Sometimes a magazine digs for its fortune; sometimes you have to get yourself out under that window and serenade. I wrote to Noy Holland a winter or two back to see if she might send a story to the Kenyon Review. “Monocot” is what arrived, two stunning pages, and a new reminder of Holland’s distinctive place in contemporary American literature. I could never mistake a story of hers for anyone else’s; at the same time, I can’t predict what rich work each new piece will undertake. How, for instance, does “Monocot” move so quickly through this family’s history, and still give us the beetle pacing over the screen, the father sipping from the bloom of the lily?
“Ms. Holland habitually challenges the usual limits of language . . . her characters portray themselves in a discourse that is startling but genuine, the secret syntax of real lives,” William Ferguson wrote in the New York Times of Holland’s first book, The Spectacle of the Body. Holland’s work has continued to startle, but always, yes, through its uncompromising attention to the “syntax of real lives”: Holland’s ear for how we live, love, and suffer in language; how the body is made up of language, and language the trace we leave behind. “In part, I look to fiction to restore something of the physical life so depleted by living in this country in this part of this particular century,” Holland once said in an interview, and this is indeed part of the important work she is doing.
Holland has written three collections of short stories, most recently 2012’s extraordinary Swim for the Little One First. “Writers who write stories,” Holland has said, when asked about the old novel vs. story debate, “enjoy . . . a wide green world of contraband effects: distortions and errors and inventions and quirks likely to be, in the long-haul of a novel, tedious and exhausting. Lucky us—who needn’t coddle, conform, mind the clock, name the baby, or turn the lights off. We can move if we wish and stay if we want and paint every last thing yellow.” Lucky us, to have the contraband effects of Holland’s fiction in this issue of the Kenyon Review, joining the conversation the magazine has been having for more than seventy-five years now about what literature can do and be. I can’t help but add that 2015 will bring the release of Holland’s first novel—soon we readers will get to see this master of the short form work at length: naming the baby, minding the clock, and all.