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Alta Ifland
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Subiuto Press
US Trade Paperback First Edition
ISBN 978-0-983-11500-7
Publication Date: 01-01-2011
96 Pages ; $14
Date Reviewed: 05-17-2011

Index:  Fantasy  General Fiction

Stories lie underneath the world; they underpin our lives in a manner that only certain types of stories can expose with any clarity. Realistic stories about our everyday inner and outer lives can tell us more about them than actual experience, but they don't get underneath. Folktales, fairy tales, family yarns and oddball fantasies are our best means for examining our under-lives, the basic elements with which we construct the narratives that we use to define ourselves. The best of these offer a timeless and seamless blend of realistic and fantastic images. They create a sort of literary sonogram that shows us not the surfaces with which we are so familiar, but the beating heart, the pumping blood, the peristaltic organs, and the connective tissues that keep our minds alive.

Folktales are alas not much in vogue now, not in the short form. We must then be doubly thankful for Alta Ifland's 'Death-In-A-Box,' a thankfully thin volume of very short stories, fables, and tales that aren't easily categorized. Ifland's work is a unique blend of the fantastic and the ordinary, of family fables and mythic imagery. These stories are a delight to read and re-read.

The title story is a perfect example of Ifland's unique work. In a few brief sentences, she sets up a mythic relationship, then brings it into the family: "In the days when Death wasn't hidden behind a plastic door in a rectangular-shaped odorless funeral home, but was Life's sister, Beauty was clothed in the enigmatic glow of Death and walked in its shoes; then gradually, Death's mischievous twinkle in the eye was replaced by icy terror. But when I grew up, some people still remembered Death's playfulness and thought that if only they could beat it at its own game, they would eventually cheat Death and escape its inexorability. My grandfather was one of them."

Of course, there's a box in the family, and the narrator, a box collector, is curious. Ifland's direct and pristine prose is perfect for connecting these opposing points; the great abstractions and the pointed details of life. She surely understands how the story of death connects to those details, but flows freely underneath, a river within our consciousnesses, and has the language to make that connection.

Ifland grew up in Romania amidst a bevy of Aunts and Uncles, and there's a lovely Eastern European lilt to her prose and sense of story. In "Uncle Otto Plays Chess," informers and comrades eat fried brains, and make reports on one another that dissolve as language and reality itself dissolve. In "Fried Brains," "It was the eighties. The store shelves were empty...At Venus, the biggest restaurant in town, there was only one thing on the menu: fried brains." And, in "The Missing Hand," the results of those fried brains becomes apparent; "When the furniture began to sweat, I knew that the world I'd known until then was gone."

Gone indeed, but not the Aunts, Uncles and the Narrator, as Ifland's prose poem experiments, one- and two-page stories like, "No One's Story" and "Mrs. Q's Drug-Store" take us back to the basics of voice and perception. 'Death-In-A-Box' is sly, smart invader, a work of language-as-virus not from outer, but inner space. It's grim, funny, subversive and submersive. Reading these stories, you get the feeling that it is possible to step under the world and look up at life, death, the whole shebang — and laugh, maybe weep. Perhaps, if you're lucky, you might even understand.

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