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Books
by James Sallis

At the Mouth of the River of Bees, by Kij Johnson, 2012, Small Beer Press, $16.

Before and Afterlives, by Christopher Barzak, 2013, Lethe Press, $15.

Tenth of December, by George Saunders, 2013, Random House, $26.

 
GEORGE Saunders has written that stories are black boxes where the reader enters in one state of mind and exits in another. This is the only thing, he says, that fiction must do. And the shape of the black box really doesn't matter.

 

The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to "real life"—he can put whatever he wants in there. What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.

 

Saunders is resolutely a short-story writer, of course, a builder of trim black boxes rather than freight cars or those massive transports called novels. Several stories in his recent collection Tenth of December, in fact, stories like "Escape from Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries," might easily find a home in this magazine.

But I digress, as comedians say.

Or maybe I don't.

Because we're talking here about imagination, right? Step into any writing class, any literature class, any writing workshop or seminar, and you'll hear hour upon hour of talk about structure and motivation and character development—and very little about imagination. About the very stuff that black box is made of.

And we are talking about short stories, in this case collections by Kij Johnson, who's been crackling and popping on the short-story scene for years now; Christopher Barzak, perhaps better known nowadays as a novelist (One for Sorrow, The Love We Share Without Knowing) but a veteran of Asimov's, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror; and yes, George Saunders. So today we're not talking just short stories but arealist short stories, stories that will not be pinned to the board, stories with a bronco wildness in their eyes and transgression at their heart. Stories that are indisputably black boxes.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees collects eighteen stories from such as Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, various anthologies and webzines, and the magazine you're now reading. Surprisingly, in light of her Sturgeon, World Fantasy, and multiple Nebula awards, this is Kij Johnson's first collection. Not surprisingly, the book overflows with stories that, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, can never be taken for granted; they change in your hands, turn and shift, take on new faces, new shapes. Their breathing grows heavy, soft, then heavy again. You lean in close.

In contrast to writers who seem to have a template for their stories, much like the forms that guitar- and violin-makers employ, Kij Johnson is marvelously attuned to the individual voice and shape of each story, freely listening, allowing the story to tell her what it needs, what it wants. Each becomes truly a world in itself.

Few readers, I suspect, will quickly forget the voice and sad beauty of "Fox Magic"—

 

I saw the wedding as my lord saw it: our bright robes and the priest's hands gesturing at us, my family watching, wisteria in my mother's hair; but when I cried, the wedding blurred into patches of color over the truth of the thing: four foxes and a dirty madman crouched in the filth and dust and darkness…I am only a fox, after all.

 

—or the practicality and sotto voce romance of "The Man Who Bridged the Mist." Here Rasali speaks of all the members of her family who have died as ferrymen.

 

"These cables will fail eventually, these stones will fail—but not the dream of crossing the mist, the dream of connection." […] She leaned forward, across the space between them, and they kissed.

 

Jotted down, it would seem, almost at random, the disjunctive passages of "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" closely mirror the larger, unquestioned magic at the story's center, a troop of performing monkeys who repeatedly, unaccountably disappear and return. With no forfeit of lightness or transparency, "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" tenders a fable of society after dogs have learned to speak, their group history and dreams embodied in stories about dogs who lose collars, catch possums, try to become like men, and invent death. Each of those many stories begins "This is the same dog." In its twenty-seven pages, "The Horse Raiders" manages to riff powerfully on myth, tribalism, cultural history, belief systems, the problem of evil, and our limitless capacity not just to survive but to endure.

 

The sun hangs where it should in the sky, and I walk beneath it in my right place, n'dau, which never stops moving, which is eventually everywhere.

 

And then there is the title story. "It starts with a bee sting." Moments after which, we watch Linna and her ailing German shepherd climb into the car for the short road trip (just across the Cascades, then home, "We need a change, don't we?") that will take them, moment by moment, to the edge of another world.

It's a rich world into which they ride, carrying us along. A world of color, sound, light, planes, and edges. Air thrumming in the open window, the smell of hot dust and metal, gravel roads, fences, and streams. Yet something's dreamlike about it from the first, rooted perhaps in the slow, meandering pacing and the hyperreality of it all, in the easy acceptance of the extraordinary by characters, its interleafing with the commonplace. When upon reaching the mouth of the river Linna and Sam meet the queen bee, it seems not at all strange, only strangely inevitable.

Of stories we read I ask my writing students the same thing I ask myself with each novel, each new story or poem: What is at the heart of this story? "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" is about many things—loneliness, escape, mapping your world, destiny—but at its heart is selflessness, the experience of losing—of letting go—whatever it is that you love most in life. The finest fiction, it seems to me, uniquely affords us triple vision, showing us at one and the same time what we purport to be, what we truly are, and what we might be.

Emerging from Kij Johnson's black boxes, like Linna, like Rasali and Kit, like the dogs of North Park and "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles," we are not the same as those who entered.

 

Boxes, black or not, come in every imaginable size and shape. And there's that word again. Imaginable. Imagination. Image.

 

Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. […] Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling sensation that grows to feel like fire. As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. […] I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.

 

"A Resurrection Artist" is a story that wears its subtext like a second skin just beneath the first, something that might be said of many of the stories collected here in Before and Afterlives. Are they about haunted houses, the death of a classmate one hardly knew, a world in which mermaids wash up so regularly on the beach that the police have clear procedures to deal with them? Yes. But for all their high fantasy and somber tones, the stories speak clearly and directly about straightforward things—verities, daily struggles, and choices. Like going on.

And they move, forever restless, forever reaching.

He has a taste for blurriness, Christopher Barzak has said in interviews, for stories that change shape as you read them, for

 

writing fiction that skates around various genres, sometimes going straight through their territories, other times just around the edges, and oftentimes starting out in one kind of story and ending up in another.

 

"What We Know About the Lost Families of—House," the social history of a haunted house, abounds with the stories of those who inhabited it and with finely wrought sentences such as "And Jonas's father, the gun cracking his life open like a pocket watch, to let all of the time spill out of him."

Much as Kij Johnson's "Fox Magic" led to her novel The Fox Woman, Barzak's "Dead Boy Found" later grew up to become his novel One for Sorrow. Part coming-of-age story, part the portrait of a dissolving family, part ghost story, it recreates for us the far-reaching effect of a boy's murder on a fifteen-year-old classmate barely managing to hold himself together, tugged this way then that, in the flash and tamped-down fury he sees about him.

Another begins, "There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy's umbilical cord with wire cutters."

Like Kij Johnson's, Christopher Barzak's stories do not take the shapes we anticipate; they continuously mutate, changing as our eyes move down the page, as language doubles back to catch its breath, as a comma pauses to hook its tail into a sentence. And dense as they are—"Dead Boy Found" spins from a domestic argument to the mother's paralysis in an auto accident, to discovery of the murdered child, to the haunting of the girl who found the body, to Adam's own unsettling encounter with dead Jamie, then flashes forward to what his life will be—the stories unfold easily, nary a bump in the road.

Determined that something undeniable and nontrivial will happen to the reader.

 

So here we are, having taken the car for a spin cross-country, back with George Saunders, who's had a good year with his fourth story collection, great reviews and interviews aflash like heat lightning horizon to horizon. Maybe not quite as good as back around 2006, mind you, when he received a MacArthur genius grant, a Guggenheim, and the World Fantasy Award, but it's right up there on the shelf.

Granted, the man stubbornly plods on writing short stories, when Everybody knows novels are the way to go. Granted, too, that his house blend of the absurd, outright moral questions, comedy, and deep sadness is not to Everybody's taste. Nor his jeremiad against consumerism and corporate culture—what journalist Cynthia Ellis called "the cage built from capitalism and longing from which none of us is free."

Sounds like heavy stuff, doesn't it? And it is. But the particular genius of George Saunders lies in writing quite small about big things: kids out on imaginary missions; families trying to squeeze by; an experimental subject putting in his hours on the clock; two mothers, some children, and a puppy. He whispers that he has something important to tell you, brings you in close, then only slowly do you realize that, bending to listen, you've stepped off some edge you didn't even suspect was there.

Tenth of December comprises ten black boxes. One or two, like "Escape from Spiderhead," are recognizably science fiction.

 

"Drip on?" Abnesti said over the P.A.

"What's in it?" I said.

"Hilarious," he said.

"Acknowledge," I said.

Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak™ whirred. Soon the Interior Garden looked really nice. Everything seemed super-clear.

I said out loud, as I was supposed to, what I was feeling.

"Garden looks nice," I said. "Super-clear."

Abnesti said, "Jeff, how about we pep up those language centers?"

 

Other stories, sometimes fundamentally, sometimes as fillip, show a strong fantastic leaning, and even in the frangibly mimetic ones I feel (quite without benefit of MobiPak™ or pepped-up language center) a familiar alienist posture, a certain sidelong way of engaging the world. In part this is a time-honored tale-teller's ploy, sketching a culture or civilization in high relief from the outsider's point of view; in part it derives from the author's bone-deep call to satire, the pump and pulse of hyperbole. Saunders himself has remarked his uncommon passage from geophysicist and technical writer to a literary life, "like if you put a welder to designing dresses." Elsewhere he has spoken of working from "a different axis."

It's in "The Semplica Girl Diaries" that all the many turns, tucks, and trims come together indelibly. A marginal family, forever hoping just somehow to stay afloat, is lifted up by a win at the lottery. Finally they can sign on for the latest thing, the ne plus ultra of yard ornaments. Four young foreign girls, in heroic efforts to help their families, have holes bored in their heads so that they may be hung from microline.

 

We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Philippines). Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configurations in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living.

 

Nothing ends well, for the girls or the family, naturally. But still, there are those moments.…

Here, as in many of Saunders's stories, much of what happens, happens just out of sight. In "Puppy," a mom goes to buy a dog for her kids and decides against the purchase; the puppy's owner, whose own child is chained in the yard, abandons it in the woods to die. The resolution of the story is barely suggested. It's as though the tipping point we expect, the soul of the thing, has been relocated three or four pages past the story's physical conclusion. Mirrors and echoes and unsettling patterns abound everywhere. And it's those that have their way with the reader.

Much of what we do as writers is conjuring. We direct your attention leftward while the real work goes on to the right. We toss down covers and scarves, do our best to hide the traps and false bottoms and secret panels. But then there are those times, those times when we do it really well, when it all becomes something more than a parlor trick. When it becomes—to our surprise and the reader's—magic.

I would have been perhaps eleven years old when I saw Invaders from Mars. I'd begun to suspect that the world was much larger than the small river town around me, much larger than any of us in our grandest flights of fancy could imagine. And that the world, all worlds (for yes, I understood there were many, both actually and figuratively) were quite different in nature from the faces shown us, from the shapes into which we insisted upon decanting them. Onscreen as I watched, people walked along in the swaddle of their daily lives and suddenly the ground opened beneath them. They fell through.

And that, it came to me, was what stories did. They broke the crust. They let us fall through. All these years later, I am still falling.

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