After a first chapter that reads like a wonderful and perfect Emshwiller short story - which it turns out it is: 'World of No Return'; Asimov's, Decem...moreAfter a first chapter that reads like a wonderful and perfect Emshwiller short story - which it turns out it is: 'World of No Return'; Asimov's, December 2005 - The Secret City turns oddly frustrating oddly quickly, and I can really only blame myself.
I'm biased. For some reason - bad genes; bad upbringing; who knows? - I just can't stand it when a long text decides to adopt the rapidly-alternating viewpoints of two or more first-person narrators. It just makes me angry. Especially, for some even more obscure reason, when each section is helpfully headed by the character's name. (The Time Traveller's Wife, I am looking balefully at you. And then I'm coming to get you.)
Emshwiller's full-length novels have a maddening tendency to do exactly this thing, and if she weren't one of my all-time favourite short story writers, I'd have wiped my hands of her long ago. When she finds one narrator and sticks with them for long stretches, she's a boss! (Almost certainly why I prefer the near-identical Mister Boots to the fan-favourite Ledoyt - and, yes, somewhere in the world, Ursula K. le Guin has just shuddered violently and doesn't know why.) Here, all the pogoing around just serves to undercut the text's momentum - and, here more than in any of her other novels, there's really not enough story for that to keep happening, however much the present tense keeps trying to tell me that these events are immediate and vital.
There's a lot of charm here - and at least, unlike Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill, there are only the two observing characters to contend with. This could easily be adapted into, say, a heartwarming family film. And I adore that opening chapter (I hope it's part of The Collected Short Stories someday, so I can see how it really stands alone). But it's no The Mount, that's for sure.(less)
The cream of the crop of Emshwiller's most experimental era, and as mixed a bag as this is a metaphor. Of the twenty pieces here (I say 'pieces' becau...moreThe cream of the crop of Emshwiller's most experimental era, and as mixed a bag as this is a metaphor. Of the twenty pieces here (I say 'pieces' because many of the stories aren't really narratives per se - more character studies, or short stream-of-consciousness essays), only six or seven really work for me: 'Animal' and 'Maybe Another Long March Across China' of the fables; 'Peninsula', 'Sex and/or Mr. Morrison' and 'Chicken Icarus' of the stories proper; and 'Childhood of the Human Hero' and 'The Queen of Sleep' of the semi-autobiographical character pieces.
What charm the remaining stories possess is partly in their evocation of what must be the lost, homespun 1970s art culture in which Carol and Ed lived and worked:
I always wanted to be the one that picked up the guitar and sang 'Candy Man' at a party. I wanted to be the one dancing with abandon. I wanted to be the one in the long purple velvet dress reading her own really good poetry. I wanted to be the one with the wonderful sense of humour (but I'm not even going to go out to buy a long purple velvet dress).
Also I would have liked to be the one that married six times and had a child by each husband. I wish one husband had been a famous folk singer who played the banjo and we'd had music every night and one of his friends had come and played old-time fiddle and shown me how to do it, too. And I'd like one of them to have been the publisher of a good poetry magazine and have published some of my things, and one would have been a guru and taken me to India and maybe one would be the husband I have now.
...But mainly in the abundance of quotable Emshwiller lines:
I'll practice the new me in front of guests. I kind of like some of them, the guests. One has a soft, soft voice but I'm afraid he, too, may be practicing his new personality on me and that maybe he has trained himself with electric shock to his balls or some other place just as tender and soft, so that we are both living a lie.