The seven longish stories in Glen Hirshberg's second collection and third book (after collection The Two Sams  and novel The Snowman's Children ) are uniformly well-written, with careful delineation of character, mood, setting, and emotional nuance. They're wide-ranging and varied in their settings and in the knowledge, or research, that supplies their trappings—contemporary Italy; 19th century New England millennialism, coastal shipwrecks, and lighthouse keepers; contemporary California; ice cream truck driving. In all these aspects they are like—and for the most part, they read like—the kind of fiction associated with literary magazines, both major and "little," the kind of writing taught in Master of Fine Arts programs, and what Michael Chabon in the introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002) characterized as "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" ("The Editor's Notebook," p. 6).
Yet every story resolutely, almost obstinately, includes a genre element, usually fantastic and usually presented in a decidedly "genre" manner—that is, in a way that fits the conventions of genre and fulfills the expectations usual to that genre, and presented for its own sake, not metaphorically or for some other "literary" purpose.
But how will genre readers enjoy these stories, which introduce conventional genre elements only after long expanses written in the prescribed manner of the literary mainstream?
To answer a couple of objections that probably spring up immediately: yes, mainstream literature is not monolithic. We are, of necessity, dealing in generalities.
And no, genre stories are by no means precluded from being well-written, even beautifully written. Examples could be multiplied: from the classics, we could mention Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison; the writing of both is more ornate and poetic than Hirshberg's. But ornament, poetry, and fine writing do not figure in the mainstream/genre distinction as much as a particular narrative manner and, of course, the details on which the narrative dwells.
It would be tempting to say that in the great division, once so vital, of the "pulps" and "slicks," Hirshberg belongs to the "slicks," writers who wrote genre stories for the mainstream, such as John Collier, Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, and Ray Bradbury. But even in the stories of the slick writers, character, setting, and close observation of emotional nuance played second fiddle to the genre element, nor did they exhibit Hirshberg's use of indirection, suggestion, and omission. In fact his work harks back to the Pre-Lapsarian days before Fiction had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Literature and Genre, and was all one.
Perhaps everything old is new again, and what Peter Straub called "new wave fabulists" (in, if nowhere else, the title of The New Wave Fabulists )—among whom we may tentatively place Hirshberg—simply write the way it was done before the separation of genre out of general literature. (Straub's definition of his term implies genre writers whose work has morphed into "literature" while still recognizable as at least derived from genre.) Or the way genre writers would write now if the separation had never taken place.
While Hirshberg balances on the point where genre, mainstream, and some third type of fiction—slipstream, interstitial, magic realism, "new wave fabulism"—meet, he does lean one way or another from story to story.
For the sake of clarity, we should take a moment to define these terms. Slipstream and interstitial fall between or blend characteristics of mainstream literature (mimetic and generally non-fantastic) and genre, or of differing genres, and in (rather loose) usage are similar. There is some sense, however, in defining slipstream as Graham Sleight did here, as indicating a story or world that cannot be figured out or pinned down or (including non-fiction) that leaves the reader with a sense of uncertainty, such as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Kafka's The Trial (1925 German; 1937 English), or Christopher Nolan's film Memento (2000). This would have the virtue of leaving interstitial to designate, as the word suggests, the territory between, or the mixing of, genres, and genre and mainstream, where we might place, among many "for instances," Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes (1926), David Garnett's Lady Into Fox (1922), and Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog (1988). Magic realism is probably best reserved for fictions that introduce fantastic elements without invoking a transition to a fantastic world or making a distinction between the fantastic and non-fantastic; while there is reaction to the fantastic element, there is no reaction to its being fantastic. Some examples: the magic-realist urtext, Kafka's "Metamorphosis" (1915 German; 1937 English), and Boris Vian's L'Ecume des Jours (1947; reissued 2003 in English as Foam of the Daze).
In American Morons "Transitway" (2006) moves farthest toward something like magic realism. An ordinary (if horrible) bus stop becomes the way out of the world for two old men without becoming a genre element per se, such as a magic wardrobe, a rabbit hole, a spirit-journey to the planet Mercury. On its own terms, the story works well. Its tone and the characters are engaging, the fantasy element melds seamlessly with the story, and the whole is moving and suggestive.
Closest to slipstream and the interstitial in feel, and partially in the ambiguity of the fantastic element, is "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air," (2003) a dark fantasy of people subsumed into a ghostly or fantastic carousel, but perhaps not literally, since someone "lost" to it possibly reappears, and the carousel also serves as a metaphor. The "genre" aspect of the story is the metaphor treated as real—one of the markers of genre is metaphor literalized, but not accepted as normal (as in magic realism)—but here it morphs back into the figurative to some extent, leaving us wondering how literally we are to take this.
Many of Hirshberg's works, including this story, depict a relationship in which a man is a fool, or fears that he is, and is losing, has lost, or fears he will lose a difficult woman he loves or covets. This never seems to have much to do with the story per se, though it does enhance the feeling of something bad happening or about to happen, the feeling of dread, which is to Hirshberg's purpose. In this story the narrator's obsessively concerned observation of his wife and her every nuance of expression seems brought over from the mainstream, at least in manner and level of detail.
In "American Morons" (2005) this relationship problem plays a more important role, giving us the title and adding to the story's disquieting effect, but again remaining ancillary to the plot. The genre element only hints at the fantastic, but is nevertheless difficult to take literally. This is a political fable, and perhaps in that acquires its real power, threatening a future of horror in which a naïve, blind, and vulnerable America will fall victim to hatred and savagery. It's one of the most resonant of the stories and quite chilling, but perhaps loses power by keeping the viewpoint character, Kellen, above the fray.
One of Hirshberg's strengths is that, while we read his stories we are in their world; they have a distinctive tone and feel. Conversely, they sometimes suffer, as does "Like a Lily in a Flood," (2004) from a sense of being "made up," spun yarns without authority or an internal, essential necessity. Hirshberg exacerbates that feeling, or even instigates it, with end notes in which he lists the story's elements—in the case of "Like a Lily", New England millennialism and a sinister religious figure—where he found them, and how he combined them. The notes have this effect even if read after the story. They do him and the reader a disservice. The animating spirit of his work is dread, and his muse a hooded Nemesis. He should not let us see under the hood.
Further sapping the suspension of disbelief in "Like a Lily" is the point of view character's relative lack of reaction to a terrible revelation. He may be powerless, but he could at least register panic or rage. Also unconvincing is an account that appears in the story, supposedly written by a woman from 1842, whose style, oddly enough, is just like Hirshberg's.
"Like a Lily" is typical in being a story of revelation. Hirshberg's stories don't start with the supernatural; that element arises later or at the end, like Cthulhu in a Lovecraft story, though not, thank goodness, in italics. In "Safety Clowns," (2004) a story of ice cream truck driving in contemporary California, the fantasy element comes as an unconvincing afterthought. It's a bit disappointing; the story is more interesting and amusing as a crime story, which it seems to be through much of its telling, and perhaps it should have been resolved on those terms.
"The Muldoon" (2006) has both crime and fantasy elements, and the genre material is better prepared for. Typically, it has a preponderantly mainstream feel in its examination of a brother and sister and their interactions with older family members, with the genre elements revealed only toward the end.
"Devil's Smile" (original to this collection) would have provided a better book title, especially given the term's meaning: the brief appearance of the sun in heavy cloud, a treacherous moment of clarity preceding danger. That seems more representative of the book's contents than the somewhat misleading title it bears. The revelation in this story, the fantasy element, is a malicious and personal evil at the heart of what at first seems merely the harshness and cruelty of nature. Of the supernatural stories in American Morons, "Devil's Smile" is the most satisfying, but the late revelation and the nature of the genre element are problematic.
When Hirshberg's stories don't work, it's often because they fall between two stools; after many pages of realistic literary fiction the mandatory epiphany is not emotional or spiritual but, as here, the revelation of a monster—a real one.
If, as Samuel Delaney has said (as referenced by John Clute in his essay "Beyond the Pale" in The New Wave Fabulists), the protocols of reading genre demand that objects be taken at face value, and not metaphorically, then we must confront the effect that doing so can have, especially in a context where genre protocols have not, up to a certain point, been invoked. Coming as they do in Hirshberg's stories, the genre elements can be limiting and deadening. In "Devil's Smile" a range of possibilities seems lost to the monster. The genre element can absorb all the point and energy of a story, a let-down if it does not have any further resonance. The denouement here is too limited for the story that precedes it.
On the other hand, for a genre reader, the maintenance of the genre element as such—not having it sublime into metaphor or lose its fantastic nature by being treated like everything else—can be important and satisfying both in and of itself, and as a marker that the reader has been in the right kind of story. While the metaphorical range of a genre element might be reduced by insisting on its literalness, that literal sense may evoke the awe, horror, or wonder that the genre reader was there to experience.
Linking the mainstream and genre manners well, getting them both right to everybody's satisfaction, is not only hard, it seems next to impossible. When Hirshberg pulls it off, as in "Mr. Dark's Carnival" in his first collection, The Two Sams, it's a wonder. To say that he doesn't do it as successfully here is hardly damning.
Genre fiction is not equivalent to "popular fiction," though some of us fall into the error of thinking so. Hirshberg's is the first, not the second. These stories, sometimes too liberally seasoned with "MFA," mostly lack a specifically popular fiction kind of "fun." The genre element is in the service of a literary tale, not vice versa. Those who want their genre fiction popular fiction may find Hirshberg's work rather dry and serious, more admirable than genuinely enjoyable. But for readers looking for a yoking of genre with literature, Hirshberg is too interesting, talented, and skilled to miss.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published 16 short stories, with more forthcoming, and over 160 nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.