DECEMBER 22, 2015
SHORT FICTION tends to fall into two groups — two territories, as it were. One is what we could call Mansfield Park: a beautifully landscaped tract laid out by Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, and their successors. The other side is Bradburyland: a theme park filled with wild rides designed by Ray Bradbury, C. L. Moore, H. P. Lovecraft, and Shirley Jackson, among other pioneers. The former delivers close observation of ordinary life, couched in beautifully wrought sentences leading toward small moments of insight and ironic suspension. We go to the latter for spectacle and narrative momentum: thrills and spills and closure. What we forget is that the division is a relatively recent invention — it certainly didn’t exist for Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allan Poe — and that, despite its being institutionalized in the form of creative writing programs and literary magazines, on the one hand, and genre magazines and paperbacks, on the other, the gap is once again closing. For evidence, one only needs to read books like Helen Marshall’s new collection Gifts for the One Who Comes After.
Marshall writes about families and jobs, compromises and resentments, births and deaths, and just getting by. Her prose is spare and precise, especially when talking about the way the irrational intervenes in lives: “magic is about waiting, it’s about letting the bad things happen. It’s about letting the children pass on into adults, and the mothers grieve, and the fathers lose their way, or find it, and the sons come home again when they are ready to come home” (“Secondhand Magic”). This quotation could serve as a summary of the book’s 17 stories, all of which involve magic that is disruptive and devastating and, at the same time, somehow ordinary. Yet there is a lot of variety in the collection; settings range from Canadian woods to Greek seas, narrators can be naive or knowing, and outcomes are tragic, darkly comic, or just plain weird. At their best, they move freely between Mansfield Park and Bradburyland, finding that hidden area where the two overlap.
It is impractical to review all of the stories here, so I will pick a few favorites and some that did not work for me. I was completely convinced and deeply disturbed by the first story in the collection, “The Hanging Game.” In it, many themes are woven together: adolescent experimentation with the supernatural and with making oneself swoon; the macho culture of loggers; the revenge of an abused natural world; and the biblical notion that the sins of the father are visited upon the son (or, in this case, the daughter). These themes are brought together by strict rules; in order to play the hanging game of the title, the “high-rigging rope” has to be stolen from the lumber camp, and “it couldn’t be a dare or a bluff or a tease, or else it wouldn’t work.” If the rules are followed, visions come, but, as in myth, knowing one’s future doesn’t mean it can be averted.
The story “All My Love, a Fishhook” concerns fathers and sons, rather than daughters, and the working context is a fishing boat. Here, we have a bargain made by an older generation and visited upon a younger. The narrator is aware of his lack of choice: “Perhaps it is something hooked inside all the men of our line — the way my babbas would jam a fishhook in a piece of wood for luck and quick healing if he cut himself on it.” That fishhook represents another kind of hook embedded in father, son, and, eventually, the son’s own son: a bargain struck with some sort of marine god, present in the story as a small statue and also as the capricious and implacable sea. We are never told what god it is or what its powers are; Marshall typically shows us the thing itself and lets implications develop from imagery (blood, storms, ropes, scars) and from character interaction: the rivalry, resentment, checked violence, and unstated love that bind fathers to sons and sons to fathers.
In both of these stories — as in the best of Marshall’s work — quiet epiphanies are fully integrated with the irruptions of magic, and the outcome is as inevitable as fate. One major difference between Bradburyland and Mansfield Park is the sense of closure in the former. We know when a ride is over, while a picnic in a meadow just winds down or segues into some other moment. Oddly enough, one of Marshall’s most Bradbury-like conceits leads to one of her least satisfying endings. “Supply Limited, Act Now” sounds like a Bradbury title, and the premise is roughly the same as that in Bradbury’s “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!”: by answering a mail-order ad in a comic book, a teenager invites strangeness into an ordinary small town. While Bradbury sticks to genre rules, however, concluding his tale with an alien invasion and paying off the improbability with an ingenious solution, Marshall opts for inconclusiveness. Her protagonist Larry orders a miniature dog, but it never arrives. The shrink ray ordered by his friends, though, does show up, and — despite its cheap plastic appearance — it actually works. I really liked the setup for this tale. The relationships between the boys are authentic, as are their mixed feelings for the now-desirable (and hence unapproachable) girl who used to be just one of the gang. Larry’s adolescent angst is compounded by worry for his older brother serving in Korea, which is an effective use of period detail, and the first time the boys use the shrink ray on Larry is funny and unnerving. But instead of working out an ending for the story, Marshall has the gang shrink more and more of their environment, including the town itself, before wandering off. She even signals the lack of closure by compounding “maybes”: seven of them in the final paragraphs. The story is clearly a commentary on Bradburyland, but I don’t know what it is saying. Is a string of maybes more truthful than a real ending? Are we too sophisticated for resolutions?
Another story that uses inconclusiveness to suggest metafictional commentary is “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects.” This is what I think of as a “Creepy Doll” story (Jonathan Coulton’s song with that title sums up the conventions very well). What starts as a story of an older child (the story’s narrator) resenting the imminent birth of younger siblings turns out to be something very different as we begin to surmise that the older child is not human at all. Early on she says, “My real name is Angela Chloe Jackson, but I like that other name for me better even though it isn’t real.” The other name, Angela Clothespin Jacket, might in fact be a clue to her nature. Later in the story, her father tells her that “we made you a very long time ago. Out of peanuts and honey. And now we want a real baby, a baby with worlds and worlds inside it, not just a clothespin jacket.” But Angela isn’t having it. She finds the door to her mother’s uterus (a bellybutton, of course) and inverts inside and outside, womb and world. Taking only her friend Campbell — a can of tomato soup — she goes away, saying, “This has been a real object lesson.” I really don’t know what to make of this mix of Bradbury (think of his story “The Small Assassin”) along with elements of Kafka and Andy Warhol. I’m generally willing to go along if I think the story is leading me somewhere significant, but this one is more like Mansfield’s “Bliss”: by the time the reader is ready for a moment of insight — a declaration of meaning — that moment has already slipped away. (It may or may not be a coincidence that one of Mansfield’s characters exclaims over a poem that begins, “‘Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup?’”)
My bias toward Bradburyland and its well-engineered endings is probably evident by now, but I admire the sheer daring of Marshall’s more inconclusive stories. Diving back into the middle of “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” reminds me of how well Marshall keeps up the indeterminacy of her narrator’s identity, and how effectively that equipoise represents the mixed emotions of even the smallest child. I suspect that some readers will like those stories best. They are certainly worth trying out. This a fine collection and a good example of the contemporary reunion of literary ambition and fantastic storytelling represented by many of the writers the author mentions in her acknowledgments, including Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, and Connie Willis. A bonus in the volume is the set of drawings by Chris Roberts that accompany each story.