Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

November/December 2011
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
Columns
Curiosities
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
Film
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
 
Science
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Books
by James Sallis

The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller, Vol. 1, Nonstop Press, 2011, $29.95.

 
TWO episodes from the writing life.

First, what my students have heard over and again: in the dim reaches of the past I wrote proper stories with clear beginnings, conflict, escalating action, resolution. All that stuff from the user's manual. And then one day I decided this wasn't fun. Art was play, and I wasn't playing, I was just staying inside the lines, filling in blanks. So I began to improvise, following where language and intuition took me, rediscovering the joy of writing.

Moving right along....

Some years back it occurred to me that I was writing a lot of scenes where people stood by windows, looking out. Forever one to poke at quirks and foibles, not to mention having a philosopher for a brother, I began to consider why I was doing that. It was correlative, of course, to my work as writer: standing still, peering out at the world, observing. But more simply, it reflected how sundered my characters were, how finally alone we all are. Immured in our minds, we stand looking out. One part of us goes about trying to remake the world out there in our own image. Another part searches to find our image, our likeness, already out there in the world.

It's in the overlap between those parts, it seems to me, that art happens. The artist devises tricks for us, tricks that help us jump the gorge and momentarily look out from other eyes and windows. And style finally has far less to do with word choice, scene, or sentence than with the manner in which the artist sees, then brings back to us, the world about him.

Or her.

In "Slowly Bumbling in the Void," Carol Emshwiller writes, "There is a need in all of us to build a little house." There is a need, she continues, to sew up a mattress for the floor, to stash away food, to make a little set of shelves, to make soup out of old bones. And "there is a need in all of us...to be on the lookout for something mysterious."

For better than half a century she has been doing just that.

 

You never knew who might show up for the Milford Conference at Damon's and Kate's Addams-family house high on the hill. Gordie Dickson could be ensconced on the couch laughing, Keith Laumer talking about Chandler out on the porch. Mike Moorcock on those same porch planks, bringing us momentarily to wonder if The Anchorage had been boarded by pirates. Or Fritz Leiber, looking as though he were waiting around till it was his time to step onstage for a bit part in Shakespeare or a B movie. Harlan Ellison in the kitchen, scattering verbal sparks that skittered along ancient wooden floors into the huge front room. Gene Wolfe or Joanna Russ, either of whom you felt, were lights extinguished, might glow in the dark from sheer intelligence. Ed and Carol Emshwiller.

Everyone knew Ed's work, of course. (He'd later take the author's photo for my first book.) I had been reading Carol almost from her earliest publications, "Pelt" in Judy Merril's yearly anthology, "A Day at the Beach" upon its appearance here in F&SF. This was 1964 when we first met, somewhere in there, so she'd published sixteen or eighteen stories. She was just then, I think, truly coming into her own. You sensed the constant simmer, could almost hear the pot lid chattering, as she spoke about fiction.

The Collected Stories (take note of that Vol. 1) comprises 88 stories, 457 pages, and 48 years of published work. It's a gift, really, this opportunity to watch so distinctive a writer develop, to be there as she tries on clothes in the current fashion and goes off seeking her own, forever reaching to say "something different than has ever been said before." Jar after jar up there on the shelf. And here is the jarmaker's hand. Genius, Gene Wolfe has said, lies not in doing something better than anyone else but in doing something that no one else can do at all.

To date there have been five collections: Joy in Our Cause (1974), Verging on the Pertinent (1989), The Start of the End of It All (1990), Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories (2002), and I Live With You (2005). Another, In the Time of War & Master of the Road to Nowhere, is announced. The first of these collections appeared twenty years after Carol began publishing stories; both The Start of the End of It All and Report to the Men's Club had novels appear more or less in tandem (Carmen Dog and The Mount, respectively); the latest story here is from 2002. Other books include the western duo Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill, Mister Boots, and The Secret City.

She has found a lot of mysterious things.

 

In an essay for The Atlantic a couple of years ago, Tim O'Brien discussed why so much fiction is unremarkable and, to be frank, boring, despite its being well researched, well planned, and well written. "The failure, almost always," he says, "is one of imagination."

Absolutely. But never a problem with Carol Emshwiller. Imagination, playfulness, challenge, surprise, and mystery abound. And no one is better at getting us into other heads than Carol is. We may be unsure where we are in time or in space—the future, a film from the forties, a dog's point-of-view, an alien's—but from the first words and lines, we're smack in the midst of the story.

Here's the beginning of "One Part of the Self Is Always Tall and Dark":

I stopped speaking in mid-sentence (something went beep, beep outside. Perhaps a truck.), wanting to relax into cozy madness and chew on an old sock. Why did I ever grow up? I wondered. Just because it was expected?

I'm writing this with careless abandon, partly because I know it will not be my last story.

That skittering intelligence, those scalds of comedy, low-fat despair, and wistful anticipation, are pure Emshwiller. These stories rarely limit us to exposition, even to the narrator's summary. From the first, we are in the presence of, we experience, the clicks and clangs of a consciousness at tilt with the world.

As here, from the opening of "As If":

We were singled out, rounded up, subjected to scrutiny, confined to such spaces as seemed (to them) suitable for us. We were accused of being mere imitations, but how tell a good imitation from the real thing? We ourselves don't know, or hardly know, or didn't know then, but do now, though we're still not sure. They said they had been suspicious all along, and actually, we also have always had suspicions about ourselves.

In a review of the current volume for Strange Horizons, L. Timmel Duchamp notes the allusiveness, ludicity, and economy of Carol's writing, going on to single out as benchmarks her distinctive voice and sophisticated development of first-person narration. In an earlier piece, writing on Carol's story "Peninsula," Duchamp teased out this passage, which well might serve as our default description of Carol at work.

There is an odd significance beginning to make itself felt and I must stay open to it. I must understand it when it has finished unfolding itself to me. I see that now, and that I must put together each incident to form a whole. I must not look at things separately.

Often the stories are novels in miniature, spinning out whole worlds in a single serving. They proceed by accretion, one jagged bit catching on the bend of another, story and world slowly forming about us. Others are rich reimaginings. Could that be Rochester's attic-bound mad wife in "Expecting Sunshine and Getting It"? A recasting of Kafka's "A Report to the Academy" in "Acceptance Speech"? Or "Queen Kong": "The man in her fist is the father of three girls. He understands this sort of thing."

Always the stories come, urgent, intimate, from within; always there's this sense of the narrator whispering in your ear. And while we're more accustomed to literature's role of reinvesting the ordinary, of salvaging the wonder at its heart, Emshwiller stories often move in the opposite direction. They take up the extraordinary—foundling children and lovers that happen to be aliens, angels, or monsters, women that turn into dogs, dogs that turn into women—and make it seem not at all unusual. The reader doesn't suspend disbelief; disbelief never touches down.

Early stories here bear witness to a writer finding her sea legs. Carol was wrestling the devilish angels of plot and shape, mimicking what she read, people like Judy Merril, Ted Sturgeon. But somehow it began not to feel enough. There was more to it, more she should be able to get at, more in her. She sensed this, but when she tried to point, it wasn't there. And then it was. "All these early stories seem skimpy to me now," Carol notes in her Foreword, "as if written by my 'outer' mind." She recalls the trap door falling open with a story titled "Baby," first published in this magazine.

In criticizing that story, Damon Knight told me that, in the place where Baby climbs to the top of the statue, I had finally hit my subconscious mind. The minute he told me that I realized he was right.... I was starting to get the point.

Carol was also busily getting above her raising, reading the likes of John Cage and Frank O'Hara, or Robbe-Grillet's plea for a new fiction, and starting to suspect that there were volumes and positive and negative spaces in language just as there were in the visual arts; that these could be moved about to simultaneously reflect and reconfigure the world. Husband Ed spoke of attempting with his experimental films to reach pure visual abstractions and of "the sense of the unfolding of a small universe."

He made movies of dance, with rhythms and recurring patterns, without stories or plots. But, he insisted there be a unifying form of some kind. We influenced each other a lot in those days. Many times we stayed up late into the night talking about what was good "art."

The road can be hard to follow, it can get rocky and rough, when you have no map. The restlessness and reaching so integral to a serious artist have a cost. Some of these stories perhaps don't quite work; some may come across as too self-referential, too obscure or unformed. And just as early stories showed the Friday-shaped footprints of other science fiction writers, so do later ones bring to mind Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, or the synapse-leaping short fiction of writers like Barry Hannah. From first to last, however, we are unmistakably, inescapably in the presence of a rare and individual brilliance.

Leaning close, she has important things to tell us.

In the Foreword, Carol suggests that her writing has passed through five stages. First the imitative as she figured out, by trial and error, the basic footwork. Then, with stories such as "Pelt" and "Baby," those that reached down to currents deep within. Thirdly, a time spent learning to find structure by means other than plot. She feels the period following Ed's death, that of Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill, ushered in a new expansiveness and warmth. And now, she writes, with all that in tow, "I'm back to plotting and story, though I never plot ahead of time. When I started learning to plot, I usually had an ending in mind though often I didn't reach the ending I was aiming for. But now I start with nothing. I find the plot as I go along, one piece at a time."

Just the way, boys and girls, that we find our lives.

 

Years ago, I flew as onboard respiratory therapist with an air ambulance, helping ferry critically ill people between stations, some to specialty hospitals or extended care facilities, others back to their home hospitals to die. The exhilaration as we took to air, or as we came down over the mountains into El Paso with the city spread out below us in the night—there was nothing like it. Yet never, as we checked vitals and ran IV meds, as I squeezed the bag or manned the vent that was our patient's very breath, did we lose sight of the utter seriousness beneath all this. The gravity of what we were about. How much it mattered.

For me, the best writing has that same mix of exhilaration, detachment, and responsibility, the same comingling of familiarity and strangeness, and, beneath, for all the playfulness, for all its quick wit and its reach to understand, an inviolable sense of authentic lives given momentarily into our care.

Here is Carol's ending for "Secrets of the Native Tongue":

I stand here, upright, and, large as I am, balanced on two small feet. Actually just on my toes and my spiked heels. It's a miracle...a millions-of-years miracle.... I open my mouth. I laugh my laugh, and then I begin to sing...about the universe.

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to sitemaster@fandsf.com.

Copyright © 1998–2014 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art