Ghosts Living, Dead, and In Between
Last month a shelf of books in Borders suggested to me The Best American Short Stories 2005, edited by Michael Chabon. I picked it up, curious to see if I would recognize any authors, and was pleasantly surprised to see the list included SFís own Tim Pratt, Cory Doctorow, and Kelly Link. I think Chabon should get kudos for going out of his way to include genre pieces in his reading set, as is made clear not only by their inclusion, but also by comments in the introductions by him and series editor Katrina Kenison. I bought the book and, I will admit, first read the pieces by Pratt and Doctorow, but then I started back at the beginning, curious about what other stories might be in a collection such as this.
I do not often read mainstream fiction, and I swiftly remembered why. The first few stories seemed dreary, peopled by characters with no particular direction to their lives, and I was put to mind of why I let my subscription to The New Yorker run out. As I continued to read, I was impressed by how many of the stories felt like ghost stories. They were peopled with characters who had become ghosts of their former selves, or were haunted by ghosts from the past. And Iím not talking figuratively (for the most part). Iím talking dead people.
In "Until Gwen" for instance, Dennis Lehane tells a gritty short tale of a man fresh out of prison for stealing a diamond that his father is still convinced he has hidden somewhere. As his father forces him to look for it, they exhume the body of his girlfriend (and their father-son conflict is resolved violently, with a shovel), and the protagonist is face to face with all the possibilities he failed to preserve.
You look at the blackened, shriveled thing lying below your father, and you see her face with the wind coming through the car and her hair in her teeth and her eyes seeing you and taking you into her like food, like blood, like what she needed to breath, and you say "I wish..." and sit there for a long time with the sun beginning to warm the ground and warm your back and the breeze returning to make those tarps flutter again, desperate and soft.
"I wish I'd taken your picture," you say finally. "Just once."
Out of the 20 stories in the collection, there were just two that I'd read before, both from Harpers magazine; both emotionally complex stories of immigration; of survival, of connection, and of loss. The first, "Natasha", by David Bezmozgis, tells the story of a suburban teenage boy whose father sends away for a Russian wife. She comes with a daughter, Natasha, who becomes his responsibility and then his intimate companion in a drug and sex-filled subterranean summer, though she is still largely a mystery to him. When things finally fall apart between his uncle and Natashaís mom, Natasha runs away to his dealer and our 16-year-old protagonist finally gets some perspective on his life and his stoner friends. He performs "a form of civilized murder" and considers them dead to him, and moves on.
The other Harpers story, "The Cousins", by Joyce Carol Oats, is in the format of a series of letters, some unanswered, between a holocaust survivor who has published her "unflinching" autobiography and a reader who thinks they might be cousins. The author, Freyda, slowly unbends to consider the possibility of a real relationship to her "lost" cousin Rebecca, only to be reminded once again that circumstances can prevent people from uniting. A sad but very interesting portrayal of emotional transition and personal expression.
Another transitional story that is both lovely and sad is "The Scheme of Things" by Charles DíAmbrosio. Here is an honest ghost story. Kirsten and Lance are traveling across the country posing as fundraisers for a program that helps the babies of drug addicts. Kirsten is Sensitive and Lance counts on what she sees to guide them. What she sees when they come into small town Iowa on Halloween is the ghost of a little girl who was killed in a field by a combine. Itís hard to describe the sensitivity with which DíAmbrosio depicts Kirstenís growing understanding of the situation, and her relationship with the child's mother, who she comes to realize is the woman who, with her husband, has taken them in and fixed their car so that they can keep going. There are things that they take from these people, and things that they give them, and all is not quite what you would expect. Probably my favorite story in the book.
In one of the most serious stories in an already heavy collection, Tom Bissell applies some of his own journalistic experience to write "Death Defier" about a couple of journalists and a hired helper trying to make their way to safety in Afghanistan, struggling with repeated disasters, including having their hired vehicle break down, running out of medicine and water to tend to the Malaria one of them suffers from, and being taken in by a friendly but unhelpful warlord and his men. It is and interesting, frustrating, and at times almost poetic story. And there's a donkey. (No, the donkey doesnít make it, I'm afraid. This is hazardous territory even for the relatively inoffensive folks who are just trying to do their jobs. Even donkeys.)
And speaking of war, the one hard SF story in this collection is "Andaís Game" by Cory Doctorow (originally carried on Salon.com). When Anda is twelve, she meets Liza the Organiza of the elite cross-game group Clan Fahrenheit, who explains to the girls at Ada Lovelace Comprehensive how many girls take male avatars in online games and sheís going around the world encouraging girls to reclaim the space as one where they can walk (and make mayhem) freely without having to switch genders to do so.
She stomped her boots, one-two, thump-thump, like thunder on the stage. "Whoís in, chickens? Who wants to be a girl out-game and in?"
This story has by far the biggest death-toll of the book, though those deaths are all in virtual environments. The main thrust of the story, though, is that even activities in the virtual world have impacts on the real one, and not always ones we expect. If you're going to kick ass, kick the right ass, chickens. And speaking of ass, well, make sure yours doesnít spread too much while spending too many hours online. A fun romp with a couple of simple morals.
So, Iíve covered some of the living ghosts, and some of the dead ones. What about the "in between"? Well, Tim Pratt never really defines the status of one of the namesake characters in "Hart and Boot". John Boot climbs out of the ground one day in front of Pearl Hart, who has come to the Wild West to make her mark and her fortune as an outlaw and been so far disappointed with the results. Once she finishes swearing at him, Pearl takes up with Boot, and his ability to fade to insubstantiality and pass through walls comes in handy later in breaking them out of jail, just as his physical strength was handy in committing the crimes that landed them in there. When they finally land in a prison that Boot canít break Pearl out of, she and he both wind up wondering why heís there and what she really needs and wants from him. Love those fantasy westerns, especially when written as well as all this.
The other character of uncertain status is the title character of "The Secret Goldfish", by David Means, who is twice over presumed dead in the bottom of a very murky fish tank, the result of neglect that reflects the ups and downs of a family experiencing disruption and change. Means may be trying to create an allegory about how tough it is to truly destroy the soul of a family, or how easily and shallowly it can be revived, Iím not sure. In my experience, goldfish just really arenít that tough. Oh, and nobody carries a full fish tank of any size from one room to another either. I think maybe I'm missing the big picture because, as a fish owner, I'm getting lost in the details.
Death is not the only recurring theme in the book. There were also two stories about boys learning to play the piano, though of course they were really stories about change and about growing and about uncertainty and trust. Those themes are also touched on in Kelly Linkís "Stone Animals", a story about a family who moves to a new house only to find it haunted by rabbits, a haunting that seems to be catching and to eventually involve many things, including the bathroom soap, his office, the cat, and even their little boy. It seems to be a story about the difference between passing through, and living in, the landscape of your life. About seeing whatís around you, and taking possession of your role in things.
Best American Short Stories is a series designed to encourage both the reading and the writing of short stories by Americans and for American publications, and so it lists the editorial offices of publications that are surveyed every year for the collection. It is a diverse and encouraging list of publications, and as Chabon demonstrated, does not encompass all that the country offers. Iím glad I read the book, and I would recommend it to others who are interested in contemplating human existence at a bit of a slower, more difficult pace than our genre usually offers. For all that many of the stories feel dreary, many have a kind of optimism in them. As Joy Williams put it in "The Girls",
he had put the old dead behind him and was moving on to the requirements of the quickening new.
Something we all have to do from time to time.