Sunday, March 15, 2009

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.

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