Michael Jeffrey Lee has had a banner roll-out so far, and if you’re interested in what’s behind Something in My Eye, you could do worse than checking out his reading list. Every writer is a reader first, after all.
The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, Hans Christian Anderson
Cruddy, Lynda Barry
Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Thomas Bernhard
The Complete Butcher’s Tales, Rikki Ducornet
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus
The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
Collected Poems, Stevie Smith
Honored Guest, Joy Williams
Here's Lee on the publishing process:
Something in My Eye was published last week after being accepted a year ago, and it was during this limbo period that I found myself going back and forth on how I felt about my creation, trying to decide whether it was just a strung-together hodgepodge or the masterpiece friends and family believed it to be (I never did make up my mind). But now it’s out in the world, being handled by actual hands and delivered wirelessly to handheld devices, and I couldn’t be happier. People reading my work, people thinking about my work, people talking about my work—it’s been a blast imagining the world rolling over for me, letting my lines enter their minds. I’ve been celebrating, too, allowing myself two or three glasses of wine instead of my usual one, dressing up in various costumes and disguises and frequenting a few of the classier establishments down in the Quarter, just for the fun if it. And I haven’t been the only one celebrating in New Orleans this week—carnival was in full swing; the streets were crammed with people and beads; music filled the air; and nothing, not even the many murders, threatened to end the party too soon—we kept it going all the way till Fat Tuesday. Not everyone in the city was celebrating the release of my book, of course, but it wasn’t hard for me to crown myself king for a few days, and just bask.
But that’s all done now. This week, though still young, already feels like a bust. Carnival is over, my book feels like old news, and even my ankle, which I thought I had only rolled during a dance-off, might be needing some serious attention, or at least a look. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertaining some dark thoughts about the world right now, and my place in it. What do you do when you have nothing to look forward to anymore? But then something happens: I see a copy of Something in My Eye on my nightstand. It’s a handsome book—Sarabande did a nice job with it—and I flip through the pages and run my hands over it and sigh a little at this object of mine, this testament to the good times. And I know what I must do. I begin reading, as if it were a stranger’s book and not my own, and allow myself to laugh and be moved by its quirky characters and silly situations as if I were just discovering them for the first time. I am only through the third story now, but if things continue this way I see no reason why I won’t be back to my old hopeful self again soon, possibly even as early as tomorrow. This is the power of literature, even if it’s only one’s own. Living within one’s lines (or another’s) can restore us to our healthy selves, or at least help point us back toward the road to well-being, where we all must go, eventually, if we’re to make it as a people. I pray that this is true. Something in My Eye did it for me. Will you let it do it for you?
Winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction
Selected by Francine Prose
Michael Jeffrey Lee's stories are bizarre and smart and stilted, like dystopic fables told by a redneck Samuel Beckett. Outcasts hunker under bridges, or hole up in bars, waiting for the hurricane to hit. Lee's forests are full of menace too-unseen crowds gather at the tree-line, and bands of petty crooks and marauders bluster their way into suicidal games of one-upmanship. In Something In My Eye, violence and idleness are always in tension, ratcheting up and down with an eerie and effortless force. Diction leaps between registers with the same vertiginous swoops, moving from courtly formality to the funk and texture of a slang that is all the characters' own. It's a masterful performance, and Lee's inventiveness accomplishes that very rare feat-hyper-stylized structure and language that achieve clarity out of turbulence, never allowing technique to obscure what's most important: a direct address that makes visible all those we'd rather not see. As one character puts it, "this is me keeping my chin up, by the way."