Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Johnny Rev" by Rachel Pollack

One of Rachel Pollack's recurring fixations seems to be the creation of worlds that are in most respects not unlike ours, but in which everything, even the most quotidian of acts or details, nevertheless needs to be explained to her readers. This goes a long way toward explaining why I love her work so much, I think; often it fixates — again I think the word is accurate — specifically on the question, what makes this work different from any other? what makes it "fantasy" (or, more rarely with her, "science fiction") rather than otherwise? and answers: one is allowed neither the luxury nor the irresponsibility of taking anything for granted. The language of exposition is central to this, to her, project, and she makes no effort to hide it. What might be superficially misinterpreted as a flatness of tone for me serves to emphasize this: when so much of the dialogue, so much of the plot-oriented narration is so resolutely banal, to encounter these expository intrusions of wonder over and over and over again becomes a kind of extraordinary experience that it simply could not be in surroundings that reached for more stylistic "poetry."

That's her work in general. (Or at least one corner of it; her work is vast.) This story specifically? There is a glorious moment as it nears its climactically anticlimactic climax in which Jack Shade, in order to prevent himself from being annihilated by an incomplete duplicate of himself that wants nothing more than to take on Jack's full existence for himself, must write down as full a record of experience — his specific experience — as possible. To do so he uses a special kind of magical pen, possessing

the ability to write very, very small, in words that couldn't fade or be erased. Everything Jack saw he wrote, and still it all took up less than two sheets of paper. [...]

Painstaking as it was, the physical part was easy. The memories, however... Someone once said that to set down all your experiences would take longer than it did to live them. But neither could you consciously decide on the important ones. You had to allow them to come to you. So Jack closed his eyes, let out a breath, and invited his life to parade before him.

In order, then, to remain himself, Jack must write his life, must make sense of his life in writing — and he can neither record a fully accurate accounting of that life nor be paralyzed by mistrust in his ability to select details. He has to give himself over to writing, to trust its ability to do something he knows it cannot do in order to invest it with precisely that ability.

For this moment I am eternally grateful, but in other ways I have to say that the Jack Shade stories (of which this is, I believe, the third, and the second I've read) feel like something of a misstep to me. This story, like the earlier "Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls" (I haven't read "The Queen of Eyes"), seems overlong, heavy, often plodding aimlessly from event to event, one thing after another, in a way even Pollack's explicitly arbitrary stories seldom do. And though the world is quite different, the particular ways in which the wondrous and the mundane are mixed feel a bit like a retread of material that worked better in Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency (and if, as Kip Manley has suggested, "fantasy, to do what it does, must" appropriate, that appropriation is — for better and/or/but worse — much more on the surface here than it was there, and it was on the surface there, too). Combined into a novel, as they seem destined eventually to be, these stories might read better by virtue of the disjunctures such combination would create (the ol' van Vogt effect, and god bless). In the meantime, I will try to remember that what seem to be an artist's missteps may always be revealed as necessary, may not in fact be missteps.

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