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Five Forbidden Things
Dora Knez
Small Beer Press, 64 pages

Five Forbidden Things
Dora Knez
Dora Knez lives in Montreal with her husband, their fish and a lot of plants. She attended the Clarion SF writing workshop of 1995.

Copies are available by mail from:
Small Beer Press,
176 Prospect Avenue,
Northampton, MA 01060

ISFDB Bibliography
Small Beer Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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Chapbooks thrill me. Perhaps it's because my imagination thinks this one must have been too dangerous (or too different or too wild and weird or too [insert cool adjectives here]) for the big press to handle. In fact, you really don't see much experimenting going on except by a few of the more established authors who may have had a wild hair to get out but would otherwise not experiment for fear of losing their readership. The vitality of any field depends on the scientists (in this case, word scientists) who are willing to buck old ideas or the same old ways of telling a story. Surely, there's more than one method to telling a story. One feels that the only way an R.A. Lafferty might rise up through the ranks today is through the small press. Yet, on the other hand, most of the "dangerous" chapbooks published today are dangerous merely for dangerous-ness' sake, which is to say, they're deadly dull.

Small Beer Press should be applauded for taking such a chance on Dora Knez's chapbook Five Forbidden Things, which falls somewhere in the middle of the "dangerous" chapbook spectrum though, thankfully, a little more toward the dangerous end. No classics as yet, but a small cult following seems imminent. The majority of Knez's fiction bucks the standard formula. Instead of character development and change, she focuses on the minute qualities of writing like metaphor, structural artifice and the aesthetics of language, sometimes becoming so involved in minutiae -- as the main character's obsession with flying in "Perpetual Motion" -- that one begins to wonder whether Knez is influenced by Nicholson Baker or by the oddness and madly spinning wheels of Stepan Chapman.

But there is a good reason for "formula" in fiction. Everyday we find ourselves mired in problems -- sometimes extricating ourselves, sometimes not. Fiction formulas show us a plethora of extrication mechanisms, so that, ideally, the fiction reader is better prepared to cope with the everyday. That is, unless the fiction reader is more enamoured by the problem than the solution, as in never-ending soap operas. It is no accident that Aristotle called it catharsis, nor that Joyce would later term it epiphany. Most of us want to improve our lives. Moreover, the formula can be made unformulaic and magical in the right hands.

Be that as it may, Knez does some interesting construction here without the use of scaffolding. What this means is that much of the work that works must use fewer words with which to build if the aim is to keep reader interest maximized.

Yet, regarding the form of the stories, there is change here, albeit the more difficult to implement: change within the reader. In order for such an artifice to succeed, the reader must be lured in. The drawback to this, however, is that the reader more apt to change had probably changed before reading the work.

The most emotionally potent tale here, incidentally, (and one Canadian award nominators should take note of) involves the formula, "The Good Housekeeper." An old woman loses touch with reality as she, so obsessed with order, topples a too heavy cabinet upon herself, which pins her to the floor. The task of setting order in her life weighs an impossible burden at her age and she has to give in to the ultimate disorder: Death, who pays her a visit.

"The One Forbidden Thing" calls up the myth of Bluebeard (whose wife can open all but one door in his house) in the weakest of the five stories, amounting to little more characterization in either character than "woman good, man bad" or "woman bad for liking man who is bad." It's too easy not to understand the other. Perhaps this should be considered an overly long prose poem. To bring back Aristotle for a moment, it is easier for one to change oneself than others; so a story that deals with a character without a fatal flaw within herself is flawed. How can anyone relate to her except the flawless? Who will cast the first stone then have time to sit down and read this? The flawless lead such busy lives these days.

"Vaster Than Empires" throws up an imaginative scaffolding: the seasons and their effect on the life cycle of plants. The title refers to lines 11-12 of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress":

"My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow."
It does not refer to the rest of the poem, which urges an expedient courtship since there isn't "world enough and time." Nor does it seem to refer to Le Guin's plant-infested planet. Nor does the narrator in Knez's tale seem to refer to her lover's expedient love, but rather an erratic one since he is an oboe player on the road. Perhaps this is a female refutation where the mistress decides a vegetative love is exactly what she wants. The metaphors Knez employs, especially in the beginning, are marvelously ample and creatively appropriate: Hades' pomegranate seed, the oboe as a woodwind as tree and further etymology, etc.  In fact, this creative intensity at the beginning and its sparsity at the end may be what deterred this reviewer from falling head over heels for this story. Or maybe it was the narrator's maudlin introspection that went on for two to three pages. Still the end was refreshing: she will find a peace within herself and wait for her lover. The narrator does not really change in this tale -- since she was already used to waiting, used to "vegetative time," just as her lover makes her wait for the finish of Mozart's "Magic Flute" -- but perhaps this is an acceptance of self: she accepts her own preference for vegetative love. This provides a nice contrast to the previous story -- which is, no doubt, the reason why they are juxtaposed -- where in this case the main character chooses to act and not to wait for the other.

"HumanitAid, Inc." poses the idea "What if charity were based on the stock market?" Somehow Cavanaugh's job involves taking videos of a region to determine how much aid it can provide the needy, giving only to those who will be able to repay. When charity organization's stocks run dry, the organization cannot aid anyone. Knez, again, focuses on change within the reader in this sociological tale, though this reviewer struggled to understand how a charity organization could have value in a stock market. Perhaps we are only meant to read this and the other tales as metaphors, and it's a point well taken: we should help all the needy, assuming a bottomless well of resources. But then do we have the resources to do it? Let us hope so. (There's an equation here somewhere; say, "Health of a nation/company/person to keep them motivated and satisfied in their work = time/money/capability for things of one's family and one's self - charity of personal interest - charity of societal interest?" This sort of equation may be too complicated to convey in a fiction.)

Why should the reviewer even debate a work of art? Words are language, the words of good stories communicate, they pose questions. Good readers respond. And "better" readers are free to say, "That reviewing bass-tird! I agree with her. Just for that I'm going to buy the book." Mission accomplished. It never hurts to stir up a little controversy.

"Perpetual Motion" is the final tale here. Yet another unusual and imaginative tale in a book full of such. Here we follow an artist who does a sort of trapeze act involving strange equipment, lighting, and music. The artist has no conflict but a longing, creating bigger and stranger acts so that when the aliens arrive they are impressed. His artistry is the impetus somehow to bring peace between the species. The other strength of this piece, aside from the unusual material, is how the ending loops back to the beginning for a nice if timely paradoxical feeling of closure.

When three of the five tales seem more like narrative prose poems than actual fiction, it should come as no surprise to the Knez reader that three poems of impeccable craftsmanship follow: two sonnets and a sestina. All of which stick closely to form without feeling formulaic or unnatural. The strongest is the mostly abstract sestina "If I Had Wings," which asks whether desire can be fulfilled... though the narrator will still continue the search:

"If I had wings, what more would I desire to make my life complete? I might perhaps
yearn after fur and claws, or scales....

I'd like it if my skin could learn
to smell the roses, or my ears to seek
the sun like flowers rooted in the clay."

The least successful is simultaneously the most evocative, "The Retreat of Glaciers/Kettle Pond" which ends rather too sentimentally "Their overlapping circles make one heart,/ like yours and mine, that can't be told apart." "Stick Man" is an imaginative sonnet which poses the creature we draw in the stars as having a reality in an almost religious sense.

If and when Knez masters characterization as well as her art -- as do Rick Wilber's "Arribada" or Nancy Kress' unparalleled craftsmanship in the second scene of "Savior" or even a mixture of heart in Knez's own "The Good Housekeeper" and of experimental in "Vaster Than Empires" -- then Knez would no longer be a Writer-to-Watch but a Master-of-the-Genre. Is this book worth your five dollars? Have you a five to spare? Surely, you'll want to be one of the few to say I knew her when.... If you're usually in the market for 1000-page SF/fantasy paperweights, then okay, probably not. On a wordage level, this is probably a tenth of such inestimable value. But if you've exhausted all the weirdness of Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, R.A. Lafferty, Howard Waldrop etc. and you're in the market for something new and experimental, Dora Knez is a good place to start. Now if only more writers of the Knez kind were available.... Write your congressman.

Copyright © 2001 Trent Walters

Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.


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