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January, 2010 : Review:

A Look Back at a Tributary of the Slipstream

Review of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon, who won the 2001 Pultizer Prize for a novel about a couple of comic book nerds, made his big splash in the SF world with the 2007 publication of his alternate history novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Thanks to this book, the once-mainstream writer soon found himself the recipient of both a Hugo and a Nebula, but Chabon had always been active in the murky area between the speculative genres and the mainstream—even if he received more attention from the latter than from the former. Indeed, in his editorial for the October 1998 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, David G. Hartwell insisted that "[n]o one talks about slipstream but us sf genre geeks," but I consider Chabon's 2004 all-original anthology McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories an example of just such a mainstream voice finally weighing in on the same sorts of issues that come up when genre folks start talking slipstream.

In essence, I see the ostensibly genre-bending stories in MECOAS as a significant part of—or at least counterpart to—a corresponding movement within the genre of speculative fiction, a movement that has only gained more momentum in the last few years. Whether or not we ought to call this movement "slipstream" is a question that lies beyond the scope of this review, but I will be using the term in its broadest possible sense; I recognize that I have my choice of imprecise terms—interstitial, genre-defying, postmodern, mainstream crossover, and so on—so I've simply selected the most euphonious.

Talk of the changing relationship between the speculative genres and the mainstream surely predated Bruce Sterling's now-canonical 1989 essay on slipstream, but the past several years have seen an enormous proliferation of collections based on Sterling's concept or a related one. What now seems most significant is that, two decades later, slipstream is finally selling. Of course, not everyone is sold on it, so to speak, and slipstream is surely selling rather modestly in comparison with "mainstream" SF and fantasy. Even so, the anthologies are steadily accumulating, and "slipstream" is beginning to lose its scare quotes, at least in some circles. Fans, editors, and even writers seem less afraid to apply the label or have the label applied to them. For instance, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange soon lost its self-proclaimed title as "The Slipstream Anthology," when not two years later Allen Ashley released Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction. (Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers' Slipstreams, also 2006, seems to have kept a lower profile.) Many other anthologies and periodicals have tended to ignore the word "slipstream" even when voicing what are arguably similar ideas—and even when including many of the very same writers: a follow-up to Interfictions was released last fall, and ParaSpheres 2 is scheduled for release early this year.. They just keep coming!

Chabon's earlier editorial work deserves our serious consideration now, not because it predated what may come to be known as "the slipstream boom" (or possibly "the slipstream bubble"), but because Chabon comes at the ongoing "slipstream" debates from a very different place and at a very different angle. If you're at all interested or invested in these debates, his introduction to MECOAS may prove the most interesting part of the book. On the other hand, if you're tired of the debates, skip Chabon's intro and admire the selling point of another (possibly) slipstream anthology, Small Beer Press's 2003 collection Trampoline: "does not contain a manifesto."

For those interested in the Great Debate, it's worth looking at the concept behind MECOAS. Chabon makes the familiar gesture of locating the best contemporary fiction in a mutually fruitful synthesis of genre and mainstream: "it might be possible to argue... that our finest and most consistently interesting contemporary writers are those whose works seem to originate from both traditions" (xii). Almost immediately, however, he shifts focus from a discussion of genre conventions and distinctions to the sheer pleasure of genre. One of the definitions usually proposed—and then dismissed—for slipstream is something like "science fiction with literary sensibilities," but what Chabon seems to advocate here is the reestablishment of pulp sensibilities in any kind of fiction, whether genre or mainstream: suspense, heavy plotting, entertainment, and downright fun. Chabon's introduction represents a total inversion of the way some science fiction writers and fans turn to concepts like "slipstream" out of some half-admitted desire to legitimize their endeavor. Chabon, without a doubt a mainstream figure, seems comfortable "legitimizing" the genres without appealing to any kind of literary sensibilities at all. In fact, he's tired of literary sensibilities, because by now they're just plain boring.

The remainder of Chabon's manifesto sounds closest to the kinds of things the supporters of the Interstitial Arts Foundation like to bandy about, though one can find similar talk of borders and crossings floating around just about everywhere these days. For example, the blurb on the back cover of the first installment of Polyphony (2002) advertises stories that "skate gracefully across the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and literary fiction." Chabon's language echoes these common sentiments, with the addition of Lewis Hyde's concept of the Trickster: You could debate the configuration of this metaphorical map endlessly, I guess, but one thing that seems undebatable to me is that in spite of the continuing disdain or neglect in which most of the "nonliterary" genres are held, in particular by writers of short stories, many if not most of the most interesting writers of the past seventy-five years or so have, like Trickster, found themselves drawn, inexorably, to the borderlands. (xiii) In fact, Chabon would later expand this introduction into the essay "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" for his 2008 nonfiction collection, Maps and Legends, which is also worth a read if you find these ideas compelling.

But Chabon never claims that the stories in his anthology are slipstream as such, but simply "genre bending" and innovative (xiv). When he published this book, however, Chabon looked to the intersection of mainstream and the genre, and increasingly the genre has been looking that way too. In their introduction to Feeling Very Strange, Kessel and Kelly give a nod to McSweeney's in a list of "magazines and one-shots...[that] have provided a showcase for slipstream" (xiv), and a story by Chabon himself appears in that anthology alongside a piece by Jonathan Lethem, who also contributed to MECOAS. Moreover, the overlap between Chabon's "tricksters" and "slipstream" authors becomes even more apparent if we look back to the 2002 issue of McSweeney's that Chabon guest-edited, a precursor to MECOAS with the equally unwieldy title McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. MMTOTT showcased slipstream darlings like Karen Joy Fowler, Carol Emshwiller, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link, all of whom contributed to Feeling Very Strange. With a paltry five or six years of hindsight, it seems significant that Chabon aimed two collections containing such authors at the mainstream market, and perhaps more at the emerging slipstream market.

In short, MECOAS is indeed a striking book, in terms of both concept and execution. The deliberately garish cover advertises "ALL-NEW" stories by literary giants Roddy Doyle and Margaret Atwood, and a quick survey of the table of contents will reveal a mix of veteran weirdos—like Lethem, China Miéville, Stephen King, and Peter Straub—with other big-name mainstream authors like Joyce Carol Oates, who can always be counted on to contribute a story to a worthy cause, it seems.

Unfortunately, the Oates story leads to my first criticism of the anthology. "The Fabled Light-house at Viña del Mar" is an excellent pastiche of Poe and early Gothic writers generally, replete with ampersands and other idiosyncratic methods of punctuation. While entertaining in its fashion, the piece doesn't ever quite become anything more than simple pastiche. In a sense, it seems telling that the anthology's cover art was lifted from a 1949 issue of Fantastic Novels Magazine. Some of the stories, including "The Fabled Light-house at Viña del Mar," seem restrained by the very genre conventions and genre past they intended to employ in the creation of innovative works of fiction. Daniel Handler's "Delmonico" fails in this same way, for it never becomes anything more than an overtired, overcooked pulp story featuring a real nice dame of a bartender who solves mysteries on the side. In other words, while the existence of the anthology is in some way revolutionary, the fiction here isn't always so pleasingly original.

Other stories in this collection may be disappointing, but only to the extent that they fail to deliver on the promise of innovation, not necessarily on quality. For example, the opening story, Atwood's "Lusus Naturae," features a narrator that could be either a bloodthirsty vampire or a particularly unattractive spinster, leaving us with a fable that could be read as a standard horror story in the vein of something like Richard Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman," or a reflective fabulation concerning gender issues and sexuality. It seems to me that the latter possibility does not transcend the genre or even play with its conventions to any significant extent. It's a fine tale, but somewhat disappointing in its plain conventionality.

The following piece, David Mitchell's "What You Do Not Know You Want," proves to be even straighter horror fiction, and Ayelet Waldman's "Minnow" is another undeniable example of pure horror, a tale of a baby monitor haunted by the ghost of a miscarriage, which further concludes with a twist ending that should surprise no one. Moreover, while the appearance of Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle in this collection might come as a surprise, this master realist turns out an artfully told but otherwise unremarkable out-and-out horror story. Regrettably, Stephen King's contribution is a rather tiresome tale of an assassination attempt on—you guessed it—an inoffensive celebrity author, colored towards the end with his trademark brand of horror (think It with a much lighter touch).

By far the best of the more "conventional" horror stories comes from relative unknown Jason Roberts, the winner of Chabon's own August Van Zorn Prize. His "7C," a gripping story about scars that heal in reverse, most closely matches the horror/weird aesthetic; classify it as a respectable if unremarkable Lovecraftian descendant. Take these selections as a whole, and you have an anthology consisting of "well-written horror" rather than fiendishly transgressive, stunningly innovative defiers of genre boundaries. Indeed, the word "rictus" appears across the anthology a little too frequently for any book that purports to wander far afield from conventional horror.

There are, of course, hits with the misses: a few of Chabon's picks both live up to the genre-crossing acrobatics he promises and prove themselves truly fantastic pieces of fiction, however we might ultimately decide to classify them. One of the most intriguing and inventive stories comes from Jonathan Lethem, an author frequently brought up in the slipstream conversation. On the surface, his "Vivian Relf" bears little relationship to any genre, with only the slightest splash of postmodern anti-realism—the names of fictional universities are dropped, home cities are discussed anonymously, etc. Nevertheless, it is indeed a "page-turner," with some intangible quality that appeals to genre readers in particular and makes us whisper the sibilant syllables of "slipstream."

But it's not just Lethem who shines. New Weird wonderboy China Miéville combines a tired trope from "literary fiction," the fragmentary false document, with a really rather "pulpy" high concept. In so doing he somehow manages to produce, well, astonishing results. Once the central conceit of the story is revealed—if the word "revealed" even makes sense in the context of this story—one understands that what Miéville has done with the bizarrely old-school fantastic could also be considered very new and even very slipstream.

All of this is not to say that every "slipstream" story turns out to be a good story. For instance, Steve Erickson's "Zeroville" is an oblique, ambiguously supernatural thriller that I suspect would fit many people's definition of slipstream, but it left me feeling more confused and cheated than strange and satisfied.

In fact, while the most appealing stories here do tend to escape a single-genre identity, I would cite Charles D'Ambrosio's "The Scheme of Things" as the one genuine horror story that succeeds in bringing something new to the table. Of all horror clichés, it is set on Halloween, features a haunted cornfield, and contains a scene of particularly gruesome violence against a child. Yet this beautiful narrative manages to examine the human experiences of life and death through two superb characters. I'm not sure exactly how D'Ambrosio pulls it off, but his story seems to be exactly what Chabon had in mind for the collection.

I would contrast this story with yet two more horror stories that demonstrate a clear consciousness of their conventional roots, but also an uncertainty about how to proceed from there—except, of course, by attempting to replicate them. Heidi Julavits, another mainstream writer, contributes a horror story extremely aware of its genre—it's all but set in the universe of The Shiningbut it never does anything interesting with that self-consciousness. Finally, in Poppy Z. Brite's "The Devil of Delery Street," the characters themselves seem to tire of the same old poltergeist story in which they live, and the ignored, disaffected ghost, along with the narrative arc, simply sputters out. I would file such stories more under the rubric of "the literature of exhaustion" than that of "replenishment." Chabon himself invokes John Barth's famous set of essays in his introduction: "Many of the finest 'genre writers' working today derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion and replenishment" (xi).

The anthology's valedictory story comes from Peter Straub, a known genre-bender who not so coincidentally edited the special issue of the lit-mag Conjunctions that showcased the work of "the New Wave Fabulists," another ad hoc group of writers known to moonlight as slipstreamers. I'm not sure what to call Straub's contribution, other than excellent, as it drifts from its initial Aickmanesque supernatural horror to something else. Slipstream? Another simple literary haunting? When the ghost of Virginia Woolf (maybe) shows up, it seems things couldn't get more literary or more haunted, but the plot continues to twist in strange and interesting directions. Furthermore, the story's setting and ending jointly remind me of the single original story in Feeling Very Strange, also its last: M. Rickert's "You Have Never Been Here." Straub's story, along with Miéville's, rightly made it into the eighteenth installment of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant. In a sense, the mainstream and genre writers that Chabon worked so hard to unite in this collection went their separate ways soon afterwards, since D'Ambrosio's ghost story ironically—or perhaps not so ironically—later appeared in The New Yorker.

So, as an anthology of whatever-we-want-to-call-it, MECOAS starts okay, finishes strong, and really, really sags in the middle. This anthology is worth picking up because it remains the one place you can find most of these stories, but Chabon's future work is obviously worth keeping an eye on as well. But for a few scattered gems, the biggest surprises in MECOAS come from who's writing, editing, and presumably reading these stories—and why. The anthology doesn't lead a promising new avant-garde movement in science fiction, fantasy, or horror, but it seems an important collection to factor into any discussion of what's going on over on the other side of the genre fence. Or, rather, what's left of the genre fence; the barrier seems to shrink each year but also grow more complicated. These are really quite astonishing times.

Copyright © 2010, Timothy S. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

About T. S. Miller

T. S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. (Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him.) He has recently begun to review for Strange Horizons, and a longer article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.


Jan 13, 04:28 by IROSF

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