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What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?: James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-First Century, by Michael Swanwick, Temporary Culture, 2007, $15.
Collected Stories, by Marta Randall, Lulu.com, 2007, $19.50.
And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer's Early Life, by Nicola Griffith, Payseur & Schmidt, $75.
"SMALL press" in this day and age may have gone the way of terms such as "noir" and "jazz," straight downriver. University presses reviving older fiction or sliding new through the crack in the door, niche presses catering to genre, feminist, gay, libertarian, or just plain contrarian interests, presses that publish poetry by friends, presses specializing in collector's editions, presses that publish one book every three years, those that publish two or three a year, those that publish forty. What do we mean when we say small press?
One thing for sure is that, whoever and whatever they are, when it comes to shaking the cage, taking chances, and just generally keeping our literature alive, small presses are doing much of the heavy lifting these days.
As with any diaspora, of course, there will be ghettos, exclusion, class distinctions, stupidity, and silliness—right along with great cultural enrichment.
So we're going small this time out, pilgrims. Three recent issues from small presses—micropresses, one might say—as varied in their nature as are the publications under review. Not a map to what's going on, by any means; but a few landmarks.
Storytelling is a curious thing. The need for it seems hardwired into us and, just as arealist fiction—sf, fantasy, magic realism, surrealism—taps directly into a pool of archetypes deep within us, so do specific genres seem best adapted to telling certain stories.
Similarly, some writers are chameleons, relating every manner of story in a variety of forms and voices, while others, for all their brilliance, appear to be telling versions of the same story over and over. Just as art doesn't really progress but develops by looping back, ceaselessly recodifying and reinventing itself, so do these writers proceed by emendation, by repetition and refinement, producing serial editions of one essential tale or a handful of tales that over the course of a career stack atop one another like the myriad leaves of paper tole.
James Branch Cabell seems firmly in that camp. He is also one of those writers whose name you hear again and again yet quite likely have not read. Mark Twain had Cabell's Chivalry on his nightstand at the time of his death. James Blish once edited the journal of the Cabell Society; Heinlein described Stranger in a Strange Land as "a Cabellesque satire" and alluded to Cabell's Jurgen, a Comedy of Justice with his own Job, A Comedy of Justice.
And yet…Cabell goes unread.
Why he goes unread is the point addressed in Michael Swanwick's fifty-one-page monograph, What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?
"There are, alas, an infinite number of ways for a writer to destroy himself," Swanwick begins. "James Branch Cabell chose one of the more interesting. Standing at the helm of the single most successful literary career of any fantasist of the twentieth century, he drove the great ship of his reputation straight and unerringly onto the rocks.… This remarkable feat of self-obliteration was accomplished through diligence, hard work, and a perverse brilliance of timing on Cabell's part. His chief tool was a uniform edition of his works."Cabell was born in 1879 in Richmond, Virginia, to an affluent family, and lived most of his life there, retiring to Florida in his final years. Jurgen, which appeared in 1919, was the eighth of some fifty-two or so books. Prosecuted for obscenity, it became a bestseller, and secured Cabell's celebrity. Other major works that have endured in a kind of half-life include The SiIver Stallion, The Cream of the Jest, and Figures in the Earth.
Swanwick's precis of the last might do as well for Jurgen—or for the majority of Cabell's work:
"It follows the adventures of Manuel, a young pig-keeper who is told by his dying mother to 'make a figure in the world,' and so goes out adventuring, ceaselessly rising in rank, seducing women of high mythological status, and sculpting clay statues of himself."As might this:
"In Something about Eve, the (again) Virginian writer Gerald Musgrave trades places with [a supernatural creature and] quickly decides that he is a god—the Fair-haired Hoo, Lord of the Third Truth—and, mounting the silver stallion Kalki, rides off in search of his kingdom in Antan."The shipwreck loomed in the early twenties with Cabell's decision to set his life's work in stone, revising both novels and nonfiction into a piece, first with the Kalki edition, then, with further revisions, notes, and special introductions, the Storisende Edition, all of it purportedly fragments of the world-encompassing Biography of Manuel. To this end, Cabell threw everything into his capacious eighteen-volume pot, back-fitting references to characters into novels written before those characters were created, annexing volumes of nonfiction and poetry as commentary on his fiction, even appending a thirty-four-page genealogy to show how all his characters (including those of the contemporary social satires) were related.
"[M]uch of the biography is humbug," Swanwick writes. Yet: "At his best, the man wrote very well indeed. Who among us dare claim more?"Cabell is a problematic author, and to all appearances was a difficult man, but for those interested in learning more about Cabell there can hardly be a better or more readable beginning than Swanwick's monograph.
It's odd to realize that this is Marta Randall's first collection. True, she may be best known for novels such as Islands, A City in the North, Dangerous Games, and Those Who Favor Fire, but she has been publishing stories since at least 1972 in venues ranging from New Worlds to Universe, Omni, and Asimov's; three first appeared in this magazine.
As one might suspect of stories written over a stretch of time, they're a mixed lot: ripping (or at least nicely torn) adventure yarns; psychological portraits; a postmodern fable; stories fundamentally hyperrealist, bolstered by accents and underlines of the futuristic or fantastic; even a ghost story rather in the style of John Collier. Reading through them often summoned memories of classic writers with whom I grew up, people like Leinster, Leiber, Cordwainer Smith, Sheckley. Yet for all their wading hip-deep in tradition, the stories remain distinctly hers.
In no way do I mean to imply that Randall does not write beautifully —
"The noise woke me. I lay in bed, listening to the bright sound of leaf on leaf. Another lapidary night, cracking leaves in the forest around the house. I thought dreamily of rising and walking into it, to fix the newly formed crystals before they shattered, perhaps to become crystalline myself. Instead, I burrowed deeper into the bedclothes, listening to the rising wind. In the morning shards of emerald lay on the deeper emerald of the grass, or pierced the faceted violets."—but this is not where the imprint lies, and Randall is not at heart a language writer. The distinctiveness of her stories lies in their angle of attack, in the way she sidles up to her stories—reminding us that style is forever less a matter of word choice and syntax than it is a reflection of the way the writer perceives his or her world.
So for all their diversity, there's a quiet unity at work here.
I've often suggested that the abiding theme of American literature is the uneasy truces drawn between the individual and society, that there's a cowboy or mountain man inside us all struggling to get out. In every story, Randall writes brilliantly and with great feeling of outsiders, of those well beyond the pale—solitary runners, outlaws, the marginalized and damaged, society's flotsam—and their search for community.
When all the kids are good-looking and well-behaved it's hard to pick one from the brood, but of many outstanding stories here, a personal favorite is "Lázaro y Antonio," which manages to play out a straightforward and deeply affecting story while holding close to its vest rather grand questions of identity and memory, personal loyalty, free enterprise, and urban decay. What I said about arealist fiction tapping directly into the pool of archetypes deep within us? This story comes up with bucketsful, one of those rare tales that throws its arms around worlds visible and unseen and whispers in our ear: Here is everything you need to know.
Participation in the present, Gertrude Stein pointed out, is forever diluted by memory and anticipation. This story, many of Randall's in fact, scoops up all the could-have-beens and may-bes and delivers them to our current address.
Randall knows that our lives are bright segments surrounded by blur. And that blur reigns.
The box contains: A baby photo; a brief preface by Dorothy Allison; scratch-n-sniff cards of geraniums, the pub, and sandalwood; the collage poster of a stick-figure crucifixion; a small notebook of child's drawings; and five slender volumes: Limb of Satan, We Have Met the Alien, Dear Diary, Something New, and The Writer's Life. There is also, tucked into the fold, a CD of original music. The assemblage is titled And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, and is a limited edition of 450 signed and numbered box sets selling at $75.
Opening the slipcase, I recalled certain publications from the fifties, packets of interviews, photos, drawings, reports. You were supposed to read through all these clues and solve the crime. Mystery novels for the home craftsman.
The stuff of our lives is every bit as chaotic as our representations of them, whether in fiction, biography, or memoir, are ordered. We make art to make up for the randomness and incoherence—the blur—of our lives. To try for focus. It's all a tangled mess here on the front, new stuff arriving every hour and no place to put it, but in our dispatches home—because art is compulsive pattern-making—it finds order.
Nicola Griffith's novels include Ammonite, Slow River, and the thrillers Stay and The Blue Place. "With fiction, I'm a structure fanatic, with a particular fondness for symmetry," Griffith writes in her introduction. "This book is different. Memory doesn't work neatly, so I haven't tried to shoehorn these stories into a rigid architecture. Besides, the longer and more coherent—more novelistic, if you like—a memoir narrative is, the more the writer tends to bend the facts to fit the form.… But, of course, it's all connected, all me. So here I am. Rummage about. Enjoy."
And there's quite a bit to rummage about in. Beginning with childhood memories, moving through early intimations of sexual orientation, her burgeoning creativity, and the onset and recognition of the barrage of illness finally diagnosed as MS, the volumes unwind, each calling a different tune for the dance. The third volume consists of diary entries and exegesis. The fourth is largely poetry. The fifth recounts Griffith's finding both her life's work and her life partner, and her immigration to the States.
Lots of vivid writing here, and no apologies. And over all, that one single thing a writer most often and thoroughly thrashes about in the cane thicket trying to find: a clear voice.
What better way to conclude this column than with that voice?
"Words are like icebergs; nine tenths below the waterline. We don't see the entire meaning immediately but it has mass and momentum; it matters. To me there is all the difference in the world between 'muscle' and 'flesh,' or 'red' and 'scarlet.' Rhythm and grammar matter, too. Yorkshire syntax, more than many regions of England, shows its Celtic roots, its periphrastic, roundabout manner of speaking: 'Dyuh fancy going down t' pub, then?'
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