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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Best American Fantasy 2008, guest edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Series Editor Matthew Cheney, Prime Books, 2008, $14.95.

Midnight Picnic, by Nick Antosca, Impetus Press, 2008, $15.95.

The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak, Bantam Books, 2008, $12.

WITHIN THE FIELDS WE KNOW

A YEAR'S Best anthology may not be the most accurate way to measure a genre's health and general well-being: it's more like resting a hand upon literature's fevered brow, rather than hooking it up to an array of state-of-the-art diagnostic machines. Still, it's not a bad indicator of trends. Obviously one must factor in the taste of the editor/s at the helm. As with Best American Short Stories (which seems to be its model), Best American Fantasy features guest editors, which adds a nice frisson to the anticipation of reading it. Michel Houllebecq's selections will perhaps differ from Michael Crichton's.

It's been ages since I reviewed a YB volume, or read one (for my own pleasure) cover to cover. There are just too many to keep up with these days, a far cry from back when the late Judith Merril's Year's Best S-F was the gold standard, the only sf anthology that could be found on library shelves.*

Usually I dip into these books, read the usual suspects whose work I like or am familiar with, progress to stories by writers I've heard good (or bad) things about, skim a few opening sentences by unknowns and revel in a new find, etc. A scattershot approach, but one that leaves open the always-pleasant chance for discovery, for dipping into the same volume at some later date and stumbling upon a marvelous story I somehow missed, and then hurrying off to find everything I can by the author. BAF08 offers several such opportunities for discovery, along with a smattering of names that may be more familiar to readers of this magazine.

Series editor Matthew Cheney is a well-known writer and reviewer. Guest editor Ann VanderMeer is fiction editor of Weird Tales; her husband Jeff is a novelist of note, and in addition to the BAF 2007 and BAF08, they've co-edited theme anthologies The New Weird and Steampunk. Their combined taste skews toward the sort of American magic realism that once seemed like a genuinely original offshoot of most contemporary fiction, and certainly a distinct change from stories that featured those members of the eldritch cohort who, years past, reliably decamped within the covers of year's best collections.

Now, however, the magic realist stream of fantastika (critic John Clute's useful catchall term for the various modes of fantastic literature) doesn't seem any more exotic than the tattooed elves, gay fey, post-postmodernist dragons, environmentally threatened merfolk, mallrat zombies, and suburban vampires you find in most genre magazines, and not a few mainstream ones. Contemporary fiction's cutting edge has been blunted. This doesn't mean individual stories (in BAF08 and elsewhere) aren't good, in some instances very good, and occasionally great.

But they've lost some of their power to impart that sharp sense of the numinous and unknown that, for a long, long time, was one of the hallmarks of the fantastic. Most of this, of course, is because genre fiction has successfully colonized mainstream literature and pop culture. Factor in the tsunami of material that inundates us every millisecond via the Internet and more archaic media like television, and one begins to suffer from fantastika fatigue. There's also the McSweeney's Effect, a pleasantly soporific drift into a recognizable though subtly altered, nebulous early-twenty-first-century American landscape (malls, convenience stores, highways, exurbs, abandoned tract housing, drowned beachfront condominiums) that causes Constant Reader to feel as though she's dreamed or read the same vaguely magic realist story before, maybe by a different writer, or maybe the same one, or maybe even herself. I don't blame McSweeney's—I love McSweeneys, honest! also The Believer!—and in fact I suspect there's a scientific explanation for this, though I'm reluctant to call it a conspiracy: If one rifled through the medicine cabinets of all the published writers in America, would one find the same bottles of Zoloft and Prozac and Paxil and Wellbutrin, Celexa and Lexipro and Zyban?

I found myself falling victim to the McSweeney's Effect while reading BAF08, enough so that I subjected the volume to a rigorous statistical analysis. Of the nineteen stories of BAF08, ten are from "mainstream," "literary" magazines—Conjunctions, Cincinnati Review, Tin House, et al.

Four first appeared in genre print magazines such as the one you are reading; four from original genre anthologies; one was published online and will be reprinted in a genre mag. Seven stories are by writers associated with McSweeney's. And one of those stories is by Rick Moody, who also guest-edited the issue of Tin House from which two of the other BAF08 stories were drawn. (In future columns, I will discuss the Moody Paradox.)

Moody's contribution, "Story with Advice II: Back from the Dead," is one of the best pieces in BAF08, a collection of letters from a man who was, in life, advice columnist for a crummy freebie weekly, and whose posthumously written advice column has now been published. Sample letter:

Dear Olive, nice to make your acquaintance and thanks for writing to Story with Advice II: Back from the Dead!

…Olive, you do not, in the afterlife, get to keep your books, your records, your dollhouses, your family heirlooms, your silver chest, your art collection, your Kiss action figures, your exotic musical instruments, your plastic handbags, your ceramic bears, your toy piano, your erotic etchings, your antique furniture, your comical hats. But you do get to keep at hand your memories of childhood disgrace.…

Peter S. Beagle's entry here is also wonderful, and has an even longer title: "The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French," a lovely, sly, and surprisingly moving tale in which an ordinary American university librarian gradually becomes the Platonic eidos of France, much to the chagrin of his wife, colleagues and, eventually, his entire adopted country. Kelly Link's sublime "Light" takes place in a marvelously evoked world nearly identical to our own, save for the intrusion of countless pocket universes which can, at any time, appear and transform the thin fabric of reality. Jeffrey Ford's bleak, haunting "The Drowned World" is a far darker vision of a not dissimilar world; a story of personal and national disintegration that plumbs the terrifying moral abyss glimpsed in Robert Aickman's best supernatural fiction, filtered through Ford's distinct and increasingly fine prose. Somewhat more traditional genre stories are represented by Erik Amundsen's excellent "Bufo Rex" [frog prince]; Kage Baker's underpowered "The Ruby Incomparable" [young female mage]; and M. Rickert's elegant, melancholy "Memoir of a Deer Woman."

As for discoveries (mine): Michelle Redmond's "Logorrhea" is a delicate tale of reverse metamorphosis, featuring a woman whose husband develops, then loses the gorgeous reptilian scales that first attracted her. David Hollander's "The Naming of the Islands" charts a dark journey across nightmarish seas, evoking Jan Potocki's Sargasso Manuscript, William Hope Hodgson's The Boats of the Glen Carrig, and C. S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Finally, Michaela Morrissette's "Ave Maria" raises the sort of goosebumps I haven't felt since reading Angela Carter's fiction or Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary; a pitch-perfect account of the discovery of a bird-woman in rural France that combines enchantment and the everyday.

Kudos to the editors behind Best American Fantasy 2008. Next year's volume will be guest-edited by Kevin Brockmeier, whose short fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, among numerous other publications.

DAYS OF THE DEAD

Novels featuring posthumous characters are another modish trend; not traditional zombies (always in style, enjoying a vogue) but eerily disassociated protagonists who mingle freely with the living and who don't always seem to realize they're dead, and, when they do, sometimes react with varying degrees of annoyance or ennui rather than horror. Books such as Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead; Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital; Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation all come to mind.

Nick Antosca's excellent first novel, Fires, charted the downward spiral of its sexually obsessed narrator into a suburban holocaust, a housing development ravaged by wildfire. His second novel, Midnight Picnic, is even better. It deftly utilizes a number of early twenty-first-century literary tropes—diffuse sense of time; a deracinated protagonist; ghosts who are nearly indistinguishable from the living; a blighted modern landscape—without sacrificing urgency and a sense of genuine old-fashioned terror. The story opens with a scream and doesn't let up:

Bram pulls into the parking lot half-asleep and the crunch of gravel under his tires becomes the crunch of bone. Something screams.
It's three A.M., and Bram has run over a deerhound named Baby outside the grotesquely decaying building where they both live. Unfortunately, that's the high point of his day. An encounter with a troubled neighbor bearing the bones of a child leads Bram to an encounter with Adam Dovey, a six-year-old boy. Adam's repeated refrain—"Help me get Jacob Bunny," at first poignant, grows increasingly disturbed and, finally, terrifying.
"Jacob Bunny's been alive for twenty-three years since I died," says Adam Dovey. "Nobody punished him. He still lives in the woods. He's alive and I'm dead and nobody punished him. That's wrong."
Midnight Picnic subverts reader expectations on almost every page. The horror here derives not from Jacob Bunny's crime (dreadful as it is) but from Adam's obsessive, sharklike hunger for revenge. He's a brilliant, terrifying creation, equal parts pathetic child and vengeful revenant. Antosca's shifts in focus are expertly done, from Adam to Bram to Jacob to Owen, and Bram's final journey with Adam through an exurban wasteland generates the heart-clutching fear of a recurring nightmare. Midnight Picnic is beautifully written, a literary ghost story that doesn't stint on old-fashioned terror: it's a dark, polished gem of a novel.

Christopher Barzak is another young writer who has avoided sophomore slump. One for Sorrow, his first book, was a lovely, lyrical ghost story, a melancholy ode to working-class adolescence that managed to be both affecting and humorous. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is even better, one of the best books of the year.

Set in contemporary Tokyo, the novel traces the fragile web of connections between a number of young people—American and Japanese, men and women, gay and straight—many of them strangers to each other, but all linked by their individual ties to four members of a suicide club. The four embark upon this tragic course as though it were a holiday, drinking a toast to their decision.

And in a way it is a holiday, a permanent vacation from their profound sense of dislocation and romantic disappointment. The four are casual acquaintances before the formation of the suicide club. Asami is in her mid-twenties, overweight in a country where nymphet schoolgirls are part of the urban wallpaper. Like Asami, Hitomi is "Christmas cake," twenty-six years old and still single. Kazuko is thirty, married but estranged from her salaryman husband. Tadashi, the only man, is derailed by the breakup of his relationship with a Canadian lover. Barzak expertly places this tragic quartet, and the daisy chain of friends and lovers surrounding them, within the deracinated, pathologically detached culture of twenty-first-century Japan. Within this context, their decision becomes even more poignant, and even understandable.

"Four was comfortable, though. Four was enough to feel like a family."
Yet it's a family or club that functions in reverse: rather than banding together to sustain the group and create a new generation, it exists solely to destroy its members. When the three founders raise their wineglasses, they toast to fellowship—issho ni, "together."

They went home thinking the toast was nothing more than a joke. But as each crawled inside her separate covers, as each laid her head on her pillow and stared at the moonshine on the frosted glass of her window, the humor and flippancy of their joining became transparent, and soon they were caught in the embrace of the possibility of escaping the confines of their individual disappointments. This was the closest any of them had come to feeling like their lives were real in years.

The deaths happen early in the novel. The remainder unfolds as a dreamy journey through the lives of those left behind, lovers and friends who are haunted by the suicides. Barzak skillfully plays with the conventions of the ghost story by showing how, for the living, there may be no difference between a memory and a revenant, a fox fairy and a suicidal teenager. His novel finds a few inches of common ground in the work of the novelist Koji Suzuki, whose Ringu was the source material for the successful horror film. Barzak's novel is still more evocative of the traditional ghost stories in Lafcadio Hearn's collection Kwaidan, another brilliant assay into Japan's supernatural world by an American writer (and basis for Masaki Kobayashi's atmospheric film of the same name).

Most of all, though, The Love We Share Without Knowing is an homage to The House of the Sleeping Beauties, the brilliant novella by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata. Barzak captures the strange, half-awake tone of that book, with Barzak's ghosts acting as voyeurs who prey upon the living much as Kawabata's men pay to gaze at sleeping teenage girls. The Love We Share Without Knowing is elegiac but not depressing, a love song in a minor key that will echo for a long time in the minds of its fortunate readers.


* I innocently wonder if the current number of YB volumes can possibly relate to the tribble-like proliferation of genre awards? Merril's series ran from 1956-1967 and was originally titled Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy. Perhaps we could simplify things and just give a Greatest SF/F Writer Award, or perhaps an Award Award?

perhaps caused by DFW Interaction, wherein writers are exposed to the sometimes life-altering gravitional pull of the late, great David Foster Wallace.

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