Half threat, half promise, the title of this collection of stories unequivocally sums up the effects of its contents. Like fish hooks, Carol Emshwiller's stories possess barbs; once caught in the mind, they're almost impossible to dislodge. They do indeed live with the reader, resurfacing during quiet moments, so the reader may ponder them afresh. Yet, like fish, these stories are beautiful, glittering objects, not easily grasped. Just as understanding seems about to dawn, they give a flick of their figurative fins, twist out of one's grip to float just out of reach, challenging the reader to try again, see if you can catch the sense of me this time.
I've read all these stories at least twice, some of them three or four times, and I'm particularly struck by how resistant they are to being "understood." Indeed, the first time I read the collection, I was disappointed by its seeming superficiality yet struck by the elusiveness of meaning in individual stories. Subsequent readings often render them more rather than less opaque. Or rather, and once you realise this it's where tackling Emshwiller's narratives becomes such good fun, close and repeated reading reveals the astonishing intricacy of the stories, the ways in which individual tales fold around themselves, concealing other stories left tantalisingly untold.
To take one example, let's look at "The Library," the opening story of this collection. At first sight, this seems to be a narrative about conflict between a nation strictly opposed to the use of images in books, and indeed, for the most part the need for books at all, and a nation which is defined by its emphasis on the intellectual life and by its fabulous library. The fundamentalist narrator makes statements such as: "What we do is for the good of all mankind" and "there can be no peace and no morality as long as these books exist." (p.1) As a reader, I am already being invited to direct my sympathies towards the librarians, until, almost in passing, as a young librarian tries to change the narrator's attitude, she says: "Let me find the book—the one I'd choose if I could have one of my own." (p. 11) Emswhiller never mentions it again, but for me that sentence completely destabilises the story; there is no longer any certainty as to what's going on, and indeed, the narrative itself literally falls over shortly after when the library is hit by a bomb, though that's by no means the end of the story. Emshwiller's stories are studded with such bombs, literal and metaphorical, as though she wants, all the time, to shake up the reader's preconceptions.
Nor, despite the fact that the male fundamentalist and the female librarian are at odds with one another, is "The Library" a story about the sex wars, or at any rate, it doesn't appear to be. The two protagonists are themselves uncertain throughout as to what they want or need from life, and from each other. It's a theme that is picked up time and again in the other stories. As Eileen Gunn notes in her excellent introduction, while Emswhiller "has not completely left behind the battle of the sexes, these new stories detail defections and private truces in a larger war: men and women engaged in hand-to-hand combat with life itself," (p. xii) to which I would add, and with society's expectations of them.
Several stories, among them "The Prince of Mules," "Coo People," and "Bountiful City," are told from the point of view of desperately lonely women who seem driven to find a man, any man, by whatever means necessary, and hang the consequences, in order to fit more comfortably into society's notion of who and what they should be. Or maybe they are simply lonely. It's a theme that also surfaces more obliquely but perhaps more hopefully in "I Live With You And You Don't Know," and more tenderly in "My General." Or come at the stories in another direction, and the theme becomes the search for individuality in an homogenised world. Or for a clearly delineated identity. So many of these stories are about fragmented societies, fragmented people, and a search for wholeness or reconciliation in the ruins of life gone awry.
So, finally, apart from mess severely with their minds, something she is really extremely good at, what is it that Carol Emshwiller is trying to do to her readers? The final story, "Josephine," undoubtedly gives us a clue. The eponymous character is an elderly woman, living in a wretched old people's home. A former tightrope dancer, she has a tremendous appetite for life, and still performs on talent night. As the narrator notes, "she wobbles on her slack wire but she hasn't fallen yet." (p. 177) When she's not performing, she's running away from the home, as any sane and mobile person would, and the narrator is the one called upon to bring her home, until Josephine hatches her plan to run away for good from society's expectations of her. The body may be ageing, but the spirit is still free and should be able to run where it will; this, I think, is what Emshwiller demands of all of us as readers, that we should let our minds run free and be open to whatever she sends in our direction. What she sends is deceptively simple, yet so powerful, so subtle, so disruptive as to blow our imaginations wide open, causing us to wobble but, with luck, not to fall. Having wobbled, but not fallen, we then see the world in a whole new way.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student taking a degree in English Literature, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.