Sunday, August 23, 2015

"The Glad Hosts" by Rebecca Campbell

A woman infected with an alien parasite that will change her perception and cognition so much as to make her no longer "her", before the parasites cross the blood-brain barrier and effect this transition, thinking about the analogous behavior-changing parasites known to earth and through them her own future, wonders:
Does the fish flash in the shallows where the bird can see it because it is the parasite's creature, or because of the pleasure it takes in sunlight? Does the caterpillar love the little wasps, and the rat feel a transfiguring passion for the cat?
This, in a letter she writes but does not send to her mother. The questions are, of course, unanswerable; only the fish, the caterpillar, the rat — or perhaps only the parasite — knows. In Mai's case, oddly (or not), Rebecca Campbell seems to know: these (wonderful) excerpts from letters sent and unsent aside, we spend most of the story both inside and out of Mai's head — even after Mai per se no longer exists, even during and slightly beyond the death of what has become of her body — through the all-knowing magic of the free indirect. Like the James Patrick Kelly story I wrote about the other day, this is a story in large part about why it shouldn't be written the way it's written. Imagine this story instead written only in the form of these letters, or perhaps in a mix of letters and a more distant third person (maybe in the scenes back on earth). What we would have then would be the attempt by one person to articulate an experience, with varying and ultimately unknowable levels of honesty and success, rather than a series of statements: this is what Mai felt, this is what Mai thought, this is what happened to her mind when it became no longer hers. (One might object: but written that way the story wouldn't have been able to do this — that — the other — inarguably beautiful thing that it does now, to which I would say: yes, it couldn't have.)

As with the Kelly story, though, the tension between what the story seeks to be about and the way it goes about being about it, though it does subtract from its integrity and power, paradoxically also adds to it. There is especially that one letter toward the end of the story, after the parasites have "taken over" entirely, in which the former Mai writes to "her" mother about Mai in the third person, and — unlike the previous letters — it sounds precisely like a contemporary English-language short story written in the free indirect:

She remembers that after the mountain you both walked all the way to the gelato place that's practically on the beach, and she told you that she'd been accepted in the third wave of settlers. You began to cry. It was chilly, but she bought a raspberry sugar cone, and you kept sniffling, and she could only think about how awful your sniffles sounded, and how she wished you'd brought a hanky, which you hadn't, so in this imperious way she handed you a handful of napkins, and you sniffled into them, but you wouldn't talk because your voice tore, so it was better to be quiet.
And on. This event here, that of a story such as this encircling a moment of writing in which these "techniques" are justified and necessary — the person writing this letter is not Mai but possesses all of her memories and an awareness, if not always an understanding, of all of her emotional states — is beautiful and painful; whether aware or not it feels a confession of inadequacy (reminder to those unused to such terms: this is praise; if only everyone had it in them to make such confessions) every bit as powerful as Lorrie Moore's devastating "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk". It seems to be saying: I know the concept of "personhood" becomes more and more vague, more and more troubling, the closer one looks; I know the concept of "character" is misleading at best; but this is what we have, this is what I can do.

Important as all this is (to me and my own damn writing if not to anyone else) I'm almost sorry to have spent so long talking about it, because I've neglected so much else that this story brings us. The conflict between phenomenological and scientific accuracies ("It would have been easier to call it love, she told them, and they ignored her"), and the "self"-deceptions each can be a cover for, is treated with both sensitivity and a suggestive minimalism. The dual ruptures in Mai's life — first stasis (during which she ages even though it feels less like duration to her than even sleep does), then the parasite — are not reduced to metaphors for one another, instead being allowed their full disjunctive power. As I'm sure you can tell from what I've said and quoted already, the often fraught relationship between mother and daughter is portrayed movingly. Though I wish Campbell hadn't used the name "Shanti" for her planet and its parasite (for a number of reasons, not least because it's so on the nose), once it's there it is put to some fascinating use — as for example when the former Mai begins to see a color "outside the human spectrum for which there is no name. She calls it Shanti" — a woman who is by any measure become alien, experiencing the alien, searches for a word for it and calls it by a human name. There is much more.

Sort of like what I said about the Karen Myers story recently, I'm not sure quite where the line is that separates, for me, those works that seem especially "bad" because they display an awareness of why they should not be doing what they are doing, from those that seem "good" for the same reason. This one is almost entirely on the "good" side, and in so being it's one of the best experiences I've had reading recent sf.