (they're splitting up but, one says, if they meet again years later, their cells will remember each other even if they themselves don't).
So those are some of my personal highlights from this issue. Then there's the stuff that I like, but belongs more in the second tier for me. An example is Max Velocity by Leslie Claire Walker: giving birth has become a matter of being buried in the ground while our baby eats you, so Fan isn't too happy about being pregnant, to put it mildly. Fortunately, she is rescued from her fate; unfortunately, she then ends up... This story was a little too odd, even for me, but it's compelling all the same. Sean Melican's In the Dark is the similarly well-written tale, told in epistolatory form, of a researcher visiting a moon whose alien inhabitants insisted he allow himself to be blinded beforehand. I loved the way Melican handles the different voices, I loved the particularly mysterious aliens--but I didn't quite get the ending. A shame, but that's just the way it goes sometimes.
GUD magazine is not all about fiction; there's poetry and art in there too, but I have less to say about them, as I don't have the knowledge to critique them in the same way. Of the poetry, I particularly enjoyed Timothy Gager's Moving Boxes, which poignantly compares packed-up items to a past relationship; and Cami Park's Sisyphus of the Staircase, whose title neatly sums up its central idea. I also found the imagery of The Intrigue of Being Watched by Rusty Barnes, comparing sex to the sea, most evocative. I'm afraid I really can't offer a useful opinion on the artwork, but I do like the way the magazine's structure encourages you to appreciate the art in its own right, rather than as an adjunct of the fiction--which is not to say that the juxtaposition of art and fiction won't sometimes make you look again with new eyes.
Of course there are pieces in this magazine that I didn't really get along with, but I don't want to dwell on them too much; I think it's quite clear that this is the sort of publication whose contents really will inspire different reactions from different readers. But there's enough quantity and variety between the covers to convince me that there's something here for everyone--and, even if you don't necessarily like what's over the page, it will always be interesting. Let me just mention one final contribution: towards the end of the magazine is Mad Dogs by Christian A. Dumais, the only piece labelled as non-fiction. Dumais is an American teaching at a university in Poland; this piece chronicles his night out drinking with some visiting Secret Service and Air Force Two staff, a night which ends with him sitting in the apartment of two Polish lesbians. You'll have to read the essay to find out how he gets there; but what's great about this piece is that it makes real life seem just as strange as the fictional realities depicted in the rest of the magazine. So that's GUD, a magazine that builds its own fantastic aesthetic from a diverse range of building-blocks, even the real world.
GUD Magazine edited by Julia Bernd, Sal Coraccio, Kaolin Fire and Sue Miller. 5x8, 196pp, US$10/print and US$3.50/PDF (see website for other subscription rates and non-US prices). Published by Greatest Uncommon Denominator Publishing, PO Box 1537, Laconia, NH, 03427 USA.
Website: - www.gudmagazine.com
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