What is "best," what is "American," what is "fantasy"?
As Matthew Cheney points out (getting the disclaimers in swiftly!), in his preface to the first volume of a new series, none of these terms has a stable definition. "Best" sounds straightforward, but in practice we know it's extremely slippery. And maybe the worst problem, for the compilers of a "best of" anthology, is that original and arresting stories are the ones most liable to divide the critics. What about "America"? Is it a piece of geography?, the series editor asks, rhetorically. Well, that's easy: for this outing, yes it is. It's that scraggy, federal piece of the Americas denoted by the letters U.S.A.. (Apparently some of the stories are sourced from Canadian venues. I checked the contributors' list, but I couldn't spot an actual Canadian writer). Now that's a mission statement, especially considering that Latin Americans practically invented the genre under consideration.
Then we come to "fantasy." That might be a slim volume, I thought—when all I knew about the series was the title. Genre fantasy, the anti-industrial shared universe, rarely fits well into the short story format. Fantasy which shades into fable, horror, or ghost stories fares much better, but where do you draw the line? I needn't have worried. Nearly all these stories belong to a different, equally valid tradition: the treacherous, unsettling area that literary academics call the fantastic. Typically, we're unsure exactly what has taken place. How much of the weirdness of events was in the mind of the characters? How much was the writer playing with words? Was that animal/transformation to be taken as mimesis—in a reality where different rules apply? Was it psychosis; or was it an extended figure of speech?
In the volume introduction the editors, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, cite an anecdote from The Passionate, Accurate Story (Carol Bly), in which a little girl announces at the dinner table that, "Bears have moved in next door." Then the world splits, and in Boring Dad world, her parent says she's being ridiculous and that's the end of that. In Nice Dad world, Dad enters the fantasy mimesis, and asks her what the bears are called, what do they wear, how many bears are there ...
In satire-world (the world of science fiction), those Bears could signify near-future Russians. Never underestimate those Ruskies, especially when they're on the ropes. Or they could reference the flag of the Republic of California, and signal a Corporate Green Arnie-led coup (Matt Groening is the Voice of the People, after all). In the world of the fantastic those bears, as Boring Dad rightly points out, do not exist; or not as we know existence (though we are wrong, scientifically speaking). What exists, what is read in these stories, is the child's ability to handle make-believe, the superposition of the imagination, without the veil of fake fact that we become addicted to as adults: the ability to see fiction as it really is.
To the stories themselves. I admit, I didn't find the collection either an easy ride, or a seamless, strange, entrancing journey. Some of the material I found downright annoying. Nik Houser's "First Kisses From Beyond The Grave"— about a cutesy gross-out High School For Dead Kids—was highly memorable, but not in a good way: old gum stuck on the shoe sole of a hoary, lobotomised Ray Bradbury scenario. It seemed to go on forever. I had a poor relationship with the one story that quoted Borges at me ("The End Of Narrative," Peter LaSalle), not because I object to numbered or scored out paragraphs, but because it's so much less than the ontological interrogation it comes on to be, and so much more the woeful tale of a fogeyish chap who discovers that his sensitive ladylike new girlfriend has a raunchy blog. Chagrined to find that his own performance doesn't get reviewed, he starts spinning me a deeply shallow line about unstable identities: I was not convinced.
Some pieces, I felt, relied too heavily on description, as if unfamiliar detail is all that the fantastic requires. Ramola D's "The Next Corpse Collector" distracted me with heavy-handed Urban Third World colour, and left me wondering if this tale of selfless charity and sibling rivalry would have been stronger if it was set in Detroit. Gina Ochsner's "Song Of The Selkie," drowning in windswept marine decor, seemed to have nothing much to add to the folklore staple: those seal people can take on human form, but they always return to the sea. Other entries lost me entirely. Ann Stapleton's "The Chinese Boy," with its bewildering array of African animals and lonely misfits, Maile Chapman's "The Bit Forgive," about an imprisoned bride, her escaped spirit, a ship and a dead man; Eric Roe's "The Stolen Father," all left me with fleeting images, intriguing fragments, and no great desire to figure out what was going on. Ah, well. An anthology is like a box of chocolates. If you munch your way through the lot, you're going to bite into the orange creams, and those icky hard praline nougats: and that's just too bad. Somebody likes those flavours.
Often puzzled, sometimes exasperated or repelled, I still managed to have fun. "A Hard Truth About Waste Management," Sumanth Prabhakar, about a family whose hobby is flushing things (exponentially strange things, as the narrative progresses) down the toilet, is an absolute gem. Meghan McCarron's "The Flying Woman" is dreamlike, sweet and sad—and beautifully concise. Catherine Zeidler's "Pregnant" is a catalogue of revulsion, a fantastical examination of how disturbing it is to be pregnant, if you should make the mistake of really thinking about it. Pregnant with what? Hairballs? Toenail clippings? What exactly is churning around in this body which is no longer mine, but which seems to have stolen my life?
Of the more conventional stories, Geoffrey Landis's "Lazy Taekos" was a surprise, in this company: a neat and entertaining sci-fi fairytale. Robin Hemley's "The Warehouse Of Saints" has a guest appearance by Joan of Arc, ironically but effectively providing the voice of reason; and a point to make—about how easily people will deceive themselves, when the unpleasant truth is staring them in the face. Brian Evenson's "An Accounting," the apologia of a post-Apocalyptic U.S.-ian who has inadvertently founded a cannibalistic cult (the Elders warned him to be careful what he said to those Christians...) is pretty funny. Austin Bunn's "The Ledge" was for me a stand out. A ship sails from Renaissance Europe to the rim of the world, seeking a profitable route to the Indies, natch. They reach the pouring edge, and the crew discover that they can haul up strange fruit from the beyond. The good thing about this story is that it seems perfectly conventional, with all the sensual detail, the muscle and heft of mimesis, but while you're sharing the distress of parted brothers, the shame of a boy who abandoned his fragile mother, the tenderness of illicit love, you're being carried over the edge of that Borges abyss: no fake facts to hold onto, not even death is real.
And finally, there's America. The beautiful. From sea to shining sea. That place. Coincidentally or not my favourites, (including "The Ledge," and "A Hard Truth About Waste Management"), seem to be the stories most explicitly about the U.S.A.. Tony D'Souza's elegiac "The Man Who Married A Tree" is a U.S. wilderness experience, full of the conservatism and unconscious eccentricity of the kind of people who still live in log cabins, making their own soap; having no idea of how weird they've become. Julia Elliott's "The Whipping" was the cutesy gross-out that made me laugh out loud. Featuring barbecued robins, festering family life, suburban twelve year olds wearing Pampers, and a good deal too pleased with itself: this is the real Simpson Movie. Kelly Link, one of the very few major names in the collection, provides "Origin Story," set in the skewed reality of a derelict Oz theme park. Mutants infest the woods, small town life is a dead end in a decayed wasteland: a waitress and the old schoolmate who left town—father of her child, but she'll never tell him—get together for a desultory afternoon. Everyone wants to be special, and the bittersweet truth about that American Dream is that everybody is special. Everybody's got their little superpower. But even the boy who managed to get out, to have a costume that fits and a modest name for himself, doesn't have much going on. Nothing happens, nothing needs to happen, and to question whether Link means that these kids really have "superpowers" would be absurd.
In Elizabeth Hand's "The Saffron Gatherers," a jet-setting female academic basks in the miraculous glow of California. She goes househunting with a dear friend, who proposes marriage, and casually drops four million dollars on a new home. Next day, she's off to put her East Coast affairs in order. As her plane rises, the Big One strikes. In the twinkling of an eye, California the miraculous is no more: it's gone beneath the waves. Explicitly, we're asked to equate this event with the volcanic explosion that destroyed the fabulous Mediterranean culture of the "Minoans," nearly forty centuries ago. Implicitly, Hand seems to be giving us a snapshot of a world already lost, a mythical place called "America," where nothing ever went wrong—
It's a mood that sets the tone of the whole. Best American Fantasy is a minor-key collection: a jumble of spirit messages falling out of the pockets of an old coat, like God's overcoat in Kevin Brockmeier's "A Fable With Slips Of White Paper Spilling From The Pockets." With few stand-outs, and some difficult material, it's still a curiously compelling study. Worth seeking out.
Gwyneth Jones is the author of more than twenty novels for teenagers, mostly using the name Ann Halam, and several highly regarded sf novels for adults, which have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. She lives in Brighton, UK.