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 …

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.

Essential Reading: Everything That Rises Must Converge

oconnor-cover-for-everything-that-rises-must-convergeIt seems strange to me that only a year or so ago, I had not really read Flannery O’Connor. Sure, I’d studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and ” Good Country People”, but I had not truly read her. You need to experience O’Connor’s work in its full depth. One story, even if it is a real gem like “A Good Man” or “Good Country People” , does not really do here justice. I read A God Man is Hard to Find last yearand thoroughly enjoyed it. Having just finished Everything That Rises Must Converge, I believe this is a stronger collection and left my jaw dropped consistently. This is O’Connor at her strongest, touching on Christianity, Southern politics, race, rural life, poverty, and, most especially, the bizarre nature of being human throughout.

For the uninitiated, O’Connor was an American writer who only published two collections of short stories and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). She writes what has been called Southern gothic fiction, set mostly in rural areas of America’s south, and often featuring irruptions of the extraordinary or magical. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker, a former Navy-man covered in tattoos who married a woman he does not love, has a revelatory experience when he crashes the tractor he is driving into an old tree in the middle of the field. The sight of the burning tree and tractor scares Parker so much that he immediately goes to a tattoo artist to have a Byzantine Christ portrait painted on his back. He believes that the accident was divine revelation and hopes that putting a religious tattoo on his back will propitiate God. He also hopes that his wife will be pleased, but when she sees it, she throws him out calling him an idolater for putting a picture of God on his back. While it would be easy to join the wife in ridiculing Parker, there is an earnestness in Parker’s response that prevents it. The final sentence of the story (“There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”) reveals a broken and defeated man. The central scene, the accident, is both realistic in the sense that it could have happened but also something else entirely because of the religious tones and epiphanic framing. O’Connor frequently uses these moments, leaving realism behind for a moment and then coming back to it.

The other thing that stood out for me in this collection was O’Connor’s ability to throw a twist in the endings. These are not cheap-tricks but key moments that force readers to re-examine everything that has come before. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury believes he is dying from a self-induced existential fever. Readers are invited to see through his self-delusion throughout, but in the final sentences, he has an epiphanic experience of the shape of a dove made in the cracks of the ceiling plaster morphing into the Holy Ghost descending on him. Asbury had invited a Jesuit priest over to spite his mother, but in this ending O’Connor suggests that something more spiritual has happened to him. While it might be easy to see these as imitation Edgar Allan Poe plot twists, they cannot be discounted.

I think it was these more than anything that made Everything a more enjoyable read than A Good Man. The characters of Everything are both despicable and lovingly crafted. We despise them and yet cannot help but see through their eyes. Simply put, Everything That Rises Must Converge is essential reading for any fan of short fiction.

I highly recommend this collection.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.

Spokane in Seattle: Ten Little Indians

Alexie_2003_ten_little_indians_pb_2004Humour in literature can be very hard to pull off. Maybe I am too serious a reader, but I rarely find myself laughing out loud when I’m reading. However, Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians managed to get me laughing numerous times. I was impressed by his ability to make humour out of otherwise tragic or depressing circumstances. His irreverent humour kept me entertained and I quickly finished this book even though I was supposed to be reading a different novel. I don’t want to promote the “all Indians are funny” stereotype, but there’s something about Native story-tellers and humour that I really enjoy. In fact, the last book I might have laughed at/with was one by Thomas King, a Canadian indigenous story-teller.

Alexie’s collection of short stories is quite good. Most of his protagonists are Spokane Indians in the Seattle region yet they hold a broad range of social positions from international salesmen to forest ranger/high school basketball stars to homeless Indians on the streets. The narrative arcs are mostly comic in the sense that Alexie never sinks into pathos even if he is quite critical of the way indigenous homeless people are treated. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” takes up one homeless Indian’s attempt to purchase his grandmother’s stolen regalia from a pawn shop. The narrator is an alcoholic though and he struggles to save any of the money people give to him throughout the day. Yet Alexie imbues a kind of heroic quest into his attempt and rather than seeing him just as a failed and broken man, readers also see the narrator as a person with the capability to do great things.

The one story that I did not like was “Can I Get a Witness?” It seemed like too different stories mashed together. In it, a female character is eating in a restaurant when it is blown up by a suicide bomber. She leaves the rubble with a bystander, but is adamant that she was not in the explosion. They arrive at his apartment and the story takes on a Dostoevsky-esque tone with questions of morals, forgiveness, and human cruelty being thrown around. Something in me resisted this change in tone. The story is very closely linked to the events of Sept. 11, and, in some ways, is a meditation on those events and their cultural ramifications. However, there was something that did not work in the story for me. Perhaps, and this is my fault not Alexie’s, it took too serious a tone for what came before and what followed.

The rest of the stories are quite delightful. Alexie is a very talented writer who can craft magic in condensed space. Having read Carver a couple of weeks ago, I liked the prolixity of Alexie. This is not to say that he is too verbose, but I do like writers who aren’t so economical with their words that readers feel like they are staring at a blank wall trying to intuit meaning. Being careful with words is great, but being too sparse can turn reading into a frustrating experience.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers, especially those who like a humour and seriousness in equal doses.

Alexie, Sherman. Ten Little Indians. New York: Grove Press, 2003. Print.

Vietnam War Stories and So Much More: The Things They Carried

thingsI was skeptical about reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried even though it came with a very high recommendation by my friend J. I am not a fan of war stories. I used to be, but at some point I just got sick of them. After reading this collection, I suspect that this was because I read too many bad or stereotypical war stories. O’Brien’s collection reflects on the Vietnam War and a group of soldiers including a character named Tim O’Brien. There is an autobiographical element to this collection as O’Brien actually did go to Vietnam and many of the characters are thanked in his acknowledgement. However, the first page also states this is a work of fiction “except for a few details regarding the author’s own life.” I am not going to treat the book as a work of autobiography not only because it does not enrich the material but also because doing so takes away from the more fictional and deliberately metafictional elements of the book.

A couple of different stories reflect on the narrator, O’Brien, hearing them and his own or his children’s reactions to them. These are amazing moments that puncture the veil of authenticity that may have saturated a previous story. “Speaking of Courage,” the story of a soldier struggling to come to grips with life after Vietnam as he drives around a small Iowa lake again and again, is followed by “Notes” a story about O’Brien composing “Speaking of Courage” after Norman Bowker, the protagonist, suggested he do it. The links between these two stories are rich and intriguing as that line between fiction and reality is continually bent. By the end of “Notes,” the narrator admits to making up Bowker’s failure to win the Silver Star, a key element in the story. Rather than simply being a “true” war story, O’Brien provides readers with a rich reflection on what it means to experience intense human violence and what it means to write about that violence. Trying to quantify one of these stories as more true and the other as less seems to me a kind of misguided quest.

The Things They Carried is an interconnected series of short stories so that each story meshes and blends with the other stories that surround it. This is not to say that you cannot read the stories as stand-alone pieces, but that you gain something more rich when you read the collection as a whole. Several stories stand out as “centre-pieces” if I can call them that: “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Speaking of Courage,” “In the Field,” and “The Ghost Soldiers.” These are the lengthiest stories and all were published in journals or magazines beforehand. Yet the shorter interconnecting stories craft a circular narrative about a writer’s own insecurities and anxieties about using his experience of the war as fodder for writing. “How to Tell a True War Story” is both a story about Rat Kiley’s story of a group of soldiers going stir-crazy in the quiet of Vietnam’s jungles and a story about the narrative structures and principles of war stories. At one point, the narrator drops this amazing line: ” In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'” (84). That was, in essence, my own reaction to many of these stories. There are no heroes here, there are no easy morals, there is some form of patriotism but it isn’t a “rah-rah, go America” type. In a way, this story colours all the other stories because it self-consciously calls into question how O’Brien has written all of his war stories. Later in the “How to Tell,” the narrator writes “often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again” (88). This, in my humble opinion, is how all the greatest stories work. There is no “real” point to them. They are just stories about life. Yes, you can draw out meanings, political agendas, strategies, literary devices and so on. I am an academic and this is what I do. But a story like, say, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or “Speaking of Courage” from this collection really cannot be boiled down to a single point. That is reduction at its worst.

I can see why J recommended this book and I can also see why this book is taught in many creative writing courses. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will, probably, at some point teach it in creative writing courses. It is so good. I highly recommend it.

(Apologies for the rantiness of this review – my brain has been a little scattered lately)

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.

This Is Not Light Reading: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

loveI had thought that Barthelme’s stories were short and concise. Well, readers, Raymond Carver is also a minimalist writer. His writing style is spare and shorn right to the bone. A colleague of mine, J., has told me about how these stories are not so much about what is in them (not much often), but what is excluded, all the unknowns that swirl around the bare skeleton of a narrative. The other thing you should know about Carver’s collection is that it is down-right depressing. There are no happy endings in this collection. This is not to say that all short stories should have happy endings, but the heavy dose of alcohol abuse, broken relationships, and working-class misery in this book can drag you down.

Carver is an amazing writer though. These stories seem so simple, so bare, yet they have so much going on in them. In “Why Don’t You Dance,” the opening story and the source material for the film Everything Must Go, a man sets up his house on his front lawn. A young couple comes by assuming it is a yard sale, it’s not, and buys several things from him. The man asks them to stay and they get drunk together before he asks them to dance for him. The story is more about the young couple and their cynical reaction to him, yet the man’s missing wife and his reasons for setting up his house on the lawn remain mysterious. By the story’s end, the older man retains his dignity while the couple comes across as cheap and petty.

Carver is a master of dialogue, using seemingly inane comments to create tension and emotional depth. In “Gazebo,” a story about an alcoholic couple whose marriage is on the brink because of the husband’s infidelity, the sharp dialogue evokes indecision, tension, longing, and both person’s deep addiction to alcohol to the surface. These are not likable characters, in fact there may not be a single one in the collection. Yet, these are real characters – flawed and incredibly broken. The fact that Carver can make these stories readable and compelling is a testament to his narrative skill. Of course, too much Carver can lead you into a pretty dark place.

Most people know Carver for his short story “Cathedral,” a masterpiece in story-telling, but I feel like this collection comes from a much rougher place. Carver himself struggled with alcoholism early on in his career and the rough edged characters here bear this out. In “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” a narrator looks back at his wife’s indiscretions after seeing his sixty-five year old mother necking on a couch with another man. This sight unsettles him into self-reflection, yet he does not so much blame the other partners to his wife’s adultery as bless them. He comes from a long line of alcoholics and his own failures fit this lineage. There is something admirable in his self-knowledge yet there is something pitiable in his weakness at the same time.

“So Much Water So Close to Home” is perhaps the most unsettling story in the whole collection. It is a narrative about group of older men who go out fishing but see a dead woman’s body. Instead of getting help, they decide to finish their trip by keeping the body in the water. The narrator, one of the men’s  wife, is very unnerved by this and visit the Naches river before going to the woman’s funeral. While stopped, she encounters a man who is clearly intent on some form of sexual violence but manages to escape by refusing to unlock her doors and driving away. This sudden encounter with violence tints the end of the story so that the husband begins to appear suspect and, without actually saying so, the fishermen’s alibi begins to unravel. Carver is able to make us believe the men and then, at the end, he questions us for believing them. It is an amazing story, but certainly not for the faint of heart.

I would highly recommend this collection for anyone interested in short stories. However, I would not recommend this collection for more sensitive readers as Carver deals primarily in violence, brokenness, and alcoholism in this collection.

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Print.