Some Literary Criticism
An early career retrospective
An Early Consideration
The young writer I.W. Stockman is perched on the precipice of a possibly promising career. Though it’s early, he has nevertheless amassed enough of a body of work for some preliminary appraisals.
Here at A Saturday Letter we are uniquely positioned to attempt this appraisal, as we have gained exclusive, unfettered access to the rapidly growing Stockman archive. More (and more and more) papers arrive every day. The writer is in fact so prolific that his archivist and mother refuses even to digitize everything before making her ruthless deaccessioning decisions.
We fear the archivist’s maniacal rage for order might offer later critics a skewed vision of this writer’s early development. And so, despite the knowledge that Stockman’s future work might cast a very different light on these early efforts, we offer this initial attempt to limn his early thematic concerns and stylistic approaches.
We have transcribed the texts from manuscript, silently correcting spelling errors when the original intention seems clear, preserving the misspellings (if misspellings they are) when it does not. We provide our own interpretation in parentheses following the term.
We begin with his latest story.
TRANSCRIPTION: The Very Grouchy Ladybug … found another leaf full of afeds (aphids) and met the strongest ladybug in the whole ladybug world.
And the grouchy ladybug said ‘you wanna fight?” And he said “Okay,” showing off his six-pack. And the grouchy ladybug said “Actooly (actually) pick on somebody your own size,” frightenedly covering his head like it is turning red.
Clearly a tribute to the late Eric Carle, the beloved picture-book author who died late last month at the age of 91, this riff on The Grouchy Ladybug reimagines and severely curtails the journey of the title character. Instead of challenging a series of increasingly large and unlikely animals to fight, the ladybug provokes the strongest of its own kind.
In the description of this new “strongest ladybug” character, we see the author’s concerns with body and body image. The notion of the “six-pack” — also known as “shredded abs” — has long been a fixation in Stockman’s conversation and interviews (“Dad, do you have a six-pack? A three-pack? … Do you even have a two-pack?”), but this is the first time we have seen the preoccupation emerge in his prose.
Something else seems to be at work in the story’s first-line-cum-title. The cut-out rectangle with the ladybug illustration and the adjective “grouchy” suggests that there may have been other adjectives, other ladybugs — happy, sad, ambivalent — available to the author. This physical intervention draws the reader’s attention to the materiality of the text. The use of scissors and paste evokes William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method — but only in its tools. Rather than using words he’d already written, Stockman made his interventions before writing. A la John Cage, he let some elements of chance determine the course of his composition.
Is this the beginning of a series? Will Stockman use this method again? Or will those other ladybugs with other moods remain forever unrealized?
The masterpiece thus far
TRANSCRIPTION: The alien was so happy with his family. Then he was a king. He took a rocket ship to erth. He got married again, and then he took his human wife to his own planet.
They set up a surprise party for their beloved king. The king was delighted to see his old wife. His old wife [was] delighted to see him — until she saw his new wife. Then they were best friends.
Simply the most fully-realized story in the Stockman canon, this science fiction adventure challenges, in the manner of Ursula K. Le Guin, notions of “normal” filial relationships. This unnamed civilization — though monarchical and, on the evidence, patriarchal — seems to hold a relaxed attitude to both polyamory and interspecies relationships.
Or does it? Is this a privilege reserved only for the king? Are the rest of the planet’s inhabitants similarly at liberty? Does the queen acquiesce to her new “best friend” out of genuine fellow-feeling, or because she has no other practical choice? The ambiguities run rich and deep.
Note, too, that at the beginning of the story, our protagonist is only “[t]he alien,” and it was only then that we are specifically told he is “so happy with his family.” Things are about to change.
“Then he was a king.” (emphasis added). The “alien” becomes a king early in the story. Does he also leave behind his happiness? His conventional family? Is this story a parable about the dangers of actually getting what you wish for? Furthermore, did the king take a rocketship to “erth” (both our planet and not) for the purpose of bringing home a bride? Is this only a political marriage?
For this critic, the text lends itself to both conservative and revolutionary readings. It can be construed as either pro- or anti-monarchy. Doubtless Stockman’s future work will offer new ways to read this rich story.
TRANSCRIPTION: The Chiefs were playing the Raiders. Then the Chiefs scored a touchdown. Then the Raiders scored a touchdown. I can’t remember the rest of the game. But even though they had their best players on the field, they still lost. I was a little bit sad.
In this venture into sportswriting, Stockman eschews a traditional recounting of the game’s “events” for a more affective recounting of the fan experience. This notion of the fan’s interiority — the ups and downs, the distractions and dissociations — as the “real” action of a given sporting event is, we must admit, not new.
Granted that this “sportswriting as fan experience” approach owes a debt to some of the earliest work of Bill Simmons, but we see in Stockman’s work a concision that the founder of Grantland and The Ringer has yet to achieve.
Whatever future scholars make of Stockman’s career, a quick look at his juvenilia makes it safe assert that he has already evolved into a more serious artist. He’s an artist who now avoids such dangers as we find in this early poem in which his cheap e.e. cummings pastiche does not make up for its scatological and near-colonialist themes.
TRANSCRIPTION: yo bro my name is jo and my but is bigern (bigger) then mexico.
On this evidence, we should all be grateful for Stockman’s progress.