Jodi Picoult, ‘Weights and Measures’ (2010)

Along with Roddy Doyle, Picoult is an author I wouldn’t instinctively associate with the fantastic (though I’ve not read her previously); I find it interesting that those two authors’ stories are my favourites in the anthology so far. ‘Weights and Measures’ is the story of Sarah and Abe, a couple who lose their baby daughter, and then find their bodies subtly (then not so subtly) changing.

I found Picoult’s story to be a delicately observed portrait of loss and grief, with an added metaphorical undercurrent, as the contrasting physical changes in Abe and Sarah represent the drifting apart of their relationship. Neatly done.

Rating: ****

Jodi Picoult’s website

Richard Adams, ‘The Knife’ (2010)

My first experience of reading Adams (Watership Down being one of the considerable number of books I wish I’d read as a child) is this very short (three pages) piece set in a boarding school in 1938. The protagonist, Philip, is being bullied by Stafford, the head prefect of his house; he harbours fantasies of revenge, but has never acted on them – until, that is, he finds a knife. I appreciate the way Adams portrays the knife as the focus of Philip’s desires; but I feel that the ending doesn’t quite work, and the rest of the telling is not quite intense enough to compensate, so ultimately this story falls short for me.

Rating: ***

Walter Mosley, ‘Juvenal Nyx’ (2010)

Another vampire story, but unfortunately one that’s not as successful as Roddy Doyle’s. Mosley’s protagonist is a student radical in the 1970s, when he is seduced by a woman who turns him into something like a vampire and dubs him ‘Juvenal Nyx’ – ‘child of the night’. Thirty years later, Nyx falls in love, sets himself up as a professional ‘problem solver’, and takes on a rather mysterious client.

‘Juvenal Nyx’ is constructed from several different elements, which may be fine in and of themselves – for example, Mosley is particularly good at evoking the uncomfortable desire caused by the vampirism – but they sit awkwardly together. For instance, into the midst of a tale which portrays its subject matter in an otherwise ‘realistic’ fashion, walks Nyx’s client, who is every bit the stereotype of a supernatural femme fatale; she just doesn’t seem to fit, and there isn’t room in the story to indicate her place in the wider scheme of Mosley’s fictional world. In the end, ‘Juvenal Nyx’ is too fragmentary to truly satisfy as a complete piece.

Rating: ***

Walter Mosley’s website

Lines Drawn in the Air: literary and genre fiction

Occasioned by the Gaiman/Sarrantonio Stories anthology, David Barnett has written a blog post for the Guardian on ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. I can’t help thinking that it’s based on a false opposition. He writes:

The ongoing, endless war between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre’s foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.

Well… Maybe some people do hold views like these, but I struggle to accept it as a generalisation. From my point of view, the kinds of distinctions to which Barnett refers are simply artificial. I’d agree with Aliya Whiteley that all the plot in the world is no guarantee of a good read, not if you don’t care about it; and that that both fast- and slower-paced novels can be worthwhile. I also think that Sam Jordison has it right in his comment on Barnett’s post when he points out that plenty of ‘literary’ fiction tells a good story. And I would disagree with the implication that a page-turner must be plot-driven. We turn the page because we want to know what’s written on the next one; I don’t see that it makes much difference whether what’s written there is a plot point, or a character observation, or whatever.

I define the focus of this blog as ‘literary fiction’, but I deliberately take a broad view of what that term means; some of it would be considered genre, some perhaps not. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what I’m reading, my basic approach doesn’t change: what I want is for a book or story to be the best it can, whatever it’s doing – and I hope that attitude comes through in what I write.

The divide between literary and genre can vanish with a tweak of perception. Consider this post by Larry Nolen, in which he responds to another blog post that identified lack of sf/fantasy authors in the New Yorker’s recent list of 20 American writers aged under 40, and contrasted  that with the  Daily Telegraph’s similar list of British writers.

(I will pause briefly to wonder what definition of ‘British’ led to the inclusion of Paul Murray in the Telegraph’s list, then move on.)

Larry points out, quite rightly, that the New Yorker list does include some authors of fantastic literature; it’s just that their work tends not to appear on the science fiction and fantasy shelves. However, we could go further, and note that China Miéville is the only writer on the Telegraph list who is published as a genre author. All the others on that list who could be considered to have written science fiction or fantasy, from Rana Dasgupta to Scarlett Thomas, are published as mainstream – just like the writers Larry mentions.

If there are lines between literary and genre fiction, I would suggest that they’re not so much drawn in the sand, as drawn in the air – and can be stepped over just as easily.

Joe R. Lansdale, ‘The Stars Are Falling’ (2010)

Lansdale tells the story of Deel Arrowsmith, a soldier who returns home to East Texas from the Great War, to find a wife who thought he must have died, a son who’s never really known him, and a life from which he is now impossibly distanced. Haunted by memories of his wartime experiences, Deel struggles to fit back into his old world.

The portrait of Deel in Texas is carefully observed, and I appreciate the parallels that Lansdale establishes between his protagonist’s two sets of experiences. But what makes the story ultimately come unstuck for me is that the narrative voice so suited to describing events in East Texas doesn’t draw me in to the wartime sequences, and that unbalances a tale whose success depends on its equilibrium.

Rating: ***

Joe R. Lansdale’s website

Michael Marshall Smith, ‘Unbelief’ (2010)

There’s a kind of story which I’d characterise as the fantasy equivalent of a shaggy dog story, one where the fantasy is used as a ‘punchline’, and the rest builds up to that reveal. It’s a risky strategy to use, because it puts a disproportionate amount of weight on the ending, on making sure the ‘punchline’ has all the impact it needs.

‘Unbelief’ is a story of this type. Mostly, it is a conversation between two men in a New York park, one of whom has been hired to assassinate the other. The ‘punchline’ here is the identity of the victim; sad to say, it’s not particularly surprising or interesting. The story takes off a little towards the end, when we see there have been serious consequences to the protagonist’s actions; but this piece is still some way short of Smith’s excellent best.

Rating: ***

Michael Marshall Smith’s website