It is hard to know what to make of this book. Sandra MacDonald's collection of fourteen loosely interconnected stories has runaway kids and collapsible orchestras, lovesick cowboys and Walt Whitman, slave religions and talking corpses, fantasy firemen mascots and slush from the Vietnam war. The stories are set on a nineteenth to twentieth century magic-realist Earth, and so the impossible is a subset of the real.
For example, the stories are set in "Massasoit" and "New Dalli" rather than "Massachusetts" and "New Delhi," its street language draws upon "Faelic" not "Gaelic," it has a singer called "Ella Herald" not "Ella Fitzgerald," and all the stories are written in "Dynish" not "Danish." It is as if all the real words have been copyrighted and the storyteller must deal with open-sourced Linux knockoffs just as good as the original, only worse, for they evoke what could have been used.
The result is a volume of stories that's slyly disorienting, one that solicits real emotional involvement from the reader even as it protests any such solicitation. In rhetoric, such a strategy would be referred to as dirimens copulatio, and demented copulation sounds about right. McDonald's book announces by a variety of brazen means—fun author's notes, flippant names, fantasy devices, a detached style—that it's only playing, but the entertainment is an uneasy one, because the stories play with fire.
Thus "Fay and the Goddesses," one of a number of new stories in the collection and a finely told tale about characters of color, has a religion whose Goddess's loyalty test—the Giveback—is that that boys and girls sacrifice something they're really good at. Fay's talent is singing, but more importantly, it's a talent that shines brightest when singing country songs—heathen songs, Water Mamma's songs, the Devil's songs—and so the story is about whether Fay will decide if the salvation is worth the sacrifice. On the one hand, civilization, urbanization, growing up, family, and assimilation. On the other, a retreat to the past, arcadia, growing old, country cousins, and a wild music. In such situations, the Devil sometimes stops by to tilt the balance, and so she does in Fay's case: "Come with me and I'll show you the world" (p. 111). The story does everything but introduce chitlins and watermelons to suggest the painful choices faced by African Americans in their long march towards Zion. Lest we miss the point, or lest we feel the point too well, the author smiles at us in the Author's Note:
Does this story inaccurately portray, represent, depict, or otherwise characterize characters of color? Discuss. (p. 111)
No, it doesn't. This story is pretty accurate in its portrayals, representations, and depictions of characters of color. But see, I can't be certain now because of that ironical smile. Dare I feel? Or will the author show her hand: Ha ha, got you, it's all just a joke. I'm not really talking about black people or the American South or the dismantling, stealing, and commercialization of the enslaved soul. That story has to be lived, inherited, endured, survived, and not decked up in artifice and paraded for inspection in the marketplace. This is another story, you silly goose, so stop blubbering.
Such flippancy, intended or unintended, puts the reader at a disadvantage. Where the stories really shine, such as "Fay and the Goddesses" or "Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy" or "The Goddess and Lieutenant Teague" or "Kingdom Coming" (all new stories), the reader exists in this uneasy emotional limbo, a bit like the two-year-old at whose sudden fall the parents pretend to laugh and cheer so that he won't take his fall too seriously. The brain's instinct demands one thing, but the author's rhetoric another.
Perhaps I sound aggrieved. I am. But also impressed. It's been a while since I felt estranged by fantasy. The book uses an interesting technique to effect this estrangement. Marianne Moore suggested that poetry was the art of putting real frogs in imaginary gardens. This books shows us what happens when we put imaginary frogs in a real garden. For example, the suffering endured by gays in a homophobic society is a real issue. In the story "Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy" this problem is raised in a nineteenth-century world that has eggs and whiskey, creeks and rivers, newspapers and bullet wounds, horses and poetry readings. It also has gay cowboys who are ex-army men. Our world? Not quite. It has Whitney Waltman, not Walt Whitman; it has a ruinous war between Cardyr and Kilvemi, not the Civil War. It has a woman, Diana Comet, who tells the Lovesick Cowboy that at seventeen, she'd hitchhiked with camel thieves across the desert to hear the poet Gibran speak. Kahlil Gibran perhaps? Not quite, since Gibran in our world was only nine years old when Whitman died (1892). McDonald's world has all these imaginary frogs. But gay people, it turns out, can suffer just as much in this world as in ours.
They do so because our Brain, bless the generous simpleton, is willing to take such games seriously. And because McDonald is an excellent storyteller. Her style is perfectly suited for the setting. It's lighthearted, never preachy, wryly detached and restrained. By the time I reached the story "The Firemen's Fairy" (2007), a tale about the uses of fantasy in a crisis, I could unreservedly enjoy a paragraph such as this one:
The absolutely worst thing about Bob was his whistling. Cheerful little whistles, day and night, in the kitchen and equipment bay, except when Captain Ingalls asked him to pipe down. Station 42 had a goblin famous for its bawdy ballads, and Ladder 12's minotaur had written a country-music hit, but Bob simply whistled and whistled and whistled. (p. 184)
Bob, I should add, is Tinkerbob, "official fairy of Company 13" (p. 180). McDonald imagines a world where Massasoit's fire stations are assigned various fantasy mascots. Such outlandish, imbalanced conjunctions are given a steady keel by our world, true, but also by McDonald's pellucid prose.
There's one other factor that makes this collection of stories work. Diana Comet. She is the soul of the book. Whether she's busy finding out what happened to her lover in "Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover" (2009), or tweaking the trajectory of a gifted child's life in "Fay and the Goddesses," or consoling a tormented soul in "Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy," or giving a scholar the one thing all scholars want (no, not groupie love) in "Nets of Silver and Gold" (new here), or learning about growing old in "Diana Comet and the Collapsible Orchestra" (new here), or setting the reader free in "Women of the Lace" (2006), she's the spectacular thread that binds this volume together. Her true nature is revealed in bits and pieces, in sudden tumbles that leave her vulnerable, in her secret sorrows, in her dedication to other people's children, in her stout decision to make destiny her biology. She's a wonderful character.
Less wonderful are the half-hearted orientalist gestures of her author. Diana Comet lives in New Dalli, which is sufficiently unusual to require some explanatory gestures. It's the kind of thing where New Dalli evokes fine furniture (p. 31), minarets and towers (p. 25), ornate carpets (p. 109), where there's a royal prince called Harami, though she probably knows that it is dictionary-equivalent to calling him "Prince Bastard" and street-equivalent to "Prince Assole." Funny, yes, but all the western dudes have real names. Harami even has a golden parrot, three wives, a tiny dark-skinned secretary, and a distinguished ancestry going back a hundred generations. Naturally, a pair of henna'd hands have to decorate the cover of the book. A round of applause for the cover designer (Niki Smith) who found the moral strength to resist including an elephant and a fakir. Actually, Ms. Smith deserves applause for a less facetious reason. The henna pattern, formed by the joined hands on the cover, represents a Hindu deity that's the essence of this book.
A few stories seem to have wandered in from another collection. "Pieter and the Sea Witch" (new here) is a folktale, and though it's elegantly told as usual, it has a different feel from the other stories. So too "The Instrument" (2005), a remarkable story about the speaking corpse that lives inside all of us. We give this corpse various names—elders, ancestors, tradition, the Past, manifest destiny—and it hurls us forward into folly with its ceaseless abuse. McDonald calls it the Instrument and it's not so much a story as a suggestion for what to do with the undead who won't shut up.
I began this review uncertain about my feelings towards the book. Or more precisely, uneasy about the book's particular use of fantasy. I'm going to take that sense of unease as one of the book's subtler achievements. After all, who's estranged these days by vampires and zombies, robots and superheroes, poisoned apples and magic kingdoms? Even though McDonald's flippancy grated at times, her stories took me out of that comfort zone, made me think, and in balance I find myself pleased.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From the Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.