| Dispatches From Smaragdine|
|A column by Jeff VanderMeer|
| May 2007 |
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]
Things here in Smaragdine can get convoluted or simple in about ten seconds flat. I knew I hadn't seen any Elizabeth Hand books in translation here, so I told Horia Ursu (Big Bad Bear of previous installments) and Michael Haulica, both editors of note, about Hand and wondered how she could get published in Smaragdine. After all, many of her contemporaries already had been.
We were sitting at a table in a sidewalk cafe drinking coffee. Both Horia and Michael snorted into their cups.
They looked at each other, and then at me.
"You really don't know, do you?" Horia said.
"Know what?" I asked.
"Saint Mâna," Michael said.
Of course I'd seen the many colorful mosaics of the saint, lining the walls in old neighborhoods and new. I'd seen parades with flags depicting her visage. I'd even seen the many books with her name on them.
"Mâna means hand," Horia said helpfully.
"You don't mean...surely you don't mean...?"
Michael smirked. "Not all saints are dead."
"I thought that was a bloody requirement!"
"Not in Smaragdine, my friend," Horia said.
"So all of those books with her face on them..."
"Yes," Michael said. "They're translations of her work: Winterlong, Mortal Love, all of them."
"But how did she...?"
"Become a saint?" Michael said.
Simplicity itself as it turned out. Back in the 1970s, Elizabeth Hand had come to Smaragdine as part of a backpacking tour of Europe. In an extraordinary turn of events, a simple trip to an old church turned into a defining moment in Smaragdine religious history. For you see, the church was devoted to the Saint Mâna, who had, in the fourteenth century, repelled the Turk by the power of her words and by taking up the sword and leading her countrymen against their enemy, until her martyrdom on a hill near Istanbul, where the Turk surprised her and sacrificed her to a thousand spears. The miracle had been that while dying of her wounds, she had written a holy text using her own blood. In that text, she mentioned her eventually earthly return in the form of a "writer of tales of the other life, the other world, the other light."
"How long did it take her to die?" I asked. "How many pages was this religious text?"
"That's not the point," Michael said.
"No, not at all," Horia said. "The point is that in the light through the stained glass windows, as Elizabeth Hand turned to view the altar, her face and the mosaic visage of Saint Mâna were identical. And in that moment, the priests who saw her knew she was the saint returned, as foretold in the saint's own bloody book. It didn't hurt when they found out her surname."
"That's ridiculous," I said.
Horia shrugged. "You must admit, she looks a bit like a fallen angel."
"Well, the truth of it doesn't matter," Michael said. "Ever since, her books have continuously been in print and studied by the followers of Saint Mâna for their mystical and religious significance."
And so I learned that Elizabeth Hand was, in fact, published in Smaragdine, her presence was all around me, if only I had thought to look...
For many years now Elizabeth Hand has been one of our best prose stylists. She has also been adept at bringing disquieting strangeness into the real world -- the kind of fey quality that we sometimes catch a glimpse of in our own lives, if not in such a literal sense. The first work I read of hers was Last Summer at Mars Hill, a collection of related stories that mixed expert characterization with profound mystery. Ever since, I've thought of Hand as someone who shows us the fantasy in the mundane, an expert guide to the dangers and ecstasies of creation using a litany of flawed, gifted, not-quite-of-this-world characters.
Two recent works show that Hand is equally at home writing about the lives of fascinating, if damaged, people without use of fantasy elements. This seems appropriate inasmuch as Hand's prose is magical at the sentence level, at the level of metaphor, whether anything fantastical happens at the level of plot.
Generation Loss, out from Small Beer Press this spring, features one of Hand's most intriguing characters: the infuriating, fascinating, selfish down-and-out photographer Cass Neary. Once a darling of the 1970s New York scene, an attack and rape send Neary into a self-destructive spiral. She winds up living off sparse freelancing work, which is how she gets an assignment to interview Aphrodite Kamestos, a reclusive photographer whose fame rests on two books of photos that greatly influenced Neary. Kamestos lives in Maine on a remote island, and so Neary travels there, unaware of the fact that there may be a more sinister impetus behind the assignment. Kamestos proves a prickly character who tests Neary's resolve and patience.
Disappearances, strange art by an even stranger artist, a teenage girl's attempt to leave the boondocks, and Neary's own fatal curiosity drive a thriller that combines a fascinating vision of Maine with Heart of Darkness and a relentless examination of the divide between artist and art, inspiration and madness.
Scenes like one in which Neary hides a man's keys in a sea urchin seem so simple and yet are so evocative of character that you'd really be willing to read anything from her point of view. The observations about art and the amazing depiction of rural Maine are also first-rate. It's an edgy and bold book -- so edgy that a boat chase late in the novel actually seems like a let-down, unnecessary. I really hope that Hand returns to this milieu, even if she decides to use different characters. Anyone who has loved Hand's prior work will also love Generation Loss for its honesty, strangeness, and stark beauty.
Illyria (PS Publishing), meanwhile, is a novella-length exploration of forbidden love that perfectly captures the angst of teenage desire. Cousins Rogan and Maddy are madly in love, living in old money homes on the Hudson, going to the same school, and, ultimately, performing in a magical production of Twelfth Night. There's also a suggestion of a faery theater that seems oddly symbolic rather than literal despite Hand's skillful and beautiful description. Rogan is a fey, talented teen, Maddy seemingly second fiddle to his talent. The evocations of the play, of first love, of intense desire, are pitch-perfect. Hand's ability to include subtle nuances that reflect the self-knowledge of someone older in some of Maddy's reactions is masterful. The novella only seems to falter, for me, when a gap of ten and then twenty years occurs late in the tale. I appreciated what Hand was doing with the relationships, with the changes in Rogan and Maddy, but I wasn't sure it entirely worked. I would have been happy enough for the novella to end with the end of the play and the events that occur immediately thereafter. Other readers may need the dual closure/open-ended quality of Hand's eventual denouement, however. Despite my quibbles about it, that ending still created an intense emotional reaction in me.
Cass Neary is trying to figure out the identity and techniques of a mysterious photographer, whose work she encounters in Maine... You can hear the entire novel podcast by Elizabeth Hand at www.elizabethhand.com/2007/gen_loss.mp3
A profile of the publisher Solaris and several book reviews.
If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my U.S. snail mail address:
There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.
Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.
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