(This is a review. This is only a review. Were this a critique it would use words like hypnopompic, gravamen, vastation, unspoliated, and ontological conglomeration.)
The Fall 2002 issue (#39) of Bard College’s biannual literary magazine Conjunctions sparked controversy before the first reader cracked the lasagna thickness of its glossy wraparound Gahan Wilson-covered contents. Each issue is assigned a title by the editor, and Bradford Morrow took it upon himself, apparently to the staggerflasted surprise of all contributors, to bestow upon it “The New Wave Fabulists.” Labeling is taken very seriously by those who deem themselves to live in a ghetto. The very words appeared to be code. “New Wave.” “Fabulists.” Were these prognostications of a developing literary modality? A harkening back to the pioneering criticism of Robert Scholes? An arch refusal by the literary establishment to sully its covers by the use of a humbler label still the province of children’s literature and suspiciously popular films?
This is only a review. Available evidence suggests only that guest editor Peter Straub invited eighteen writers accepted, even embraced, by genre readers as chroniclers of suitably literary bent, but of near-anonymity to regular readers of a literary review put out by a college itself best-known for having graduated Steely Dan.
Yet it is telling that the stories are not allowed to stand on their own, but must be sandwiched between an introduction by Straub, making the usual case that these names should be as widely celebrated (presumably as celebrated as Rikki Ducornet, William T. Vollman, and Diane Williams, who are the starred attractions for Conjunctions:40), and essays by Gary K. Wolfe, doggedly reissuing the usual literary history of f&sf as a pulp genre no more, and John Clute, thrilling with his usual stratospheric vapor trails of metaphor and vocabulary.
And usual because the genre-containing literary review is promulgated to convert the heathens with the repetitious futility of Italian governments. I have on my shelves the Autumn/Winter 1973 issue of edge, containing stories by Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, Gregory Benford, and R. A. Lafferty, as well as the literary debut of a certain writer who was to maintain a consistent anonymity over the length of his career.
Is Conjunctions:39 more of the usual? Can fantasy ever be accepted by the mainstream? Is there any point in even trying if Gene Wolfe can be upheld as an exemplar of the genre in literary magazines over a 29-year span and still be unknown?
This is only a review. Let the stories speak for themselves.
And speak they do, eloquently. To avoid futile repetition of my own, let me make the blanket statement that each story is well written, on a scale from precisely composed to soaringly majestic. No literary embarrassment here. Collectively, these stories are better written than would be the case in any issue of Asimov’s or F&SF. They are calm and mature and thoughtful, if in a controlled and visibly muted way, as befits guests in another’s house. They break no new ground: on the contrary, they look anew at the very bases of fantasy – dreams, myths, gods and devils, fantastic creations, looming deaths – and none pursue genre tropes to overfamiliar territory. The stories here no more speak for the genre of fantasy than any random collection of current work, but they let light shine upon talent never properly acknowledged in the wider world.
John Crowley’s magnificent opening novella, “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” is about nothing less than everything: love, growth, creativity, inspiration, hope, loss, meaning. From its perfectly realized Shakespeare camp of the 1950s (can anyone who has gone to Clarion not feel a wave of identification and nostalgia?) to its bitterly ironic post-polio ending, Crowley makes the mysteries that suffuse our lives our purpose for continuing. Ironic too is the fact that the story is pure mainstream and so not eligible for us to acknowledge with a genre award.
The tale within a tale within a tale is an ancient device that Kelly Link turns inside out and backwards in her novelette, “Lull.” Tales are stories we have not yet heard; lives are stories we know all too well. The two co-exist uneasily in our dreams and hopes. For all the technical pyrotechnics, these tales don’t live up to those in her collection, Stranger Things Happen.
Death is a dream beyond the living, but that is as close to fantasy as M. John Harrison’s short story “Entertaining Angels Unawares” gets. Or are all of our preoccupations about death mere fantasies to allow us to patch the daily holes in our ever-crumbling realities? Pellucid, mundane, almost hyperreal, Angels yet allows for any number of private interpretations as Harrison scrapes away at our defenses about death. Stunning.
“Little Red’s Tango," by Peter Straub, reminds us of the mass of fantasy with religious overtones, inescapable in our culture since the religious writings we are brought up with are fantasy tales through and through. Here’s another tale of life and death and the tedious slog between, of redemption and surfaces and depths. Little Red’s messy collection of old records that he obsessively collects and sorts and caresses and bestows upon others is one of the nicest metaphors for souls that I’ve come across. But we are a pattern-making people – indeed, that is the very basis of Story – and while I was reading Conjunctions I was also inevitably reminded of my concurrent reading of Jack Womack’s Going, Going, Gone, whose protagonist is another fanatical collector of old records. In pure reading pleasure Womack’s gonzo prose appealed to me more than the leaden modernism of Straub’s, which was the story that most reminded me of 60s stylistics. What a different collection this would have been if more Womacks had been invited to this party.
Sex artists would form the basis for a sniggeringly prurient mockery in lesser hands than James Morrow’s. In “The Wisdom of the Skin,” Morrow borrows science fictional archetypes – mad scientists and clones – to ask basic questions about identity and purpose, love and devotion, in a story as surprisingly tender as a lover’s embrace.
Pursued by his chiding sister, Ariel, dark Caliban has escaped from his island mother, Sycorex, to indulge his passion for blond women. Nalo Hopkinson’s short “Shift” appealingly offers playful takes on the themes and symbols from The Tempest, but reinterpreting Shakespeare is an enormous challenge that almost always ends in only middling success.
“The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door, ” Jonathan Lethem’s duplicitous tale of a writer and his true audience – other writers – obviously has no connection to our world at all, none, zero, so it cannot possibly be a satire, cannot be making a comment about genre. No, I insist, no. I will say that the deep, dark chuckles it provided was an unpleasant reminder of how little humor was to be found elsewhere in Conjunctions.
In 1898, the Tlingit shape-changer, Raven – who is not a raven – takes the mourning Mrs. Flammarian on a wondrous journey to the very boundaries that life can achieve in an excerpt from Joe Haldeman’s forthcoming novel, Guardian. Mrs. Flammarian shows an acquaintance with topics of cutting scientific relevance that would be impressive for Max Planck, so there may be more to her character than we are given to see. The tour of marvels is complete unto itself, however, so the excerpt works better than most in creating a true story.
Cities are the touchstone of all modern civilization, but fantasy writers usually make a conscious choice to avoid them and even sf writers fail to use them well. One of the few exceptions is China Miéville, who is besotted with the innumerable messy potentialities of cities. His “Familiar” represents the centrality of curiosity to the human condition, a curiosity better suited to infinite details available in cities, to which most of humanity has traveled. Perhaps there are a few too many details for the story to have a proper pace, but in the end the city consumes us totally.
Moderns have mythologies too, as in Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock’s story song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Fantasy writers just can’t leave “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs” be, and so Andy Duncan uses the song as a springboard for a Dantean vision of death and the ever-lasting longing for life. The story has the headlong rush of his Eastbound Train and some of the liveliest writing in the entire collection. Another laurel for his quickly-growing reputation.
Gene Wolfe’s “Knight” is a series of excerpts from a soon-to-be-published novel set in a fantasy world that appears to be an archetypal overmyth on which our notions of fantasy and mythology are based. As you would expect, every action taken by the young American who has been abstracted into this world is frought with meaning and mystery. Too much mystery for me: despite the precision of the prose, the excerpts never take independent life.
The devil is back, cannily seeking a discount pardon in Patrick O’Leary’s “The Bearing of Light.” In one paragraph, O’Leary says more about faith than in a hundred standard valedictions of Jesus: “Then she told me a story about a bitter man who tried to flood a home with darkness by opening all the doors of the one unlit room in the center. But as many doors as he opened, the darkness never spilled, never spread; it only paled. He found he couldn’t let the dark out; he could only let the light in.”
Death, again, is the topic in Jonathan Carroll’s “Simon’s House of Lipstick.” Perhaps it is our mythological heritage that drives genre to tackling the large, even grandiose, topics of existence and being. If so, Carroll should have done more than just make death a surrealistic examination of life, and lessons learned.
Anonymous riders wearing hoods, stalking the night to avenge the wrongs that an unfeeling society declares to be received truth. John Kessel’s “The Invisible Empire” is the closest to a true genre piece in this volume, possibly because of the touch of melodrama it employs. But it yields a sizeable impact in its short length.
A different slant on any subject is usually expected from Karen Joy Fowler, but I can find none beyond the ironic title. “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man” is pure mainstream, a lightly comic tale of the woes of growing up in 1989. All the clichés about a single-mother’s boy not fitting in and being bullied are stacked in an attractive heap. Just before they totter too precariously, the story stops.
The distance between oblique fiction and opaque fiction is tiny, certainly contributing to the dislike so many people have for oblique fiction. “Abduction,” Paul Park’s short take on the venerable subject of alien abductions and invasions is oblique indeed, being composed of dreams and visions and projections of alien onto the other, and into the self, all in an altered world.
I’m surprised that Elizabeth Hand’s “The Least Trumps” wasn’t sited as the last story in the collection, for it so perfectly balances Crowley’s: both novellas, both with an overshadowing genius of a writer in the background, both creating small self-contained worlds within our own, both on the trials and triumphs of living the fulfilled life, both superb. Tattooing is the central metaphor here and Hand makes the case, inadvertently, I’m sure, that tattooing is a form of collective insanity, much like religion. But so, she argues, so is the transformative nature of fiction, of all art, as dangerous as it can be wonderful.
Anticlimactic, therefore, is Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair,” in which the anthropomorphized Months gather together once a moon to tell tales in the nature of their season. A workable notion, but it read like the script for a potential comic book, and I longed for the artwork that would complete and expand it.
For a reference point, I dipped into Conjunctions:37, their Twentieth Anniversary Issue, to check out the contributions from some of the less-well-known writers included. Does the writing of our New Wave Fabulists stand the comparison? Yes, quite well, thank you. And genre readers may be surprised to learn that even the most oblique pieces in this volume have greater essence of Story than most of the mainstream works I read.
But more. Mainstream is often said to be superior to genre because it tackles the more serious, more profound issues that confront us as living, imperfect beings. Indeed, in The Times of London on December 18, 2002, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto published a screed entitled “Fantasy is the opium of the ignorant and the indolent.” He wrote, “Truth is supposed to be stranger, stronger than fiction, for ours is the strangest of all possible worlds.… For fantasy is self-doomed to be implausible…. Fantasy-writers do not generate myths; they make cut-and-paste confections from the myths of the world…. But unreconstructed myths [he cites the Mahabharata and the Popol Vuh and Icelandic Eddas] are usually better.”
For refutation I present Conjunctions:39. Our Fabulists borrow - better, leap skyward from - myths, but do not limit themselves to the anthropological antiquities of Fernandez-Armesto’s limited imagination. Their reading of mythology is high and low, ancient to modern; their unique variations on myth to confront the greatest of all human questions are both serious and profound, as well as emotionally meaningful.
Conjunctions:39 is a curiosity, one that will reach a limited audience and perhaps puzzle or even irritate readers who approach it from purely genre or mainstream points of view. It is not the best anthology of fantasy ever assembled – only half the stories work, by the extremely exacting standards I have set for them - nor will it change the minds of those who are advocates either of pure Story or pure Expression. As much as a representation of the current state of literary genre by eighteen random newly-written stories could be, though, it is a marvel, showcasing strengths and abilities that few outside the close readers of the genre even suspected existed. It should encourage and challenge writers in the field to rise up a level, to write the big stories, the deep stories, to create by sheer force of ability an audience that will rise along with the works.
And in 2031, the leading literary blogazine on the EEGwire will feature a special issue of them.
Copyright 2002 by Steve Carper