Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Café Irreal #78 (2021)

The Café Irreal, International Imagination, ed. G.S. Evans and Alice Whittenburg. Issue 78 (May 2021). Online at cafeirreal.com.

Reviewed by Julie Reeser

The Café Irreal
has been publishing irrrealist fiction as a quarterly webzine for over twenty years. The editor team of G.S. Evans and Alice Whittenburg have a long history of cultivating unusual voices, and rightfully take pride in authors returning to them for publication. Irrealism is a philosophical perspective wherein there is no accepted reality, but rather a search for meaning inside the Sartrean fantastic. I visualize it as if a Magritte painting could be navigated, and indeed, the magazine has a superb collection of ekphrastic images on their Pinterest site if one is seeking inspiration and understanding, and there’s more on the site on how the editors define irrealism.

This spring issue of Café Irreal combines the work of six authors to leave the reader feeling that reality is only a state of mind, and that to find meaning, we must grapple with time and transitions. Just as in real life, details give clues, but we never fully understand the vast complexity we’re immersed in, and the end we perceive is from our own limited perspective and open to interpretation.

The first story of the collection, “The Year Before the Invasion” by Guido Eekhaut, sets the tone by taking us into a mysterious love-hate relationship in Paris. This shifts like a dream into a triangulation involving art symbology and strange coffee recipes. Throughout, the narrator seems torn between what is to come and what has come before. There are glimpses of bizarre, alien behaviors, but everything is left as hints and shadows, so that the reader is never fully sure if what they think they saw is real. I would gladly read the book that this felt excerpted from.

That sense of ambiguous transitions follows throughout the rest of the issue, except for the one piece that turned out to be my favorite. In Ken Poyner’s “Driving Holes,” we get a more straightforward speculative piece with the narrator mentoring an apprentice in a cattle-drive of sorts, but instead of bovine charges, they are herding holes. This smart and strange concept at times felt allegorical for not letting your problems get too big to handle, and the whole piece read as hopeful and humorous.

The other most American-voiced story in the issue was “The Diligent Woodcutter” by Kevin P. Keating. Sadly, I found this one stultified and overly introspective. I felt no emotional resonance and it lacked the creeping surrealism of the rest of this issue.

I have to give a nod to the staccato dreaming of Salvatore Dilfalco in his “Three Stories.” This set of unconnected, journal-like entries made me laugh. Keeping the heart in bizarre fiction is difficult, and he manages this by sharing the ugly and personal instead of putting fancy clothes on how messy humans are. These three entries felt raw and compelling, and really captured for me the power of observational fiction.

The lone woman’s voice in the issue was a translation by Toshiya Kamei of Julieta García González’s “Inspiration.” This piece involves a girl being painted as a model. She is slowly manipulated and painfully folded up by the artist until she is gone. Despite what seems a straightforward narrative, the descriptions of these transformations over time felt ambiguous and heavy with unseen meaning.

Overall, Issue 78 of Café Irreal read like inspired tangents from Italo Calvino. I liked the eclectic voices, and most of the pieces went in unexpected directions. I would have liked more than one woman author included though, especially since her translator was male. For someone who reads a lot of Western-based short fiction, this issue was a refreshing break from standard pacing, syntax, and voice—all combining to give the magazine an expansive feel.

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