What follows is the third in a series of "dueling reviews" to appear on this site--although readers may conclude that in this case, as in the previous reviews of Gilbert Sorrentino's The Moon in Its Flight, there's not that much dueling going on. Nevertheless, Matt Cheney (The Mumpsimus) and I have teamed up to review a recent science fiction/fantasy anthology entitled Polyphony 4, published by Wheatland Press. Since much of what I discuss in this weblog would generally be described as "literary fiction," I wanted to extend my horizons to a consideration of genre fiction as well. And I would like to do more. (Hint to any bloggers or writers who might want to join up with me in a future such set of paired reviews.)
FROM POLYPHONY 4 TO POLYPHONY 4.1: A BETA-TEST IN THE SLIPSTREAM MAKES THE MEDIOCRITY GO DOWN
By Matthew Cheney
Within the cosy ghetto of serious science fiction and fantasy readers, the term "slipstream" is sometimes used as a label for stories that linger in the liminal borderlands between die-hard genre definitions. The fourth volume in the Polyphony anthology series, edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake, offers just over 400 pages of such stories, but only a quarter of those pages are of a particularly high quality, causing me, at least, to feel that reading the book was more akin to slipping into a swamp than a stream.
I have positive things to say about the good writing in the book, but first I need let some negative waves crash to shore. Before I can even comment on the content, I have to note that Polyphony 4's pages are pocked with typos, making the whole thing appear to be thrown together before it was ready for prime time. It's asking a lot for readers to take a book seriously when the publishers apparently didn't care enough to make sure the authors' words were presented clearly. I've read uncorrected proofs that have fewer errors per page than Polyphony 4. There may be good excuses -- Wheatland Press is a small and honorable operation -- but there is no way to excuse the fact that typographical errors are disrespectful to the authors whose work the book presents.
Speaking of the authors' work... Well, people often call anthologies "a mixed bag", and this bag is so mixed it's muddled. There are a few ways to view this. We could say that the editorial vision is eclectic and that the editors tried to provide something for nearly every taste. Or we could be less charitable and say that there seems to be no editorial vision. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle, but the effect is clear: Only a few of these stories truly deserve a reader's attention. Many of the stories could have been effective with some revision and the guidance of an editor. Not every anthology editor considers it their job to help writers revise promising stories, but editors who don't should then issue rejection slips with utter abandon and keep their anthologies short.
There is a good book buried in Polyphony 4, though, and it is that book I want to celebrate. It begins with "Down in the Fog-Shrouded City" by Alex Irvine, though to get in touch with the inner anthology we will dispense with the last page or so of that story, because the ending is so pat and sentimental that it threatens to destroy every good word Irvine wrote. And he wrote some great ones -- the story is marvelously weird, a tale of amnesia and love and monkeys with typewriters.
Next, we skip to page 169 and Gavin Grant's "A Storyteller's Story". This would be a good piece to start the anthology with, because it is carefully written, it explores ideas of fiction and dreaming and reality, and it treats its audience as if they are intelligent and capable of both thought and honest feeling. It's fairly innocuous fare, but that's not necessarily bad. Save the fireworks for later.
Polyphony 4 gets better in its second half, and there we've got a few more pieces to choose from. "The Eye" by Eliot Fintushel is prototypical Fintushel, which means that it's hilariously strange and a bit disturbing. "The Eye" is about a very small man who is a voyeur, and his quest for love and friendship in a world of powerful plastic surgery. It's romantic absurdism with fangs, and I suspect it's the sort of thing you either love or hate. I've yet to meet a Fintushel story I hate.
We have to do to "The Train There's No Getting Off" (a collaboration between Bruce Holland Rogers, Ray Vukcevich, and Holly Arrow) what we did to "Down in the Fog-Shrouded City" and save the best parts while tossing out a lot of the rest. The story is at least twice as long as is justified by its concept or execution, but the first parts offer a compellingly confusing study of fertility and sterility. Dr. Frankenstein recommends that for his version of Polyphony 4 we sever the healthy first thirteen of the story's thirty-five pages from the rot of the rest.
The next story to keep is Tim Pratt's "Hart and Boot", the kind of story you might get if a schizophrenic fabulist decided to recount the plot of a spaghetti western. Like the two previous stories we've decided to keep, "Hart and Boot" is full of odd and amusing details, which may signal a bias on the part of the first-person-plural guiding you through this book at the moment. On the other hand, the similar narrative and tonal strategies of "The Eye" and the good parts of "The Train There's No Getting Off" may indicate that certain strategies work better than others at piercing the membrane between specific styles of fiction. Absurdism (in this context at least) doesn't seem to lead to earnest mediocrity as easily as other techniques.
Other techniques are available, though, in the remaining four stories that deserve attention: "Ataxia, the Wooden Continent" by Stepan Chapman, "Tales from the City of Seams" by Greg van Eekhout, "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm" by Theodora Goss, and "Three Days in a Border Town" by Jeff VanderMeer.
"Ataxia, the Wooden Continent" continues the absurdism, but does so with entries from an encyclopedia of a floating continent full of sentient wood. Consider: "EYE KNOBS: These organs provide vision for the clans of the Ebony Dressers, the Acacia Tallboys, and the Sectional Cabinets. Eye knobs are still collected illegally by the Cannibal Pantries of the Off-True Archipelago and used in their hideous cork gumbos." The story ends with a beautiful, funny, sad creation myth, a nice capstone after so much wit.
I hesitated about whether to keep "Tales from the City of Seams", because on a first reading the various little stories it includes didn't seem to add up to anything. On reflection, though, I realized I didn't care. Let mathematicians do sums; I'm content with pieces of unarithematized words. Each piece captured my imagination, and in the end the universe coalesces in a restroom. It is unseemly to ask more from a story!
"The Wings of Meister Wilhelm" is one of the most traditional stories in the book, a story that would even be appropriate for children, but it is captivating and feels fresh because it is all told so well. The young narrator, unhappy at home, takes lessons from a nomadic German violinist who happens to believe in a flying city and wants to build a glider to fly there. It is the kind of story that a book like Polyphony 4 exists to publish -- a story that doesn't fit easily into any marketing category (is it a fantasy? historical fiction? young adult?), but which is written with skill and sensitivity and will delight most readers.
"Three Days in a Border Town" is the masterpiece of the anthology, and the editors have quite rightly placed it last -- it must be saved for last, because it makes just about everything else in the book seem pedestrian. It is dense, thick, rich with imagery and, by the end, emotion (though it is not at all sentimental). The prose is sharp and rhythmic, and it makes the second-person narration (which in most writers' hands is cloying) feel natural and intimate. It has some of the elements of an adventure story, but it's an adventure story as filtered through the sensibility of Samuel Beckett, a post-adventure story, a story of the dry, nasty purgatory between adventures. We're thrown into the hangover of lost love, the numbing pain of remembered mysteries. Fantasy and reality confuse each other, history and storytelling don't solve anything, and in the end all you can do is keep walking, and that is enough.
Other readers might prefer other stories to the ones I have chosen -- plenty of readers will be entertained by Lucius Shepard's "The Blackpool Ascensions", for instance, which I thought was a mess -- and so the book's size and variety might be justified. The anthology I assembled above from the raw materials of Polyphony 4 (call it Polyphony 4.1) would only contain about 160 pages of fiction. For me, the other pages were a distraction, because I'm a slow reader and prefer to read a book that has been scrupulously, even ruthlessly, edited.
Kelly Link proved with her anthology Trampoline that it is possible to assemble a rich and consistently interesting collection of stories that defy labels. Polyphony 4 proves just how difficult that task can be.
By Daniel Green
Polyphony 4 makes it clear enough that a spirit of experimentation exists among those writers who have chosen to work within the uber-genre of science fiction/fantasy, much more so, if this anthology is at all representative, than among those who still aspire to the putative respectability of "literary fiction." The latter category encompasses a small subset of writers who are in effect granted a license to call themselves "experimental," but the degree to which these writers are truly willing to reconsider the ultimate purposes and unexamined proprieties of fiction is really quite limited. And while occasionally this or that ostensibly unconventional approach manages to create a modest stir or even for a time to catch on as the latest in literary fashion, my impression after monitoring the wandering course innovative fiction has followed over the past twenty years or so is that only a few experimental writers are able or willing to stick to that course very firmly in the face of both complete commerical irrelevance and a general lack of informed critical attention.
SF/Fantasy of all the genres presumably offers through its fundamental enabling conventions the most explicit alternative to mainstream literary fiction, which, even at its most experimental, mostly aims, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, to capture present circumstances, things as they are, or at least as they can be seen to represent abiding concerns in human existence more generally. Science fiction deliberately foregoes a direct engagement with the world literary fiction confronts more squarely, preferring instead imaginative extrapolations from existing conditions in that world; fantastic fiction ignores the restraints of realism in coming to terms with that world altogether. But the stories in Polyphony 4 don't just exemplify the alternative strategies embodied in their genres. They manifest an obvious effort to question inherited assumptions about storytelling, the basic principles of fiction-making.
And yet my most immediate response to this anthology was disappointment, even boredom. While the ambitions motivating most of these stories are entirely admirable, the realization of these worthy ambitions is not often equal to the potential for "making it new" the anthology itself represents. Too frequently the stories seem to settle for, at worst, an indulgence in superficial whimsy, at best, a cultivation of the bizarre in situation and event that, at least as I read them, can't bear the weight they're asked to bear when left to provide the primary source of dramatic interest. Somtimes, the piling-up of bizarre details and frankly silly conceits simply substitutes for any further attempt to additionally develop the work into something more aesthetically compelling, as in "Ataxia, the Wooden Continent":
ATAXIA: A floating continent, entirely composed of wood. Populated by various races of arboids, celluloids, and laminates. Ruled by the priest cult of the Great Lectern at Shellac-Veneer. This magnifcent city surrounds the sacred lectern's base. The cupolas and minarets of Shellac-Veneer rise from the Plain of Lath, Ataxia's central plateau. The Lectern's high priest administers the Holy Ataxic Empire from the Shrine of the Thrones of Nails. Defended by armies of Drillers under the command of the Walking Barn Roof. . .Major Cities: Shellac-Veneer, Cambium, Silo, and Wharftown. Main rivers: The Timber, the Pellet, and the Tanbark. Chief imports: screws, bolts, and brackets. Chief exports: Shovelers and toothpick hay.
Moreover, the editors have not made it easier to appreciate the worthwhile stories that are included in Polyphony 4 by arranging it so that the most tiresomely whimsical and/or hackneyed stories are the ones at the front of the book (the very best story, in fact, is literally saved until last), thus only increasing the possibility that a casual or curious reader will give up on the anthology and conclude that sf/fantasy may not reward further sampling. By my count, the first really good story doesn't come along until page 169 ("The Storyteller's Story"), althought at least four of the following eight stories ("Memree," "Baby Love," "Hart and Boot," and "Bagging the Peak") are also quite good. Of the remaining 100 pages, readers might disagree about the quality of such stories as "The Journal of Philip Schuyler," and "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm" (historical fantasies of a sort), while "Tales from the City of Seams, and "Three Days in a Border Town" are two of the best stories to be found in Polyphony 4, almost (not quite) redeeming the tedium one must unfortunately endure through the largest part of this anthology.
Perhaps the most significant contributing factor to the general lassitude Polyphony 4 induces is that, with exceptions, the writing itself in most of these stories is really quite lackluster, not at all commensurate with the colorful concepts from which the stories seem to emerge. The very first paragraph of the very first story sets the tone for the mostly flat and stale style of writing one encounters in too many of the stories:
Emelia's home is in a city where only children are allowed to draw graffiti on the crumbling walls. The old bricks and stones are covered in crude pictographs and stick figures, smoking chimney houses and bicycles with four wheels and two seats. Chalk is a penny a piece, any color to be had. A little old lady with gnarled fingers and crooked eyes sells the sticks out of cigar boxes on street corners, even in the rain.
The open-eyed wonderment conveyed by this passage cannot, for me, mitigate the otherwise bland prose and the cloying and cliched effect it produces. Overall, the most lasting impression the writing in many of these stories left with me is the sense that all too often their authors were so enamored of the "idea" being pursued they couldn't really bother with composing satisfying prose to go along with it. In the most extreme cases, I could only conclude that the sensibilty informing the stories was finally more cinematic than literary, more concerned with narrative immediacy than with the opportunity to do something interesting with words, at least where style is concerned.
Nevertheless, if I were to point interested readers to stories in Polyphony 4 that would reward the effort to locate a copy of the anthology, regardless of one's interest in genre, there would be two: Michael Bishop's "Baby Love" and Jeff VanderMeer's "Three Days in a Border Town." I would be hard put to classify the former story as science fiction or fantasy at all: It tells in a more or less straightforwardly realistic but effectively understated way the story of a man who loses his wife in an auto accident and must care for his infant daughter by himself. It is an engaging story that concludes in a quiet but really very emotionally crushing way. "Three Days in a Border Town" is to some extent a fairly familiar tale of the postapocalypse, but its central conceit is executed very effectively (it is thematically integrated in a manner that succeeds in purely literary terms and is not merely clever or fanciful) and the writing is evocative and assured: "When you come out of the desert into the border town, you feel like a wisp of smoke rising into the cloudless sky. You're two eyes and a dry tongue. But you can't burn up; you've already passed through flame on your way to ash. Even the sweat between your breasts is ethereal, otherwordly. Not all the blue in the sky could moisten you." If VanderMeer's story is a good example of what current sf/fantasy is capable of achieving, I would definitely like to read more.