I wanted to like this book more, but it just didn't work out.Poetry in this country has been destroyed by MFA programs, which produce poets and work which are only read by other MFA professors and students—can only possibly be read by other MFA professors and students, because that is the only audience sufficiently trained in its arcane rules of self-regard to understand what's being attempted. The poets take their small audiences as a badge of honor! I am not part of that world and I don't want to be; I refuse to support it, and that includes reading it.Now prose writing seems to be following poetry into the same quicksand: MFA-trained writers produce work that is new and interesting only when read in the context of what some other MFA-trained writer produced last year. Work that does not even attempt to engage a wide readership, because its authors have never experienced one and wouldn't know how to deal with one if it found them.Now, I love when authors play with language and narrative structures, because I think that our abilities to speak and tell stories are central to what makes us human, and thinking about how they work and affect the rest of our lives is not only a lot of fun but can actually change those lives. I appreciate that language and narrative play are fun for their own sakes—I make puns, for instance—but I don't pretend that play has some larger meaning, holds any interest for other people: it has to be brought into significance by other means. Even if the significance—the "point" of your writing—is actually something about language itself, you have to make that point against a context of some existing common understanding of what language does. And when your only readers are your MFA cohort or your peers at the MFA program down the road, the size of that context shrinks to a couple dozen of your friends, to the point where the word "publishing" loses all practical meaning. The only people who can read such work are the people who helped you create it.So: Sara Levine likes to play with language and narrative structures, and sometimes it's great—hence 3 stars. But sometimes I don't get the point at all.I first heard about Levine in pre-release hype for her novel Treasure Island!!!, which I'm in the middle of and really enjoying. That book is published by a small but mainstream press, Europa Editions (under its Tonga imprint, which is curated by Alice Sebold—now there's mainstream readership for you). Whereas I got Short Dark Oracles from its publisher, Caketrain, which produces a journal and a couple of chapbooks annually full of this kind of writing: they've been around for 10 years but they're small, they don't have distribution, you gotta find out about them through word of mouth. Or through your MFA program.And that's the risk with this kind of writing and publishing, even if an "outsider" like me manages to discover it: that it'll be part of that insular MFA world and its goals—and hence whether it succeeds or fails—will be opaque to anyone who doesn't already know the secret. To anyone, effectively, who's not already a friend of the author.Levine has some great stuff here: "A Promise" is a fantastic story of a young mother who decides she can fight Fate, and goes about it in an unusual way. She has a unique voice, her character develops and changes, and the story concludes in a way that opens out into a larger context which can include the reader. Aside from its unusual events, "A Promise" is actually a pretty traditional story with a linear structure—and it succeeds on the terms traditional stories have done for centuries. "The Good Woman" is a short-short (2 pages) which works similarly: a sequence that gets exaggerated and escalated until an unexpected end. "Baby Love" does that and more, because that unexpected end is expressed in a gorgeous image: In place of my feelings, substitute the emptiness of a rain barrel, its wood drying out, its metal staves creaking, an arid silence after two years of learning to hold the rain. You don't have to be an MFA student to get the power of that.But then there's "For the Floor," which is told in the second person and inventively substitutes "_______" for your lover's name. _______ is a bad match with no consideration for your life, but you're drawn to him anyway. This mismatch is expressed in various scales and contexts—and then the story stops. Sure, that section happens "after you break up," which explains the stopping—but the characters are no different and the story has no conclusion: it's just a collection of events with an arbitrary-feeling sequence imposed on them. "The Following Fifteen Things" works the same way, except its end-event is a firing, not a breakup.And then there's the title story, "Short Dark Oracles," which is longer than any two other stories combined, taking up the middle third of the book. Alex has been fired and can't find another job, so his friends Cy and Sonya suggest he consult an oracle. The oracle's statement seems to be about sex, so Cy and Sonya direct Alex to their friend Amelia and her fiancé Richard, and several varieties of inconclusive sex ensue. Alex keeps going back to the oracle. Amelia and Richard get married at the zoo, and then the story ends thus: Amelia and Richard walked arm in arm, looking happy, but not particularly just married. They might have been coming out of a bar, thought Alex, or a show."Oh, well," Richard said. "I've seen bigger sea lions than that." WTF? I mean, huh? What does that have to do with anything in the previous 30 pages? What does that tell me about Alex, or the oracle, or meaningless bizarre sex? It's hard to take it as anything other than an inside joke, and it sours the whole story for me.Sara Levine got her MFA at [thus-n-such] and now teaches in the MFA program at [whoop-de-doo]. But I sure as hell hope that's not the entire context of her writing career, because she can be better than that.