February 22nd, 2005

It’s that time again, time to go over yet another short story anthology. I was pretty excited about this one, but ended up having to really struggle to get through McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon. I think it took me the better part of two weeks to read, and it only has 15 stories. Some stories were so long, and the buildup painfully slow, that I lost interest in the middle of them. If I can put the thing down for two days in the middle of your story, somehow it fails. If I’m not drawn back to it, and I’m not curious to see how it ends or what happened to your people and finishing your story starts to take on the sense of a chore, something’s not right about it. I wouldn’t deem any of the stories in it terrible, but some of them felt clunky and awkward and others dealt with subjects I’m just not interested in at all.

The contents listing is below, where I’ll discuss each one briefly.

  1. Margaret Atwood – Lusus Naturae : This was a disappointing way to start off the volume. I loved Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and would once have considered her among my favorite authors, but increasingly I have found her writing to be thin and wandering. This story should have been pretty strong, told in first person by an outcast, but it read like a summary of a story rather than the story itself. It also unsuccessfully tried to break the traditional short story unity (time, place, location) by spanning a lifetime in about six pages. It is probably the weakest story in the volume and it struggles with what it’s about. Needs more focus. I think had Atwood’s name not been attached to it, it would have been rejected. Then again, it’s possible I know nothing about how publishing works, and someone out there thought this was great stuff.
  2. David Mitchell – What You Do Not Know You Want: This was an intriguing piece of work. I think it must have been well-executed. I felt an inner struggle while reading it because I wanted not to like the story because I didn’t like the voice of the narrator. I’m fairly sure that voicing the tale in the words of a despicable character was intentional on the author’s part and I think it was compellingly executed. The story itself is strange, though, and you’re never sure what’s magic and what’s just broken in this guy’s brain. I suspect it draws on mythologies I’m unfamiliar with and that some of the characters would have more meaning for me if I knew more about what they were supposed to represent. I didn’t love this piece, but I can tell it’s good anyways.
  3. Jonathan Lethem – Vivian Relf : This story was well-written, but it did nothing for me. I thought it would grip me actually, since it dealt with deja vu, but it kind of uses that as a starting place and then immediately proceeds to depart from that to nowhere I’m interested in and ends up being a tale about relationships and moves from party to airport to dinner party to places where people are anonymized and I think I get what is being said but zzzzzzzzzz….
  4. Ayelet Waldman – Minnow: I was predisposed against this story, because of disparaging remarks made by Poppy Z. Brite in her journal a few months back, but I actually quite liked it. [SPOILER] Yes, the breast milk sex kind of squicked me, but I thought it fit and it worked in the context of the story.
  5. Steve Erickson – Zeroville: Blah blah blah, lots of references to movies I’ve never seen, talk about filming techniques yadda yadda, interesting premise and you really had me there for a minute with the talk about the left-hand side and the right-hand side, but really, a story about films? I could sort of sense the tension building but since even the resolution requires having analyzed movies I haven’t even heard of to be understood, this one was one of those stories clearly not directed at me. I give it a resounding shrug.
  6. Stephen King – Lisey and the Madman: Hmmmmm. What to say about this one? I liked it, I really did. It was quite an intense character study. It was well-paced (as to be expected, that’s King’s greatest gift, in my opinion). And yet. The writing was sloppy in places. I was surprised. Maybe he just tossed it off quick-like and didn’t cut the pieces that needed cutting. It also went on just a tad too long. There was a point to that, the slow time and the dragging and how everything was captured by Lisey’s eyes, every detail. But, it needn’t have been quite so long to have made its point, I think.
  7. Jason Roberts – 7C: Wow. This was the standout story of this volume. I’ve never heard of Jason Roberts. The blurb says this is “his first published fiction” but I don’t know exactly what that means. Is he a science writer that has just turned his hand to fiction? Is this the first thing he’s written? I don’t know. It’s a great, great story, though. Grips you, creeps you out, and leaves your mind whirling when the implications of what’s happening set in.
  8. Heidi Julavits – The Miniaturist: This story was well served by having been preceded by Jason Robert’s. It’s the same tone, and while not as ambitious, is carefully structured and well-told. A solid, enjoyable read. At about this time, I started again looking forward to the stories in this book.
  9. Roddy Doyle – The Child : Which is a shame because this story was mightily ehhhhh.
  10. Daniel Handler – Delmonico: But then there was this charming little piece, which I really enjoyed, despite its being steeped in worn archetypes. The setting and the people were great.
  11. Charles D’Ambrosio – The Scheme of Things: Only it was followed by this one, which is the one (there’s always one) from this anthology that I completely forgot and needed to look back into the book to remember anything about. It wasn’t terrible and I liked it while I read it but it didn’t stick.
  12. Poppy Z. Brite – The Devil of Delery Street: This story, like King’s, was a type of character study. I quite enjoyed it. I like reading about New Orleans, though, so its appeal may not be universal.
  13. China Mieville – Reports of Certain Events in London. Ok, this Mieville guy is just the bomb. How come no one is recommending his books to me? I’ve got to get Scar or Perdido Street Station and soon. This was the story in the work that made me sit up and go, “Ooooooh, I wish I’d written that.” Everything about it was artfully done. China is like one of those close up magicians who makes you think if you went home and practiced a couple of times with a deck of cards you could probably do this same thing and wouldn’t that just rock? I’m sure it’s harder than it looks, though, since the story I’ve read recently that works in the same way as this one with bits of found and described media as the focus of the narration had some holes and fell rather short of this. [That was “The Prospect Cards” by Don Tumasonis from The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14, which I reviewed here.]
  14. Joyce Carol Oates – The Fabled Light-house at Vinya del Mar: JCO is almost always, for me, a delight to read and this one was no exception. I love the way she gives respectful nods to all the authors that came before her. This was a creepy story, told in a fairly standard (for horror, anyways) journal style.
  15. Peter Straub – Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle: I enjoyed this story a great deal, but I suspect it has more meaning for published authors. The characters are, after all, a plagiarist, a publisher, a famous author and a reviewer. Yes, there’s plenty of jokes told about all types in it. It was a great ending note for the volume, horror with enough humor mixed in to keep you from having nightmares. I admit that I’ve never known what people see in Straub, but this story has gone at least a small ways to helping me see his gift.

One of the best things about this volume was the artwork before each story done by Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame. All of the art was really good, and in some cases led me to eagerly anticipate stories that later turned out to be duds, but that’s hardly his fault, is it?

Overall this is a volume I do not regret reading, but am very glad I did not purchase. There are not enough stories here that I would be willing to re-read to make it worth the price, nor is there anything in it that I would classify as essential reading, so that I might want to own it for loaning purposes.

iTunes says I was listening to It Makes Me Wonder from the album Songs In Red And Gray by Suzanne Vega when I posted this. I have it rated 4 stars.

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