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Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing | Book Review

October 23

What makes certain writings “interstitial” is largely a matter of expectations, say Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, editors of Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. How, then, to set expectations for the anthology itself? For reader expectations may either highlight or camouflage that this is a good if somewhat homogeneous assemblage of literate, fantastic short stories.

Insofar as the stories of the anthology suggest a platform to base expectations around, we might start by specifying that interstitial fiction is not itself a genre or movement in the conventional sense: it has few inherent characteristics or identifiers. Ignore the back cover braggadocio that interstitial writing is “a new type of fiction”; it has been with us, contradict the editors, since at least Shakespeare. Ignore also the frequent refrain that interstitial writing “crosses borders,” as further comments and evidence suggest that this is neither intrinsic nor exclusive to interstitial writing. Concentrate instead on the back cover’s suggestion that interstitial writing “falls in the interstices of recognized commercial genres” — and bear in mind Heinz Insu Fenkl’s comments from his Introduction to the anthology, that “an interstice is not an intersection. […] Literally it means to ‘stand between’ or ‘stand in the middle.'” Not stand between separate genres, necessarily (a semantic issue that plagues many attempted explanations of interstitiality), but as the cover blurb hints, between the commercial aspect of a genre and its wider potential.

Interstitial fiction, then — to suggest a definition that I think flows from the stories and best sets expectations for them — is a label for fiction in the space between the broadest theoretical basis of a genre or movement and the more narrow marketing category of what is easily sellable in that genre. Envision what we know, or think we know, about the world as a core; envision genres as mechanisms to sample this core, that group and emphasize, add and subtract to bring different aspects of our experience of the world into focus. Fantasy in the broadest sense, for example, can encompass any story that contradicts what we know, or think we know, about possibility in our world. Publishing being a business, publishers tend to favor those combinations of impossibilities that are proven sellers: imaginary worlds; magic; monsters. It is commercially difficult to find a publisher for a story set in our world where something impossible happens that is not in any way magical, or a story where magic exists but never directly does anything, or a story set in a place that may or may not be imaginary. These are some of the interstitial spaces of fantasy. (Genre hybrids — Star Wars is a classic example — may cross genre borders, but most are not interstitial because their genre elements are solidly in the commercial areas of their component genres, not these interstitial spaces.) Sometimes, however, a fiction in an interstitial space will become successful; sometimes such a story will even spawn a movement, a subgenre. At that point both story and space cease being interstitial. Borges’s early work was interstitial until the success of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the late 1960s brought “magical realism” into a full-blown marketing category in English-speaking markets — at which point Borges was retroactively reclassified. Delany’s Dhalgren was interstitial before Sterling coined the term “slipstream.” Interstitiality is thus potentially a transitory label, although not necessarily: works such as Peake’s Gormenghast remain unique, interstitial. These stories fulfill something of the remit of a genre, without adhering closely to its commercially recognizable tropes and forms.

That definition made, it is easier to set expectations for Interfictions. The book, published by the Interstitial Arts Foundation and distributed by Small Beer Press, contains 19 original stories as well as the introductory essay by Fenkl and a concluding Q&A with the editors, Sherman and Goss. Each story is focused on the gray area between fantastic fiction in a broadly theoretical, non-mimetic sense and one of the common marketing categories of fantastic fiction: fantasy and fabulism; science fiction; horror. Of these, the fantasy-fabulism set dominates.

Works that are interstitial with respect to a genre will reflect something of what that genre is — and is not — at the time they are created. They are the pieces of the puzzle that fit around the puzzle pieces of genre. In the fantasy stories of Interfictions there is an absence of the violent external conflicts, magical powers, immediacy of presence, and quests to challenge the physical manifestations of power structures in the world that characterize contemporary commercial fantasy. Instead, there are internal conflicts focused on absence and anxiety; magic that does things to people rather than being used by people, that poses questions rather than solving problems; there is the treatment of Old Testament-based religions as sources of fantasy just as Greek, Norse, etc. often are in commercial fantasy; there is a bringing of modern sensibilities to old stories and old sensibilities to new stories. Considering the broad territory available for interstitial writing we wouldn’t expect overarching themes in the volume…but there is one, which proves to be problematic. There is, in nearly all of these stories, a “post-slipstream” sense of the need, the inevitability, of coming to terms with the often very strange anxieties of place (in a broad sense, not merely geographic) that characterize the modern world. Of accommodating, rather than conquering, the weird.

Christopher Barzak’s “What We Know About the Lost Families of —– House,” the first story in the volume, takes this theme almost literally. A haunted house tale told from the collective voice of the small town that the house is part of, there is no protagonist in the traditional sense. Instead, the “we” of the town chronicles the history of —– House, and the victims who have lived in it, with a parochial yet matter-of-fact tone; the town regards the house’s presence as a regrettable but now inseparable part of itself. “If you know how to hear what those walls [of the house] are saying, you will hear unbearable stories, stories you would never imagine possible, stories we would rather turn away from. But we cannot turn away, for they will only follow us.”

Other stories in Interfictions present more benign formulations of finding a home in the weird. In Leslie What’s “Post Hoc,” a pregnant woman tries to mail herself to her ex-boyfriend in hope of reconciliation; when he refuses to sign for her, she finds herself a resident of the post office. This, she discovers, is a better home than any of the more normal houses she might have chosen. It’s an absurdist story, an impossible premise joined to realistic details of stamps and forms and labels. Matthew Cheney’s “A Map of the Everywhere” is more wholly surreal, a man who wanders from job to job, place to place, before discovering a place for himself — and love — off the map of the expected. K. Tempest Bradford’s “Black Feather” revolves around a similar sense of finding one’s true place, a contemporary woman frustrated by an unrequited crush, who dreams of ravens and family and flying home. It evokes the Grimm fairy tales of the Six Swans/Seven Ravens, with a dash of Native American myth, the raven as a transformative figure. Joy Marchand’s “Pallas at Noon” similarly uses myth to evoke a repressed sense of self, in this case the myth of Pallas daughter of Triton, who was accidentally slain by her friend Athena goddess of discipline and craft (and war). It is the story of a seemingly troubled woman struggling to keep herself in place, grounded in the expectations of a stereotypical housewife, at the cost of repressing her complex inner self.

Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, was a troubled woman not known for repressing herself; Veronica Schanoes’s story “Rats” presents a “fairy tale” version of Spungen’s life, an ode to both the power of story (in giving us a sense of understanding the inner selves of others, of how even those people we find reprehensible may be driven by some need to accommodate the weird) and the essential falseness of story (the lie that people’s lives are coherent stories, that end with resolution and have external meaning). Brutal and powerful, it is a story that eats itself alive — one of the best I’ve read this year.

“Alternate Anxieties” by Karen Jordan Allen and Holly Phillips’s “Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom” resemble each other, both featuring writers struggling with writer’s block who are trying to come to terms with the current sources of their anxieties (in the former a geographically distant mother diagnosed with cancer, in the latter a husband taken captive during a diplomatic mission in a foreign land). In both cases a familiarity with the fantastic — science fictional concepts in Allen’s story, fantasy in Phillips’s — is not an escape from the world, but a way of conceptualizing the ambiguities of the world that must be accommodated. “Which world is the real world” is a question both stories ask, with the only possible answer being the world we live in. Vandana Singh’s “Hunger” emphasizes this; it is a thoroughly realistic and tragically earnest story of a dinner party, of modern Indian culture, and of how alien the contemporary world can seem when given an external perspective. “Hunger” is a story you might share with someone should you ever wish to convince them of why the fantastic perspective is important:

She continued to read her science fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realization of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years.

In a reversal from most other stories in the anthology, Catherynne Valente’s “A Dirge for Prester John” is a tale told from the perspective of the utter strangeness of the world, of a land that never was, its fantastic residents, and the human man they take in. Valente is scrupulous in depicting the kingdom of Prester John as though it were a real land, just as (and yet not as) John’s letter described it — griffins, pygmies, the phoenix, the marvelous waterless river, and the Basilica with a ceiling of stars. Description, particularly visual description, dominates “Dirge”: the use of simile and metaphor that Valente is often associated with is muted here, to good strategic effect. Simile is a way of putting the strangeness of the world into our own words and concepts; while it is used at the beginning of the tale, in Prester John’s arrival, it is soon replaced by detailed description, the lists and tallies of Prester John’s letter, as the man becomes acclimated to and accommodated by the land and its people. In this transition “Dirge” highlights the author’s skill with deft moments of showing-not-telling that tell so much: “[John the Priest], ever the good teacher, tried to make eye contact with each of us in turn, but he could not look at my eyes” captures the so well the inner conflict of a man stranded in a land of the strange — and the strangely beautiful — who stridently lectures others to affirm his own fading belief, before gradually succumbing to wonder, becoming a student, making a home and family. (As in the other top stories of the collection, though, the character’s initial anxiety never entirely dissipates.) The section headings of Valente’s story correspond to the spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmos that had been adopted by Christianity in the middle ages; the ending section, however — “The Spindle of Necessity” — reverts to the earlier, pagan cosmology of Plato, indicating a sense of deeper truth, a deeper, non-divine judgment to be made on a person’s life choices.

Taken as individual stories those in Interfictions are at the very least uniformly good: taken as “an anthology of interstitial writing,” as an argument for interstitiality, their uniformity starts to work against the goals of the collection. The stories individually work as interstitial writing because their pathos stems largely from a thoughtful, adult sense of anxiety of place not often seen in typical genre fantasy, and because the characters generally do not triumph over their anxieties so much as learn to work within them. One starts to wonder, though, reading story after story with this theme, this journey: is this type of story all that commercial genres are missing; is this idea all that interstitial writing has to offer? The self-referentiality — interstitial fiction about anxiety of place — is pleasingly clever at first, but wanes on repetition, particularly in the stories that do not offer enough else. The summary of Leslie What’s “Post Hoc” — a woman mails herself to her boyfriend, finds herself living in the post office, and discovers it to be a good home — more or less is the story. Csilla Kleinheincz’s “A Drop of Raspberry” is a beautifully written story (translated by Noémi Szelényi) of a man who has a rebound friendship with a lake after being left by his fiancé…and again, that’s it: the “lake” might have well been a human woman given how the story plays out, how there’s not enough lakeness to add insight into quintessential humanity. Colin Greenland’s “Timothy” is a shapeshifter romance without the romance, just the sex: the raw and instinctive versus the civilized and expected. It’s a clever concept but all that remains after reading it is the concept, none of the story. In terms of fantastic stories made memorable by characterization, settings or themes stemming from diverse ideas thoroughly explored, multiple good ideas, or ideas that feel dangerous, the uniformity of the original stories of Interfictions suffers somewhat in comparison to the variety offered by other recent anthologies that also take a broad view of fantasy, such as Best American Fantasy and The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. And despite the broad potential scope of interstitiality, there are no stories here that play off non-fantastic genres such as crime fiction, thrillers, chick lit, etc.; despite the multidisciplinary, multimedia aspirations of interstitiality, there are only one or two stories here that challenge the basic forms of prose storytelling. Instead, the highlights of the anthology — “Dirge” and “Hunger” among them — tend to be the most conventional stories (“Rats” being a notable exception), that hew closest to established genres.

There is, within the established genres of the fantastic at least, the feeling that we’ve entered something of a feedback loop: that change has come to beget change, faster and faster. The transmission speed of ideas facilitated by the Internet combined with the slowness of traditional publishing mean that many movements are defined and codified before standard-bearing stories appear (such as Mundane SF); subgenres like cyberpunk and the New Weird spring fully formed from single works and end before they are fully understood. Our capacity to focus on narrower subgenres has increased (“steampunk” begets “clockpunk”; readers don’t just read “fantasy,” they read “epic fantasy” and “gritty epic fantasy”) as has our ability to process genre hybrids (paranormal romance, paranormal mystery). On one hand this may mean that there are even more (if smaller) “spaces between,” more need for interstitial fiction (Sherman and Goss report that an Interfictions 2 is in the planning stages). On the other hand, electronic cataloging systems increasingly are pushing us from a categorizing world to a tagging and linking world, and in this world the concept of commercial genres as immense gravity wells for fiction — and thus the utility of the interstitial concept — may become historical relics. Genre readers familiar with Small Beer Press, the distributor of Interfictions, and the authors it has published (among them Kelly Link, Alan DeNiro, and indeed Theodora Goss) will already have a fairly broad definition of the fantastic, fairly relaxed expectations. Fantastic fiction is also increasingly finding a home in mainstream bookshelves, and the mainstream so far seems able to accommodate marketing novels such as Never Let Me Go, The Road and Blindness (to say nothing of the fantastic short fiction published in magazines ranging from The New Yorker to McSweeney’s) without needing to further divide and categorize by any standard other than reading enjoyment.

Pragmatically, however — and interstitiality is first and foremost a movement born of pragmatism — right now there are gaps in genre categories, gaps in how people understand the difference between genres and marketing categories. Interstitial fiction is important because it can both point out and fill in these gaps. While the somewhat limited thematic scope of this initial Interfictions volume works against it as a manifesto, celebration or sampler of interstitiality — in some ways even as a collection of fiction — readers willing to savour the stories of Interfictions individually will find their expectations largely met, and likely at times exceeded.

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