Assuming my issue of EYE SPY, a British glossy devoted to “The Covert World of Espionage,” can be trusted, between 1973 and 1995 the United States government (and its Chinese and Soviet rivals) spent millions hiring teams of personnel to scry photographs of enemy installations and describe their heretofore unknowable innards. A final report on the Stargate Project, a remote viewing project conducted during these years (preceded by Sunstreak, Dragon Absorb, Centerline, Grill Flame and Gondola Wish), acknowledged a “statistically observable effect,” albeit one producing information too “vague and ambiguous … to yield actionable intelligence.”
A contemporary remote viewing conducted by Jeff Martin, fiction editor of This Land Press and (with C. Max Magee) The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, yielded far better results. Imaginary Oklahoma is an anthology of forty-six writers’ attempts to envision Oklahoma without ever having visited America’s forty-sixth state. Martin, in his introduction to the book, describes his inspiration for the project. He gives nods to Lydia Davis’s collection of super-short stories, with their ability to create “worlds in mere sentences” and “beautiful questions” from “simple narrative,” and Ed Ruscha’s 1990 painting No Man’s Land, which Martin describes as “The ghostly outline of the pan-shaped land. The shadowy question mark stretched across the canvas, almost menacing.” It was an excellent pairing of prompts. Imaginary Oklahoma manages to raise the stakes of the short-prose form.
Flash fiction is tricky. There isn’t much room to maneuver. There are two classic strategies: You can do what Charles Baudelaire did in “The Bad Glazier,” and drill tightly down on a single experience. Or you can swing the other way, and open the aperture as wide as you possibly can, and ape Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Iniquity, a collection of crónicas, a form of miniature short story that appears in the op-ed pages of Spanish-language newspapers.
Both strategies rely heavily on implicit knowledge. Baudelaire was so familiar with Paris that his descriptions are almost fractal in their power. Borges did the same thing, only he used genre conventions and schoolboy history to imply setting and description. A bungled setting can ruin a story. Forcing writers to imagine a state they’ve never set foot in—particularly to an audience of readers that will likely consist of Oklahoma residents (This Land Press is most famous for its biweekly literary broadsheet, which is focused on the Sooner State)—doesn’t let them use Borges or Baudelaire as a model. So Imaginary Oklahoma is the literary equivalent of a high-wire act.
Take Matt Bondurant’s contribution, “Stillwater,” as an example. He writes about a boy waking up at the bottom of a lake and walking into town each morning. It’s an evocative, beautiful story. But “Stillwater” has potent connotations in the Sooner State. I am very new to Oklahoma, and have only the faintest glimmer of what the towns outside of my county are like, but I know enough to imagine the town of Stillwater as a really raucous place. It is a college town, home to football goliath Oklahoma State University (not to mention the National Wrestling Hall of Fame), and they’re famous for dumping bright orange dye into their fountains, so it’s hard to read this elegant, quiet story without it being spoiled by the memory of OSU’s brash, orange marching bands and six-gun-toting mascot.
Of course I haven’t actually been there, and there is a lake, and for all I know it might be creepy at night—even if it is called Boomer Lake—and all lakes are murky near the bottom. So a real Okie might find it refreshing. So I take that back, I do buy a creepy little boy who floats to the surface of a lake each morning to spy on other children at the playground. The story certainly stuck with me. I just worry about the poor kid getting beaned by an errant football.
Many Imaginary Oklahoma stories grapple with the missing setting by illustrating space. Rebecca Makkai’s “Rich Rice from Tulsa” evokes Oklahoma using an object plundered from a drawer. The narrator observes six people in a dorm room looking at a roommate’s photo and trying to imagine Rich Rice from Tulsa, “who never talks.” Though we never “see” Oklahoma, we feel space—the crowded cube of a dorm room, the drawer sliding open, the cruel redhead who finds Rich Rice’s snapshot inside of that drawer, and the map they draw and the memory of a gun-shaped Oklahoma it triggers.
Nathaniel Rich’s “Enid, Oklahoma” creates space in an even more vivid and literal way. He traps two men, named Ralph and Van, in a “gray concrete room” that is a perfect cube “except for a small rectangular cardboard box in one corner.” Their only source of light is an “overhead fluorescent panel” that flickers on in the beginning, and off at the end. Joshua Ferris stops just short of the border in his story “Quapaw, OK, 5/11” and lets only his shadow fall into the Sooner State. “Stand atop this pave for a year and you’d make no impression. Oklahoma is not sensitive,” concludes Ferris’s narrator—but alas, neither is he (or she): Quapaw’s skyline is dominated by the billion-dollar Downstream Casino, and the Quapaw Nation is notoriously litigious (and rightfully so—their land is contaminated with heavy metals.)
Other ways across time and space are explored. Both Tao Lin (“Nicolas Cage’s Agent”) and Aletha Black (“Oklahoma Exclamation Point”) use online communication and the dudgeon of celebrity culture to realistically render the missing state. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! is also frequently used as a jumping off point (as are classrooms and concerts). One of the most successful devices is bodily fluid. Caitlin Horrocks’s elegant “Rest Stop” describes a hamburger franchise in a “turnpike service island” as “a pimple, flat-faced Oklahoma stretching clear-skinned around,” while a toddler’s swelling bladder and her mother’s rising temper provide suspense and knit together the economics of lonely freeway towns, a traveler’s demand, and the tension between a couple—and lets it go. (“Show Biz Folk Hero,” by Laurie Notaro, uses the approaching threat of a urine puddle to a similar and quite sublime effect.)
Out of all the stories, Jonathan Lethem’s “Ma Bell’s” would be the most likely to be chosen by an intelligence agency trying to peer into the inner workings of the city of Tulsa. He achieves this using misdirection. Rather than have us swallow the premise of Oklahoma, he presents an even more peculiar distraction: a restaurant in Tulsa with “a phone on every table and you called your order into the kitchen, nice gimmick at the time.” If you can swallow that premise, Tulsa having miniature golf and a hundred-degree weather goes down easy. (Lethem cut his teeth writing science fiction, which may explain his extraordinary ability to evoke alien cities.)
EYE SPY’s Mike Finn compares remote viewing to two people “flat hunting.” One “may instantly pick up on the ‘vibes’ of a house, believing it to be ‘friendly’ or ‘sinister,’ the other person will be totally indifferent, to them it’s just a house.” There is a sense of loss running through Imaginary Oklahoma. There are phantom amputations (Rachel Kushner’s “Find Your Oklahoma”) and implanted tendons donated by dead Indians (“Arbuckle Rift,” by Nancy Mauro)—even former Sooner State resident Rivka Galchen’s foreword, describing a road trip she took as a teenager, is powered by what appears to be a mysterious leather satchel.
Perhaps this loss is only the residue of writers telegraphing their frustration with an unknown subject matter, but writers are by nature sensitive people, and to this recent arrival in Oklahoma, Imaginary Oklahoma seems to have tapped into something palpable. Oklahoma is a very haunted state. Backcountry roads are said to be visited by glowing spook lights and prowled by wampus cats (a mythological monster said to be a jealous Cherokee wife, who wore a panther skin to follow her husband on a hunting trip, and was caught by the tribe’s medicine man watching a sacred rite. As punishment the medicine man bound the rotting skin to her flesh and chased her into a swamp).
The state even has a vestigial twin: the proposed state of Sequoyah, now northeastern Oklahoma, which would have encompassed the Five Civilized Tribes, who were forcibly relocated to what was then Indian Country and what is now Oklahoma; tribes whose land was later stolen from them, despite treaties guaranteeing them land in perpetuity and stretching back to the Louisiana Purchase. Imaginary Oklahoma has felt the pulse of that secret, sinister history circulating beneath the state.
And what do real Okies tell stories about? I watched a lecture about the use of symbols at the Cherokee Arts Center in Tahlequah (capital of Cherokee Nation, would-have-been capital of Sequoyah, had Theodore Roosevelt said yes). There were probably fifty people packed into a small metal shop. The center is new, but the building dates back to the nineteenth century, and the walls are thick and made of masonry. A storm raged in the darkness outside. Despite the walls the distant thunder sounded like mortar fire.
“There are some stories you don’t tell outsiders,” said the lecturer. Someone drew a snake on the blackboard: an Uktena, an evil thing, a blazing, bejewelled serpent as thick as tree trunk that dazzled its prey and ate it.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” said one of the artists in the audience. “But the Uktena is no myth. My grandfather thought he was stepping on a log near the creek the other night and then that log started to slither.”
And then someone else chimed in: “Is that why they painted those things all over the casino? Was it a warning?”
James McGirk is a Tahlequah, Oklahoma-based writer. For more information, visit jamesmcgirk.com