Issue #216: Catacombs
by Jason Zencka

cover_os_216On my first trip to Rome, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Inside those underground caverns I discovered a true Momento Mori—thousands of skeletons of Capuchin monks, deconstructed to form elaborate frescoes and decorative arches—as well as a sign that read: What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be. The monks, I was told, would pray in the crypt every night before going to sleep, among the vertebrae and femurs and skulls of their brothers. When I first read Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs,” I was reminded of the beauty of that cold, dark place—not just because of the reference to the catacombs and tunnels that the narrator, George, travels to over his life, but because of how perfectly this story captures the mysterious places our minds create and then wander through, when dealing with the loss of someone we love. “Catacombs” breaks so many rules of fiction, slipping through time, playing with point of view, deconstructing its own narrative voice, and yet somehow through this process, it sets its finger exactly on a difficult truth—the guilt of those of us left behind, so desperate to commune and connect that it leads us to find solace and beauty in fragments, whether they are pieces of bone or memory. That this is Jason Zencka’s debut publication makes “Catacombs” all the more special. Please read his Q&A to find out more about this remarkable story, and in the meantime, join me in welcoming a talented new writer to the literary stage.

4 thoughts on “Issue #216: Catacombs
by Jason Zencka

  1. It’s great to break convention, but one expects something remarkable to take its place. For all the fine language and lyricism, I found this story frustrating. We start with a powerful scene that promises some kind of erotic encounter, always galvanizing, but then learn that’s not the point… then the brother disappears, creating another opportunity for suspense which we are told is not the point either…This “double clutch” would be OK if what followed was fascinating or revelatory (sorry for that pretentious word). But the narrator’s resulting obsession with catacombs and tombs and the parenthetical journey through the lower depths of his adult life is not very interesting…. seems literary and forced; the unreliability of memory, how it mixes with fact and longing, is also well trod territory. Would the loss of Winnie when the narrator was 8 really have such a devastating effect? And to be even more obnoxious, I didn’t find Winnie himself that lovable or original…Sorry, I expect more, though I enjoyed the vivid descriptions…

  2. I disagree with the above comment that Winnie isn’t likable. Younger children will look up to the older ones even when they fight. I loved that Winnie was selfish and a jerk in the memory. I also think the sudden revelation in the middle of the story was a great choice that made it feel more suspenseful because I was waiting for something bad to happen to the younger boy or for him to discover something about himself, but instead all we find out is that we can’t trust his memories, and that his parents clearly took the pain of losing Winnie harder than George did (and George did take it hard). I thought the pull away from the conventional use of suspense in this story was great.

  3. I loved this story. Was riveted in the opening scene with the absurd, funny interaction of a very young boy trying to get some–with his little brother in tow. Sure, the story changes directions slightly, but Winnie’s still on vacation, he still wants to escape, the little brother, George is still along for the ride. Everything that happened in that opening scene–Winnie’s boldness in putting his hand on the sexy lady’s hand, the blue drink, all of it–is put into question as the story unravels its layers. *SPOILER ALERT* All of it is fiction. Of course the brother speaks Spanish, of course they played ball *after he disappeared. The whole bit with the tacqueria takes us into this very strange place and then explains it. I like the way the story unfolded. And I liked the heart of it–this guilt.

  4. It’s an incredible story that I could not put down. I’m looking forward to reading it again!

    I’ve been to the catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. Catacombs are very scary places. I like how this story works on so many different levels, and makes you confront mortality, your own and the mortality of those you love.

    Excellent writing!

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