Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stories Are About Stories (II)

In last month's column, I pointed out some recent short stories that shine a light on their own construction. This month, we begin with David Marusek's clever epistolary yarn, "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," in which the whole motivation behind the writing is tied up in the odd, repetitive title.

But then, every bit of correspondence, from a terse business e-mail to a tear-soaked confession on lavender-scented stationery, is a narrative with built-in motivation. Something is desired, whether it's the removal of a credit-card charge, or the return of a lover, or simply an expiation of the writer's guilt for not having written in so long. To effectively amuse or upset or inform, the writer must bear the recipient in mind, gauging tone and structure accordingly. The pages of the letter work like frames, fixing aspects of the relationship between writer and reader: their respective locations, the level of intimacy or enmity, the time since the last communication. Such considerations make the letter a sturdy form for the short story writers.

In the introduction to "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," collected in "Getting to Know You" (Del Rey: 269 pp., $15), Marusek relates how elements of the plot had fermented in his head for years. It was only after attending a literary panel, in which magazine editors read "actual cover letters they had received from aspiring authors desperate to break into print," that he figured out how to write the story.

"Yurek Rutz" unfolds as a letter from one David Marusek to Gardner Dozois, longtime editor of "Asimov's Science Fiction." Marusek, "a borough zoning code examiner" whose literary career is a secret to his Fairbanks neighbors, accepts a strange commission by a not-quite widow named Emma Rutz: She wants him to compose her husband's epitaph. The rate: a thousand bucks for four lines.

Marusek confesses to Dozois that he writes to him "with grave misgivings" and to "pass along a certain questionable proposal." (Every letter is motivated.) Emma's husband, the eccentric Yurek Rutz, is ailing from Alzheimer's; Marusek learns that Yurek is distinctive only in his deeply narcissistic yearning for immortality. If Yurek's plan to keep himself cryonically preserved for future resurrection doesn't pan out, he's happy to achieve immortality via the world of letters. He's not a writer himself -- which is where the author steps in. Marusek will get a hundred dollars (from the Yurek Rutz Fund) every time he works the soon-to-be-deceased egotist's name in a published story. (Perhaps Marusek means to poke fun at those well-intentioned authors who agree to name a character after the highest bidder for a charity auction.)

Thus the letter to Dozois, replete with multiple instances of Rutz's name, becomes, in fact, the story itself (which Dozois, in the real world, published) -- a loop that's appropriately gimmicky and satisfying all at once.

As the title hints, Japanese writer Yasutaka Tsutsui's U.S. debut, "Salmonella Men on Planet Porno" (Pantheon: 272 pp., $21.95), bursts with wildly surreal situations. It too contains a loop story of sorts, "Rumours About Me," in which anything that happens to Tsotomu Morishita, the everyman protagonist, gets bruited by the mass media. One evening, the TV news notes that Morishita has been turned down for a date by a co-worker, then reports that "[a]ccording to well-informed sources, Morishita went straight to his apartment after work today, and is eating a meal that he prepared himself." It's a spryly absurd reduction of the very concept of narrative: It's literally what happens.

If nothing really happens, is it a story? It is -- if the frame is there, if the cameras are rolling, if anyone is paying attention. Narrative is in the eye of the beholder, and the simple fact of being observed changes the nature of the subject. Initially Tsotomu assumes that he hallucinated his appearance on the nightly news. Then the morning paper hits, with the headline "Morishita Rejected Again."

Any paranoid is a complete storyteller. In his version of the world, he's of utmost importance, the beleaguered point around which grand conspiracies (detected as the faintest whisper, a clump of bleached letters on a billboard) swirl. It's no great feat these days to satirize celebrity culture or the solipsistic virtual existences we create online, and by letting his conceit float in the realm of the fantastical, Tsutsui digs deeper. He externalizes all of Morishita's grandiose suspicions (triggered, we imagine, by his bungled attempts to woo the secretary), thus showing how a paranoid's auto-narration can work as an insanely incessant fiction.

The headlines alone are worth the price of admission:




When the world stops caring -- any narcissist's greatest fear -- the story ends.

The standout piece in "The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy" (Del Rey: 400 pp., $16), edited by Ellen Datlow, is also one of the collection's shortest. Jeffrey Ford's masterly "Daltharee" begins:

"You've heard of bottled cities, no doubt -- society writ minuscule and delicate beyond reason: toothpick-spired towns, streets no thicker than thread, pinprick faces of the citizenry peering from office windows smaller than sequins."

It's a sly strategy: "You've heard" slips us instantly into Ford's universe -- part of us always wants to appear in the know, so of course we've heard of those tiny worlds.

The city of Daltharee is one of these enclosed municipalities, and by the second paragraph Ford is already multiplying his conjurer's trick, giving us vertigo by presenting a miniature (a short story) about a miniature (a world that can easily fit atop a kitchen table). A conversation recorded by scientists (who are presumably the same size as us) reveals the inhabitants of Daltharee pondering the nature of their world, wondering if anything exists outside the glass.

The creator of Daltharee, the wayward scientist Mondo Paige (world on a page), is then reflected in the figure of the narrator himself -- or does Ford mean Ford himself? "Daltharee" ends on an exhilaratingly nightmarish note, with stories sprouting everywhere we look: "Each idea I have is a domed city that grows and opens like a flower. I want to tell you about cities and cities and cities named Daltharee." The narrator becomes his narration.

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20, 2008

Stories Are About Stories (I)

In two installments, Astral Weeks samples intriguing tributes to Henry James, Philip K. Dick and others in new story collections.

"By excluding almost everything," Steven Millhauser recently wrote about the short story, "it can give perfect shape to what remains."

In his dazzling story, "The New Structure," which Harper's published earlier this year, Millhauser effectively leaves no remainder. He conjures a fantastically proliferating setting -- an air-conditioned nightmare of seamless consumerism, a vast subterranean mall that is also a smoothly acquisitive corporate entity -- which our unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of muted distress and sheer awe. But "structure" also refers to the unorthodox construction of Millhauser's story itself, with its uneasy voice of communal anonymity and comfortable claustrophobia. Just as the company comes to dominate the town, psychically, financially and geographically (buying up houses, turning the living rooms into offices), hardly a paragraph goes by in which the vast "Under" is not lovingly detailed. Nothing exists here that is not a response to Millhauser's setting; it is all setting. The structure, in short, is the structure.

And some of the best stories, I'll argue, are about stories. It's an admittedly somewhat tautological conclusion that I've reached over the last few months, during which I've consumed little fiction outside of short stories. For my next two columns, then, I've shaken up five recent and forthcoming collections, of interest to Astral Weekers, and rolled out a gem from each. What connects them is their playful interrogation -- sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring -- of the short story form. They jolt us into fresh ways of reading.

John Langan's "On Skua Island," from "Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters" (Prime: 256 pp., $24.95), kicks off with a twist on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Langan's version of James' first sentence reads: "The story had held us, round the dinner table, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was weird, as, on a February night in an old house with a strong storm howling off the ocean, a story should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till the eight of us adjourned to the living room with our drinks." The narrator is a Langan stand-in, an academic and scribbler of weird tales himself, and the conversation in this seaside house quickly turns to the popularity and metaphorical resonance of various horror-story staples: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies and mummies.

Those last lurchers are deemed the least in tune to modern times, its inception as raggedy-bandaged curse-bearers perhaps a guilty response to Britain's imperial legacy. Throughout this early sequence, lightly shaped by the Langanian "I," the banter is witty and informed, like a sophisticated Halloween cocktail party, or if the endlessly categorizing employees of the record store in "High Fidelity" had worked at a used bookstore instead, just outside Salem or Sleepy Hollow.

The impossibility of telling a modern-day mummy story is suggested, and since only a fraction of the narrative has passed, we know that a challenge has been set -- a beautiful, artificial drama-heightener -- and will be met. Soon enough one of the other guests (a previously tight-lipped archeologist named Nicholas) begins his tale.

Now the narration is all Nicholas', and any coziness the evening once held dissipates entirely. Early in his career, he had visited a remote island ("north-northwest of the Shetlands") to investigate some mysterious, rune-covered ruins at the even more mysterious behest of British intelligence. Digging at the site, the team uncovers an ancient sword above an equally ancient female body -- shrunken, and not all there.

In his careerist lust to make his name, Nicholas concentrates on his translation of the runes, even as violent nighttime raids deplete the armed retinue accompanying him. (He, and the other soldiers, suspect Russian interlopers.) Langan's decoding of the old story will shed light on his uneasy present circumstances, and the recounting of this legend represents yet another level of narrative, fixed much deeper in the past.

A mummy story, of course, is what we get, but the supple way Langan sets up the climax is just as responsible for the success of "On Skua Island" as its bursts of gore. By making the early conversation so believable (and even agreeable), and by acknowledging the weight of literary history (i.e., the seeming impossibility of telling a convincing modern-day mummy story), the author makes the Skua Island plot more gripping than if it had simply been presented straight, a grisly but safely fictional rendering of things that go bump in the night. What would initially appear to be distancing effects let Langan sneak up close and -- you can't believe it's happening -- grab you by the throat.

One of the head-spinning high points in Philip K. Dick's 1962 alternative-history masterpiece, "The Man in the High Castle," comes when we learn that, just as Dick's book imagines a world in which the Axis won World War II, an author in the world of the novel has imagined what the U.S. would be like had the Allies been victorious. (In a further destabilizing touch, the world of that interior book, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," doesn't entirely correspond to "real" post-war U.S. history.) One of the standout pieces in Benjamin Rosenbaum's first collection, "The Ant King and Other Stories" (Small Beer: 224 pp., $16), does Philip K. Dickian self-consciousness one degree better by recognizing what a trusty trope alternative history has become for science fiction writers.

"Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" -- yes, the name is part of the title -- begins with the author's fictional avatar sharing a flight with the Raja of Outermost Thule. This world differs radically from ours, in technology and thought: zeppelins are used for air travel, and the Raja mocks the idea that "the events of the world were produced purely by linear cause and effect . . . How fanciful!" And this "Rosenbaum" isn't quite the Rosenbaum whom we think is authoring these pages. The story's Rosenbaum is the "plausible fabulist, Benjamin Rosenbaum" -- a pen name "taken from The Scarlet Pimpernel": "The name is chosen ironically. As a sort of challenge to myself, if you will. Bearing the name of a notorious anti-Hebraic caricature I must needs be all the prouder and more subtle in my own literary endeavors."

The fictional Rosenbaum, then, is a science fiction writer plying his trade in a parallel world, returning from the hilariously named convention Plausfab-Wisconsin ("the World's only Gynarchist Plausible-Fable Assembly"), with an assignment "to construct a plausible-fable of a world without zeppelins." Offered a different commission by his new friend the Raja, Rosenbaum suggests other, more esteemed writers he might contact -- Karen Despair Robinson, or "the great Sir Esau Asimov."

Even a casual science-fiction fan might find such in-jokes diverting, but what Rosenbaum -- the "real" Rosenbaum -- is doing goes beyond satire. As pirates, giant spacecraft, shootouts and other action-packing elements disrupt the baroque chat of the opening, Rosenbaum, the plausible fabulist, muses that if "by some unlikely chance" he survives his rapidly deteriorating plight and finishes his plausible fable of a zeppelin-less world, "I resolved to make do without the extravagant perils, coincidences, sudden bursts of insight, death-defying escapades and beautiful villainesses that litter our genre and cheapen its high philosophical concerns." He will strive to create a higher grade of plausible fiction, just as our Rosenbaum is trying to subvert the standard situations of science fiction. That the lofty goals exist cheek-by-jowl with rather fun fight scenes lets him have his cake and eat it too.

But the real punch line is that the story "Benjamin Rosenbaum" wants to write -- full of "high philosophical concerns" -- isn't what we're reading. We're simply getting the "Biographical Notes," a hilariously fast-paced para-text to an invisible document. It's a story about the impossibility of stories.

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 2008

Next column: Story time continues, with narcissism, paranoia and snow globes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Panic and emptiness!

Music of the mind
In 'Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me' and 'Master of Reality,' classic rock groups take their listeners to fantastic places
By Ed Park

Astral Weeks Pop Quiz: Name the piece of music responsible for these flights of fancy:

Example one: "About fifteen minutes [in] . . . I have entered a different reality and am in a strange part of the universe where you can sit on the tail of a flaming guitar and fly through the sun. It's fantastic."

Example two: "[I]t starts with just a one-string riff which late at night, everybody asleep, sounds like the world being born or something. It only lasts for a second. But it's this one note just sitting there. Do you even know what I mean? When I got to that point it was like I was flying so high above your world and I was so free. . . . "

Example three: " 'Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing. . . . [L]ook out for the part where you think you havedone with the goblins and they come back,' breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation a second time. Helen could not contradict them, for once, at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right."

The first two passages come from recently published novels: Martin Millar's "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" (Soft Skull: 222 pp., $13.95), a charming autobiographical novel with the band's epic 1972 Glasgow show as its life-defining event; and John Darnielle's brief, intense "Master of Reality," the fictional diary of a troubled Black Sabbath acolyte (Continuum: 102 pp., $10.95). (The songs in question above: "Dazed and Confused" and "Lord of This World.")

The third passage -- "panic and emptiness!" -- comes from E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, "Howards End," and describes Helen's vivid responses not to any sort of proto-heavy metal, but to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. (Though perhaps this "sublime noise" is proto-heavy metal?) In all three, shimmering worldviews and entire universes are born or destroyed.

What is it that makes us respond narratively to music, far beyond what the lyrics (if any) might indicate? ("The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning," Forster's Helen thinks, after the concert.)

Spontaneous conjuring -- shapes and colors, creatures and deities, fantasy and recollection -- is commonplace. So are long-lasting associations, for melodies weave into a life to such a degree that they can emerge, years later, as if on a hair trigger. Millar's and Darnielle's books effectively capture this two-sided ability, featuring narrators who built their teenage alternative realities on tenacious, life-changing sounds, sounds that echo down the decades.

Millar is a Scottish writer whose two recent U.S. titles ("The Good Fairies of New York" and "Lonely Werewolf Girl," both from Soft Skull) mix fantastic creatures with contemporary settings. For some reason those books haven't quite clicked with me, but "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" makes me want to try again. Form does not follow function here -- despite the narrator's Zep obsession, the novel doesn't try to replicate the sprawling grandeur and virtuosic excess of the band's music. Instead, it unfolds in irresistibly short chapters ("Short enough for your limited attention span") and simple prose. (Toward the end, Martin explains his revision process: "If I find any fancy adjectives have crept in I replace them with small words like 'nice' and 'big.' ") This makes for an entertaining -- and at times quietly sad -- story that winds up saying a lot about teenage angst, middle-age angst, the ecstasies of fandom, the virtues of " Buffy the Vampire Slayer," how to judge literary contests (Answer: Give the award to the most attractive entrant) and the pants styles of yesteryear.

The novel toggles between the narrator's present-day London conversations with his friend Manx (a single mom with lingering postpartum depression) and episodes filled with the anxiety and embarrassment of being 13, when the promise of hearing -- and seeing -- your heroes perform could make everything right. Awkward Martin has a close friend (Greg), an unwanted admirer (violin-playing social misfit Cherry), a hero (charismatic Zed) and a hopeless crush on the titular Suzy (attached, alas, to Zed).

Martin and Greg have their own secret fantasy world, like a game of "Dungeons and Dragons" without any rules -- a realm of sorcerers and orcs that the music of Led Zeppelin (equally informed by the blues and Tolkien) intensifies. Martin and Greg, "joint masters of the Fabulous Dragon Army of Gothar," fight the Monstrous Hordes of Xotha, and the two friends await reinforcements from Atlantis, the only other region that has held out against the enemy.

So: Why can't they get girlfriends? Actually, they can: Cherry, deemed even less socially redeemable than Martin, wants to join them, but she's insensitively rebuffed. (Millar is excellent and clear-eyed when it comes to the small brutalities of adolescence.) Though the book's construction seems casual, Millar expertly maneuvers his characters toward the climactic Led Zeppelin show (with young Martin imagining actual zeppelins materializing over Glasgow, bearing prematurely dead icons like Jimi Hendrix) and presents how the event resonates in each of their interconnected lives -- complicating some things, clarifying others. Even readers who last listened to "Houses of the Holy" during the Reagan administration will find much to enjoy here. For 200 pages, Glasgow circa 1972 shimmers like a vision of Atlantis, a lost world.

John Darnielle is the single constant behind the group the Mountain Goats and arguably the most rewarding lyricist working today. Taking into account his prolific wordsmithery ("Laugh lines on our faces / scale maps of the ocean floor") and affinity for horror both cinematic and literary ("Heretic Pride," the most recent Mountain Goats album, has song titles naming Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer and H.P. Lovecraft), it shouldn't come as a surprise that he'd contribute to Continuum's "33 1/3" series of short books pegged to iconic albums. But "Master of Reality" departs brilliantly from the typical "33 1/3" format, not just by choosing fiction over criticism or recording history, but in its structural gambits and unwavering sense of purpose.

(Following on the heels of Carl Wilson's fascinating, probing 2007 Celine Dion book, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste," "Master of Reality" makes me think that the "33 1/3" line should devote itself to albums that aren't critical darlings -- the insights are fresher, the risks more worthwhile.)

Like one of Lovecraft's shattered narrators, teenager Roger Painter is writing from the other side of sanity -- or what we on the outside would call sanity. It is October 1985, and he is keeping a journal for his social worker, Gary, at the psychiatric center where his stepfather has deceitfully deposited him. His personal effects have been confiscated, and when the book opens his entries are terse bursts of all-caps rage. The words are all Roger's, writing toward an uncomprehending, withholding captor -- or god. "If you want me to focus you should let me do it the best way I know how!" writes Roger, in a conciliatory mood. "You should at least give me back Black Sabbath MASTER OF REALITY. It is my favorite."

Roger patiently explains what Black Sabbath means to him, and what makes the band unique: "Ozzy, he is the singer, he was singing about witches and wizards and corpses. . . . But there were barely any stories. Not like in Rush songs, where there is a wizard or whatever, there will be a whole story, like a Robert A. Heinlein book." The songs are direct in a way that most art isn't, at once frightening and exhilarating. Ozzy Osbourne's voice "doesn't sound like anybody else's, and also it sounds kind of like you know him. Like, when Robert Plant is singing for Led Zeppelin you can't really think you're ever going to see that guy at the arcade and play doubles on Galaga with him." (Some of Millar's characters would disagree.)

But it all falls on deaf ears, and Roger's situation resonates with the album's title: Who masters this reality? The asylum setting channels Roger's writing into an impassioned articulateness, words to ward off panic and emptiness -- yet his depressing fate shows how Gary literally holds all the keys. Then the thing splits open. Darnielle jumps ahead: Here is Roger, 10 years later, writing to Gary in complete sentences and brushed-up grammar but with not one iota of rage displaced. He listens to Sabbath from this new perspective -- call it wisdom -- but whether Gary ever gets the letter (in both senses of the verb), we'll never know. Darnielle's lost world stays lost, and it's a powerful, excruciating chronicle.

—Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2008