In a genre where the readers often equate the value of a book with its size or how exhaustive the author details the scenery (or "worldbuilding," as many now call this recent phenomenon of trying to make an imagined setting feel as "literal" or "real" as possible), there is something to be said for an author who writes in a shorter, more sparse style and who eschews dictating everything that is to be seen or to be read into a piece of fiction. In Serbian author Zoran Živković's latest mosaic novel to be translated into English, Steps Into the Mist, his five interconnected stories are deceptively slight, with only just enough detail to allow each story's plot to flow to conclusions that surprise the reader in the depth of meanings and reactions that they can provoke.
"Disorder in the Head" begins the sequence and with its bland, vaguely-described setting, the impatient reader might be quick to dismiss this as being an insubstantial short fiction that fails to grab the reader's attention. Such a reader would end up being gravely mistaken for trying to apply the "show, not tell" mantra to this tale, because the lack of specific description actually plays a major role in setting up the plot twist that turns this tale into a provocative opener. In addition, the "mist" of the title makes its first appearance and will be seen in other guises in the remaining stories.
The second story, "Hole in the Wall," contains a short but revealing passage that reveals in part what this "mist" might be, perhaps:
"Until recently, that was the same attitude I had toward the future," she [Katarina] said in a voice full of understanding. "What will be will be. A person has little influence, if any at all. We enter the mist, not knowing what awaits us there. Then, after the accident, everything changed."
In this particular story, the "mist" has a threatening overtone, as if it were of innumerable futures that contained pain and misery and discontent, among other, opaque features that frustrated the characters. This overtone, ominous as it sounds, is not the only way of interpreting this symbolic "mist" of the stories, however, as the following pieces reveal.
"Geese in the Mist" has a quality about it that takes many pauses and re-reads for one to be able to grasp it fully. It is a story of a woman on a ski lift and a mysterious stranger appearing and telling her of a momentous change, similar to the Chaos Theory aphorism of the butterfly beating its wings and through that action triggering a chain of events that might prove cataclysmic elsewhere, that would occur with which route the woman would choose down the ski loft. As the woman (and by extension, the reader) is left wondering as to what to do, Živković slyly has us consider the possibilities before having the story take a route that perhaps might be unexpected, perhaps be totally outside the bounds, depending of course upon the reader's expectations.
The fourth tale, "Line on the Palm," is perhaps the most tragic of these tales, but it is also one of the more powerful stories in this excellent mosaic novel. Set in a palm reader's shop and with a wink and a nod to the skeptic who dismisses such things as feel-good foolishness, this tale deals with fate as a notion and perhaps as an actual force and how our actions, similar to those of the characters in the ancient Greek tragedies, often cause our own fates to be as bad as we believe them to be. The "mist" in this tale is as much a tragic symbol than it is anything actual.
The final tale, "Alarm Clock on the Night Table," contains a deep and sad metaphor in its middle:
"These two gears here are broken. They're worn out. Unfortunately, they are highly important. You might say they are the heart of the clock. And nothing can work without a heart, isn't that so? If this were a newer model it would be easy to replace them, but no one makes spare parts anymore for such old models. The manufacturers are better off selling you a new one." He [the watchmaker] sighed and turned to look at the wall covered with silent clocks. "Just like your clock, all of these could have kept time and woken people up, if only there had been parts for them."
In this, the final tale, the "mist" perhaps could stand for things outside of our everyday, timed existences. However, there are more layers to this than what such a trite summation as that would reveal. Živković's purposeful vagueness, akin to the ever-morphing "mist" of these stories, serves to point out just how so often we feel as though our lives are but journeys in which each step is shrouded in a fog-like cover, obscuring not just our destination, but also our origins and desires. There is a dreamlike quality to each of these superb tales, with multiple meanings awaiting those who are willing to imagine instead of awaiting for authorial explication.
Summary: Steps Through the Mist is a mosaic novel of five thematically-connected stories, each narrated by a different female character, that explores in a detached and surrealistic fashion many of the doubts and fears that we have about our everyday lives. Živković writes with a minimal amount of detail, but his writing is much stronger for leaving so much for us to flesh out in our own imaginations. With these multiple possible takes on the tales, comparisons to Borges or Calvino would not only be likely, they would be apt. Highly recommended collection from this World Fantasy Award-winning author.
Publication Date: September 2007 (US), Hardcover
Publisher: Aio Publishing Company