Reading Pleasures, 2013
by Richard Bowes
Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak, Lethe Press (2013)
"Dead Boy Found" is probably the best known story of the seventeen collected here. It became the opening chapter of his Crawford Award winning first novel One For Sorrow, which in turn became the basis for the movie Jamie Marks Is Dead. In it, a bright, unnoticed kid trapped in an unhappy family living in a dreary rust belt town, falls into a kind of love with the ghost of a dead boy.
With Barzak, the mundane and the exotic, the human and the supernatural, meld. His Nebula nominated "Map of Seventeen" is narrated by a perceptive, unsentimental seventeen year old girl preparing for college and a career. She's confronted by her artist brother's return from New York City with a male lover whom she discovers is a merman and encompasses this quite neatly.
The women in these stories tend to be strongly etched characters. Another Nebula nominee, "The Language of Moths" presents the non-communication of an autistic sister and her younger brother working his way to his sexual identity. It's the sister operating almost in an alternate universe who finds a way to "speak" to her sibling. The narrator of "Smoke City is a woman who has escaped that underground city on the "fourth river" beneath Pittsburg. She has married and is functioning in the world we know. But with the iron logic of myth and fairy tale she must return, raise a family as tribute to Smoke City's "Captains of Industry," before making her way back to our world.
The men in his stories often are outsiders trying to work their way into this world." The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire," is just that: a child unable to touch another or to be touched without inflicting pain and damage. His longing for contact is palpable. His solution is heart rending.
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson, Grove Press (October 1, 2013)
The novella, once a mainstay of fiction both mainstream and genre, seems to be fading away. Maybe a few mad shots like this masterful, mad, historical horror by Jeanette Winterson will get it back on its feet.
The scene is early 17th-century England in the wild country of Lancashire, a decade after Elizabeth, seven years after Guy Fawkes and the Catholic Gunpowder plot, Witches and Catholics, especially priests, are the enemies of King James and Lancashire is full of both. The Daylight Gate is a local belief, a portal into Hell that appears each day in the twilight. The central character is Alice Nutter, a local gentlewoman who has lived in London and made a fortune inventing dyes. She allows witches on her estate not because she believes in their magic but because she pities them, especially one frightening hag who was her lover. She shelters a priest with whom she has been in love in her house. Alice, as we learn, was a confidant of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astronomer and a scientist, occultist, astrologer when those things were not incompatible, Dee was Alice Nutter's teacher. Satan himself may have courted her. Intelligent, seductive, impervious to danger, Winterson's Alice, is a fascinating character who refuses to turn her back on the oppressed women (and men) accused of witchcraft and Catholicism even as the King's operatives close in.
Winterson is not and has never been a decorous and nice writer (thank God). The witches (too many, really, to keep straight) are dirty, untrustworthy, demented. The prisons and the torture are horrible. The abandoned towers and buildings that dot the landscape are grim. The story is riveting. In these short days, I felt the Daylight Gate flickering even in city twilight. You can and will read this book in an evening.
At Last - by Edward St. Aubyn, 2012 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
This is the fifth and final of the "Patrick Melrose" novels which follow the career of Melrose, scion of an aristocratic British family, (like the author St. Aubyn).
The series began with three quite short books, all knife-sharp and often deadly amusing despite their themes. Never Mind is PM as a child in his parents' summer home in France in the 1960's. The mother is a dizzy, unhappy, wealthy woman. The father is a high born English brute who repeatedly molests his son. Alone, this novella would be a nightmare - horror without the genre label.
Bad News, the second book, is Melrose in New York circa 1980's to claim the ashes of his father who has managed to die there unrepentant and disgusting as ever. PM has acquired a rampant drug habit. St. Aubyn's description of NYC from the Mudd Club to the open air heroin market in Central Park was enough like the one I'd experienced some years before to convince me of the authenticity of the earlier book and the ones to come.
Some Hope is Melrose another decade or so down the line, cured of addiction at the cost of most of the money he inherited from his father, starting out in a career as a lawyer. The centerpiece of this book is a weekend at a stately home with Princess Margaret as the star attraction. The portrait of Royalty and the aristocracy is far from what one saw in "The Queen" or "The King's Speech". The matter-of-fact, "Of course the only thing real about them is their artificiality," adds to our confidence that we're reading the truth.
Having read these I couldn't help but read Mother's Milk, a rather sad coming-of-middle-age tale. Melrose is married and unfaithful with a couple of unlikely children to whom he's not a bad parent and a confused, not-overly-bright mother who gives away her fortune, including the house in France, to a New Age charlatan.
At Last was read out of a sense of duty. But I'm glad I did it. Melrose's mother has died and is being buried. All the survivors of his parents' generation appear in all their glorious self esteem. Melrose and his wife are separated. He is not really a worthwhile person but is an old friend with a fascinating story; I'd grown fond of seeing him once in a while. And when it turned out that a small bit of the family fortune (he lives in a world where a couple of million isn't much) was in a trust that would pay him a nice sum each year, I was happy for him. It gave a sense of closure, a feeling of, "Don't have to worry about him."
Someone once pointed out that the rich are just like you and me except they have money.
Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi: Riverhead Trade (2012)
Easy to read/hard to define, wonderful/full of wonder, this novel was described to me as a fix-up. Now I've written a few fix-ups (sometimes called mosaic novels), and it's a form I love. In the classic incarnation it's a bunch of short stories on a common theme strung together in a coherent narrative (Wolfe's Fifth Head of Cerberus, Disch's 334, Gaiman's Sand Man collection are examples).
But Mr. Fox is more than that definition. It is all original work and a far deeper riff. The title suggested to me the English folk tale "Mr Fox". That story itself is a variation of the folk story the French call "Bluebeard" and the Germans "Fitcher's Bird."
Those well known versions (and dozens of others including Angela Carter's "Bloody Chamber") differ in setting and incidents but with a common theme of brutal murder.
This novel is an extended series of variations. The first variation, the one that gives form to the later ones, is a magic realist Manhattan in the 1930's with an enigmatic writer (Mr Fox) and a woman who might be his muse or a somewhat deranged fan or any number of things. I had the folktales on my mind and expected the Bloody Chamber to make an appearance. Gilles de Rais the 15th-century serial child-murderer is often cited as the model for Bluebeard. Instead we slip out of their story without any bloodshed and slide into the next and out of that and into another. I believe the hint of murder is intentional on Oyeyemi part. It makes taut all of the female/male relationships we see. We return periodically to variations on the writer, the wife and the real enough muse/mistress he has invented/imagined or actually has.
But we also visit a Paris reached from China by taxi, a school in Europe where boys are taught how to become the husbands of fantastically rich and complicated women, a lighthouse. Unlike the fairytales, foxes, real and polymorphous, run in and out of the novel. Are they a distraction or a reminder?
Death and violence does lurk. A beautiful and self destructive fashion model has a father who has killed her mother and who keeps trying to get her to visit him in prison. She ends up in the house of a man whose wife has died, perhaps by his hand.
Some sections are short and sweet, some are long and generous. Each time one thinks one understands where it's taking you, one is wrong. Instead of being maddening this is hypnotic. The first thing I thought when I finished the book was that I wanted to read it again.
seventy stories. He has won two World Fantasy Awards, an International Horror Guild and a Million Writer Award. 2013 was a busy year for him: Aqueduct brought out an illustrated book of modern fairy tales, The Queen, the Cambion and Seven Others. Lethe Press published a new novel, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, and republished Bowes' 1999 Lambda Award Winner, Minions of the Moon. Also out this year is If Angels Fight, a career-spanning story collection from Fairwood.