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April 2004
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by James Sallis

A Place So Foreign and 8 More, by Cory Doctorow, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, $13.95.

In for a Penny, by James P. Blaylock, Subterranean Press, 2003, $40.

YOU ARE what you eat.

Okay. Some think that's the most important thing, life's guiding principle. But you're also what you don't eat.

Ours is a junk culture. We quote catch phrases from ads and hit TV shows, not Montaigne or Latin proverbs. And however given we personally may be to thoughts of Joyce's nighttown sequence or an appreciation of Thomas Bernhard, nonetheless we grew up inundated by the likes of Mickey Mouse and Mickey Spillane, George Reeves's Superman, Terminator films, Friends—magnificent trash.

So as artists we have three choices.

Like Sixties pop painters, we can accept all this as a species of new vocabulary and embrace it in toto, uncritically, filling our work with the images—the substance and detritus—crowding about us.

We can, like many literary-quarterly writers, simply ignore it and set to work with the anticipation of rising into and existing in some higher, purer air.

Or we can choose the difficult task of trying to graft higher intentions onto that magnificent trash, the messy, confusing spore of our day.

I've long suspected that genre fiction has a unique hold on its time. For many of us, the Forties are Raymond Chandler, noir films, and Casablanca. And a book like Fahrenheit 451, a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, tells us more about the cold war, about conformism, fear, and repression, than any dozen sociological studies. Yet, while rooted securely in its time of origin, genre fiction—the mystery or crime novel, fantasy and science fiction, the Western—quite naturally sails (to misquote Van Morrison) into the mythic. Elements of the epic, of the Manichaen, are built into the very structure of the thing, bodies beneath the concrete.

What we're doing is twisting the world into new shapes, Rick DeMarinis says, and if we twist the world long enough and hard enough, guided by intuition, life has no choice but to surrender its truths.

One suspects that for Cory Doctorow many of those truths have to do with magnificent trash, with the signposts, landmarks, and psychic Dumpsters of our time. The first story appearing in his collection, "Craphound," is a demotic hymn to junk culture, catching just right, in its buddy tale of homeboy scavenger and alien collector, the mix of casual affection, greed, and bafflement our throwaways, the myriad ephemera of our past, can engender. In "To Market, to Market: The Rebranding of Billy Bailey," a story tracking the classic sf trope If this goes on, schoolchildren undergo the sort of corporate sponsorship that's now afforded sports figures and that litters our landscape with clever TV spots, fetching magazine ads, and a succession of inescapable logos resembling nothing so much as the diagram outlines of fighter planes passed out to WW2 civilian watchers.

Many of Doctorow's stories are about people pretending—even while not wishing—to be something they aren't. The young man in "A Place So Foreign" must keep secret his life as son of an ambassador to the future and all he has learned there. The golemic creatures of "Return to Pleasure Island" live among us as menials. Billy Bailey turns in an instant, exigently, from brand-name heel to media-vetted dissenter.

"Truth be told, sponsorship was lean in the sixth grade. They were nearly ready for Nintendo Middle School, where they'd be lowly seventh-graders.… The sixth-grade crop of heels was mostly doomed. Billy had gotten out while the getting was good."
Three of Doctorow's stories, set in a universe in which aliens have taken over Earth's higher affairs, deal with extravagant outsiders trying to fit in—among family and peers, into the crawlspaces and hollows of their own society, into the galactic community hovering like an oasis in their air of lost connections. One of these envisions how Superman might make out in a world in which his historic mission has been usurped by aliens and he now subsists on a government pension.
"It had been his idea, and he'd tossed it around with the movement people who'd planned the demo: They'd gone to an army-surplus store and purchased hundreds of decommissioned rifles, their bores filled with lead, their firing pins defanged. He'd flown above and ahead of the demonstration, in his traditional tights and cape, dragging a cargo net full of rifles from his belt. He pulled them out one at a time, and bent them into balloon-animals—fanciful giraffes, wiener-dogs, bumble-bees, poodles—and passed them out to the crowds lining Yonge Street. It had been a boffo smash hit. And it made great TV."
The nine stories of A Place So Foreign date in original publication from 1998 to 2002. It's a tough choice, but my personal favorite has to be "Return to Pleasure Island," conceived, Doctorow tells us in one of the illuminations that preface each story, during a trip through the Pinocchio ride in Disneyland's Fantasyland. Here he speaks of "that interstitial moment, the hot second when the world slides from fantasy to reality" and ponders what it would be like not to give it up, to live forever "in that interstitial zone…constantly traversing the equator girding the real and fantastic hemispheres?"

This is a story whose strangeness matches anything mapped out by Sturgeon, Farmer, Lafferty, or Bisson. The lead character, a golem, spins cotton candy and watches children turn into donkeys. His kind procreate by biting off their thumbs. Right-thumb offspring and left-thumb offspring are quite different, of course. And then there are tongue offspring.…

We can read this story, like most in A Place So Foreign, again and again. However many times we read it, however adamantly we bring what critical apparatus we possess to bear upon it, it will never give up its secrets, never surrender wholly its wonder, its magic.

If ever there was a definition of literature, I submit, that's it.

*     *     *

Trash, as it happens, is also at the heart of several stories in James Blaylock's excellent collection In for a Penny, perhaps most notably in "The War of the Worlds," where an entire life, an entire relationship, and by extension an entire culture, in their apparent last moments become the things their foot soldiers choose to carry.

"He studied a couple of the faded old record jackets, overcome by a wave of nostalgia. They were too much a part of his past, and without his past he was nothing, only a cardboard cutout living in the tiresome moment…these objects, cast away into the dark limbo of closets and garages, were him, in some essential way. One was defined by the stuff of one's life."
"In for a Penny" tells the story of a man who, coming upon a garage sale much like one in Doctorow's "Craphound," impulsively purchases a coin purse with the penny he finds inside it. This stroke of luck affords him a sense of entitlement; soon he is rooting about in trash heaps and Dumpsters for further treasure, glancing back fitfully at the ordinary life he's left behind.

It would be difficult to overlook that several of the stories collected here are death-ridden. In "Home Before Dark" a man must deal with his first hours in the afterlife. "His Own Back Yard" tells of another who becomes a kind of living ghost in the realm of his own childhood. In "The Trismegistus Club," forthrightly a ghost story, bibliomanic dead hover about the crowded London bookstore in which their collections are now interred.

"Small Houses" is the wonderful tale of a man facing his last hours. Since his wife's death, Johnson has moved out of the big house to inhabit the treehouse he built years ago. A fish for which he cares lovingly is his only banner of life. Like Queequeg, he has built his own coffin—an even smaller house—outfitting it with exquisitely carpentered, ultimately removable compartments so that it may be used in the interim as a toolbox.

"He had driven into Los Angeles, to a big lumberyard that sold hardwoods, where he had picked out quarter-sawn oak planks without any checking or splitting. They had cost him plenty, in time and money both. He had hand rubbed tung oil into the wood to finish it.…"
This story's end marvelously represents Blaylock's evocative writing in all its physicality, leverage, and resonance—as well as the elegiac mood that may be the most striking common denominator here.
"But now he was free to go, out at last into the waning sunlight. His breath came in shallow gasps as he tottered across the yard and sat down hard in the open air among the fallen fig leaves, the evening clouds and the first stars turning far far above him in the sky, and the wind rustling the foliage around his small house, hidden now within that leafy darkness. The glow of the fish bowl shone as ever through the shifting foliage, casting its dim light out into the night."
Elegiac, since each story here embraces loss. Loss of past, loss of youth; fissures long open between what was, what one imagined or foresaw, and what is; broken connections between fathers and sons or husbands and wives; loss of the world itself.

In for a Penny collects seven stories, most of them originally published at, one ("The Trismegistus Club") appearing here for the first time. None are repeats from the author's prior collection 13 Phantasms (2000). Hardcore readers might object that some of Blaylock's stories, even those that like "The War of the Worlds" blatantly employ fantastic tropes, are not science fiction or fantasy at all, but mainstream stories traveling incognito.

Sometimes we can forget that all fiction is fantasy: systems of metaphors, lies and sidelong glances meant to help us escape and embrace, to define and understand, our experience. At its best—and again, I submit, there is no better definition of literature—fiction breaks through the crust of dailiness. It lifts us out of the "tiresome moment," into the interstices between what seems and what is, "the hot second when the world slides from fantasy to reality."

Fine writers like Doctorow and Blaylock understand that those interstices are where we live—the only air we can breathe.

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