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Book Review: ‘Something in My Eye’

“Something in My Eye”
Michael Jeffrey Lee
Sarabande Books

By Ashley Jakubczyk

Oct. 2, 2013 12:00 a.m.

Much like having something stuck between your eyelid and cornea, UCLA alumnus Michael Jeffrey Lee’s writing can be very uncomfortable.

“Something in My Eye,”Lee’s debut short story collection, resulted in his receiving the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize for short fiction. The collection features 12 exquisitely crafted anecdotes that fall under experimental fiction, centering around themes such as sexuality, violence and nationalism.

The style of Lee’s writing teeters on the border of unconventional – the stories break free from traditional prose form and are structured in various ways. Twists on tradition are clearly present, such as the five-part piece “Five Didactic Tales.” Though reflecting the style of fairy tales created by literary legends Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, the five components come without the expected ambiguities, having been written in such a way that the moral of the story is quite clearly presented.

To some, this curve in tradition may be awkward. However, upon reading, the reader will realize that Lee has a knack for telling each story in precisely the correct structure in which it needs to be told. “Murder Ballad” is written in alternating voices, one in italics and one not, as a witty dialogue between a deceased murderer and his victim. The ballad-like lyrical form enraptures the readers by swiftly removing them from the grotesque reality of the situation.

Contrastingly, “Contemporary Country Music: A Songbook,” is written in the shorter, more incomplete form of titles and lyrics to 10 country songs, complete with line breaks and a lack of proper punctuation. The ode to the music that has defined America’s southern region simply would not hold the same satiric effect if told in the expected, usual prose.

The stories, in some ways, resemble a southern Gothic, with their disturbed, eccentric protagonists and ever-changing gender roles. The narrative style resembles the darker, tentative tone of William Faulkner, who Lee has cited as an influence.

Despite these similarities, Lee’s work transcends the Gothic tradition, infusing themes, ideas and instances that are familiar to modern readers. The closing piece, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” holds a gospel-like tone to it, centering around a man who does not wish to leave the city despite the impending hurricane – arguably the notoriously devastating Katrina, which Lee, a resident of New Orleans, fled from.

There are moments, while reading, where it may seem appropriate for apprehensive, nervous laughter to take over, but they are justly contrasted with moments where a genuine chuckle will come forth. The range of these stories, from gruesome to comical, may require readers to set aside a good chunk of time in order to get through them.

Though it can seem that the collection is dominated by a somewhat pretentious tone, upon a closer read, readers will soon find themselves entranced with these grotesque, desperate and downright scary narrators, quickly falling into their worlds. This effect is achieved through Lee’s uncanny ability to edge up to rapid and sometimes shocking plot twists that have lasting results long after the last word of the story,making this collection a highly worthwhile read.

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Ashley Jakubczyk
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