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edited by Kelly Link
Small Beer Press, 336 pages

Kelly Link
Kelly Link's work includes appearances in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the 'zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and the collection A Wolf at the Door (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling). She won the World Fantasy Award for her story "The Specialist's Hat" and the James Tiptree Jr. Award for "Travels with the Snow Queen."

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: 4 Stories
Jelly Ink
Small Beer Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

An expedition of women all named Tina is sent to an isolated island by the Syllable Foundation to decipher "oracle bone script... a pictographic system of the early Shang Dynasty," a sort of I Ching random generation of symbols with multiple sub-variations widely open to subjective interpretation. One of the Tinas falls sick and is shipped back home; her blue-haired, pot-bellied replacement disrupts what had been a more-or-less happy little community. The narrator calls the replacement the "anti-Tina." The narrator is working on interpreting a character that looks like an upside down "F," which she calls the Feather. She thinks it represents some sort of drinking song. The anti-Tina ridicules that interpretation. The narrator thinks she detects small horns beneath the anti-Tina's blue hair. All the other Tinas love the anti-Tina. The narrator decides she must leave. She has a vision of a rune, two lines crossing at a slant that means "go," or "stay" or perhaps both.

Ed Parks's "Well-Moistened with Cheap Wine, the Sailor and Wayfayer Sing of their Absent Sweethearts" (the title is what the anti-Tina insists the Feather character actually represents) is perhaps emblematic of the meta-fictional aspirations of many of the tales in Kelly Link's Trampoline anthology. The pop culture mockery ("Tina" is presumably a reference to Tina Louise who played the sex goddess castaway marooned with Gilligan's Island crew) combined with "lit-crit" speculations about the relative meaning of the words on the page you are reading that comprise the story you are trying to decipher. Add into the concoction the strange title, the absurd fantastical situation, the profundities of the closing paragraph in which the reader can ponder his own psychological island and whether he should move off or move on. Not to mention the feminist slant to a story presumably written by a man.

As they used to say in the 60s, "Heavy, man."

While I happened to like Parks story, sometimes there's a fine line walked between the portentous and the pretentious. Most of Link's selections manage to leap in the right directions, though there are a few that thud.

Take for example the lead-off story, Christopher Rowe's "The Force Acting on the Displaced Body," a tall tale about a guy from the Kentucky backwoods who travels to Paris by the somewhat circumspect route of connecting backwaters on a boat made of strapped together corks. I suppose there's some meaning here about self-identity and destiny, but it all strikes me as something that might be handed in to an MFA writing instructor particularly appreciative of abstruseness.

Next is the aforementioned Parks, which I think better and funnier, though perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. Those with similar reactions are urged to hang in there. Shelley Jackson's "Angel" packs a wallop, one of the best stories here. This macabre stitchwork concerns a taxidermist with failed artistic aspirations for his craft, spurned by both an unloving father and a Goth girlfriend, now employed in the aptly named "Wine and Spirits" shop. When the taxidermist stumbles upon the corpse of a boy, he employs the tools of his trade to create an unnatural angel. Exquisitely creepy and disturbing metaphor on claiming redemption.

"Impala," by John Gonzalez, follows, one of two straightforward SF stories, this one rooted in the cyperpunk-land of the Matrix, something that could conceivably have appeared in a more mainstream publication such as Asimov's. It's a bit more than cyber-junk, however, in providing an archetypal depiction of a doomed father-son relationship. Then we're back to MFA-land with a triptych by Samantha Hunt concerning various characters in search of significance (literary and personal) cast in a series of fables. Only the first, "The Periodic Table of Liquids," about a boy saved from the sea who as a grown-up Reverend does a belly-flop into the dangerous waters of love works for me. Alex Irvine's, "Gus Dreams of Biting the Mailman," takes on the issues of fictional meaning in a meta-story that is more obvious than Park, but, to my taste is more successful. The narrator is an intellectual whose girlfriend kicks him out of their apartment because of an argument over Charles Bukowski. The story concerns debates with his buddy Eli and fellow employee at the Doug's Bakery about the nature of reality, and by extension, the reality of narrative. In mimicking the philosophical discussions of college sophomores, it is quite funny.

This brings us to the real doorstop of the collection, both in terms of page count and prose density. "A Crowd of Bone" by Greer Gillman invokes Celtic myth concerning a young girl who seeks to escape a witch by duping a young fiddler into thinking she loves him and that the child she bears is his. From the beginning we know the girl has suffered great punishment, but the child is alive, though in danger. At novella length, this is the longest story here; it is also the hardest to read. It probably helps to have some knowledge, if not affection, for the various tropes of Celtic and wicca mythology. English majors who've ploughed through Beowulf in the original Old English may find the language fascinating. This English major found it tedious, and at one point just stopped reading it and went on to the next story. I did eventually go back to finish it, but still considered it rough going. Whether you will depends on what you make of such exposition as this:

Her lips were colder than the moon's, and soft. He felt them falling in a drift snow, bedazzled, over ears. Her lap, he thought, she lulls them in her lap. Moon and stars. He saw the burning bush. He saw the bird of her, flown up, amid her branches -- that he could not take. He shook himself, remembering the traveller's eyes, and shrugged the greatcoat off. "Tis the fiddler's turn to dance."

"To pipe and drum," the traveller said.

Thea and the traveller took the coat between them, lofting it and laying upon the sprining heather, so it makde a bed. They stood at head and foot of ti, as in the figure of a dance; the taveller spoke.

"What thou gets here, though mun leave betimes."

"I must bear it," Thea said.

"And will."

"Undone and undone."

The traveller crouched and tweaked a corner of the coat aside, tucked something in, and rose. "What is ta'en here, cracks t' glass. What is tinder s'll be ash. Go lighter of it, until dark." She flung a pair of shears on the makeshift bed. They lay there open, like a striding stork. She turned and gathered up her pack. "I's off."

They saw her go. They lay together on the coat, of leaves as deep as hallows. After a time, unspeaking, they undid her hair, and went into another night.

Greer Gillman has an exceptional imagination, and she sustains a difficult narrative told from different viewpoints and time frames over 75 pages employing dialectic tics and unrelenting lyrical symbolism. If you find this passage intriguing, then this could be the main treat for you in this collection. I'm willing to admit that my inability to connect with this story may reflect my shortcomings as a reader because, my pedigree as an English major notwithstanding, I frequently found my eyes glazing over.

If, like me, you do skip ahead, don't be dismayed by Alen DeNiro's "Fuming Woman," which swings from the existential high trapeze without a net, and willfully falls. It's another one of those, "I'm not sure if this is truly profound or just pretending to be" ponderables. But it's also less than four pages long.

What comes next is another major highlight. "Eight-Legged Story" by Maureen McHugh, is one of several stories without overt fantastical trappings, instead being a chilling depiction of the uncomfortable plight of the step-parent who lacks affection for the child of her spouse.

Dave Shaw's "King of Spain" presents a guy and his pet monkey. The guy has terminal cancer. The pet monkey is not well-behaved and acts, well, like an animal. While I'm not quite sure what the point of the monkey is, I can forgive that and the pun of the title because of the lovely last paragraph, a very nice comment on the meaning of life. If there is any.

Susan Mosser contributes the one other piece of outright science fiction, "Bumpship." Somewhat reminiscent of the New Wave in that it provides a condemnation of the darker aspects of capitalism with a narrator who exhibits classic symptoms of identification with the aggressor.

In "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet," Vandana Singh provides interesting insight into a husband's insensitivity in a long standing and sterile, marriage. Though written from the viewpoint of Indian culture, the depiction could easily apply to any Western married couple stuck in their habits and hierarchies. I thought the Twilight Zoneish ending a little bit sloppy, though; I'd rather Singh had come with a different comeuppance for the husband than what turns out to be the obvious, and easy, one.

Another one of the marginally fantastical stories is "Shipwreck Beach" by Glen Hirshberg. A young girl just out of high school flies to Hawaii in response to a strange summons by her endearing, if sociopathic, cousin. Together they travel to a ghost ship whose real possession emanates not from the spirit world, but the faults of the human soul.

Jeffrey Ford is one of the more recognizable names here, and his "The Yellow Chamber" is another example of his wonderfully funny contraptions for pondering reality. In a scientific institute called, "The Center for the Reification of Actual Probability," three researchers aren't allowed to talk to one another, as conversation might unduly influence the outcome of their contemplative studies. An inadvertent meeting among the three, however, leads to some highly unexpected results.

Beth Adele Long's "Destroyer" depicts a similar pondering in the case of a woman who meets a young girl claiming to be a "black hole" and who seems to know a lot about the woman's problems. "Aren't you afraid of anything" Ruth asked. "Do you ever agonize over anything. Do you never feel the world is your enemy." The black hole Ruth stumbles in to leads her to understand that, as Pogo used to say, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

Carol Emshwiller provides another of her modern morality tales in the "God and Three Wishes," in this case, the admonition that you shouldn't rely on the prospect of Luck alone to get you out of a tight spot. It helps to be plucky.

"Dead Boy Found" by Christropher Barzak and "Insect Dreams" by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson touch the borders of magical realism. The former concerns a boy whose classmate is murdered and his obsession with what it must have felt like. The latter is a much longer meditation on erotic attraction and an assertion of female identity. While it suffers a bit from such sentences as, "She is infected now with the malaria from the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes have infected her with malaria" -- which I suppose is supposed to symbolize being a victim and being victimized -- and odd paragraphing of short descriptive vignettes that takes up most of typography, it's an evocative contemplation of how a repressed woman cannot unshackle herself despite her best efforts.

At this point, what you need is a good "making a deal with the Devil" story right? Richard Butner in "Ash City Stomp" manages to put a nice little spin on a very old motif. Aptly, the volume concludes with Karen Jay Fowler's "King Rat," which concerns the stories we choose -- or choose not -- to tell.

Needless to say, as this hardly comprehensive overview may indicate, there's a little bit of everything here for those whose taste strays to the off-beat. No one is going to like everything here, and probably people will have arguments over how favorites are someone else's least-liked. Which is as it should be if you want to do something truly interesting.

Editor Kelly Link should be commended, not only for an intriguing compilation (even if perhaps criticized for not including a story of her own), but that she manages to stay out of the way of it. The only thing that intrudes here is Link's taste in the story selection and ordering (I have to think there is some forethought to starting the collection with on odd journey and ending it with the Fowler parable on authorial propensity). There's no tiresome manifesto here, no chest-beating about movements or genres or rants against publishing mediocrity and how some merry band of rogues is going to revolutionize anything. Link understands that the role of editor is to let the work speak for itself. The only comment she seems to make is to provide on the cover the definition of a trampoline: "an elastic mattress-like contrivance on which acrobat, gymnasts, & c.leap." I'm not sure what the "c" refers to, but I suppose it means children, though why it should be abbreviated I don't know. In fact, this very sort of puzzled reaction is what is intended by many of these stories to get you thinking. Even if all the stories in Trampoline don't always bounce back successfully, at least they take the risk of making the jump.

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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