Friday, October 30, 2015

"Swan Song" by Omi Wilde

An artificial intelligence speaks in the first person plural, and though I am very suspicious of the entire notion that we — each individual human reader, each individual human I — can experience this voice with anything approaching honesty (let alone replicate it, in the case of the I that is Omi Wilde) this is certainly much better than some notable recent attempts. What I most appreciate here is the resolutely external perspective: there is no pretense that the narrators can "figure out" the humans and other beings around them; they simply relate to them, puzzled or otherwise. Then too there is the strange shifting of time scales, a bit like what I mentioned in my post about Caroline M. Yoachim's story. It is impossible to convey in human words what the experience of a being whose mind runs hundreds of times faster than our own and who has a life spanning thousands of millennia would actually be like, but the sudden and unnoted variation in time here — now a day goes by in pages of text, now thousands upon thousands of centuries pass in one line — provides, not an illusion, but a rhythm and a glimpse — less shattering than the one that ends the story, but a glimpse nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Birdwoman" by Pemi Aguda

A fairly unexceptional good story, I like it primarily for three sentences toward the end, after the first transformation: "She smiles. But there is no one to see it. Nobody to witness what it is for a bird to smile."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mean Time

When it came time to open the door was stuck.
Turning the key did little of any avail
or less, perhaps because opening had been
made illegal by an act of Congress

the previous year (—98). It was
in no one's interest to object, they made sure
of that. Getting up to look around, then
returning to tap away with the finger,

tap away until perhaps a hole is worn
through the surface where we sit. Interstices1
insist upon so little, though busily
consisting, moving from instinct to research

so quickly. Partitioned off was only
the beginning; the end, yet to come.
1late M.E.: from Latin interstitium,
from intersistere 'stand between', from

inter- 'between' + sistere 'to stand'.
New Oxford American Dictionary,
Third Edition, 2010. I refer
to it as it is what I have to hand.

—North Providence
December 2012

Friday, October 23, 2015

"The Sisters' Line" by Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer

At times a bit too gleefully "quirky" for my blood, underneath it all this is, like the Gabby Reed story I wrote about recently, a story of creation and compulsion. Here much revolves around the seemingly contradictory fact that in any creative process everything is both arbitrary and necessary; as the story goes on much of its absurdity is revealed as living in this contradiction. For example there is Becky, who will only do anything if it can be named with a word starting with B (an arbitrary necessity in itself), leading us to the spectacle of the narrator combing through a thesaurus trying to find the right B-word to invoke to get her to drive the train on a search for the narrator's sister, sometimes goofy in desperation: "Can you bus the train, Becky? ... Broom, broom?"

The narrator — who has for years been attempting to assemble this train which the missing sister has been mailing "piece by piece" — is horrified when Becky yanks a piece of it out of place and puts it somewhere else, where it fits every bit as well as it had before, now serving a completely different function. "If the parts are malleable and contain as many hidden pockets as the letters, the variables are infinite. How will I piece it together if even the pieces lie to me? ... How much of my train is a lie?" But in this very interchangeability — arbitrariness seeming to come to the fore, taking precedence over necessity — perhaps lies the truth. We look for a luggage rack and find instead a control panel; we reach for the word "drive" (already inappropriate, surely, for a train?) and discover we must find some other word. Literature, writes Miguel de Beistegui,

lets itself be carried off to where the real flees its own self-presence. Ultimately, the real just is that very self-absence. And if it always disappoints, it's not because we always expect too much of it but because we expect it where it actually isn't, because it's never where we expect it to be, because it can only be grasped in its own drift or constitutive gap. We always want it to be in its rightful place but that place is precisely where it's not, precisely where it's lacking.
Now, the story at hand may not always let itself be carried off as fully as I think it should. But the train, in its malleability, in its infinite variability, indeed in its arbitrariness, is not a lie; though who knows where it may be taking them as the story ends, though it looks entirely different than expected, it brings static futility to an end: it works, it goes, it is.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Glaciers Made You" by Gabby Reed

A message that is directed — that is directions — but has no knowably concrete origins or ends, only infinite suggestion, predecessors, consequences. The writing is in her skin, but only appears when she pulls that skin off of her body. What did this story make this reader think of? Sofia Samatar's "Skin Feeling", which I had just read the day before, in so many ways, in every way, with endless differences. Samuel R. Delany's offhand comment (somewhere — it's so offhand I can never find it in indexes) that all writing is automatic writing, because who is to say where all these words come from, who is to say that it is from us, that we chose these words? (What is a choice?) Maurice Blanchot, everywhere, always, on the silence and emergence of writing. The Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, before subsequent volumes domesticated it, traveling along blindly in the dark underground, writing a sentence it cannot read (Blanchot here, again), that never ends and is literally alive. (The uncanny encounter with wildlife at the end, too, put me in mind of that novel.) And it made me think of "Glaciers Made You" by Gabby Reed, which resonates with all of these other things (and many more, some along the same lines, many along lines parallel, perpendicular, orthogonal...) not by being constructed from them, not by being like them, but by being constructed out of and like itself.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"When the Fall Is All That's Left" by Arkady Martine

The language immediately announces that here, as Steve Mitchelmore has put it, there will be "nothing at stake except the mastery or otherwise of the [writer] over his or her material; a mastery that is enough to convince many that what they're reading is great art." I'm so very tired of writing this over and over again: the language is so concerned with being "luminous" and "lovely" and even just "well-written" that it has no concern for anything else, and yet I sense something struggling out from under that weight..... But here again there is that weight; and yet here again I sense something struggling out from under it; and so yet again I write it.

Whatever unconscious part of my mind chose "weight" as the metaphor here has a goofy, maybe pat, sense of irony, because the plot information which that language that announces its mastery seeks to convey so masterfully, right at the beginning, is that Gabriele has lost gravity. The ramifications of this as they play out over the deadly and short course of the story is where the interest lies, for me, particularly as the story nears its end and Gabriele's consciousness returns to her human body — rather than that body being, as it has been for so long, merely something like "a hand or a foot, a useful part of herself that did not and could not possibly contain her consciousness." The juxtaposition of this return to "ordinary" human experience with the removal of one of the most central aspects of that ordinary experience is a suggestive situation (one which, indeed, puts me in mind of certain comments from a book by Josipovici other than the one Mitchelmore was reviewing in the above-linked post, namely Touch, along with the very different perspective on embodiment one finds in the work of Eighteen and some other cyborg thinkers). I am grateful to Martine for opening up this associative space, and hope that some day she may find a way to approach it (or whatever else) on its own terms — and those of writing itself — rather than those of the assembly-line writing workshop.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Kerttu, the bride of the title, bows "that ancient bow, as elegant as it is incongruous with her outfit," and Heilui, her more rooted wife (and client), "realizes with a start that no matter the correctness of her gesture, no matter her fluency in Gwongdungwa, Kerttu will never fit quite right." Such questions of performing versus inhabiting culture — and through it individuality, personality — permeate the events that unfold before us. The question goes both ways, too, though the situation — as so often in Sriduangkaew's work, one of deception mingled with honesty, subordination to and entanglement with power, attempts to build something genuine out of artifice — is far from symmetrical, lending a great deal of irony to the give and take. Heilui, having built a simulation of Kerttu's shattered homeland, wants Kerttu to give this creation an "authenticity check" — and as Kerttu enters it, as she and Heilui spend time in it, the issues this simulation raise echo those raised by fiction, really those raised by any art which can be taken to be "representational," especially as so-called representation always involves the seizure of another, or indeed "the Other." "There are no people here," Kerttu observes, and Heilui responds:
"Anything I populate this world with would be just automatons — as complex a set of heuristics as I can buy, but they wouldn't emulate human behavior with any degree of verisimilitude. I thought of modeling you, actually."
Along these lines what especially fascinates me is the moment in which, immersed in the simulation, the emotions Heilui feels when explaining the real situation to Kerttu cause physiological responses, not in Heilui's "real" body, but in her avatar, not out of necessity but out of habit. Here "authenticity" and artifice struggle against one another and end up so intermingled as to be, as they perhaps fundamentally always are, indistinguishable.

In fictional terms, in terms of the writing, where does this leave us? Perhaps what it all really means is distance. About halfway through the story seems to allow into itself a statement of its own methods. At the tailor to buy clothes of her own choosing with her client-wife's money, Kerttu

chooses a postmodern keipou, unpatterned black sheathing her like carapace. Sleeveless, high crescent collars, unrelieved contrast between fabric and complexion making a monochrome print of Kerttu. “I lost much and there was never a funeral,” she explains the color. “I need to mourn. I expect I’ll always be mourning.”

But this, like everything else, is said with distance as though discussing someone else’s grief.

(Note the passive voice, even, which seems almost to remove the observation from Kerttu specifically and suggest it really does mean everything else.)

In her review of "The Occidental Bride" Nina Allan refuses the common but superficial, too-easy description of Sriduangkaew's prose as "lyrical," going on to say that "The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass — bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths before revealing them full force." Though I think the rejection of "lyrical" is absolutely correct, and though I think Allan and I are responding in similar ways to the same aspects of Sriduangkaew's work, I find the mirror analogy somewhat off. The scene early on, in which Heilui and Kerttu are married on a train with a "portable altar" officiating (and with "simulated incense and ancestors, two-dimensional gods rotating to give them blessings"), gives the key to my reading: "They marry on the train," we read, "the world's ruin rushing past in silent witness." Without getting too high-school-symbolism about it I take "the world's ruin" as including us, the damaged readers rushing past in silence.

It is difficult to know how to bear witness in this world that keeps us distracted and misdirects our best impulses into violence (a world mirrored in this story by the ubiquitous surveillance, the sniper team, and so on — and with the portable altar and simulated ancestors, could even the wedding require the legal formality of a witness?). In this context I see Sriduangkaew's writing as immersing us, not in the world of the story or its events but in the language itself, precisely so as not to immerse us in the event (and I differ from Allan again in that I think nothing here is ever revealed full force), precisely so as to provide a distance from which we can witness, and also ask what it means to do so.

(What we are witnessing in this story I have essentially not mentioned.)