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I have, thank heavens, finally finished Map of Dreams by M. Rickert. I don’t think I could stand much more misery. When Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the line: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ he meant it as an ironic description. M. Rickert seems to take it as an instruction. No, more than that she presents misery as something that makes you special. Now I don’t mind it working the other way round: someone being made miserable because they are special. But Rickert’s narrative logic doesn’t work that way, she shows people being miserable and then suggests it is this that makes them special.

And the cause of misery is almost always a lost, damaged or more often dead child. Believe me, whole generations of Americans have died in the making of this collection.

I read this collection because so many people have been raving about Rickert. I think I can see what they are raving about. She is a fluent writer, with a distinctive and often startling turn of phrase. But the pace never varies, the tone of voice remains the same, and the overall affect is remorseless. Taken one at a time I suspect these stories – particularly the shorter ones – could blow you away. Cumulatively, however, the effect is numbing. And if she ever wrote a novel … Well, I don’t think she should, but if she did I suspect I’d stay well away from it.

Why shouldn’t she write a novel? Well, consider the evidence of the longest piece in here, the novella that provides the collection with its title. It starts stunningly, becomes messy and confusing, loses cohesion half way through as she starts telling other stories (Rickert is very fond of the story within a story, it is not always a virtue), and ends in a way that looks like it ties everything together neatly but in fact makes no sense of the characters. It acquires its length not through extra depth or insight, in many ways the novella is at its best the closest it is to her other short stories; no, it becomes longer simply by accumulation and repetition. And I can’t help feeling that any novel she wrote now would be the same, one small story played over and over again with slight variations, and extra stories stuffed in to push up the word count.

The novella begins when the narrator’s young daughter is killed in a random shooting in New York (the sort of scenario that becomes depressingly familiar as we plough through the rest of the collection). The mother wallows in enough misery and self-blame to end her marriage, but one of the other people killed was a physicist whose husband finds notes she left behind which suggests a way of travelling in time and the mother now obsesses on the idea that she can go back in time and rescue her daughter. Time and time and time again she is met with counter-arguments that show why this would be a terrible idea; and when the physicists husband does go back in time he returns to explain exactly why it was a bad idea; but she carries on, blind to everything except her own remorse and desire. The scene by now has shifted to Australia because the ability to travel in time is somehow tied up with the aboriginal dreamtime (incidentally I was a little unhappy at the way the aborigines are made out to be idealised shamanistic figures) and we get a very confusing set of scenes which involve characters apparently cut loose in time, including an 18th century convict who comes forward with her back to New York. Meanwhile the story is intercut with a variety of other stories, generally tales given the appearance of aboriginal myth. The problem with these stories is that they all repeat the basic message of misery without in any way counterpointing it, as if all the variations turn out to be indistinguishable from the basic theme. And then at the end we get the by no means unexpected twist that she provided the distraction that allowed the sniper to get into place. Yet when she does confront him, all at once and for the very first time throughout the story, she does nothing. Every other action she has taken throughout the story has been driven by a rage and by a profound carelessness for herself and anyone else around her. Now at precisely the point when blind action is what the situation calls for, Rickert allows her character to stop, think, and do nothing. Wrong! And yet, in this one tale we have encountered the blueprint for every other story in this collection. The writing is delicate and at times wonderful, but the variations on a theme are small and uninteresting.

First published at LiveJournal, 22 August 2007.

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