Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 2: Lisa Tuttle

Pleasures of Reading 2018
by Lisa Tuttle

My favorite book this year was Willnot by James Sallis, published in 2016 by No Exit Press. Sallis is probably best known now as the author of Drive (which inspired a movie by the same name) and a number of detective novels set in the American south and southwest, but he was part of the “New Wave” in science fiction, back in the day, when I was sufficiently impressed by his literary, experimental take on SF to buy his first book in hardcover, brand new, at full price, when A Few Last Words was published in 1970. Taking it off the shelf just now, I found a stack of ancient, faded photo-copies of other stories and poems by Sallis that I carefully saved inside. Reading first lines of one (“Binaries” from Orbit 9, 1971) I was struck by how familiar it felt, and realized it reminded me of the the tone, the style, the voice I was striving for myself back in the early 1970s -- influenced, much? Undoubtedly. It’s obvious, but strange, because I don’t think I ever mention James Sallis, and he was surely as important to my development as a writer as Theodore Sturgeon and Kate Wilhelm – my usually referenced touchstones.

Unless you are into reading American noir detective fiction you probably missed Willnot, which I think should have appeared on “Best SF” as well as “Best American Novel” lists in 2016. If you are a fan of the late, great Theodore Sturgeon, you may find this novel reminiscent of some of his works, too.

Willnot looks like a crime story. The cover is adorned with blurbs from other crime writers, and the first line is “We found the bodies two miles outside town, near the old gravel pit.” But it does not develop in any of the ways you might expect. Yes, there are bodies, crimes, and violence. (This is America; people have guns.) But far more than the mysteries to be solved, about dead bodies and mysterious strangers in town, more than the occasional eruptions of violence, the story Sallis gives us (and it is a gift) is one about small-town life, human relationships, the daily demands of work, the joys and sorrows of living in this world. Willnot is the name of the town – and it is not exactly ordinary. Gradually it is revealed as one of those outsider communities founded on utopian principals that have always been a part of America. Its odd name might be a literary reference – at least, it made me think of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Sallis’s narrator is the town doctor – he is also the son of a science fiction writer, familiar not only with the genre, but with recollections of having met many of the big name writers when he was a boy, dragged along to conventions by his dad.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because there is a lot of pleasure to be had in being surprised by it. For the same reason, I advise against reading the back cover copy until you’ve finished the book.

Other bests of the year:

Things we lost in the fire by Mariana Enriquez, Portobello Books, 2017. (Originally published in Spanish as Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego, 2016) One of the most intense, brilliant and disturbing short story collections I have ever read. Whether you call her stories horror or literary fiction, Mariana Enriquez is an amazing writer, and I hope we will see lots more of her work in English.

Lost Objects by Marian Womack, Luna Press, 2018. Weird fiction, science fiction, whatever you call them, these ten vivid and disturbing stories by a talented new writer are haunted by impending death, disappearances, mass extinctions and eco-catastrophe. It sounds grim (and often is) but there are gorgeous images, moments of beauty and mystery that compel the reader, revealing a powerful and original imagination at work, and reminding us that, however strange and changed the world, we continue to find meaning in our lives as we struggle to survive.

 Lisa Tuttle is the author of numerous novels and short story collections. Her most recent novel is The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross. She has also published nonfiction and more than a dozen books for younger readers. In 1974 she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and, in 1987, the BSFA award in the short fiction category. Aqueduct Press published her novella My Death in 2008 (which is now available as an ebook). Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she has made her home in a remote rural region of Scotland for the last twenty years.

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