The OF Blog: Four Fictions

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Four Fictions

Occasionally, I read a handful of books in rapid succession that while I believe they merit a consideration from readers, I just do not know if I can say much more than "Book X is one of those you had to experience it stories that you really ought to read!" The first two of the four I want to discuss today are the third and fourth volumes in the Leviathan series that Jeff VanderMeer (and continued later by Forrest Aguirre) began as a way of collecting stories that had a bit of this and a dash of that, making it in the end neither the fish of "mainstream" nor the fowl of "traditional" fantasy. Those who have read much of the "modern surrealistic fantasy" or "New Weird" styles of storytelling will recognize authors such as K.J. Bishop, Jay Lake, Michael Moorcock, Zoran Živković, and many others whose commonalities are not as much an inner congruence of motifs between their works as much as a shared sense of wonder and exploration that has led to an increasing estrangement from the prior models for fantasy and "mainstream" short fiction.

Leviathan Three is the larger (almost 500 pages) of the two and its stories are not as thematically obvious as the fourth (which deals with cities of various forms). This collection of tales of madness and of the seeking of other experiences has as its cornerstone the various "library" stories of Živković that comprise his WFA-winning novella, "The Library." Although I shall not explore the ways in which these stories interact to form a larger and very imaginative whole, suffice to say that I consider this anthology to be one of the "must read" books of the past generation. The stories are impressive and the contributors' list will serve curious readers as a touch stone for the more surrealistic (or "New Weird") stories being lauded today by many readers.

Leviathan 4, on the other hand, is not quite nearly as sprawling or attention-grabbing as its immediate predecessor. However, there are quite a few stories contained within (Lake's story makes up the germ of his latter 2006 release, Trial of Flowers, if I'm not mistaken) that ought to appeal to fans of authors such as Lake and Bishop, not to mention newer and more obscure authors such as Ben Peek. There is a greater sense of story unity, as an urban setting is the central theme of the collection and most of the stories use this setting in various ways to drive their stories forward. In many cases, the authors here manage to imbue their urban surroundings with a sense of alienness that makes the cities as much of a "living" character as the sentient beings transversing them.

One author from this series that I purposely neglected to mention until now is Michael Cisco. In the past month, I have read two 2007 releases of his, the short story collection Secret Hours and the just-released novel called The Traitor. In each of them, Cisco displays a fascination with using words to create a stunning visual image, depending upon often-fragile 1st person narrators to capture the reader's attention and to force them to confront the odd and sometimes terrifying world in which his stories take place. Secret Hours contains 14 stories that purportedly were written as an homage of sorts to H.P. Lovecraft and in some of them, this influence (especially in the establishment of a spooky atmospheric setting) is quite evident. While I personally enjoyed many of these stories, I don't know if they would be straightforward enough for many readers who might prefer a more gradual amping of the action than Cisco's stutter-step approach here.

Cisco's recent novel, The Traitor, however is not only more "accessible," but it also contains one of the most powerful stories I've read of the 2007 releases. The title references quite a few layers of possible "betrayals," and the main character (again a 1st person narrator whose reliability can be called into question) seems to have as much in common with a sort of "criminal" associate of his as he does with those around him. While not strictly an allegory, the way that Cisco constructs the story lends itself to being viewed in that way as much as being taken in for a story of struggle, of human identity, and a whole host of other issues that I shall not discuss here due to the nature of this posting. However, those who do consider reading this work are in for an experience that I believe will move many much more than what they might expect when confronted with a 150 page paperback.

So here they are: four fictions, two of them related anthologies, two of them recent releases by a single author who appears in one of the prior anthologies. Each contains at least traces of surrealist influence on how setting is warped, each contains stories that deal with the fractured natures of that pesky thing called "identity." Each are well worth the effort involved in reading them.

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