The mighty reading list dictates and, having dictated, moves on...
So a nice little lit short fiction comp to cleanse the palate after tons of genre maThe mighty reading list dictates and, having dictated, moves on...
So a nice little lit short fiction comp to cleanse the palate after tons of genre material. This officially would be a 2.5 or even 2.75 if such things could be, but gets the 2 over the 3 because, yeah, I didn't finish it and that was at least partly by choice - granted, I had run out the Inter-library loan clock and now owe something like $11 in fines for keeping it for so long but, even then, I would have toughed it out if I'd felt it was likely to be ultimately rewarding.
Which is not say or even imply this is a bad book or that Williams is a bad writer - not at all. I could imagine that for some her style might even be an eye opening or (if writers) style-changing event.
Cause here's the thing - Williams writes these super-short concentrated pieces - you can't even call them stories because by most standards they're not. It's lit flash (probably called micro-fiction at the time) and looking at lit versions of the form (much as I did when reading Short Shorts) helps me grapple with my various problems and questions about the genre version of the form.
Because Lit has it easier in this case - the freedom to do almost anything, in any way, with any attack, towards any point, means that expectations are slightly different for these pieces than they would be for genre flash. Everything is up for grabs, essentially.
So what you get here is an endless stream of 1,2,3 or even 1/2 page pieces. Disjointed, skeletal narratives that occasionally sketch the bare expectations of story. More often (not surprisingly), character sketches hinged on the smallest of events (which sometimes makes the title of great importance - and sometimes, not at all). Tart vignettes illuminating psyches.
I could certainly see how this could be enjoyable or revelatory for a reader, especially those encountering the "finished with narrative/plot is the enemy" movement for the first time. And I'm not even saying that reader can't be me - there are some great pieces here, which I'll discuss in a moment - this collection arrived like a breath of fresh air after being smothered in genre and heavy narrative fiction for a while (it's a key component of both of my jobs!), reminding me yet again of the wide variety of ways there are to write fiction. Certainly, aspiring flash writers should check out Williams' stuff.
On the other hand, "collection" is the important point. I left this book, half unread, feeling like I'd already had way more of Williams than I wanted (for all I know, there may have been some gems in that second half). Partly (as I said before) this was just a function of circumstance (clock was ticking) but, more so, these pieces strike me as works that would be most effective when read singularly, in magazines or at least at a slow pace - little baubles to be savored (when they work) or discarded (when they don't), shining more in relation to other works around them than heaped up together as here.
And that's kind of the way it is with experiments in form - the best works here weave a delicate web of associations with image and dialogue, evoking some off-kilter mood or oddly conflicted idea. Gnomic cameos crafted of words, they feel like a segment of time illuminated by a flash-bulb of language - meaning and depth hinted at but just fading into the dark as the intended length of the piece encroaches and... that's all you get. So you go back and study what's in the word photo, what was actually said and how.... Unlike a lot of experimental writing Williams work is generally accessible (if frustrating) and reminded me a bit of David Lynch, not in the brooding creepiness sense but in the sense that the work has meaning, the meaning is possibly inscrutable and that inscrutability doesn't really matter.
The worst here (maybe "most unsuccessful") are so vague as to seem random, with no apparent hook enticing one to puzzle them out, coming off instead like some slapdashed-off musing, recording a "shocking" thought or thin concept. Even those failures can sometimes be illuminating in a way, as Williams really does have a distinctly odd and considered language construction sense, a writer's toolbox full of self-cancelling or repetitive phrases, deliberately unbalanced contrasts and flow-disrupting choices so when the magic doesn't gel, you find yourself examining the construction a bit more. But in the end, these weaker pieces feel like experiments in conjuring the *implication* of meaning through language, without there actually being any. Which I guess is somebody's bag, but not mine unless I'm reading DADA.
So much for form, what of content? Well, as I said, it's mostly vague since plot or narrative is barely the point but there are recurrent themes. Sex, relationships, money, beauty, social station, the wealthy (or at least well-off), children, social gatherings, meals, public spaces, wedding rings and ordering systems. Many of the barely glimpsed characters strike me as painfully self-aware, self-involved, insecure and smart but over-thinking types who inhabit worlds of vague and unformed (but strongly held) concerns - language and dialogue forcing their statements to seem to have more weight (or be more absolute) than they possibly intend. There are a lot of (internally) ugly and shallow people here and the author can sometimes seem brave for courageously sketching them honestly, but at other times there seems nothing valorous about asking us to contemplate such vacuity (at times once can feel that persistent worry about the incipient, growing sociopathology of the leisured classes leaking through - people who care about nothing very much except caring about their interior lives A LOT!). Williams isn't judging - doesn't really even have space to judge - just recording and sketching.
In truth, I liked the experiment with form/style more than the content (at times the content seemed almost aggressively negligible). Occasionally, there's a fun piece ("Eero", which another reviewer complained about, cracked me up with its repeated letters attempting to replicate the effect of two people saying the same thing simultaneously). It occurs to me that hearing Williams read some of these pieces might prove illuminating, if nothing else giving an example of what words she choices to stress.
But, as I said, they all felt like they were piling up after a while.
"Here's Another Ending" had a nice fable-like feeling and "Gods Of The Earth At Home" has some sharp class observation. "All American" and "To Die" are, respectively, excellent examples of that sociopathic observation or ugly shallowness. "Ultimate Object" and "Again" were extremely creepy and "Egg" uses the idea of a killer and victim in an interesting way - but "The Case Of The Cold Murderer" had me intrigued until the non-sequitur ending.
It might make for an interesting and divisive episode of Pseudopod (hearkening back to the post-modernism experimentation of our Christine Brooke-Rose episode) if I were to get the rights to the creepy pieces...
Late to the game on this one - which is fine because I could never keep up with the endless swell of everything old I want to read AND everything newLate to the game on this one - which is fine because I could never keep up with the endless swell of everything old I want to read AND everything new I want to read. I'd read 3 stories by Joe Hill before, in various collections, and was immediately struck by his authorial strengths. Here we have a collection of most of his early short fiction in one package - proving that he is not just a horror author but a non-genre lit author as well.
"Best New Horror" is, simply put, a masterpiece - not just because in some sense the main character is me (harried & slightly burned out horror short fiction editor still dedicated to quality despite the vicissitudes of the field), nor that it does a marvelous job spinning an engaging and plausible story, nor even because of the masterful downshift into tense, suspenseful thriller mode as it ascends to its climax - No, it's because of that psychologically brilliant and totally believable moment of conflicted exultation that it ends on.
"20th Century Ghost" is another home-run knocked out of the park, reminding me of David J. Schow's story "One For The Horrors" in terms of it being a love letter to the soon-to-be-dead theater-going experience. It's the tale of a haunted movie theater, the ghost that resides there and the man who she has haunted most of his life - oh, and movies: the spectral, ineffable, awful (in its original sense) phenomena of cinema and the movie house - the real "ghost" of the 20th Century. It ends on a sad and beautiful note, as well. Hill's impressive story control means that even details that would, in lesser hands, signpost later plot points are integrated so well and misdirected around that you don't see see them until they pay off (FANTASIA - I should have seen it coming!).
Hill explores whimsical territory with "Pop Art", the story of a boy's friendship with an inflatable friend and it's melancholy outcome. It just asks you to accept its conceit and then runs with. Hard to say what exactly it's a metaphor for - creativity and imagination in a philistine culture? sexual or racial identity? physical or mental illness? - but entertaining, regardless.
"You Will Hear The Locusts Sing" is a strange variant of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" recast for a post-B-Movie ("atomic radiation"), post-Columbine world. In a way, a story that strongly resonates with his father's pulp film/blue collar fiction.
"Abraham's Boys" is about the conflicted, adolescent offspring of Bram Stoker's vampire slaying character and their gradual questioning of whether their abusive father's lifelong narrative of supernatural threat is really true or a religious/fetishistic obsession. Excellent read.
A nuanced study of a young boy with anxiety/OCD issues and his relationship with his father, "Better Than Home" is the first solidly lit piece in the collection (although it also features a scene with a horrifying discovery of a dead body). It's an emotionally honest and compelling read (the aforementioned dead body scene is a high point) but I also felt that the early focus on the father's televised temper tantrums didn't really pay off relative to the time spent on it, story-wise.
"The Black Phone" is a taught and engaging scenario of a boy kidnapped by a predator and imprisoned in a basement - given an extra jolt by a touch of the supernatural evidenced by the titular object.
An extended character study of a cynical, rebellious young adult welded to a suspense narrative, "In The Rundown" positions the guy in a very bad place through no fault of his own. While the ending may leave you hanging, I appreciated that it didn't spell out the obvious danger to the main character.
"The Cape" is a bit of magical realism with a central conceit - a boy's lucky blanket, when worn as a cape, allows him to "fly" (well, float). In truth, I was digging this up until the ending, which seemed both a bit nasty (given the character established) and perfunctory.
"Last Breath" has a fine, near surrealistic conceit at its core (a museum of death rattles and their curator) and is only let down a bit by the ending - but then, its short enough to function more as an entertaining bit of flash and not be judged as an actual story.
...which I cannot say for "Dead Wood", which struck me (as a lot of flash does) as a "cool idea" (here: ghosts of trees) that the author failed to build a story around. The acknowledgments section of the book hides another flash piece, "Scheherazade's Typewriter" about a device that continues to produce fiction after its owner's death, that I liked a little more.
More straight lit fiction appears in "The Widow's Breakfast" where a Depression-era hobo connects with a lonely and kind widow. I liked it.
"Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead" may feature George Romero and Tom Savini but this story is not horror, instead it's a charming tale of a failed comedian and his college crush accidentally reuniting on the set of DAWN OF THE DEAD where they're auditioning as zombie extras. Great, human character detail and again I appreciate that Hill didn't feel the need to state the obvious (the real parentage of the woman's child).
Probably the oddest and most ambitious piece here is "My Father's Mask", in which a boy spends time with his odd parents on a visit to an isolated family cabin and has a number of strange encounters. Surrealistic, disturbing, symbolic and even coldly erotic, it's an ambiguous and haunting piece.
Equally strong, although more direct, is "Voluntary Committal". Hill really seems to have a knack for the "Bradbury approach" - that is to say, he seems to have been mentally recording every sensation and thought he experienced as a child for later use in fiction. The story is a rumination on troubled adolescence, friendships, siblings and a very Stephen King-like examination of the "wild talents" of the "differently gifted" ("Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" comes to mind). This a great weird tale, confidently deployed and absolutely justifying its extended length. A great note to end on. ...more
I didn't read this book, I just read one story and, honestly, I read that one story online (thank you MARXISTS.ORG!) but I like to record my reactionsI didn't read this book, I just read one story and, honestly, I read that one story online (thank you MARXISTS.ORG!) but I like to record my reactions on GOODREADS so...
And, of course it was "A Madman's Diary" - considered the first modern piece of Chinese fiction. Go read it - it's right under that link above and is pretty short. Obviously intended as political allegory, it concerns the written record of a young man who, in the throes of madness, extrapolates the tyranny of old, rural values into a paranoid belief that the world is secretly filled with cannibals (noting, in the text, actual historic moments of real cannibalism in Chinese history), including his own brother. "Save the children..." indeed.
Nicely done - I liked the resonances with Gogol's similarly titled tale and I especially liked the bit where the young man, looking through his history books, begins to realize that written between the lines of all books is the secret message "Eat People"! Will probably do a podcast of this on PSEUDOPOD as part of an Asian Horror retrospective - at which, no doubt, high brows will get all sniffy and presume I am "missing the point of the thing". Ahhhh... fun!
What a fascinating collection! Perhaps not a good choice for an idle reader of Jackson looking for something toIT'S A LONG REVIEW FOLKS, BUT WORTH IT!
What a fascinating collection! Perhaps not a good choice for an idle reader of Jackson looking for something to chew on after "The Lottery" (that choice would be The Lottery: Adventures of the Demon Lover or possibly The Magic of Shirley Jackson - I have not read the latter) but for those who have commenced through the superb The Haunting of Hill House and the wondrous We Have Always Lived in the Castle and are wondering what to read next - here's a solid option. And the interesting thing is that it will give you both what you *want* out of Jackson while also challenging your perceptions of her as a writer... and how you take that challenge will depend on your tastes.
The concept is fairly easy - this is half a collection of Jackson's short fiction that has previously been uncollected, and half a collection drawn from a box of manuscripts discovered after her death. And that's where the really interesting part comes in - what are these pieces? Juvenilia? In at least once case, certainly. But they also comprise experiments and rough drafts and unpolished texts and almost certainly works intended to be returned to but abandoned. To some, this will make half the book less than worthwhile but such a dismissive attitude will seriously undermine your enjoyment. If you're interested in a great writer's works, or are a writer yourself, you can certainly gain quite a bit by reading these texts - and make no mistake, they are all complete texts (well, one actually is thoroughly undeveloped but still "whole", if you get my meaning) - and gain respect for Jackson's talent and scope.
The most productive way to group these stories for review (and, yes, I'm going to review them all, as is my wont - it will be long) is into two tones - The Light and The Dark - and this itself is generally informative because it's good to be reminded (unless one has read Raising Demons or Life Among the Savages) that Jackson was not a "horror" writer but instead was a lit writer with interests that embraced both sides of the human equation. And she was a working short fiction writer who wrote stories to sell to magazines. So, again, if you think you'd only be interested in Jackson's dark work here, well... this review can serve as a guide and that's your prerogative, but you'll be missing the opportunity to read a top writer in solid control of her craft turning out some funny and powerful work that will broaden your conception of writing. Not all of it is successful of course, but that's why I write these reviews. Among Jackson's strengths was her economy of words and observation skills, her "sharpness" (for lack of a better word) - and the weaker of the abandoned texts are work that hasn't been properly stropped to a fine edge yet, or whose focus is unclear and undeveloped (and occasionally, so cut back as to be a little too spare on story hooks).
So let's start with The Light. Jackson had obvious interests/concerns/themes as a writer that she repeatedly made her focus. Men and women and their relationships, boys and girls and how their minds develop, family dynamics, social status and interpersonal interactions and class - these are themes that turn up again and again. And these are usually subtly explored in a number of ways from differing viewpoints. Sometimes out-and-out comedy, sometime wry neutrality or charming tale-spinning. Quite a number of them were written for, and published in, women's magazines of the time like "Mademoiselle", "Woman's Home Companion" and "Good Housekeeping".
As I said, not everything here is excellent - even with the caveat framing of half being abandoned texts. So let's get those out of the way first. "When Barry Was Seven" is the only throw-away here - essentially a humorous transcript of a discussion about books and reading between Jackson and her husband and their young son - it reads like placeholder notes for Raising Demons. "I Don't Kiss Strangers" seems an early experiment in sharpening Jackson's dialogue skills and centers on a break-up between a college-age couple. In "The Very Hot Sun In Bermuda" a flirty college girl has an extended discussion with the married painter she's having an affair with. I'm guessing the point is the contrast between the passionate devotion of painter (who will likely have his marriage destroyed and lose his children) and the girl's treatment of the whole thing as a romantic lark (likely pursued to gain her an easy painting for her art class that she can pass off as her own work). But that's me guessing. "Deck The Halls" seems to be about class consciousness and a good deed performed on Christmas Eve. Fine but bland, as there's no conflict or real humor, rather Hallmark-card-y. "On The House" is something like a Raymond Carver piece - a blind man and his young wife scam a liquor store cashier out of some money - perhaps it was an experiment in a different approach (although this was a published piece) but it didn't work for me. "Little Old Lady In Great Need" is somewhat similar to the preceding story - set during the war-rationing years it has a very proper, upper class great-grandmother instruct her young daughter on how a real Lady *should* and *shouldn't* behave as she bargains a butcher out of the only piece of meat he has in the shop, his own evening's steak. Okay but nothing to write home about. "Alone In A Den Of Cubs" is a light domestic comedy about being Den-mother to a Cub Scout troop and observations on how young boys' minds work. Again, pretty slight but not unenjoyable. "The Omen" reuses elements from some darker tales (leaving your life to chance and a random encounter with a street advertising campaign) and tells of a woman, faced with a matrimonial problem, who decides to use a randomly acquired list of strange notations to drive her movements and thus let fate answer the question. Light, cute, thin.
On a slightly better (if still somewhat problematic) level are stories like: "Party Of Boys" which is similar to "Cubs" - as it has a suburban mother put in charge of a gaggle of young kids she must wrangle (and thus puts it in the orbit of Life Among the Savages) - but adds a level of subtle but pointed class observation as the mom discovers that the town ne're-do-well shares her son's birthday (and nobody is going to throw that juvenile delinquent a party!). Funny and well done. "The Sister" is a bit like a humorous, barbed, drawing-room sketch by Saki as an adult brother and sister (she marrying below her station, he secretly married below his station) wrangle in the family dynamic. Cute. "Portrait" is one of those pieces that someone else will have to decipher for me as it's another experiment - little scenes interspersed with lines from a poem or song. Possibly of interest for fans of Merricat (from We Have Always Lived in the Castle) with the line "they want me to comb my hair". "Gnarly, The King Of The Jungle" is an odd story about a spoiled young girl who uses her extra-special birthday present as an intermediary to take petty revenge on the put-upon housemaid. More class concerns, certainly, but it's hard to see the point as nothing more than "spoiled little girls can be cruel", unless it's more subtle than I'm giving it credit for and went right over my head. "My Recollections Of S.B. Fairchild" is a domestic comedy written in a dry, droll, understated way - a record of the purchase of a tape-recorder (a big ticket item at the time) that subsequently breaks and how department store bureaucracy sets in motion a domino chain of frustrating correspondence. Funny. "My Uncle In The Garden" is a cute modern fable involving a visit to the country cottage of two doddering, somewhat cantankerous relatives, one of whom has made an unthoughtful, if minor, deal with the Devil (who seems a rather understanding chap, although he never appears in the story proper). If the final payoff of the plot of "Mrs. Melville Makes A Purchase" is familiar as a well-circulated urban legend, the execution is excellent (although, second caveat, perhaps a bit too long) and it contains some very funny writing as a stuffy, fussy, wealthy woman goes shopping among the lesser folk. Some awful members of the literati congregate during the imminent death of a literary giant in the acidic "A Great Voice Stilled" but they're all more concerned with themselves - nice social observation and wry comedy.
There are a number of good solid "Light" stories as well. The first of the previously unknown pieces, "The Smoking Room", is a fun deal-with-the-Devil story in which a smart young college girl outwits Old Nick (yet again) with some legal chicanery. "Summer Afternoon" shows Jackson's mastery of evoking the mindset of children as two little girls tour the neighborhood - the interesting thing about this story is that it just might be a very, very subtle ghost story as well! "Indians Live In Tents" is similar to "Fairchild" above - an epistolary tale, this one charting the cause-and-effect relations between a group of unrelated people leasing and subleasing rooms and furniture from each other - funny and an interesting window into how people got on with the process of living at a certain moment in time. "Dinner For A Gentleman" and "Family Magician" are similar stories, both frothy domestic comedies somewhat like Mary Poppins or Thorne Smith's work but with household magic themes (and presaging popular versions of the same, like I DREAM OF JEANNIE, BEWITCHED and NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR). In the first a young woman gets magical help in preparing a meal for an eligible suitor and in the second a fatherless family has a wonderfully magical maid enter their lives. Charming. The equally funny "Arch Criminal" is a somewhat more savage take on DENNIS THE MENACE, specifically about how mothers can be completely blind to their son's less than wholesome qualities when they've got criminal mischief and false repentance down to an art. One of the nice aspects of a story like "Come To The Fair" is that since Jackson gets dark writing about women on the route to spinsterhood, an unexpected upbeat ending gives you a splendid surprise - and this piece about a lonely, middle-aged teacher being forced into reading fortunes at the community charity fair (and discovering hidden talents in herself and being rewarded for it by fate) is very nice indeed. "My Grandmother And The World Of Cats" is also interesting in this respect - another cute domestic comedy about an old lady's problematic relationship with the long list of felines in her life, it ends on an oddly serious and possibly even dark note with just one turn of phrase. "Maybe It Was The Car" should be read by all women who are both mothers and writers as it sketches out a probably very familiar instinct that takes hold of you when you just need to escape your domestic role and inject a little creative adventure into your life. "The Wishing Dime" is about exactly that item and what two little girls do with it - Jackson has a real talent for capturing small details of family and domestic life and dialogue, which also comes out in "About Two Nice People", where mistiming and unfortunate minor circumstances can bring two people together in something resembling anger but which turns out to be love. "I.O.U." has an attempt by an old women to work out a debt with some small children over a destroyed garden blossom into a whole new commerce system in a small town - one that grows exponentially and brings the community together - very nice! "The Most Wonderful Thing", on the other hand, is both human and profoundly sad, as two women (one middle-aged and one young) share a hospital room together because of birthing problems. This story also has an extremely wonderful small moment near its end involving the room nurse that I greatly appreciated.
Jackson dabbles with the supernatural in "The Very Strange House Next Door" (aka "Strangers In Town") which has a subtly Addams Family-esque household (or perhaps they're related to Bradbury's "Elliots") move into a conservative little New England town. The maid acts strangely (on top of the family even *having* a maid - which is shocking in itself), the family has odd furniture, they're vegetarians and maybe their cat talks as well. Such benign and innocuous strangeness cannot stand and the blue-blooded biddies of the hypocritical gossip committee soon get to work driving wonder out of the town. Charming, but the small-town venom is so stingingly drawn it burns a bit.
The best story on the "Light" side here is undoubtedly "Journey With A Lady". A nine-year-old boy makes his first train trip by himself and ends up talking to, and unexpectedly helping out, an interesting lady with a secret. Charming, compact, with the usual excellent eye for children's dialogue and thought processes, this story deserves to be better known.
And then there's "The Dark" side of Shirley Jackson's short fiction. It's undeniable that Jackson's problems with depression and melancholia informed her work, as did her fascination with social and familial dynamics. Hypocrisy and resentment also recur again and again. She seems fascinated not just by men and women but why men kill women, and why women kill men and why lovers kill each other and why people kill strangers and why humans hurt each other in cruel ways. And she couldn't stop herself writing about it, sometimes in painfully honest psychological detail and sometimes in odd bemusement.
The weakest of these stories are experiments in other forms. "Devil Of A Tale" is a flash-fiction like parable about a deal between The Devil and a woman that will produce an heir for the Prince of Darkness. Despite her cagey planning, though, the woman's plans are undone by the simple truth that some sons just don't love their mothers. Slight. "Lord Of The Castle" shows Jackson experimenting with the Gothic style (which she obviously liked reading) but all that this story (about a a noblemen burned at the stake, his vengeful son, a previously unknown brother, the castle on the hill and some Satanic rituals) proves is that Gothics do not work when stripped back into Jackson's terse style. An interesting, oddly bloodless failure.
"The Mouse" has a husband's life run by his domineering wife until their new abode proves to have problems with vermin - nothing really changes except his realization of just how cruel his spouse is. Unremarkable but it has some nice dialogue work. "Before Autumn" is one of those Jackson stories that is *so* stripped back that you finish it wondering if you've missed the point (perhaps indicative of why it ended up in a box) - what we initially take as a woman planning an affair with a teenage handyman may actually be her plotting her husband's indirect murder. An interesting idea, imperfectly executed. The most surprisingly uneven story here is "The Missing Girl", something I've been looking forward to reading since I'd heard it was inspired by the real world disappearance of a Bennington, Vermont student in 1946 (see here) which also inspired Jackson's novel Hangsaman, which I haven't read. Reset to a girl's summer camp, "Missing" has an oddly absurd and comic tone on the surface (all the counselors and troops are named after various fairy tale and children's story characters) but underneath is a recurrent dark and bleak Jackson theme - the girl/woman who left so little impression on those around her that she seems to have barely existed at all (see also Eleanor Vance from The Haunting of Hill House). It's not a bad story, just not what I was expecting and a bit underwhelming.
**PLEASE SEE FIRST COMMENT BELOW FOR THE CONTINUATION, INCLUDING ALL THE GOOD, NASTY STUFF!**...more
So here's a fine little just-barely Beat-era novel (and that's "Beat" not "Beatnik") that I polished off - I like the occasional shift to straighter LSo here's a fine little just-barely Beat-era novel (and that's "Beat" not "Beatnik") that I polished off - I like the occasional shift to straighter Lit to cleanse my genre palate and occasionally remind me of what writing about human beings, thinking human thoughts and living lives (as opposed to being locked into genre expectations of forward moving plots, likeable characters, and evoking whatever elements that particular genre calls for) reads and feels like. And, when it's good, it feels like being reminded of some larger scope, some brighter light, some higher sky...
To be avoided by those who require any of the above mentioned "expectations" or those who are unable to place writing in a particular time period, place of origin and generational view (and thus understanding that a mindset is being sketched, an attempt to capture particular thoughts and opinions during the quick change of the 20th Century).
Claude Squires, restless war veteran, quits his job as an orderly at a West Coast mental institution, visits his sister Claudine, visits his father (an up-and-coming local celebrity nicknamed "The Cat", the charismatic owner of an enormous used-car operation - an excellent sequence) and negotiates to drive a bright red '59 Thunderhead to its owner in Oklahoma, stopping along the way to visit an old flame (now desperately trapped in a go-nowhere life in Arizona - another great series of sequences, capturing the 50's and the feelings ofBeat restlessness and aimlessness extremely well), to rescue a hitchhiking illegal immigrant and take him back into America, and to take a strange detour with a group of underground survivalists, part of the "Radiation Generation" who are into the presumed next art movement, Cavism. Then complete the delivery, push on to NYC in yet another delivered car, check out some scattered friends (sad and interesting) and finish up in Boston, visiting his mother... in a mental institution.
The writing is a great example of "Good Beat" - real life prosaic details interlaced with just the right amount of occasional poetic tint (in other words, no huge stretches of indulgent word salad) and scathing observation - telling the truth about the past, the present, and how the future looks from that moment, to this person...
The Beat fascination with cars, driving, travel and movement is here - but again, not indulged in, just explored during long stretches of the delivery (the car is "The Beast" to Claude), musing on man's relationship with this machine central to the imagination and economy of the U.S. The varied people Claude meets are all so well drawn they seem plucked from life:
Claude's Father, "The Cat", a raconteur salesman and symbol of the 1950s success story, leading a pride of young salesmen all of whom he loves like sons.
Pete, the traveling Mexican who may, secretly be a king (or is it just a story he tells himself to make life easier to live? - "Then I buy the land back and we will live in the future like in the past, only better").
Vivien - an old flame, trapped in a dead-end town, writing poetry ("I had no idea that poems could be written from life, by living people, here and now") and desperate to "get out of here" (and away from her pathetic, abusive, alcoholic, ex-military brother telling horrid torture stories over dinner) but likely never to.
The Cavists - a weird clan living in tunnels in the desert, assured by some abyssal messiah of a lost civilization that the future holds nothing but a radioactive wasteland on the surface (nice reflection of the pulp[ magazines influence on the Beat writers, while precursoring the 60s counter-culture)
Fran - another old flame, living a life similar to Vivian's but very happy and content in it - accommodating and frank about life and love.
There's lots of open road and seedy bars and restaurants here, of course, and some quietly funny and honest moments (fear of cops and border patrol, an angry attempt to leave a small town in a big car only to become trapped in amaze of suburban streets), recurrent images of coyotes, and that strange detour with the Cavists.
Really, quite a nice little sketch of the mental state of a certain strata of a generation at a particular point in time. If you only know the Beats through reputation, caricature (beatniks) or a negative reaction to some of their literary excesses, you might want to check out this smooth, liquid book. Just don't expect a "point" so much as a question...
Well, this was an oddity that showed up on my reading list so Inter-Library Loan, here I come and here it comes....
Aggressively experimental, post-modWell, this was an oddity that showed up on my reading list so Inter-Library Loan, here I come and here it comes....
Aggressively experimental, post-modern lit writing in the short fiction form from the mid 70's, with some mild crossover with science fiction. Obviously, not going to be to everyone's tastes. If you inherently hate all post-modern stuff, probably you should just stay away (you'll miss some aggravating pieces, no doubt, but you'll also never read a few really wonderful pieces here - your loss) - if, for example, you need "characters" (as they are understood in a mainstream sense) to be sketched in the traditional forms, stay far away. I have no idea how these stories stack up against other post-modern writing, as I only dabble as a reader myself - for someone like me, this was a pretty nice little read.
Sure, some of the stuff is too cerebral or self-reflexively po-mo for my tastes, but that's only the extremes - I have no problem with po-mo in theory as it's just another way of approaching writing, that's all, no better or worse than others, with the same likelihood of failure and problems that accepted storytelling fiction has. Put another way - I live a life where I try to use the word pretentious as little as possible, because it defines my own limitations as much as it tries to define something I'm applying it to (plus, it's critically lazy).
The tone of the stories, even when dealing with highly emotional issues, is dry, clinical, very J.G. Ballard in a way. In line with that, there's also a focus on certain forms of the sciences - mathematics, evolution, biology, medical. "Stories" in a non-narrative sense: dialogues, stream of consciousness, essays, letters, lectures & conferences.
"Love" reminded me of an OULIPO exercise presented in a dialogue form (a standard form for Wilson, alternating lines of dialogue with nothing else - this approach shows up a few times) - the statement of love examined and deconstructed as if it were a logical equation. Not my kind of thing but if you know any mathematicians with romantic problems...they might get a giggle.
these next few stories were interesting, in that kid of dry way post modern writing can achieve quite well, but also a bit too distant and unengaging.
"Marriage" - at first, it seems like a deathbed scene, then becomes something more surgical in nature.
"Men: The Man Who Ends His Story" - suicide as a scientific process of slow, thorough and methodical disassembling of the body - or is it all just a metaphor?
"Women" - the emotional connections to be dealt with in heart transplants, or something like that (another metaphor).
"Metier: Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka" - presented as dialogue of an interview with a famous, somewhat pompous intellectual who interrogates his interviewer even while answering questions. In truth, I had trouble following the "argument" (involving James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Michelangelo's statue of Moses) which eventually culminates in the titular statement of this collection.
"History: A Story Has Only A Few Good Years" - a very weird piece involving a man flash frozen in a glacial accident moments after masturbating, a woman who discovers his body and masturbates with the residue of his semen, and her child who grows bio-luminescent fungus on his body on purpose. Almost kinda made it for me... but not quite.
"Anthropology: What is Lost In Rotation" is more satisfying, even while being elliptical and strange, a jagged line traced between Paris and distant "savage lands", history and anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jorge Luis Borges, family and class. A tribal mystery, a mythological/symbolic mystery, a biological mystery, a murder mystery, a seduction and some class/race friction. Interesting.
"Interim" - told in a rolling, stream of consciousness, near confessional history, this is a powerful, surreal (in the true sense of the word) and mythic story, as a man sets about reforesting Scotland after the accidental death of his child (I found the writing on this part, an event that starts the story, very well done), intending to return it to its primeval condition.
"Conveyance: The Story I Would Not Want Bill Wilson To Read" - another very interesting yet also emotionally powerful story, part memoir, part writing exercise as the narrator's mentor/lover? was her writing teacher who criticized her work, and how she's applied those lessons. Another moment with the random, accidental death of children is here, and again, powerfully done. I like some of the observations on writing, approaches to fiction writing and exercises presented here (the title is related to an exercise discussed herein, to "write a story you wouldn't want X to read" - X being whoever, mother, father, lover - so as to access more honest parts of yourself.
"Motherhood" and "Fatherhood" are two science-fictionally framed tales, near future essays about a breakthrough in science (Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphogenetic fields) that allow amazing, troubling advances in medicine and culture. "Motherhood", rather presciently, deals with ways of retarding aging that are remarkably similar to current stem-cell research, while "Fatherhood" posits a process wherein missing penises (due to deformed birth, war or accident) can be replaced by transplant from the father, who then uses the new technology to grow an exact replacement. While the stories are told in a clinical, optimistic way, the obvious psychological and emotional problems with these scenarios (in which parents are basically scientifically capable of impressing their own persona onto their children, or gain something at their children's expense) are alluded to obliquely, perhaps almost in a dry, comic manner (that was my reading). Two very solid stories.
"Motherhood" and "Fatherhood", with their Cronenbergian body morphing, set the stage for "America: Three Audiences", which is one of the two truly excellent and amazing reads to be found here. Told as a lecture (with Q&A), a seminar and, finally, as a transcript of a ROMPER ROOM-like TV show, this gives us a world where evolution has kicked into the world increasing manifestations of two new mutations on the theme of neoteny (look it up). The Neonate children grow quickly, are bright and observant, only live until about age 13 and are hyper-sexual almost from birth - like living, experimental evolutionary petri dishes, to be tended by their alternates, Neuters, who are intellectually focused but must spend their time tending their wayward siblings. It's like the philosophical underpinnings of David Cronenberg's SHIVERS crossed with his creations from THE BROOD!
As I said, the approach taken to the material really makes it work, as the neutrality obviously masks distress and conflict such a situation would cause in mainstream culture (this is especially well-played in the lecture portion, an amazing controlled dance of fascinating ideas, humorous and awkward questions and queasy, unstated implications - the Romper Room sequence also achieves this, ending on a portentous last line). That line, in fact, makes it clear that this story can also be read as a metaphor for American mainstream culture and the situation it faced with the counter culture (hence the title). Really well done.
For those who find post-modernism tiring, you may enjoy "Desire" - a beautiful and poetic narrative about reaching and surpassing the generally unperceived evolutionary drive towards replacing mere biological "eating" with the consumption of light, and how mankind achieves it, and how it changes us.
So, a lot of uninvolving, if clever, stuff and a few that really hit it out of the park.
This came up from my random generating section of my reading list - I like reading straight lit fiction occasionally to cleanse my pallet and remind mThis came up from my random generating section of my reading list - I like reading straight lit fiction occasionally to cleanse my pallet and remind myself that human level concerns and simple stories are just as important as genre trappings (perhaps more so, and harder to pull off, but that's an argument for another day).
Unfortunately, this didn't click with me. I was ready for some spare, human scale stories in rural/pastoral settings - and I certainly got that. But...
I hate to say this because I have absolutely no right to call anybody on this but I felt the translations were clumsy or uninspired or something. I do not speak Chinese and have no previous reading history with Hong Xiao, so for all I know there are faithful and accurate renditions of her style. But honestly, the prose, though spare in plot or action or character (all things I anticipated), just didn't really flow on the page for me. "The Death of Wang Asao", that opens the book, is a sad, grim and hopeless view of the lots of peasant workers - slaves essentially. It's effective but not *powerful*, outside of the despair for human suffering that it can't help but evoke. Some of the stories had interesting, familial character dynamics ("The Family Outsider") or cultural class sketches ("Spring In A Small Town") or character/psychological studies related to changing political events ("North China", "Flight From Danger").
The most impressive (and seemingly most widely translated) story here was "Hands" which seems to be a segment of the author's memories of her youthful, vague friendship (while being taught at at a girl's boarding school) with a young peasant girl (her family makes a meager living from dyes and so her hands are almost permanently dyed black, marking her as an outcast) and the class differences between them - but even here the translation seems clunky (the intent, I assume, was to carry over the differences in speaking styles between the two classes, so the peasant girl and her father speak in English-languages stand-ins for same, with dropped word endings and naive statements and "haw-haw" laughter). I found the part where the peasant girl borrows Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" to read and identifies with the poverty-stricken girl in the novel (who dies) - and is so caught up in the character's story that she cannot accept that the author would allow the girl to die - to be moving. "Hands" was a good read.
But not much else clicked here for me, outside of moments.
Interesting book - the Holocaust sequences are harrowing, Peter Kurten puts in an appearance and the only book I know to feature a flying uterus. CronInteresting book - the Holocaust sequences are harrowing, Peter Kurten puts in an appearance and the only book I know to feature a flying uterus. Cronenberg could make an interesting movie of this. ...more
This is a fine collection of what Howe here, in the 80s, dubs "Short Short Fiction" and which was called "Microfiction" in the 90s and which we now caThis is a fine collection of what Howe here, in the 80s, dubs "Short Short Fiction" and which was called "Microfiction" in the 90s and which we now call "Flash Fiction". I feel it's a useful collection for editors, like me, who are trying to get a handle on what constitutes valid standards for successful flash fiction (through offering the attempts of literary greats) - modified for genre in my case - and also for modern writers of flash who may also wonder just what they can and can;t consider to be in their box of tricks. Howe's introduction serves as a fine examination of these very questions (barring genre considerations) and I've excerpted the salient sections into the quotes.
And the stories - oh, the stories. I have to read a lot of short genre fiction both in my professional role, as well as by choice, and sometimes I get burned out on horror fiction and it is always a joy to return to short lit fiction and remind myself of just how wide open the field can be, how expressive, how wide ranging, how inventive.
Given the great names here and the brief nature of the stories (some of which would be ruined in the synopsis) it wouldn't really make sense to do a full, story by story review. So I'm just going to note some of my personal favorites.
I.L. Peretz's "If Not Higher" has a rabbi who absents himself during penitential prayers and the eventual discovery of his engaging in mysterious, and then not so mysterious, actions. A very nice tale of the true meaning of the religious impulse.
"Eveline" by James Joyce is about a woman, trapped in her life of caring for her abusive, drunken father, makes plans for escape... but she can only escape so far. Excellent story with a powerful ending.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa tells a simple story of a downtrodden working man and the prize he wins at work that he hopes to present to his family in "Joy And The Law". As it turns out, fate and social custom have other plans...
"The Use Of Force" by William Carlos Williams is a story I read way back in college and have been looking for ever since as I couldn't remember the name or the author. A doctor makes a house call and finds himself in a pitched battle with a little girl who will just NOT open up and say ahhh!
A sensitive, well-off woman is haunted by the image of her maid's unexpected newborn wrapped in bloody newspapers in "Swaddling Clothes" by Yukio Mishima. This image eventually drives her to an atypical action, a walk in the park at night, which leads to a confrontation and an ambiguous but powerful ending.
Doris Lessing's "Homage For Isaac Babel" is a charming story about attempting to inform young people's worldviews through great literature.
"The Dead Man" by Jorge Luis Borges has the author playing with form, as always, retelling us a fable-like story of the rise and fall of a criminal figure, all to explain a strange incident at a bar.
A familiar old cliche - the white man captured by savages who plans to use his superior astronomical knowledge to save his life - is overturned in Augusto Monterroso's sharp little tale of "The Eclipse".
"The Laugher" by Heinrich Böll is a compact character study of a man who laughs as his source of his income and how this affects his demeanor.
There's beautiful writing by Paula Fox in "News From The World", a tight little story that revolves around a married woman's infatuation with an older man contrasted against life in a remote village.
"Going To Jerusalem" features a town beset by a mysterious illness and a stranger who tells a story in a crowded waiting room - interesting stuff from Maria Luise Kaschnitz.
Luisa Valenzuela gives us a blackly comic fable about how trying to beat them by joining them doesn't always work in "The Censors".
Finally, the really amazing find for me was Octavio Paz's wonderfully sinister "The Blue Bouquet", a very creepy story about the dangers of going for a walk late at night.
This was, all told, a great collection and might make a nice way to introduce a young person or non-lit-reader to the art of the short story.
The short version - I read this entire book over one weekend. I was snowed in during a blizzard in Linden, NJ and was suffering under a terrible feverThe short version - I read this entire book over one weekend. I was snowed in during a blizzard in Linden, NJ and was suffering under a terrible fever, so I spent the majority of my time sleeping, wandering around in a delirium (usually at 4 am) or soaking in a cold tub. After reading each chapter, I would listen to the recordings of WSB reading that chapter, if they existed (thanks to that wonderful box set of recordings). I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the only complaint I had was that I had carefully and instinctively pieced together the atomized narrative strewn throughout the first book, only to have it spelled out in plain text at the beginning of the second. But I guess some people needed that roadmap - I was just annoyed because I'd already drawn it with mental crayons. No, not a book for everyone, and very challenging, but if you've ever wondered why Burroughs gets lumped into science fiction, these cut-up books are part of the reason. Inspiring and visionary stuff....more
Probably the best of the Ballard "elemental apocalypse" quartet (or it ties with The Drowned World at least). Once again, it's Ballard taking apart JoProbably the best of the Ballard "elemental apocalypse" quartet (or it ties with The Drowned World at least). Once again, it's Ballard taking apart Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and reassembling it as a post-modern tale of apocalypse and humanity's failings - a journey up river through an African jungle slowly being encroached on, and transformed into, crystal. Time itself is the cause - like a dissolved material reaching maximum load in a solution, it begins to precipitate out into spacetime, slowing the world in stasis and accretion. Ballard's dry, surgical/psychological take on characters is here (too distanced for some, seemingly), as well as some visionary, surrealistic sights strongly conveyed. Worth your time....more
I don't know how I became aware of this slim book but it's sat on my to-read shelf for years, awaiting the time when I felt like exploring it.
Most cerI don't know how I became aware of this slim book but it's sat on my to-read shelf for years, awaiting the time when I felt like exploring it.
Most certainly the basic synopsis drew me in - "man retreats to department store after unnamed catastrophe and hopes to survive there" - here we have, from 1934, a plot that precedes both John Collier's brilliant short story "Evening Primrose" (1940) and George Romero's monumentally significant film DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) - and all three of which, while they spin in different directions, can't help but make a commentary on consumer society and man's place in it. It's a little trope I like to call "at play in the fields of commerce" and one look at our current society will show that no one listened to Cozzens or Collier or Romero...
This is a very simple book, in a way, although written in a style of its time that may seem unnecessarily cluttered to those who demand action through-lines in their plots. It is as already said - on the first page, a man forces his way into the basement of a multi-floor department store and, after reconnoitering, sets up house there. Something has happened in the outside world but we'll never know what (the first line gives only the briefest hint at some kind of immediate detonation or massive shock) and that's not really that important. Around our Mr. Lecky sits everything he has always needed and, more importantly, everything he has always wanted - whether he needs it or not - and now he only need figure out how to use important items he's never used before (how do you load a gun?), how to preserve his holdings and, eventually, defend them.
Everything in the book happens on a small scale and (understandably so) we see it from Mr. Lecky's sole vantage point, privy as we are to his confusion, hope and fears. Since the novel occurs on such a small scale, it would be ruinous to say more about how the book progresses but remind yourself that it's a rumination on man, mankind and the philosophical underpinnings of individuality and society - and how some actions cannot be taken back. There will be quotes posted, in time, but if you're looking for something a little different, you could do much worse than this interesting, contemplative short work....more
Quite a nice little novel, part of Ballard's "elemental apocalypse" quartet. Not as good as The Crystal World, on par with The Drought aka THE BURNINGQuite a nice little novel, part of Ballard's "elemental apocalypse" quartet. Not as good as The Crystal World, on par with The Drought aka THE BURNING WORLD (although very different in focus), better than The Wind from Nowhere (which was probably a better title than THE BLOWING WORLD).
Much like all the others save WIND, this is in some ways Ballard reworking THE HEART OF DARKNESS by Conrad. In an oddly prescient, if coincidental, mirroring of global warming, the angle of the Earth's orbit has changed and so we've been bombarded by increased radiation for many decades before the novel starts. Melting icecaps, the flooding of Europe, increased heat and humidity, equatorial jungle expansion, and a strange, atavistic resurgence of mutated lizards now plague a slowly dying mankind.
There's lots of beautiful imagery here, especially the treasure hunting/looting by diving suits amongst ruined European cities (great bit with a drowned planetarium). All throughout, the narrator find himself plagued by dreams and visions of a prehistoric jungle world, pulled by an ancient call from the depths of his brain. The usual clashes between warring bands of humans, cultured pirates and scientists, fill out the plot. The ending may seem anticlimactic, but then, really, there's no other way to end this book. A very enjoyable read, especially if you like Ballard's "dry, clinical" tone, here finding purchase amongst so much damp and humidity. ...more
So, I was reading through my list of Zamyatin stories and thought, "well, here's a chance to get the one novel out of the way".
Famous for being the fiSo, I was reading through my list of Zamyatin stories and thought, "well, here's a chance to get the one novel out of the way".
Famous for being the first "dystopian" novel, mentally this brings to mind images of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (*although I especially appreciated the Bruce Sterling's introduction suggestion to envision the characters in Soviet Constructivist Art-era costumes* - worked a treat!). The idea is pretty easy to grasp - a "projecto ad absurdum" of Communist worker agit-prop into the far future (1000 years, in fact) - a future in which the One-State rules all, and all "ciphers" live by mathematical and logically precise conceptions - mere cogs in a single unit of "We" (but if there is a "We", who can "They" be?) serving the glorious one state in synchronized harmony, even if pesky human failings still rise up and get in the way every once in a while.
It's Zamyatin's satire of Soviet Russia's inhuman, anti-freedom practices, narrated to you as a memoir written by the chief architect of the Integral, the new worker-built spaceship that will soon launch and integrate the infinite equation of the universe with the yoke of reason ("Taming a wild zig-zag along a tangent towards the asymptote into a straight line" - it's like Darkseid's anti-life equation, for all you Kirby NEW GOD fans) - its belly full of writings to propagandize new, unruly worlds. But our "hero", D-503, is having problems, you see....
This was an interesting read - I'm not a big sci-fi fan but I can dig the historical stuff that's not written "in the genre". I;m sure oceans have been written about it already, not the least of all its effect on George Orwell. It's interesting because WE is a bit more fantastical than 1984, more given to flights of fantasy in its conception of a regimented future than the more serious, "realistic" Orwell text. Life in WE is ruled by geometry and equations - and D-503 is haunted by nightmares of the root of negative one, which is impossible....
Some minor points I found interesting: I liked the structure of the early satire, where D-503 presents his everyday, realistic life of future horrors and wonders in a blase narrative form. Since I'm a fan of the Futurist art movement, I liked the echoes of Futurism you can see here (although this was more about precise mathematics and science/logic, where Futurism was about brute energy and powerful force lines). It's interesting to see (in our modern world of dumbed-down, dualistic thinking) that Zamyatin's stinging satire not only strikes his obvious target, but seeks to critique the opposite number as well (organized religion's stupidities are slyly exposed, and one realizes that the inhuman regimentation of human workers, literally trained to work like machines following the process instigated by F.W. Taylor, was not only supported by the Russians but found a huge fan in the uber-Capitalist Henry Ford - the more things change...). The citizens of the One-State live in a panopticon, only allowed privacy on their pre-approved sex-hour (free love is another bonus of the future - you can sleep with anyone you'd like and no one is allowed to turn you down, or you turn anyone else down, of course). There's mathematical music (I couldn't help thinking of Basic Channel minimalist Techno), propaganda poetry and A Table of The Hours, a schedule that organizes all time efficiently (there's a wonderful bit where D-503 waxes rhapsodic over the "ancient literary legacy" of train schedules: "who is not made breathless when racing and tumbling through the pages of the schedule?"). In fact, the past seems to hold a subtle fascination for these perfectly balanced citizens of the future. And D-503 is still worried about his ugly, monkey hands....
The story moves through our main character's "unreasonable" fascination with I-330, a strange female who seems to flaunt her dislike of the status quo, occasionally smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. This drives a wedge between D and his frequent female companion 0-90. But D's investigation of I leads to further discoveries, including what really exists outside the Great Wall that separates the One State from the blasted wasteland (this sequence was particularly strong), the State's new operation which will insure happiness by surgically excising the imagination, and the existence of a rapidly forming underground movement committed to an outmoded and unlikely concept called "freedom". It may meander a bit at the 3/4 mark but the ending is very strong, as D-503 finally understands true happiness and why "reason should win."
This was a fun little read. The story in a nutshell - a Lothario Baron, vacationing at an Austrian hotel, intends to make a middle-aged women his nextThis was a fun little read. The story in a nutshell - a Lothario Baron, vacationing at an Austrian hotel, intends to make a middle-aged women his next conquest. His initial ruse involves befriending her son Edgar (recuperating at the mountain resort after an illness) so as to worm his way into her affections. He succeeds in this, but the novella is mainly interested in the psychological effect on little Edgar, used as a romantic prop and then discarded. He's right on the edge of adolescence and eager to be treated as an adult. At first, he's convinced he's found a new friend. Then, after realizing he's in the way of the Baron's further goals, he's filled with anger and dismay at this betrayal and burns with curiosity over this unknown secret that's shared between his Mother and The Baron, some secret that, he intuits, involves the very essence of adulthood. If only he could crack the mystery...
Zweig's language is clear and concise. Seemingly, he was much loved at his time but has kind of fallen between two stool in the history of literature - too clear and concise for the "literature must be obtuse and symbol laden" literati, too concerned with human psychology and emotions for the plot-driven mainstreamers. This really is an interesting exploration of events which usher a boy into beginning to change into an adult, the perceptual shifts and realizations that come with that (a late-in-the-book train ride of insight is particularly well done - Edgar's sudden understanding of the complexities of adult life - money, work, how wonderful such complexity is and yet how everyone is struggling after the same things). The ending is also well-done, strong without being too powerful, linking our own adult emotional lives to the actions of our parents. Solid....more
I had a few Zamyatin stories on my "to read" list so I figured I'd just read the entirety of this fairly representative offering (the only one I can'tI had a few Zamyatin stories on my "to read" list so I figured I'd just read the entirety of this fairly representative offering (the only one I can't seem to track down is "God" - yeah, you go try to do a search on that, even with a modifier like "Zamyatin" - although I do know the general gist of that one). Anyway, powerful stuff here - Zamyatin has an interesting style - he was rejecting kitchen-sink/proletariat "realism" for "fantasy", but his conception of fantasy is not our current one, it's closer to "magical realism", I'd guess, and sometimes just playing with symbolic language. And then there are stories here that are in no way fantastic, in terms of story elements, but his style is an odd mixture of regional detail and floating POV/person perspective that occasionally borders on stream of consciousness.
As might be expected, this fanciful approach was not appreciated in the years immediately post-Revolution and so the volume starts out with the actual historical document of his "Letter To Stalin", in which asks to be allowed to leave the country with his wife, since the new Marxist critics found his works so troubling. Stalin agreed and he moved to Paris where he died a few years later. The letter is pretty impressive in its own right - the man believed strongly in his perception of the purpose of art and writing (would that more modern writers, under much less harsh current conditions, had the same fortitude and conviction - but then the whole system is stacked against that worldview now, anyway).
Some of the pieces were interesting but a little flat. The opener, "A Provincial Tale" meanders around quite a bit, wallowing in ugly human piggishness and stupidity before climaxing in a spasm of betrayal of all ideals. "In Old Russia" traces a young girl's marriage options, her suitors, a betrothal, a marriage, a disillusionment, an infidelity (a recurrent theme, infidelity) and a death, told in a matter-of-fact manner.
The stripped back parable or fable seems to have been a form Zamyatin liked. So we get "Two Tales For Grown-Up Children" - featuring "Ivans", in which a hole is dug all the way through the earth, and "The Church of God", in which the lesson of not building one's institutions on the bodies of the victims is learned. "The Protectress Of Sinners" follows three men come to inform the local mother superior that the Revolution has made her redundant and her holdings fair game, only to find that they just can't bring themselves to do it. "The Dragon" sketches a frozen city and a frozen little bird rescued by a man who treats his fellow man much less kindly. Also taking place in a metaphorical, frozen Petersburg is "The Cave" which juxtaposes the situation of starving, freezing citizens with prehistoric times and notes how little progress we've made. "Comrade Churygin Has The Floor" has a provincial relate how the revolution transformed his small rural town, even though there were some very big misunderstandings at first...
Zamyatin also evidences a talent for sly humor and frank (for the times), earthy, sexual honesty in some of these tales. The one that combines both of these traits, and was a humorous standout to me, was "The Healing Of Novice Erasmus", in which a virginal, talented monk's creative skills are so strong they accidentally send a monastery into orgies of lust. The solution is obvious and very funny. Equally sly and sexual is "The Miracle Of Ash Wednesday", a satire in which a canon suffers a mysterious ailment, or is it a miracle? I'm pretty sure I get the joke of this one, but I'll leave it to you to figure out. "X", meanwhile, parodies the frenetic paranoia of a (post-Revolution) former deacon, now just plain old proletariat citizen, as he is led around by fear, lust and jealousy, although a secret satire of Soviet bureaucracy seems also to be taking place. There's some funny self-aware writing going on in this tale as well. Finally, neither sex nor satire are present in "The Lion", a charming little romantic comedy about a man attempting to impress a girl by landing a stage role as a lion... who has to be slain.
Outside of the truly excellent "The Healing Of Novice Erasmus", three other stories (each a bit lengthier than the other offerings, excepting "A Provincial Tale") are notable. "The Flood" is a moving, emotional story a barren wife who's act of kindness to a recently orphaned girl is repaid with betrayal that eventually blossoms into murder and a guilty conscience. "The North" is a piece set in a rural northern colony - the pace and detail of life here is strikingly drawn with some beautiful scenic writing and detailed cultural observation, while also featuring that odd, near stream of consciousness style I mentioned earlier. A town simpleton falls in love with a local Lapp girl, but there are many pitfalls in their life together, both from man and nature. Some very powerful writing here.
Finally, the real oddity is the uniquely interesting "A Story About The Most Important Thing" which manages to give us the violence and betrayals of the Revolution on a human scale, while all the while juxtaposing that strand with a micro-scale study of a caterpillar's agony of transformation and, most surprisingly, the death of the last few members of an alien race on a dark star in space. The whole thing ends in what I can only call a fertilizing catastrophe. Not sure I fully understood it, but what a strange, interesting, unexpected story!
If you like some Russian writers (I myself am partial to Gogol and Turgenev, although I've yet to give Dostoyevsky his due), you should consider searching out the works of Yevgeny Zamyatin. Now, I'm off to start his dystopian novel We before moving on to other things....more
Yevgeny Zamyatin seems most famous for writing We, the first dystopian science-fiction novel about a future world where machines run everything. But bYevgeny Zamyatin seems most famous for writing We, the first dystopian science-fiction novel about a future world where machines run everything. But before he wrote that, he wrote (among other things) these two pieces: a novella and a short story. A detail and a character from the first presage WE, while the second piece seems like it was considered as a possible ending for the novella.
What you have here is Zamyatin's rather wry take on the British People of the time (c. 1916) from observations made when Zamyatin had been sent to Newcastle upon Tyne to supervise ship construction (he was a naval engineer by trade).
"Islanders" is something of a satire of the British predilection for efficiency and proper planning (see: MARY POPPINS) which had arisen along with the machine age and a burgeoning middle-class. The Reverend Dewley, one of the main characters, is author of PRECEPTS OF COMPULSORY SALVATION, which saves your soul by allowing you to map out your every hour of the day ahead of time on a timetable, making sure you get everything done, including your religious duties (Rev. Dewley's "duty" to Mrs. Dewley is scheduled for "every third Saturday" - the lucky woman...). One day a man gets knocked down in the street by a car, right in front of Rev. Dewley's well-appointed home and so throws the meticulous plans into disarray. But this is not the main plot of the story - the event just allows the Reverend and wife, along with some other meddling upper-crust busy-bodies, to acquaint themselves with the accident victim, Mr. Campbell, and then take an interest in his life as he is subsequently employed by the boisterous Mr. O'Kelly, local lawyer and ne'er-do-well (he brags of his "inflatable suitcase" that allows him to room at any hotel with a lady, as they would usually be turned away for not having any luggage - Mr. O'Kelly is married, natch). Society looks on disapprovingly as Mr. Campbell falls into the orbit of O'Kelly and Didi, a dancer in a nightclub, with whom he falls in love. Tragedy ensues after a trust of love is broken and society gets the pound of flesh it craved anyway.
This was fun. There's some good descriptions and a quite powerful conception of Campbell as a man who, previous to getting knocked down, has driven his life like a car, lawfully and safely, and now finds the steering wheel spinning out of control occasionally (a scene of drunken attendance at a prizefight that ends with Campbell climbing from the crowd and taking on the boxer himself is well done, capturing the reeling logic of the inebriated and the likely result of such a forced encounter - i.e. not good for Campbell). The ending is dark indeed.
"Fishers Of Men" is also about a respected and respectable man, Mr. Craggs - an apostle in the Fight Against Vice campaign - and how he makes his living. It ends with an exciting and well-described air attack on London by zeppelin, prefiguring the Blitz. It's also about a Don Juan church organist, a public park at dusk, and some filmy lingerie. Again, interesting in its drive to expose the hypocrisy of the times.
Another book with some more Zamyatin shorts may be coming by Inter-Library loan. ...more