Issue No. 118
I first read Dolan Morgan’s work in late 2010. He’d submitted a story for the first print issue of the journal I run, apt, and it was a crowning jewel on our inaugural annual. The story was funny and touching, surreal and sad—qualities I would come to recognize as trademarks of his work. Not long after the issue hit the shelves, I was asked in an interview: among my contemporaries, whose work did I like to read? I named Morgan, and described his writing as charming satire aimed right for my heart.
A couple years later, when I first read the manuscript for his collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down, I was again struck by Morgan’s charm, but I realized my assessment of him as a satirist was rather limiting. Satire requires a target, and while his targets range from capitalism to sex (which is to say, targets worthy indeed), Morgan renders them with a disarming affection. His approach, specifically the evidence of his fondness for his subject matter, allows him to surpass the role of satirist, and to more fully occupy the role of benevolent absurdist.
That combination of benevolence and absurdism brings me to “Nueé Ardente,” a story about a man waylaid while traveling by train to see his errant sister. As the delay persists, he becomes more interested in the unfamiliar landscape and his fellow passengers than continuing his journey. In the resultant purgatory, the protagonist comes to recognize that he will age even as his fantasies remain young, to accept that the only way to hold himself responsible for his actions is to leave himself no other choice, and to realize that he both resents and resembles his sister. But despite every drawback, we retain hope. Morgan has depicted disorder and disarray humanely, as characters we need not fear encountering.
That’s When the Knives Come Down just came out. I’m so proud to have had a hand in its publication, not just because it’s funny and touching and surreal and sad—though it is all of those things—but because it goes beyond buzz words. As grand and irrational and crazed as the stories are, Morgan’s collection, and “Nueé Ardente” in particular, reveal the ways people retain their humanity, in all its selfish and haunting glory.
Co-founding Editor, Aforementioned Productions
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by Dolan Morgan
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On the train ride north, I see an explosion in the distance. Black smoke rises into the afternoon sky, and I watch it out the window as the train speeds through tiny, blue-collar towns. The tower of smoke is like a building, a distant skyscraper that curves without care. The mountains beneath it seem almost uninhabited, covered in a thick rug of frosted pines. What’s happening over there, I wonder. A forest fire? An industrial accident? A dormant volcano that has suddenly awoken? The landscape is unfazed. Still, I imagine all the mountains bursting open like bottles of cheap champagne—pop, pop, pop—covering the northern New York countryside with molten rock, washing over small towns with magma and steam, trailing smoke across the Eastern seaboard. The whole area will come to a stop once the 60 mph pyroclastic wave rolls down the hillsides and into town, I think. Like Pompeii, everyone will be halted in their tracks—and no matter what they were doing, be it humiliating or heroic or mundane, it will all be frozen here in the upstate territories like an enormous carbon photograph stretching the length of the Catskills. Soon it might become a sort of solemn tourist attraction like that of the World Trade Center or Pearl Harbor. People will come to witness tragedy firsthand, to see everything as it was “that terrible day.” After a while, the shock and sadness of it all will most likely wear off, as if tragedy were just a perfume or cologne or bug spray you applied at the right moment, and people will come unabashed to look at all the privacies left behind and unguarded. No one will pay attention to its enormity, of course, or at least only pay it lip service, but everyone will string along their families to be voyeurs of the dead, standing their children in front of copulating corpses and taking photographs to be hung on the wall at home. At any given time, I realize, I probably would rather not have a volcanic plume rush over me and immortalize whatever it was I was doing at the moment. There are very few points in my life that I would choose to showcase as a tourist attraction, simply because most of the time I look like an idiot. Right now, for example: I’m slumped against the train window, my cheek stretched against the glass like putty. I probably resemble a puffer fish as it’s prepared by a chef to be eaten: confused and asphyxiated.
Yet I’m breathing and fairly cognizant. In an hour, the train will pull into Binghamton, where my sister will meet me at the station. She’ll be driving some beater that needs a screw driver shoved in the ignition to get it started, rust about to eat through the axles, and one window made of plastic garbage bags duct-taped gingerly to the frame. We’ll zip along dirt roads for an hour until we reach her trailer on the top of a hill where we will eat hot dogs with her children, surrounded by jars of everything from pickled cabbage to pickled nuts. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, but I know what to expect. And the years passed aren’t because of a falling out or any kind of drama at all; simply, we’ve been busy—or I have—or just as much, we’ve never been close enough to warrant the expensive commute between NYC and the Canadian border. She’s much older than me, a decade at least, and I sometimes have trouble seeing myself in her. She has said to our mother that we are oil and water, nothing alike and not worth comparing. It might be all we agree on, in fact. Really, everything else is so foreign to me, just as I imagine my life must be to her. The city, the noise, the fast pace—it’s nothing like what she has sought and found. And how she came to living out here in the backwoods of America, in the middle of nowhere? I can’t understand it. What does she find out here all alone? Maybe the cold: the area is known for its harsh winters—sometimes more than eight to ten feet of snowfall—which, unbelievably, leaves people even more removed than they already are from each other. I suppose, though, if you come for the isolation, then the winter snowdrifts aren’t all bad. Luckily for me, it’s November and that isn’t winter in my book. The train speeds onward, now curving around a lake and giving me a better view of the smoke. It appears that there might be another cloud rising, but I can’t tell if it’s just another part of the first. I haven’t heard any other explosions, but we are a great deal farther off by now as well.
The sound of the train rushing along the steel tracks is suddenly audible as a woman whom I had seen earlier boarding the train drags her bags through my car and into the next. I recognize her as someone I may have known or been associated with, if only slightly, maybe an old college classmate or subway rider. I know her, I think. Still, she is familiar, just as much, as the type of girl that exists as a ghost in my head, the woman who seems like some perfect ideal—but whose parts are strewn across the bodies of millions of women, some limbs and smiles here, some eyes or clothes over here, and attitudes and laughs over there. The platform woman’s snarly, sharp-toothed smile is a smile taken straight from the ghost’s blueprint. Her eyes and legs seem familiar too, as if they were somewhere inside me once, like a type of blood? No, that isn’t right, I think, but more as if I had already held them, looked into them. Dumbly, I am reminded of the women I’ve slept with, the women I’ve loved, rarely the same, as the train slows, pulling into another station along the way.