Ayelet Waldman, Charles D'Ambrosio, China Mieville, Daniel Handler, David Mitchell, Heidi Julavits, Jason Roberts, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite, Roddy Doyle, Stephen King, Steve Erickson
Let us assume, just for a moment, that ‘genre’ delineates a mode of story rather than a mode of telling, in other words that it refers to science fiction and romance and crime and the like rather than to prose and poetry and drama. With me so far? Let us, then, also imagine that there are two approaches to genre. For the sake of argument I shall call them the ‘resident’ and the ‘visitor’ approaches. Those of us who are ‘resident’ in a genre, its habituees, its authors and critics and devoted readers, want the genre to grow and live and change. Thus, although we delight in familiar landmarks, we also like exploring new neighbourhoods, new ways of doing the genre, because that is what keeps it fresh. Those who are visitors to the genre, however, here to see the sights, want it to stay the same because they are here only to see the familiar landmarks, indeed they define the genre in terms of those landmarks, they orient themselves on those landmarks (TM Maureen). Anything that does not conform to the pattern set by those landmarks is not noticed by the visitor because, by definition, it is not what drew them to the genre in the first place. The residents are happy to see change, the visitors are in search of the static.
In his (brief) introduction to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (Vintage, 2004), editor Michael Chabon has a lot to say about ‘genre’. He takes us back to its roots (the same linguistic root that gives us genocide and gentile), he drops the name Walter Benjamin, and above all he worries about it. He worries mostly that the contemporary literary short story has forgotten the joys of genre. By this, it quickly becomes apparent, he means that it has forgotten the joys of story. So Chabon is equating genre with story; not unreasonable given any familiarity with the history of genre fiction, but not actually a real equation. Still, it appears that what Chabon is trying to do here, and in this volume’s predecessor, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, is a two-fold job. In the first place he wants to rescue genre from oblivion – ‘Ask yourself’ he says, in a very pertinent parenthetical remark, ‘just how damned different a book has to be, on the inside, from its neighbors, to get it consigned to the genre slums at the local Barnes & Noble. More different than Moby-Dick is from Mrs Dalloway?’ – and in the second he is trying to rescue the short story for story. This last is the harder but, I suspect, more interesting task.
Chabon goes about it by inviting a few visitors into the genre, along with a couple of residents. The interesting thing is how easily you can tell one from the other. ‘The Miniaturist’ by Heidi Julavits is an effective ghost story – at least it made the hairs prickle on the back of my neck – but it is very traditional, and very predictable because of that. She writes a good ghost story, but she doesn’t write a fresh ghost story. Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Child’ also makes the flesh at the back of the scalp creep, and is slightly less predictable, but that is largely because the irruption of the supernatural that destroys his character’s life is also an irruption of the irrational and so he doesn’t feel like he has to make sense of his story. The ending is tacked on with no real connection to what has gone before. Another story using genre without really believing in genre is ‘7C’ by Jason Roberts, a neat little puzzle that hinges upon a cosmological science fiction explanation. It is very well done of its sort, but of its sort it is inescapably reminiscent of Philip Latham’s ‘The Xi Effect’, and it could just as easily have been written back in the 1950s. This is genre for tourists, come and have your photo taken beside the same ancient relic as everyone else.
These are good stories with the sort of intriguing plot that makes you want to keep turning the page to find out how they’re going to get away with it. ‘Delmonico’ by Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket) is another, a locked room mystery of the most old-fashioned sort (and dependent on that hoary old stand-by: people don’t look up), and all the time you’re reading it you’re thinking: John Dickson Carr must have written this donkey’s years ago! ‘The Scheme of Things’ by Charles D’Ambrosio is a dust bowl, hard scrabble, small time hustler in run-down rural America type story that ticks all the right boxes, except that it is set in the 1980s and reads like it belongs in the 1930s. ‘Minnow’ by Ayelet Waldman is a variant on a story I’ve already read too many times, of a woman haunted by the ghost of her unborn, or in this instance stillborn, baby; she doesn’t do anything interesting or original with this over-used idea. They are good stories (well, except for the Waldman which is, I think, easily the worst thing in this collection), but they are not good genre because they are intent on retreading the familiar rather than exploring the possibilities.
The more interesting genre stories here are those by the residents, because they are the ones who use genre rather than being held hostage by it. Stephen King, in ‘Lisey and the Madman’, tells a very straightforward story of the wife of a famous author who saves him from being assassinated by a nutter with a gun. It’s not, it has to be said, a great story, but it is a story that could well have been loaded with genre tics and traits, and any of the visitors would have done just that. The fact that King doesn’t, rather keeping it plain and simple, makes it better than it might have been. Rather better is Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘The Devil of Delery Street’ about a young girl briefly possessed by the devil, but in which the possession is interestingly neither threatening nor frightful, and in fact the two seem to reach a comfortable accommodation. But the two other residents write much better pieces. ‘Mr Aickman’s Air Rifle’ by Peter Straub is a sort of ghost story, sort of revenge from the grave story, that reads like a gossipy modern comedy, and it is the fact that he can so successfully conflate these moods and manners is what, at the same time, subverts genre and makes genre work. Though it has to be said that the best story in the collection is perhaps China Miéville’s ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’, because he manages to come up with a completely traditional genre story that is completely original. It is traditional because genre writers since the 19th century have been using the model of a narrator who comes across a document which reports on something outre; original because I, for one, have not come across the notion of feral streets scrapping with each other across time. It is a delicious invention.
The remaining stories fall somewhere between the resident and the visitor. Margaret Atwood, with a creepy little feral child story, ‘Lusus Naturae’; David Mitchell with a tale of a man haunting himself, ‘What you do not know you want’; Jonathan Lethem, with a strange little tale of two strangers who keep running into each other, ‘Vivian Relf’, a story which seems to be striving for some sort of significance it never quite attains; all are writers familiar enough with genre even if it is not their natural habitat. The result is that they do not try to immitate genre, nor do they really explore genre, but rather they use it to write something that isn’t quite genre but is made more interesting by the aspects of genre they incorporate. And then there is Steve Erickson, with ‘Zeroville’, who just does what he always does. This curious little piece about a film editor who begins to collect images of doors that have appeared subliminally in films throughout the history of the medium, could have been a snippet from any of his novels (there is, indeed, a sly reference to The Sea Came In At Midnight), and is just as fresh or infuriating as his work always is, depending on your preferences. (I’m a big Steve Erickson fan, so for me this is one of the treats in this collection.)
And finally there is Joyce Carol Oates, another writer who has hovered around the edges of genre throughout her career, though I don’t think she has ever plunged into it as determinedly as she has with ‘The Fabled Light-House of Vina del Mar’. This is partly because her story was inspired by a one-page scrap of an idea left by Edgar Allan Poe, and she has determinedly reproduced the manner of his disturbing tales not as an act of sightseeing, but as an act of homage. The story of a newly widowed man who, as part of an experiment, goes alone to a remote Pacific lighthouse, only to become involved with grotesque sea creatures that may be real or may be products of his madness, reads like a newly discovered manuscript from the 1840s, but overlaid with a modern psychological insight that makes it altogether fresh. This really is an exploration of what genre can do.
But having said all that, I don’t think that Chabon has come close to rescuing genre from those who dismiss it out of hand; and unless he can do that, I don’t think this can do much to rescue the notion of story outside the genre outlets.
First published at Livejournal, 18 August 2005.