November 8th, 2011 / 4:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: Yelena Akhtiorskaya in Beecher’s #1


The editors of Beecher’s #1 should be applauded for picking fiction and poetry that are all remarkably consistent in structure and tone. This issue of Beecher’s values images over plot in the traditional sense. The pieces are usually quite short and aim to evoke a mood through the use of exquisite, concise, and deliberate writing. Basically, if you’re looking for sensitive stories about sad people in the suburbs having affairs, or speculative romps through alien lands, then this ain’t the journal for you.

The writing in Beecher’s is almost uniformly great and most of the pieces succeed at their goals. But this consistency could, somehow, work against the journal in the long run. I couldn’t read more than two or three entries in one sitting, and they’re short (most of the fiction is a page or two), because it all started to sound a little too much alike. The pieces are so similar to each other that I kept forgetting who the authors were. At times I’d think that I had already read a story, but then realize I was confusing it with another piece with a similar tone and feeling. For example, the lists and repetition in Joshua Cohen’s story, “The Rules (Gulf Version)” is very similar to the lists and repetition in Colin Winnette’s “Playing with Myself: A Series”—even the titles sound the same. John Dermot Woods’s flash fiction, featuring unique characters in unique, unsettling situations, is pretty similar to Alexis Orgera’s prose poems, which feature unique characters in unique, unsettling situations.

This observation isn’t meant to take anything away from the separate pieces. Orgera’s poems are some of the strongest in the journal, and Cohen is as dazzling as always. Perhaps this is a larger debate. Is it possible for a journal to be too consistent? When does a sustained effect move from intriguing to repetitive?

For me, it comes down to contrast. I found myself wanting a longer story, something more traditionally plot driven (call me old-fashioned, if you’d like), to balance out and remind me why the other more experimental pieces are so interesting and unique.

And then I stumbled upon, nearly right in the middle of the journal, two pieces by Yelena Akhtiorskaya. Her first piece, “Wednesday, 8:14 A.M.”, is just over a page long and “Wyoming,” at nearly twelve pages, is by far the longest story in the journal.

What both stories have in common is a preoccupation with place, and, more specifically, home. “Wednesday, 8:14 A.M.” begins with a description of our main character’s New York City apartment: “The walls are bare, there is nothing on them, not even a scratch, but it’s not because Nina, who lives in the apartment, is particularly neat or cleanly.” Akhtiorskaya takes a fairly clichéd premise, slightly unstable person all alone in the dismissive jungle of NYC, and turns it into something fresh and interesting.

“Wyoming” is set near Coney Island and tells the story of a meeting between Vera and Zoya—two friends who knew each other back in Moldova and who have renewed their friendship in south Brooklyn. This is a story about depression and two lives held together by their balanced friendship. Both women left their home country years earlier, but still aren’t at ease in this new one. Each thrives on making sure the other is equally unhappy, equally tired, and that they both walk an equal amount to meet each other: “The true goal was to make sure no one had an advantage over the other. We’d agree not on a time to meet but a time to leave home…Every friendship is maintained on a certain diet—ours survived on fairness and complaints.”

Akhtiorskaya does an amazing job of building a story around two very similar characters, and she does this by building up the parallels between them and isolating the characters from the rest of the city. Even when they’re together, Zoya and Vera are still alone. Empty tables surround them in cafes, movie theater seats remain unfilled when they’re there, “it was like sitting on the subway and no matter how many people filed in, the seat next to you remained empty. It was difficult not to get suspicious.”

But they’re alone because they’re stuck in time, as well. Vera and Zoya have been going through their days, living the same quiet complaints, and sticking to their increasingly isolated schedule. Zoya’s stuck in bed all day because of depression and Vera’s stuck in a gated mansion her ex-husband built for her. They’re only moving when they’re walking toward each other. But despite their inertia and seemingly unwanted stability, both women come to the meeting that starts the story with news that disrupts and unsettles the other.

In both these stories Akhtiorskaya tends to write in long, multi-clausal sentences that reveal character details and feel like the authentic, personal rhythm of her narrators. For example, Zoya is the narrator of “Wyoming” and she’s aware of how dependent she is on Vera and how stagnant their lives have become. Zoya says, “Yes, anybody could tell you that this wasn’t the present, that there was no future, and on the horizon was more of the same. None of which was a revelation.”

These two Akhtiorskaya stories have strong, self-aware narrators who understand the fragility of their situations. These well-rounded characters, paired with a fluid, unique writing style that fits the concerns of her characters, lead to two really great short stories. “Wyoming” anchors the middle of Beecher’s #1 and tells the sort of complete story that I needed to appreciate the work that surrounded it.



Richard Z. Santos is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State University. His fiction has appeared in Nimrod International Journal, Kill Author, Bartleby Snopes, Snake Oil Cure and other fine publications. He is currently working on his first novel.





  1. Cvan

      They are either “consistent” or they are “homogenous,” depending on which view of Beecher’s one has.  It sounds like an editorial problem, unless that’s their intent.

  2. The Author Function

      I agree there is a consistency in terms of attention to sentence, careful and powerful works on a line by line basis. Kind of see what you mean about tone although I think there is a pretty big range, even amongst the pieces you list. Don’t really see at all how the pieces are structurally similar. 

      As for the long run, though, the magazine has a rotating editorial staff which tends to bring shifting aesthetics. 

  3. Cole

      I haven’t read Beecher’s yet. Your comments about sameness are compelling. But it seems a pity to bury the lede, or if it’s not the lede, the one counter-example. Your “And then I stumbled upon…” happens after the “Read More…” cut; only people really interested in the complete drubbing will follow there. 

  4. Nathan Huffstutter

      I think the issue of sameness or homogeneity is worth disputing. As a debut offering, Beecher’s seems to be carving out certain preferences, in particular for brevity over length and for imagistic fiction over character-arc/plot-driven narratives. One risk of shorter, non-narrative pieces is that they offer fewer points of connection, and if the stories don’t connect or hang with you, perhaps it’s tempting to view them as part of a same-y sort of blur. 

      Purely focusing on the fiction, however I didn’t get the slightest sense of uniformity in structure or tone: from Alec Niedenthal’s exclamatory automatism to Rhodes Stevens barfly mutterings, from James Yeh’s heartfelt second person to Joshua Cohen’s mannered inscrutability, from Colin Winnette’s exponentially exploding text to Rozalia Jovanovic’s spare brushstrokes, even in the instances where a single author has multiple contributions, the two stories offered by Lincoln Michel and Yelena Akhtiorskaya are each radically different from one and another.

  5. Robb Todd

      Theses are great questions: “Perhaps this is a larger debate. Is it possible for a journal to be too
      consistent? When does a sustained effect move from intriguing to
      repetitive?” Part if it might be how you digest collections. If you read them all the way through, front to back, then it should be composed like a song and not hit the same note over and over. I generally don’t read them that way so it matters less. But I guess, in the end, you should strive to please the person who wants a song because if you do, you don’t dissapoint the person who consumes it the way I do.