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Conjunctions: 39 -- The New Wave Fabulists
edited by Bradford Morrow; Peter Straub, guest-editor
Bard College, 436 pages

Cover Art and Illustration: Gahan Wilson
Conjunctions: 39 -- The New Wave Fabulists
Bradford Morrow
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Bradford Morrow grew up in Colorado, and after a decade of traveling from Honduras to France, Italy to England, settled in New York City, where he has lived for the past 20 years. He has worked as a jazz musician, translator, medical assistant, bookseller, and at various other jobs before founding the literary journal Conjunctions in 1981.

The first of his five novels, Come Sunday (1988) was followed by the publication of A Bestiary (1991), The Almanac Branch (a finalist for the 1992 PEN/Faulkner Award), Trinity Fields (a finalist for the 1995 Los Angeles Times Book Award), Giovanni's Gift, and most recently Ariel's Crossing.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Boasting some of the most well-known names associated with contemporary fantastic fiction -- Jonathan Carroll, John Crowley, Neil Gaiman, M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem, China Miéville, and Gene Wolfe -- to name under half, as well as accompanied by essays from noted critics John Clute and Gary K. Wolfe, one approaches this anthology with a degree of anticipation, abetted by its title's New Wave appropriation. Expectation is perhaps also whetted by the format of its publication: the respected literary journal Conjunctions, published biannually by Bard College and noted, as its own press release states, to be "a source of distinguished and innovative writing from leading contemporary poets, prose writers, and artists for more than twenty years..." Rarely does fantastic fiction receive such a forum, let alone acknowledgement in an academic press. The reader might therefore justifiably expect to read, as the publication release promises, a gathering of "bold, distinctive fiction."

This collection, however, suffers from a crisis of identity. Despite its New Wave identification, much of the work contributed here is oddly muted in its use of fantastical elements, certain stories, such as those by John Crowley, M. John Harrison, John Kessel and Karen Joy Fowler, incorporating little that could be called fabulation, possessing characteristics more readily identifiable as mainstream than anything remotely approximating fantasy or science fiction, almost as if the authors had tailored their contributions (especially so in the case of Kessel and Harrison) to conform with what was perceived as most palatable for an academic venue and audience. And while the credentials of many are without doubt, the inclusion of others -- Karen Joy Fowler, Joe Haldeman, and Peter Straub among them -- seem dubious within the context of the collection's promoted identity; as a knowledgeable acquaintance remarked: "several of those authors wouldn't be considered New Wave anything!" Finally, this collection reflects a quality that many academic literary publications seem to share: a certain overall homogeneity of style and tone.

Still, except for a few inconsequential stories -- Peter Straub's long "Little Red's Tango;" Joe Haldeman's excerpt from Guardian; Andy Duncan's "The Big Rock Candy Mountain;" John Kessel's "The Invisible Empire;" and, surprisingly, Neil Gaiman's closing "October in the Chair" -- the level of writing is consistently high throughout. And it does offer a few gems. Though John Crowley's opening "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" is decidedly mainstream in character, it reflects his usual mastery of prose. Set in rural Indiana during the late 50s, it is ostensibly a coming-of-age story that occurs around the inauguration of a Shakespeare festival run on a shoe-string budget. Crowley uses this occasion to delve into another of his beloved secret histories, this time focusing upon the true and speculated identity of the great playwright, a conjecture that has occupied various academics and armchair historians for years, and still continues, much as others guess at Jack the Ripper. Here the usual suspects appear, as well as others less obvious, which the author uses as a stage to explore free will, love, and an affirmation of the human spirit.

Far more adventurous, both in composition and theme, is Kelly Link's "Lull" -- in fact, it is the most daring contribution to the collection. A revolving series of encircling stories, or, as the author suggests, palindromes -- which somehow in device brings to mind Emerson's analogy of existence as an onion skin -- through temporal and shifting perspective the author constructs a challenging labyrinth of narratives that starts as a card game that prompts a call to a phone sex line. However, the woman on the other end creates stories that can be sexy or not, depending upon the caller's preference, said to be like "Stephen King and sci-fi and the Arabian Nights and Penthouse Letters all at once." Asked to tell a tale that "goes backward," and essentially offers a bit of everything -- scary, sexy, funny and "about good and evil and true love," lacking a moral but "some sort of revelation" when thought back upon -- Link launches into but one of many parenthetical yet parallel stories, The Devil and the Cheerleader. At a party, after losing a spin (or is it a win?) of the bottle, a cheerleader finds herself stuck inside a closet alone with the Devil. Mulling over existence, she recalls her adult future, all the while regressing toward her childhood. The world is second by second evolving back to its original state, in the process reducing the cheerleader's life to a mere five minutes. Realizing she'll soon cease to exist, she elects to tell a story so that the Devil at least -- immortal -- will remember her. Without time to start at the beginning, or to reach an end, she begins her tale in the middle, concerning a man named Ed, who just happens to be the card game caller who requested a story in the first place. The narrative then jumps forward in time to where Ed is unhappily divorced, living among clones of his wife as they await the arrival of aliens. Bizarre and convoluted, this story will challenge and delight the more adventuresome reader, offering perhaps the best example of what could have been expected from this collection.

"Familiar," by China Miéville, imagines a surreal and whimsical fable of a familiar conjured by a witch. Intended to increase and focus his power, the witch soon discovers that the creature, with its feral curiosity, disgusts him. Unable to destroy it, like a kitten in a sack, he tosses it into a river. But the familiar is able to incorporate elements of its surroundings into its corporeal self, growing into a bizarre amalgam of industrial waste, machinery and animals parts as it learns and matures through assimilation. The world is a resource of "infinite tools" which it tirelessly adapts to its use, changing and evolving as knowledge and circumstance allow. Set within modern day London, or a near future wherein magic and reality blur, Miéville's conceit in some ways becomes a reflection of his own imaginative fiction, a fabrication at once familiar and fanciful.

Gene Wolfe gives a tantalizing glimpse of his forthcoming novel, Knight, due out sometime in September. A short excerpt from the novel, the main character, Able, is a contemporary young man who by some strange coincidence -- not entirely explained in this segment -- finds himself transported to the realm of Mythgarthr. Unprepared for the magical and medieval land in which he finds himself, and plagued by gaps of memory, he sets off in search of the town where he originally lived, hoping thereby to return to a world he recognizes. But though a village of similar name exists in Mythgarthr, it was destroyed long ago by giants. Borrowing elements of both romance and faerie, Wolfe again appears to be constructing a crosshatch of interconnected stories, perhaps similar in approach to his writing in Peace. With a cadence and wonder reminiscent of Arthurian archetypes, but a narrative sense -- and, I suspect, themes -- all his own, this introductory look at his new novel should excite many readers, as well as amply suggests why the author is generally recognized as one of the more important masters of contemporary fantasy.

In "Simon's House of Lipstick" Jonathan Carroll returns, in much smaller scale, to themes and characters familiar from White Apples. Centered upon a cad, "call him a rat, call him a weasel; call him a disease with a head..." Simon Haden is a man whose career options have come to an end. Strikingly handsome, his appearance has long deceived everyone: women, his employers, erstwhile friends, good looks hiding the self-absorbed superficiality within. But as he's grown older the bloom has faded, and he's burned every bridge behind him. Now middle-aged, reduced to working as a tour bus guide, he's on notice that one more infraction, one more failure to perform his duties, and he's out of work, with no where left to turn. He hates his job and despises its patrons, mainly elderly women whom he ridicules. His only friend is an octopus. But a chance encounter on the bus will change his life dramatically... indeed, will question his very existence. Carroll again displays his seeming effortless talent to transform the every day world into a surreality of dream and fantasy, a mirror often reflecting all too closely, if distorted, our human condition, as well as calling into doubt some of our most essential perceptions and assumptions. And he accomplishes this so seamlessly that it becomes quite easy to undervalue the achievement.

The final notable story in this collection is Elizabeth Hand's "The Least Trumps." Initially masquerading as mainstream, the author slowly develops the narrative around her central figure, Ivy, who lives in a storybook cottage on an island on an island (no typo) off the coast of Maine. The daughter of a famous children's book author, Ivy has inherited her mother's house, where she has largely retreated from the world. Though isolated, she is able to support herself as a tattoo artist, her reputation and skill attracting an exclusively female clientele wealthy enough to be willing to ride the ferryboat to reach her home and studio. Though she often journeys to the mainland to visit her mother, or accomplish errands, separation from the island often brings on episodes of panic, which she has suffered from since the break up with her lover and mentor, Julia Sa'adah. Eleven years have passed since Julia left her, and since then she has increasingly sought solitude. Yet she has grown accustomed to her lonely existence, no longer seeking company, her world reassuringly defined by the four walls of her cottage, her work, and a few well-loved books. But the tranquility of this self-contained existence is about to become threatened by the purchase of an antique deck of Tarot cards and the unexpected appearance of a visitor.

Hand subtly masters the shift between reality and fabulation in a way that quietly builds suspense, and with results that are only partially anticipated. Rich in metaphor, and multi-faceted in the themes it attempts to cover, this was a story that surprised me, both by its depth as well as the well-integrated use of fabulation, which is largely and dramatically sprung upon the reader near the end, although a sense of mystery exists throughout, helping to sustain an underlying tension. One of the longer stories in this collection, the author effectively interweaves background, character and allusions to reach an epiphany that could not have been accomplished without all the understated development prior, and that is to be applauded for its lack of definitive closure, leaving possibilities to be imagined. Even amidst the exceptional contributions mentioned above, this story quietly stand outs, notable for its superb and seamless development, as well as the rich and complex nature of the narrative. A mature narrative by an author in full mastery of her craft, and unlooked for, as I have not always cared for her past work.

Finally, mention should be made of the excellent essay contributions by Gary K. Wolfe and John Clute at the back of the book. Broadly examining in tandem the history of fabulation, as well as its recent role within our larger literature, both authors discuss fantastic fiction's degeneration into genre over the last century and a half, as well as the vital and prominent role fantasy has played in our literary tradition, both now and in the past. Since dismissed and largely overlooked in favor of mimesis and realism, a persuasive argument is made that this attempt at elision of fantasy from the literary canon not only ignores its continued presence, at times variously disguised, but overlooks its significant and fundamental contribution to our literary heritage, one that is inseparable from traditions of realism that, especially since the nineteenth century, equally inform it. As has been pointed out elsewhere, whether as Magic Realism or in some other guise, fantasy has been ""arguably the major fictional mode of the late twentieth century."1  And, as John Clute concludes, fantasy and realism offer different, rather than mutually exclusive or better, ways of expressing and conversing with the world and ourselves and "the Ocean of Story." Hopefully the inclusion of such stories within an academic venue is but another sign of a long overdue shift in modern academia's short-sighted, blind and sometimes bigoted attitude towards the fantastic in literature. As some of these stories show, not everything written, either in the past or the present, has its roots in ten-penny dreadfuls or the pulp fiction traditions of the earlier half of the past century.

That said, it is unfortunate that this collection unevenly represents the best literary work the genre has to offer. The inclusion of certain authors remains questionable in the face of work that is available elsewhere, as well as misleading in terms of the collection's title. Further, some of the selections chosen -- one thinks particularly of Harrison and Gaiman in this regard -- either are not among the authors' best, seem significantly understated in any use of fabulation, or appear unrepresentative of much of the writers' work. Granted, in his introductory note, guest-editor Peter Straub regrets the absence of authors such as Geoff Ryman, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, or Carol Emshwiller, amongst others, but I would suggest that their inclusion would have done much to make this collection more representative of the writing its title promises, as well as probably improved the excellence overall. Despite the high quality of writing present, this collection fails to be consistent, or fully succeed in living up to what its title implies. Therefore I can only recommend it halfheartedly. An opportunity missed.

1 Attebery, Brian, Strategies of Fantasy, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992) p. 1. See also Hume, Kathryn, Fantasy and Mimesis, (New York: Methuen, 1984) p. 21.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His reviews have also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses an MLS degree in Special Collections, and serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently working with scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall, at the Cushing Collection at Texas A&M on the Moorcock manuscripts, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl.

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