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Birdbrain cover

Holiday cover

It's too bad equipoise sounds so much like a noun. As a noun, it nicely describes the wintry, dendroidal syntax Edward Gibbon created in the eighteenth century, a cage for English that proved nearly fatal to the tongue till (I guess) Samuel Taylor Coleridge began to save us. But equipoise is also a verb—"to place or hold in equipoise; to hold . . . in suspense" (OED)—which begins to sound a bit more like what happens in a moving language where stories can be told. To equipoise a phrase that deals with more than one subject at the same time, or to equipoise some crossroads where two or more genres clash (and the father is killed), is to hold something in the sense that teeth hold food. To equipoise genres is to keep swimming: as with a trapeze artist (or equilibrist), or a shark (which will sink if it stays still), being in balance is a snapshot of movement.

The main reason I've myself baulked at the perfectly respectful use of the term "interstitiality" to describe works that make use of more than one mode at once is that for me the term significantly fails to convey the verbal thrust of transgression—which is what we're talking about, after all, when we're talking about stories that cross or mix genres. Interstitiality is the language of Gibbon not Charles Dickens. Equipoise is transgression is a snapshot of something moving under ice.

So you do not begin to get the books under review until you fall out of your tree. You do not get Johanna Sinisalo if you finish Birdbrain under the impression that you've been tendered a narrative more or less straightforwardly depicting a doomed trek through the violated remnants of Tasmania, in which two members of our species almost die, not quite as ruthless in this regard as Patrick White was about the deep darkness and void at the heart of the land of prisoners. You do not get M. Rickert's Holiday if you think its stories reflect in any straightforward fashion the high days of the year they ostensibly fix themselves to, any more than the stories assembled in Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (1981)—the only previous collection of tales of the fantastic tied to days of the year I can think of, though I believe there are some anthologies so arranged—celebrate in good simple heart their occasions. The linearities evoked by Sinisalo and Rickert, as with any example of fantastika written with the new century in its bones, represent a kind of nostalgia for the race and its ways; and perhaps a reluctance to kill the father at the crossroads. But nostalgia does not take us far.

It certainly does not take us much deeper than the surface of Birdbrain, Johanna Sinisalo's second novel to be translated into English. Her first, Not Before Sundown (2000; translated by Herbert Lomas in 2003), won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award "for works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender." The current novel—(2008; translated by David Hackston in 2010)—does not so much explore our understanding of gender in its rendering of the two internal monologues, one male one female, as it does assume our recognition of the haecceities of Heidi (or Hyde, as I began to subvocalize her), the cover-up austerities of Jyrki (I'm afraid I started thinking of him as Jekyll but ended up thinking Jerk, because of the pious superba of his mask of male health). The two twentysomething protagonists meet in their native Finland, where they have both been earning their livings servicing mid-level managers and/or tourists, but spend most of the time Sinisalo gives us with them first in New Zealand, trekking cute, and then along the south coast of Tasmania, where the dances of ecological decorum they perform in order not to impregnate the "natural" wilderness with the homo sapiens virus simply underline our knowledge that, in following trails blazed (and signposted) by their predecessors, they are retreading the extremities they expose themselves to. They are retreads: which is to say Sinisalo assumes our recognition of their role: until something all changes at the end: maybe everything.

But the fixity that we feel when recognizing the frozen past may be, as I suggested a moment ago, no more than a snapshot of some devouring grammar of threat and exposure and Sighting, as befits examples of fantastika in the twenty-first century; and so it is here. Not only do the internal monologues of Jerk and Hyde read almost (though not quite) as though they were transcriptions of an oral narrative recorded after the novel has closed, but the inner Tasmania they follow signage to reach on their booked adventure trek seems similarly belated on the page: like a set of still lifes recording some terrible accident long ago, maybe that quintessential human moment when the aboriginals arrive and begin to tear (though without adequate tools) at the face of the mother. So we know, though neither Jerk nor Hyde seem to have a clue, that there is something about to rip open.

Grammar helps us a bit here. The interpolated monologues about the protagonists' time (early 2007) in New Zealand are conveyed in what used to be the normative narrative past tense, a mode which safely encases their relatively placid hiking time there within the frozen transparency of time past; occasionally, one does rather wonder why Sinisalo spends so much essentially gossipy time back there, unless the New Zealand passages are grammatically necessary (by the end of the tale, we figure this is so). The main narrative, in Tasmania, is conveyed in the narrative present, which has become the tense of the hour for authors of early twenty-first century fiction: perhaps because the narrative present can more effectively convey reactions to worlds too complex and too in-your-face to tell story about, or to take responsibility for, while the narrative past tense implies a structure of explanation, or premise: protagonists are more beholden to what they do in this tense: what the two of them in fact accomplish in New Zealand (in mundane terms they do little more than litter) is to embed safely for the reader a sense that it was, once upon a time, possible to describe consequences: to understand that to say anything, do anything, go anywhere, preserve anything for the consumption of the human eye, is death to Gaia.

What happens next, in Tasmania, is the burn of the present tense. Like iterations of a long-ago war they cannot understand they carry in their bones, like spores blind to the gene at the helm of them, Jerk and Hyde Wage Trek into what Hyde, revealing herself by what she reads, identifies as the Heart of Darkness (Conrad is quoted throughout), which is the intolerable present they cannot quench turning into tomorrow: the horror! is what we are coming to. Sinisalo inserts a series of passages that describe the uncannily opportunistic, maddening, "viciously" destructive kea, a scavenger bird with claws nimble as monkey fingers: the kea is, I guess, us. The kea is what we do. The fire that takes Sinisalo's trespassers is described in a present tense that verges on the future. Whether or not these human husks survive is not of much interest. All we really need to know is that they have stepped bodily, like birdbrains, into the world voice, and that the world voice takes them, and that what survives—it may be a hardy species of bird that plunders before it burns—will be the new us.

To finish this startlingly good book is to get a glimpse of things.

Each of the seasonal stories assembled in M. Rickert's Holiday transforms, from within, the skin of a ceremonial day, except for the first, "Holiday" (2007), which is narrated by the (probable) killer of a young girl whose name is Holiday, and who is haunting him: so his focus on her is not only a joke, but a confession of his bondage to articulacy: a confession which gives off a slightly faux aroma, quite likely deliberate. It is hard to know. Part of the intriguingness of Holiday lies in our not knowing to what degree the guidance given by Rickert as to which day each story refers to is ad hoc or inherent: which is not to say that an author's after-the-fact articulation of intent cannot refer to something inherent. So we are in a bit of a reader-response dance here. Does the protagonist know that the dead Holiday is the day of his life, or was the story's insertion into a collection like this more of a joke—a manifestation of critical retrospect, the kind of nostalgia for meaning, the kind of itch to inscribe the numinous that generated the massive and grotesque ruination Henry James brought upon himself through the articulacies he inflicted on his early work in the 1909 New York Edition—than perhaps we are entirely comfortable with?

Rickert herself is not entirely helpful in the brief introduction to Holiday, where she speaks mostly about her younger self, and of her current knowledge that that younger self—though not yet properly articulated—somehow inevitably generated the self she has now become: "Almost everyone, I realized, became what they worked at becoming." Which is to say, dubiously, that we all remember the past that truly existed, rather than the past we need. Further on, she speaks of the stories themselves:

What these stories mean to do, limited as they are by their author's limitations, narrowed as they are by the author's acknowledgement of a narrow calendar of holidays, is to honor the experience of being human, an existence marked by countless forgotten hours, by hope for finding something that matters, by belief in celebrating time, though it is the body's nemesis. . . . For me, I choose to celebrate the strange, the misshapen, the forgotten, even the inevitable death. For many people this is not what holidays are all about. For me, this is what everything is all about.

But of course holidays are not what everything is about, or no day would be any day in particular; the stories here assembled—some of them superb—mean very little as assembled unless they mean more than that. Which they do. At the heart of Rickert's strategy lies, I think, a genuine and intense equipoisal manipulation of our patterns of response: each tale shuttlecocks between a "literal" presentation of the fantastic, and (as presented here) Story as Sigil, which normally we shy from because it hints at allegory, and most readers of fantastika are rightly shy of any attempts to reduce its slipperiness into thematic outcomes. And as a whole these stories require us to shuttlecock, to vacillate, to cross-fertilize Story and Sigil whether or not they were originally meant specifically to accomplish what they accomplish here; a reader-response process made all the more vivid and necessary through Rickert's intense almost Mittel-European grasp of the power of lists—of things, states of mind, bricolage, kipple, epiphanies of female multi-tasking—to evoke worlds greater than the sum of their pasts.

The stories are themselves, therefore, constructed as meaning-dances, and the thrust and gist of each individual sentence tends throughout to vibrate with more than any one sentence can properly say: it is of course the goal of any great sentence to say more than it can. Occasionally, a moment of telling seems to stare out at us from some sempiternal silence, a gaze so terrifyingly exact and apt that I found myself remembering Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring when, face to face with the ultimate meaningfulness of the Ring and sorely tempted to come into her own at last, her full elvine self burns through for an instant, and the world is for the burning. She holds back in the end, so the story can continue, as do some of these stories. But "Traitor" (2008)—word for word, one of the most unrelenting stories I have ever read—does not; and the interplays with Rickert's possibly retrospective rubric ("4th of July") are in this case immiscible with the tale itself. A mother attempts to doom a child—she has had many who suffer the same fate, maybe some of them being of her own blood, maybe most of them displaced persons brought to focus—in the course of her traitorous resistance to the New America; and in the end is herself exploded.

In accord with the overall structure of the book, in which stories grow up to mean what they have always intended to mean—in whic lives grow up to become their own holiday—most of its protagonists are young, and almost every figure in the book is seen in terms of his (usually her) relationship to family: entities, in Rickert's world, always greater than the sum of their victims. An essential element of holiday—that it returns—intensifies this equipoise: an equipoise between the past, where these tales are necessarily set, and the moment of their embalming, which is now. But the heart of this nearly word perfect, harrowingly insistent, mind-gnawing collection is that each story inhabits its designation so fully that each of the holidays cracks open, and we see within what we spend our lives attempting to sum up but never can, the stories that make mock of the titles we give them.

 John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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