Iain M. Banks’ Short Sci-Fi Fiction: The State of the Art

TheStateoftheArtI apologize for the long delay in posting reviews. Frankly, I haven’t been reading much this month largely because I have been busy defending my PhD. It’s now done, and I’ve been rattling off books already.

Like Iain M. Banks’ 1991 collection of short fiction The State of the Art. I was a little nervous about reading sci-fi short stories for some reason. The short story is a tough form to master because you are so limited in your space that it can become difficult to construct meaningful and compelling narratives. Science fiction, for me anyways, often requires a time and page commitment to really work. I think back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness and how long it took me to start “getting” the book. One way that Banks works around this is to set a few of the stories in the Culture universe he has explored in his novels. Being familiar with this world, those stories ended up being the most enjoyable for me. However, I can also see how readers unfamiliar with that world might be somewhat offput by this intertextual connection.

That being said, I think the title story is worth the price of admission alone. It actually explains the Culture’s modus operandi better than his novels do. This might be because it is a short story and cannot presume foreknowledge of the Culture. It might also be because this was an early story by Banks, one in which he first sketched out the contours of his alternative universe. Either way, the story is amazing. It concerns an expedition to Earth by a Contact unit and the ensuing debate over whether to initiate contact or to simply stand back and observe human history as a control case. There is a fair amount of philosophizing on Earth’s history and trajectory (more than you would find in one of his novels), but this works because the story is explicitly about the Culture’s potential relation to Earth. I highly enjoyed it.

As for the other stories, I felt that some were stronger than others. “A Gift From Culture” was an interesting story which concerned a sleeper agent of sorts on an alien world and the loyalties he must choose between. “Descendant” was a fantastic story concerning a spaceman shot down from orbit and his long and seemingly futile attempt to try and reach a possibly abandoned base (he is accompanied by a sentient suit). “Piece” was an interesting story for its collage-like narrative structure, but I felt like it was a “trick” short story where the ending provides a kind of narrative ba-dump. Similarly, “Road of Skulls” and “Odd Attachment” use a kind of twist ending to provide their largest impact. For whatever reason, I just can’t get on-board with trick or twist endings in short stories. They seem like a cheat code to me. “Cleaning Up” reminded me of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest, but it lacked the depth and satire of that novel. Finally, “Scratch” is a kind of prose poem that felt like Banks experimenting with form and achieving a mixed success.

Overall, I think that the collection is worth it for the title story. The others might be interesting for regular readers of sci-fi short fiction, but they do seem a little flat to me.

Banks, Iain M. The State of the Art. London: Orbit Books, 1991. Print.

PS – I might go on a short Banks sabbatical as my pile of books to read is getting bigger each week …

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Welcome to the Dominican US: This is How You Lose Her

X061_37EA_9.JPGLast year I read Junot Diaz’s Drown and loved it. I picked up his latest collection of short stories a few weeks ago and found myself agape at how good a writer Diaz is yet again. This Is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown left off, addressing the middle years of Yunior, the irrepressible and oh-so-human Dominican boy who becomes a tenured English professor. Normally, the professor/writer bit would turn me off as it can easily become self-indulgent and uninteresting, but Diaz keeps his focus on Yunior’s character and the changing dynamics of his family and love life. Most of the stories in the collection are linked in some way, but I’m not certain that Diaz intends an overall narrative to all the stories. Instead, I believe they are more like windows into one New York Dominican community.  That being said, the central event in most of the stories is Rafa’s losing bout with cancer. Yunior’s older brother is even more of a womanizer than he is, yet there is something incredibly heart-breaking about his slow descent towards death. That Diaz can get me feeling sympathy for a character who has no qualms sleeping with as many girls as possible is no small feat. Similarly, Yunior is a complex character as he seems to inherit his brother’s philandering ways. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is an amazing story about Yunior’s long road to recovery after his long-term girlfriend finds out he has been cheating on her with many different women.

What is equally impressive about the story is that it is told entirely in the second person. I have rarely encountered this mode of story-telling and have often wondered how effective it could be. Diaz makes it clear that it can be very effective as I found myself continually identifying with Yunior even though our personalities are so vastly different. He also uses this style of narration for “Miss Lora,” although I felt like this story was less effective as the schoolteacher Miss Lora becomes a figure of sorrow more than anything (also the story riffs on The Graduate in a serious way). The rest of the stories employ a first person narrator, a style that Diaz seems to favor.

One story that stood out to me was “Otravida, Otravez” which is narrated by a female character. This stands out from Yunior’s story because the perspective is so radically different. It adds a counterweight to the somewhat overwhelming obsession with women that the other stories feature. The protagonist is in love with a man who has a wife back in the Dominican but wants to buy a house with the narrator in New York. The house becomes a sign of making it in America and there is plenty of tension and desire in the narrative. I can see how some readers might not have liked this story, but for me it shows that Diaz is not a one-trick pony writing stories about sexually-charged young Dominican men.

I would highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction as Diaz shows an impressive range of narrative skill here. However, he may not appeal to all readers because he adopts a crass and crude tone throughout his stories. The best introduction to his work might be to read one of his stories on The New Yorker‘s website.

Diaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. Print.

 

Returning to a Master (Again): The View from Castle Rock

view-from-castle-rock_1Last year I had the pleasure of reading Alice Munro’s debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, and thoroughly enjoyed it. After finishing it, I vowed to spend more time reading Munro, so I picked up a used copy of The View from Castle Rock. While I think this is an exceptionally strong collection of short stories, for some reason I don’t think it as polished or accomplished as some of her other books. This might stem from the fact that these are “autobiographical” stories of some kind. In the Foreword, she talks about how she became interested in her family history and that the stories in this collection “were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person” (xiv). I know I’m not supposed to read these stories as autobiographical, yet for some reason I can’t help but do it anyways. And in doing it, it makes them something less than what they could be. Now, I’m not suggesting that autobiography is somehow less meaningful or artful than fiction, or that fiction is more powerful than truth. But I think that temptation to ask myself if this is really what Munro went through became an annoying sidethought that pestered me.

The first part of the book has stories about Munro’s ancestors and I’m not entirely sold on the strength of these parts. The title story is very strong, possibly the best in the book, but I found “No Advantages” somewhat ho-hum as Munro goes through her biography and explores the Ettrick Valley in Scotland. “Illinois” is strong in the sense that Munro shows her usual sense of ending that comes as a surprise yet wraps the whole story back in on itself. “The Wilds of Morris Township,” on the other hand, takes a step back and becomes a weird fable-like story of an in-bred family in Morris Township in rural Ontario. “Working for a Living” deals with Munro’s father’s fox farm and, in some ways, is like “Boys and Girls” from Dance of the Happy Shades, but in other ways is quite different. Maybe this first section felt too much like a formulaic CanLit novel: it deals with historical immigration to Canada, it shows how rough it was, and also how far along Canadians have come, all dosed in a kind of warm nostalgia that doesn’t demand too much of the reader. (This is probably a completely unfair assessment of this part of Munro’s book as she is far more nuanced than this caricature I’ve written suggests)

I felt that the second part of the collection which deals with Munro’s “childhood” works much better. “Lying Under the Apple Tree” is worth the price of the book alone. Seriously, this story is so good. It’s classic Munro in the sense that it deals with a young girl growing up in rural Ontario, dealing with her emerging sexuality and the complicated if constrained gender roles available to her. Here again, Munro pulls out a narrative swirl (it’s not a trick because it’s not meant to be duplicitous, yet there’s something showman-like about it) near the end of the story with Munro’s summer boyfriend and his employer Miriam McAlpin. I’m almost certain I’ve read “Hired Girl” before, a story which is set in the Muskokas where Munro worked as a hired girl at a summer cottage. This story has got all kinds of layers at work in it, and shows Munro’s many talents in character and setting. “Home” is heart-breaking as Munro’s father’s health declines and she is forced to bear witness to it.

Maybe I’m demanding too much of Munro. Maybe she can’t fill a book with solid gold, but instead needs to have some less than magnificent stories in between. And let’s be clear that those lesser stories would easily be the highlight of a lesser writer’s collection. Overall, The View from Castle Rock has some magnificent stories in it. It also has a kind of thematic unity in that it deals with one family’s history.

If you are already a Munro fan, then this book is for you. If not, I think I might look elsewhere first.

Munro, Alice. The View from Castle Rock. Toronto: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Taking Stories Where Stories Have Not Gone: Pastoralia

PastoraliaMy friend had really hyped up George Saunders and his work, so I was excited to pick up Pastoralia. I was also a little sad because this is the last collection of short stories that I will read this year. There is something about the shortness and conciseness of this narrative form that I really like. I guess I only have a month and week or two before I can read them again anyways. Pastoralia was something completely unexpected and I guess I am having an ambivalent reaction to it. I think Saunders is very clearly performing satire and critique on a number of levels, but after reading Munro I felt like the stories in Pastoralia were not quite as satisfying. Perhaps this comes down to character as Saunders is much more interested in satirizing contemporary North American culture than writing genuine characters with problems, emotions, depth and complexity.  Perhaps I am being too sweeping in this judgment because it is not as thought there are no memorable characters in Pastoralia (Morse in “The Falls” and Mickey the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness” are complex and enjoyable characters) or that there is no satire in Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (her whole collection is quite critical of the small-mindedness of rural Ontario).

At the same time, Saunders does show some intriguing story-telling abilities. In the title story, we are introduced to a strange amusement park where visitors can see humans from different time periods living/acting out those lives. The narrator lives and works in a pre-historic cave with a less-than-willing co-worker named Janet. The whole story mocks our desire for “authentic” reproductions of old ways of life, but also corporate culture in general. It works amazingly well because on the surface it seems to have no relation to reality but the more you dig into it, the more you see it in the world we live in. Similarly, “Sea Oak” presents a dystopian world where the narrator works at a male strip joint/restaurant. His sister and cousin live at home with their two children while their spinster aunt slaves away at a drugstore to keep the roof over their heads. However, the aunt soon dies but comes back as a re-animated corpse to help them escape poverty. With this story, Saunders is quite critical of the work world, in a very funny way, and yet I cannot help but feel like the world he paints is not too far off from the low-income areas of many cities. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the narrative straddles the line between the fantastical and the real, constantly asking readers to question our own reality.

In writing this, I realize that what Saunders is doing is very subtle and extremely effective. He is speaking to our world in the way he knows best: by creating a magical place that seems like unreality but is in fact far too close to reality. I can see why he has won many awards – including a MacArthur “genius” grant – but I am still not sure where I stand in relation to his work. This is more a question of taste, but at the least I can say that Saunders is a prophet preaching his message to a world that desperately needs to slow down and think twice about the place we find ourselves in.

I would recommend Pastoralia to fans of Vonnegut and other satirists.

Saunders, George. Pastoralia. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.

Returning to a Master: Dance of the Happy Shades

dance-of-the-happy-shadesIt has been too long since I’ve read Alice Munro’s work. I corrected that with her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. It shows all the hallmarks of her long, illustrious, and now Nobel prize winning career: southern Ontario, rural life, women’s concerns, stories of children, and, of course, a fox farmer. Okay, the last one might not actually be a hallmark of her career, but I feel like she might be the only writer to ever write about fox farming (and she does a really good job of it in “Boys and Girls”). I was a little hesitant given that some writers’ first books are less than stellar, but Munro’s hardly skips a beat. I think there are a few less-accomplished stories here, but “Boys and Girls,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “The Peace of Utrecht,” and “Dance of the Happy Shades” are well worth the cost of admission.

I first read “Boys and Girls” while working as a teaching assistant four years ago. I guess at the time I did not think too much of it (it could also be I read too many poor essays on it), but coming back to it now, I kept wondering whether I was blind. Munro is such a careful writer, and her sentences are so finely tuned that they resonate like a finely plucked harp string. I feel like in this collection, Munro as a young writer, was obsessed with a carefully positioned moment, almost always at the end of the story, where she pulls the whole narrative together and ties it off with a poetic bow. I loved these moments and I’ll quote one below. I worry that this won’t make sense without everything that comes before it:

“So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine” (18).

That is one sentence folks, the second last paragraph of “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Even typing it, I cannot quite wrap my head around how well Munro paints the paradox of a parent to a child: you know them intimately and yet you also don’t know them at all because of the years they lived before and away from you. I am willing to bet that each story has a moment like this. As a young writer, this might be the one place where you could catch Munro following a script in her stories. And yet they work so well! This is a great collection and well worth digging up from your local book store.

I would highly recommend this book to all fans of short fiction.

Munro, Alice. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.

*Again, the cover image is not the one from the edition I used, but it was so good I couldn’t not use it.

Welcome to Drugs and Transience: Jesus’ Son

9780312428747JF has been after me to read this one for a long time now. So, I finally sat down to read it and I simply devoured Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is in part because the stories are quite short but also because they open up the maniac world of a heroin addict/ alcoholic. I’m normally quite skeptical about drug narratives, I’m looking at you Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Johnson’s collection is something else entirely. I think there are two reasons for this.

The first is that the stories are written in, what was to me, a unique form. The narrative jumps around schizophrenically, so that you might be in the hospital one minute and out in a truck in a sudden snowfall in the next (“Emergency”). Johnson throws narrative logic to the wind and frees his stories to move around at will. Of course, it’s not a willy-nilly movement that makes no sense. Johnson is careful to tie his stories back together either explicitly or implicitly. In “Work,” the narrator begins with shooting heroin with his girlfriend in a hotel room before switching to a bar scene where he is invited along on a shady mission with Wayne. They travel to an abandoned suburb (because of flooding) and proceed to strip a house of its copper wiring, only for the narrator to find out that it was Wayne’s house. The two characters then seeing a beautiful naked woman paragliding behind a boat on the river before the narrator stops at a house off the highway so Wayne can talk to its inhabitant (the same naked woman the narrator soon realizes). The story (only 9 pages long) then ends back at The Vine (a run-down bar) where Wayne and the narrator are served by their favorite waitress who serves generous drinks. As you can see, this story follows a wild plot and refuses to justify its movements. Instead, we are left with a sense of awe at Johnson’s ability to make it work.

The final paragraph of “Work” also points to second reason why I think Jesus’ Son works. Johnson seems to be a poet in disguise with some jaw-dropping passages. Heroin and alcohol seem to open up the narrator to amazing insights and thoughts, and we are privy to these. I’m going to quote the last paragraph of “Work” because it illustrates this quite well:

“The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’ You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” (53-54)

I love the simile of approaching the cocktail glass like a hummingbird. It imbues a kind of golden/magic aura to the run-down bar and its inhabitants (I also have a strange fascination with dive-bars and old alcoholics). However, reality irrupts into this scene with the final lines where the narrator callously predicts her future while still paying homage to her as an alcoholic’s muse/siren.

If you are unsure about Johnson’s work, there is a New Yorker podcast of “Emergency,” read by Tobias Wolff that is a great introduction to the world of Jesus’ Son. I highly recommend it.

I also highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction. It is one of my favorite reads this year.

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. London: Granta, 1992. Print.

Sharp, Dark, and Startling: In This City

clarke-city-225So, more work creeping into the list at this point as I am falling behind the pace in my dissertation work. But Austin Clarke’s 1992 collection of short stories In This City is a great read. If you don’t know Clarke’s work, you need to go and read some of his stuff. He is probably one of the most under-rated Canadian writers. He was writing hard-edged black fiction for almost 40 years before he finally received some recognition in his 2002 Giller Prize win for The Polished Hoe. His Toronto trilogy (consisting of The Meeting PointStorm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light) is worth picking up if you can find it.

Enough gushing about Clarke, on to the stories of In This City. The collection is set almost entirely in Toronto during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the recurrent motifs in the stories is the shooting of a Jamaican man by the Toronto Police, an event that sends out ripples of fear and catalyzes the growing anti-racism movement. If you didn’t know, Toronto unfortunately has a long history of racist police brutality leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee in the wake of the 1988 Lester Donaldson shooting (see this page if you want more on some of the violence that has occurred). The characters in Clarke’s collection vary in age, gender, and politics with some hoping to just get by and others furious and protesting this racist atmosphere. Where some writers can let their politics overtake the narrative, I think Clarke is much more sophisticated than that. The opening story, “Gift-Wrapped,” centers on a young girl from Timmins who is trying to make it in Toronto. However, her skin colour seems to have limited her job opportunities to just getting by in an office tower on Bay Street. As Christmas approaches, she feels alone, having almost no friends except a lesbian co-worker who took a pass at the narrator and a former roommate who has left the city. Her white boss once took a pass at her after taking her out for drinks as well, and the story seems to be heading towards the maudlin. However, Clarke throws a twist I did not see coming when *spoiler* the same boss shows up at her door on Christmas morning because his wife knows that she has no one in the city on Christmas day. This action is wonderfully ambiguous: does Bill actually mean well in this action, or has he been forced into it by his wife and some form of potential guilt? But I also think that it is an uplifting gesture of humanity when the narrator has seen how cold and indifferent the streets of Toronto can be in the winter. Similarly, “I’m Running for my Life” paints a complicated picture of a black domestic’s relationship with her white employer whose wife has just left him.

Clarke is a powerful writer and the stories in In This City will open up new views of Toronto. I read some of these stories while wandering the city’s streets and the city that Clarke explores is very different from the one in tourist brochures. These stories are particularly eye-opening if you, like me, are white and sheltered from the raft of problems that come when poverty, racism, and violence meet. 

I highly recommend Clarke’s collection of stories for any fans of CanLit and especially for the citizens of Toronto.

Clarke, Austin. In This City. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992. Print.