No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 15, 2008

#39: Unwelcome Bodies -- Jennifer Pelland

"...You all see your bodies as so permanent."
"But they --"
"-- aren't." (p. 161)

Read for review: [EDIT: Strange Horizons review is here] eleven short stories by a relatively new author (the first was published in 2003). The title is apposite: these are stories about bodies, about touch, about sex and death and apocalypse. About ways in which the body can be changed -- willingly or unwillingly -- and about how we define ourselves by our bodies.

I'll do a story-by-story analysis here, though not in the 'official' review (which this complements, and which I'll link when it appears).

For the Plague Thereof was Exceeding Great (2003)
Death, the fear of sickness, the hunger for touch: two women, one a librarian fearing plague (she'd 'gotten a degree in library services because she loved books. Now she was afraid of them'), one on a holy mission to infect as many as she can.

Big Sister / Little Sister (2005)
This is the story that'll stay with me, lurk in the back of my mind. Like a dark remix of Lori Lansen's The Girls: the story revolted me, not least because both characters are victims. There isn't a way out, or an option of a happy ending. Very powerful.

Immortal Sin (2005)
This felt to me like one of those 'tales with a twist' that surface so often in anthologies of SF from the Forties and Fifties. It's a story about Catholic guilt and the fear of hell.

Flood (2006)
Suicide, tides, twins: craving water in a dried-up world. "The clutter of the former oceans makes its way across the land. Bleached-out bath toys bounce off the train's windows in a rubbery hail." Naming a secondary character 'Marina' felt heavy-handed.

The Call (2006)
A tale told entirely in second person, in questions. "Would you?" There's a story in there, all right, but the form made it feel like a writing exercise.

Captive Girl (2006)
Nominated for the Nebula and shortlisted for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, this is the story of a girl who's made cyborg to defend her planet, and the woman who loves her -- or loves her disability. Again, very powerful and unsettling: the theme of utter captivity, the claustrophobic relationship between cared-for and carer. Yes, this would have been a very different story if either character had been male.

Last Bus (2006)
The author's notes tell us that this is the earliest of the stories in the book, although it wasn't published until 2006. I do think it's one of the weakest: and again, it feels old-fashioned. Nothing wrong with the writing, but it just didn't click.

The Last Stand of the Elephant Man (2007)
Joseph Merrick, the Victorian 'Elephant Man', is brought forward to a post-apocalypic world where diversity and difference are rare and celebrated, and extreme body modification is the height of fashion. He sees himself from the outside -- and from the inside. This story seems to crystallise some ideas about body and identity. Possibly the best story in the book.

Songs of Lament (not previously published)
On learning to understand whale-song. "I wonder what they're saying? I can't wait to find out." A short, chilling, unnerving tale.

Firebird (not previously published)
Njeri's college roommate turns out to be her idol, a teenage popstar who made a grand gesture of protest against environmental damage. Again, a theme of body/identity: who's burnt, who's burning, what's burnt away. The characterisation of Njeri as inspired fangirl is wickedly accurate.

Brushstrokes (not previously published)
I liked this very much indeed, though (?because) it feels like slash fiction of the best kind: plenty of plot and rich world-building, with just enough romance and sex to clarify the characters and their motivations. Another post-apocalyptic world, another world in which identity is defined by the body and its decorations: at the bottom of the caste system are the Masked; right at the top is the Skinless Empress. On a distant world, media broadcasts from Earth permeate every level of society. (The news from Earth -- "Madonna! Osama! Obama!" -- feels very ... current.)

Those big themes -- sex, death, bodies, the human need for contact -- recur throughout. But there's a strong undercurrent, to me, of fairytale, myth and legend. Seph's journey down to the Masked levels, in 'Brushstrokes', feels like Campbell's 'hero's journey'. Suze, in 'Songs of Lament', wants to be a Prometheus for the whales she loves. Callie's stagename, in 'Flood', is Undine, and I keep feeling that this is a mermaid story I should recognise. Time and again, echoing the myth of Psyche, there are masks that need to be removed before the lover can see the beloved. Pelland's style is clear and sharp: very little elaboration, but the occasional singing phrase, and imagery that resonates long after details are forgotten.

Pelland's notes on the stories are often illuminating ("you should write about things that fascinate you to the point of scaring you"), and while the stories appear as published she's included deleted material, leaving it to the reader to decide whether editorial decisions were justified.

I've been reading some of Pelland's other fiction online and am surprised at the inclusion of weaker stories ('Last Bus', 'The Call') over, for instance, 'MarsSickGirl' or 'Clone Barbeque'. Unwelcome Bodies does showcase Pelland's progress as a writer, and her increasing facility with the short-story form, over the course of a few years: I expect there'll be another collection pretty soon. Meanwhile, much of Pelland's fiction appears online: see her Bibliography page for links.

#38: The Servants -- M. M. Smith

... a way of seeing a world which has been stripped bare of all its blurring comforts and made very, very clear -- a seared vision which poured a strange, black light into all its corners and showed you, at last, how much of a balancing act it all was, and had always been -- how you rolled forward through time, faster and faster, until you came to the precipice which you knew was ahead somewhere but never saw until it was too late ... (p.208)

Mark is 11 years old, and has just moved with his mother and stepfather to Brighton. Mark, rejected by his father, does not like his stepfather, David, and has developed a repertoire of brattish behaviour. His mother, meanwhile, is dying quietly on the sofa. (Cancer? I don't think it's ever stated.) His mother's illness is presumably the reason why Mark, unlike the other kids his age, is not in school.

Mark spends a lot of time falling off his skateboard on the seafront. One day, he encounters the other inhabitant of David's house, an old lady who lives in the basement flat. She unlocks a door in her flat to reveal a dark, dank maze of rooms, the original servants' quarters: and something happens to time when Mark's in there, because he sees (and is seen by) the servants.

The Servants is full of intimations of mortality: the decay of the West Pier, the sense of Brighton simply stopping at the beach rather than going on 'forever' like London, and Mark's mother lying on the sofa, more ill than Mark realises. But then, he only gradually comes to see her (and David) as people in their own right. Once he starts to understand that, he begins to understand what the house, the servants, the filth and decay in the kitchen downstairs are for.

There's a strong, significant thread of images and scenes focussed on food. The theme of eating, the family eating together, finishing a meal resolves on the beach. The food and drink that matters to Mark is what he finds or chooses for himself -- and what he chooses to share. And it's no accident that the kitchen of David's house is where the first fleck of blackness appears. Nobody cooks in that house -- not upstairs, anyway.

I'm still undecided about this novel. For one thing, I don't know who it's aimed at. (Presumably not Michael Marshall Smith's science fiction audience, or Michael Marshall's thriller audience. It's been spotted in bookshops under 'horror', 'sf' and 'children's'.) It could be for children, though there are some dark themes: it could be for a YA audience: it could be for a mature audience. The central conceit, and its mechanism, are never really explained: the old lady is never named: when the servants and the real world seem to collide, what's happening?

But there are some glorious images and wry similes (the Odeon 'looked as though it had been built in the dark by someone who didn't like buildings very much'). There is a scene on the beach that brought tears to my eyes; there's a sequence of time-slip images of Brighton that sparked my sense of wonder. And on a personal note, this novel brought some deep-hidden memories and emotions to mind: my mother was dangerously ill when I was ten, and I found Mark's incomprehension, anger and resentment utterly credible.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

#37: Vacant Possession -- Hilary Mantel

The town was in itself a universe, a universe in a closed box. There was no escape, no point of arrival, and no point of departure. Every action, however banal, opened into a shrapnel blast of possibilities; each possibility tail-ended or nose-dived into every other, so that there was no thought, no wish and no perception that did not in the end come home to its begetter.

Despite the various plaudits from the quality press ("Filled with fiendish glee" - New Statesman: "macabre and wonderfully funny" - Standard) the humour here is of the blackest kind. Vacant Possession is scathingly funny, but the plot would make an excellent Greek tragedy. ("It's like the house of Atreus," says Colin, quite late on, though mostly in reaction to the breakdown of the washing machine.) There are few, if any, characters, whose lot improves.

Colin Sidney, head teacher and family man, lives at 2 Buckingham Avenue. They bought the house surprisingly cheaply: it had been the home of two women, Mrs Axon and her daughter, who didn't maintain the property. When the mother (prone to seances and to confronting Social Services) died, the daughter left. Not that the house was exactly ... vacant.

The Sidney family is not a happy one. Colin is still beating himself up about an affair he had ten years ago with a social worker (the very social worker who confronted old Mrs Axon on the day she died). Sylvia has thrown herself into community work, and into domestic strife. Their son Alistair spends most of his time in his room, apparently experimenting with Satanism. ("It's better than him joining the Young Conservatives," says Colin helplessly.) Elder daughter Suzanne is, when the novel opens, away at university. The two younger girls, Karen and Claire, seem set to become excoriating social critics, if their behaviour en famille is anything to go by. Quiet desperation is the English way. It's 1984, York Minster has just burnt down (funnily enough, there's been a fire in the Sidney's kitchen: their cleaning lady claims to know nothing about it) and the Sidneys struggle on the genteel edge of poverty, never quite enough money to set themselves free.

This is a novel that needs to be mapped. The cleaning lady ("Some rooms have no talent for cleaning. Some rooms will never be clean.") is a nexus. So's Isabel, Colin's ex-fling. There's a skeleton in the canal, and a baby that becomes barter. There's a woman who believes herself to be a changeling and to have given birth to another. ("Most of Muriel's thoughts were quite unlike other people's.") There's arson, adultery, murder and madness and sweet cold revenge.

I've worked out what Nicola Barker's Darkmans reminded me of: it's Hilary Mantel's writing. Coincidence and repetition, synchronicity and echoes: in Vacant Possession the characters eat eggs, go out through the wrong door, suffer delusions of being forgotten royalty. A phrenologist's head becomes an icon of dread import. And there's a constant thrum of something uncanny, something malevolent.

The house was full of what she had conjured up; a three-bed two-reception property on a large corner plot, all jostled and crammed with the teeth-bearing dead, stranded souls whistling in the cavity walls, half-animated corpses under the flagstones outside. One bedroom, which they called the spare room, had its special tenants. Without eyes and ears, they made themselves known by shuffling; by the soft sucking of their breath, in and out; but they had no lungs. They were malign intentions, Mother said, waiting to be joined to bodies; they were the notions of the dead, expecting flesh.

That said: yes, it is a funny book, because though one might care about the characters it's hard to like any of them. When the whirl of vengeance coalesces into prop-swaps and sleight-of-hand that wouldn't disgrace a three-room farce, the sheer cleverness of the plot (and the odd wit of the plotter) is more immediately admirable than any of the abortive efforts towards niceness, ethical behaviour, decency that one character or another may occasionally make. The Sidneys and their ilk are not bad people. They are simply trapped.

Utterly bleak, cruelly funny and with dryly measured prose that has the precision and rightness of Mozartian chamber music, Pseuds' Corner here I come I liked this very much, though I think it appealed to the worst parts of me.