Monday, July 1, 2013

Review of 'The Rag' magazine

Briefly: The fifth issue of an online magazine that features pieces ranging from run of the mill pulp to skillful high Transgressive lit. Primarily longer prose supported by high quality visual art. Not pricey and they pay their writers. Highlights include: David Blanton’s ‘Not Giving to the Alumni Fund’, Matthew Mead’s ‘The Observer Effect’, Reina Hardy’s ‘Citizen of the Megabus’, Rachel Kimbrough’s ‘Zeke Stargazing’, Marcus Emanuel’s ‘Vibrancy’, Philip Zigman’s ‘Olivia’. Buy it, support emerging writers, sift through the chaff and find some unsettling gems.

Full Disclosure: I was approached by an editor of ‘The Rag’ to review this issue and was graciously provided a copy free of charge.

I think it is important to distinguish in reviewing a literary magazine between the quality of the magazine itself and the quality of the writers included. ‘The Rag’ is online only and just in its fifth issue. For under five dollars you get over two-hundred fully-packed, cleanly-laid out pages. At two and a half a cents per page this is a really good deal. Further, one of the magazine’s strongest points (and one that immediately secured ‘The Rag’ a place in my heart) is that they pay their writers. This is a woefully rare and admirable quality in a magazine (not to mention a smaller, newer magazine and one that is only found online) that I recommend buying a copy if for no other reason than to support a publication that respects and supports its writers.
The magazine is primarily composed of longer prose works with a few short and flash length pieces thrown in to break up the pace. There is a handful of poetry of which I will not remark on here simply due to my unfortunate ignorance of the art. I offer my sincerest apologies to the poets found in this issue. On the cover, as well as before each of the longer pieces, are full page, full color illustrations by Meredith Robinson consisting of animal faces on human bodies in strange and beautiful settings. This bucks the all too common case of crappy visual art in lit magazines.
I gave ‘The Rag’ three stars not because it is consistently mediocre but rather because the quality of the pieces included has a striking bi-modal distribution. While there is a fairly consistent Transgressive mood to all the pieces some fall more towards pulp (generally of average quality and at times convoluted or boring) while a roughly equal number of pieces reach some pretty subtle, moving and at times breathtaking heights. I will focus on the more interesting works.
            The first story that really grabbed me was David Blanton’s ‘Not Giving to the Alumni Fund’. Here Blanton depicts a promising but unfulfilled college graduate who falls, awkwardly but not unwillingly, into a profitable low level and criminal scheme contrasted within a metanarrative concerning an alumni donation e-mail. His transition into punishable activity is depicted here as insidiously subtle and moral ambiguity is played nicely throughout. The piece is written in a powerful and clear voice that at times could have passed for nonfiction. The piece ends full of unease, paranoia and more ambiguity, with the motivations and fates of some characters left deliciously unexplained.
            Matthew Mead’s ‘The Observer Effect’ follows an older woman, her much younger lover and their crumbling affair in a hotel room. This one which ends in a bang (or two). High pulp full of witty banter which always came off as fresh.
            Reina Hardy’s ‘Citizen of the Megabus’ was one of the few flash pieces in the magazine and one that stood tall beside the longer pieces. A look at the Midwest (its scenery and cuisine) through a bus window, the piece simply full of lovely and gripping prose.
            Rachel Kimbrough’s ‘Zeke Stargazing’ is undoubtedly this issues most brutal piece and it is pulled off effortlessly. The story of a down and out family at Christmas, two boys, their dog and the gift of a lifetime. Chuck P. in his ‘Haunted’ era would stand, applaud then pass out cold on the floor.
            Marcus Emanuel’s ‘Vibrancy’ is a sorrowful exploration of longing and what happens when a fantasy is partially fulfilled. A lonely man’s dream is brought to life but not in the way he had intended. ‘Vibrancy’ notably features a very interesting sewing-in of Asian film references.
            This issue ends with the debut piece by Philip Zigman called ‘Olivia’. An out and out marathon medical nightmare ‘Olivia’ is a seething tour de force, a surreal and absurd vision into what happens when you have just a little bit of perfection. Zigman’s voice is flawless and he somehow maintains restrained and rock steady repetition for much longer than seems humanly possible. This piece struck me like no other in the issue and points to potentially ground breaking things for Mr. Zigman in the future.
            For each of the pieces mentioned there was at least one piece that was under-edited, over dramatic or otherwise uninteresting. It is obvious that the editors of ‘The Rag’ have good taste. I would hazard  that at this point they are working with an undersized pool of submissions. For this reason I would not only encourage those interested in Transgressive fiction to pick up ‘The Rag’ but also to submit their work to this magazine. Not only could ‘The Rag’ develop into a publication of more consistent interest and quality but writers of a fairly underappreciated style stand to see some much needed financial appreciation.

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