There's a convergence of good things in Clelia Farris's story collection Creative Surgery, which has been translated from Italian and Sardinian to English by Rachel S. Cordasco and Jennifer Delare: detailed science fiction environments, compelling female characters, and independent-minded outsiders. The people inhabiting these environments have peculiar abilities: a mathematician who works with time, an artist who manipulates memories, and a welder who solders living tissue, to name just a few. In the different worlds conjured by these pages, it is refreshing to meet female characters whose actions matter, who narrate their stories or control the point of view. Often, though not always, the inventive outsider central to the story is a woman.
One story that unites these elements is “Rebecca.” Though “Rebecca” borrows from Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same title, it travels far beyond a simple retelling. Rebecca herself narrates, and the plot centers on her work as a mathematician who proposed a “minimum time theorem” (p. 104). Said to be famous, she is nevertheless no longer visible in the world, having been caught in her own experiments with time. The image of Rebecca working on equations at her desk, smoking an endless cigarette and giving orders to a robotic Danvers, at once recalls the source material while departing from it.
Part of the pleasure in these tales is figuring them out, learning how the rules work. Farris is good at endings that revise your understanding of the beginning. For instance, in “Rebecca” that endless cigarette—which never ashes or goes out—becomes a significant clue to the ending of Rebecca’s story. Gradually it becomes apparent that Rebecca's living space is in stasis and nothing inside of it can be consumed. That moment of satisfaction, when a quiet detail finally clicks into place, is a special feature of Farris's writing.
This certain type of outsider, who thinks creatively and values different things than her neighbors, reappears in “Gabola.” Gabola is again both the story’s title and the name of the main character in the piece. To my understanding (the word is left untranslated) gabola has the connotation of a trick or fraud, problem or trouble. It recalls gambol as well, which appears to have come from Italian via French into English. There's much to be said for the aptness of such untranslated words, which occur in more than one story: they leap out from the page like staccato notes.
Among the townsfolk, Gabola is the only one who values the site of an ancient necropolis, both for its link to the past and for the aesthetic value of its unspoiled land. He lives on the necropolis hill, too, further estranging him from the rest of town. Appropriately, then, he creates duplicates of grave goods: clever fakes that are also referred to as gabola. His other illegal business involves selling sea urchins modified with intelligent cells. These urchins are sold as edible delicacies and are capable of mapping human neural connections and transferring them to another person.
One stumbling block in “Gabola” arises from the awkward transition out of third person to a first-person point of view. The narrative alternates back and forth between first and third person, and the third-person POV shifts from character to character as well. It seems as if the author wanted access to the perspective of multiple characters but realized that the reader required exposure to Gabola's inner monologue in order to understand the final trick of the ending. The result is a jarring transition from outside observer to eavesdropper on Gabola's thoughts. Without giving too much away, the ending tests Gabola's love for his “place of artificial peace,” and we find out what he is willing to do to defend the necropolis and its wildlife (p. 49). The cleverness of Gabola's last gamble pays off in spite of the bumpy ride to get there.
Another story that features strong emphasis on place is “A Day to Remember,” which from contextual clues must be set about 2236. In a future dictated by climate change, the sea has risen to the level of a six-storey building, and people in San Michele live atop roofs like islands. Olì, the main character and the reader's guide, has a glass ball that allows her to modify or erase people's memories. She approaches her work as an artist, frequently referencing painters from Caravaggio to Dalí for colors or figures to implant in her clients’ minds. Most of her neighbors barter food with her to have their memories fixed. She begins by freely changing anyone's memories, even erasing the recollection of a rare thunderstorm from everyone's minds. With the social order broken down, and little enforcement of any laws, the focus of the average person appears to be survival, leavened with occasional drug use. Olì does not consider if what she does is bad or good, but as she travels throughout her scattered community, she begins to examine the consequences of forgetting.
"A Day to Remember” is a long short story (over 9,000 words). It is packed with detailed description, many named characters with a tendency to ramble, and a fascinating water-locked terrain to discover. It feels expansive, offering a lot to absorb, like a visit to another country. Perhaps, by creating such abundance, the effect of individual characterization is lessened. Olì's friend and neighbor, Impiastera, appears for one early dinner scene, and then does not interact with the main character again. And yet, the final scene relies on the bond of their friendship. The last image of a pyre being lit feels like a reach for emotion that's not quite earned.
“A Day to Remember” features a mixture of futuristic tech and mundane elements, hats of woven algae and computer devices capable of modifying human memory. The closing story, the eponymous “Creative Surgery,” adopts a more pessimistic view of the future, one in which humans will go as far as possible in their exploitation of others. The story traces the partnership of two amoral hustlers trying to make money in a tough city of the future. Vi, a scientist and genius with a scalpel, is a manifestation of the familiar Farris type, an artistic outsider who has special skills and different values than those around her. For Vi, her ability lies in designing chimeras. Living flesh is her artistic material, cut up and spliced together, and with the resulting creature then sold to the rich as a fashionable toy. Her story is narrated by Kieser, her Igor-like partner, who happens to be able to weld together living tissue with his modified fingertips. A small point in favor of the Frankenstein comparison is revealed late in the story, when Vi's full name is stated to be Victoire, perhaps in homage to that other literary mad scientist.
While the too-detailed descriptions of the mutilation of animals are at times repulsive, the story is crafted to evoke this repulsion. When she wishes, Farris can write in a wholly different tone about animals: for instance, the suckers of an octopus “press delicately and retract in a ballet of affectionate little touches” or a caterpillar “gallops on a rose” (pp. 13, 44). Still, Vi never expresses remorse, even when grafting human tissue onto healthy, living dogs. Instead, she explains, “repulsiveness is the new attraction” (p. 130). We learn that both of her parents have magical powers that enable them to transform matter, but Vi cannot do this without her scalpel. She was born a normal person in an extraordinary family, and throughout her life she was made to feel lacking. At one point, she suggests that her passion for creative surgery is actually born of her father's passion for transforming objects, a sort of grim inheritance (p. 145). As in many Farris stories, the turn of the ending sheds a new light on this statement. Despite the moments of grotesque surgical transformation, the pair and their lab are convincing, unpleasant, exhilarating, challenging. Indeed, Farris rarely, if ever, moralizes: instead, she loads information in every sentence, trusting that readers will pay close attention, and pause at the end to work things out for themselves.
Inevitably, other stories in the collection seem less compelling than others, retreading familiar ground. In particular, “Secret Enemy” fails to surprise, with its isolated-but-brilliant artist trapped in a room behind a mirror. Because of the protagonist's imprisonment, most of the story takes place in a bathroom. The plot develops slowly, weighted with long descriptions of ikebana flower arrangements that would be better experienced in person. That said, the man in the mirror scenario is the only dull note in the collection. To read these stories is to engage in deduction, to exercise both the brain and the imagination, and to be transported to intensely imagined settings as a result. By turns charming, pithy, and brutal, Creative Surgery accomplishes so many things so well you'll hardly realize you're still contemplating certain lines weeks later. Devour this book, and then quote its many eccentric characters to mystify friends. But do read it.