Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology
Edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 320pp, $14.95
Unevenness is a problem endemic to anthologies. With most of them, when I come to each new story, even one by a name I know and enjoy, I often feel like I'm rolling the dice, and I turn the page with my fingers crossed praying I don't get snake eyes. Thankfully, in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology even the worst of the stories are merely an entertaining sort of mediocre, and the best are truly astonishing. I found myself actually getting excited at the prospect of the next tale, which is, I think, the mark of a really good collection.
The best story here is the breathtaking "Lieserl" by Karen Joy Fowler. I don't want to give too much away, since the conceit is so simple and elegant, but suffice it to say it is merely the story of Albert Einstein receiving letters from his wife about his newborn baby, told in such a way as to pull the entire rug of reality out from under you. It takes a real master to pull something like that off, and Fowler does it with relish and lyricism.
But then, if there is a theme running through the stories collected here, it is how the weird can seem ordinary and the ordinary bizarre and vertigo inducing. Take for example Jonathan Lethem's "Light and the Sufferer" in which an alien being is practically a piece of furniture but one that forces us to puzzle over the seemingly straightforward psychology of a drug dealer on the run. (This story is, in fact, one of the best pieces of writing I've read by Lethem, someone whose work I'm usually lukewarm about.) Or Carol Emshwiller's "Al," whose story of life in an artist colony would be slightly soap-opera-ish if it didn't exist in a future where a visitor to the art colony seems to be of some much more advanced human civilization. The fact that this is never directly addressed, that the people of the colony never realize that the man's civilization is more advanced, while the man only acknowledges them at a scientific remove, like Jane Goodall discussing the behavior of chimps, is what gives the story its gathering power, and unexpectedly allows it to question the universality of art.
The nature of art and the creative act is another theme that reoccurs. Jeffrey Ford's "Bright Morning," for instance, tells the story of a man we assume is Jeffery Ford tracking down a lost Kafka story which may, in fact, be the story we're reading. Benjamin Rosenbaum also plays games with authorship to great effect in his "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum," an alternate history adventure story complete with zeppelins and pirates that spins around on itself and becomes about the artificiality inherent in storytelling. Then there's Kelly Link's "The Specialists Hat," which pleases in the special, creepy way that Link has, turning two childrens' attempt to grapple with death through games and play into something perverse and chilling.
If only one story of this caliber were included in an anthology, it would be notable, but to have them all together is kind of amazing. Not that all the stories are so strong. The weakest story, strangely enough, is the one by the very man who coined the term "slipstream," Bruce Sterling, whose "The Little Magic Shop" hits a single note very hard and then is gone before it can really ware on the nerves. Another big name whose work doesn't quite gel is Michael Chabon with "The God of Dark Laughter," which while very well written doesn't quite cohere in the way Chabon seems to want it to, an arrow falling just short of its mark. Middling work is also found by Aimee Bender and George Saunders—whose "Sea Oak" disappoints me in the way most of Saunders' work disappoints me, that is, the apparent seriousness of his subject matter seems to be completely shot to pieces by the silliness of his humor. The result is like Bugs Bunny tromping through Schindler's List, an effect I find baffling and more than a little disquieting.*
Yet even these stories are fun to read, and the result is an anthology that is never boring, that will make your eyes cross and your heart thump and will make you fall in love, that includes some of the best short fiction you're likely to find anywhere. This is a what a really great anthology looks like. This is what you should be reading.
* After writing this sentence I starting thinking about Pynchon, who also mixes the silly and the serious in odd juxtapositions. Yet Pynchon never bothers me the way Saunders does. When Saunders writes something like:
You will always be my first love, she'd written inside. But now my path converges to a higher ground. Be well always. Walk in joy. Please don't think me cruel, it's just that I want so much in terms of accomplishment, plus I couldn't believe that guy peed right on your dishes.
Well, yes it's funny, but it seems like he's sacrificing the impact of this girl dumping the main character for the sake of a cheap laugh. While the character might indeed be grossed out by "that guy" peeing on his dishes (a drunk cousin of the main character who walks in and pees on the dishes while they're making out) I don't believe she'd put it quite that way in her Dear John letter. It breaks my suspension of disbelief (and much moreso than the main supernatural element of the story, the character's aunt coming back from the dead). The problem is that it feels like a punch line, which would be fine in a Steve Martin anecdote in the New Yorker, but in a story that's supposedly about people learning to take responsibility for themselves in a hard world, it feels cheap. And Pynchon can be silly, but he doesn't feel cheap, his silliness always seems like part of the larger project he's working towards. Saunders, on the other hand, always reads to me like he really wants to be doing stand-up.