If anyone else feels like we're still drowning in slipstream—or, rather, drowning in definitions of slipstream—this follow-up to the 2007 anthology Interfictions certainly won't offer any easy answers to the question of what's been going on lately with all this genre-bending stuff. What Interfictions 2 does offer is a set of stories that, if united by only the most tenuous thematic and generic threads, couldn't be more worth reading. Indeed, the folks at Small Beer Press and the Interstitial Arts Foundation have once again produced an enormously rich anthology that takes an almost manic diversity for its guiding principle, not so much in order to provide something for everyone, but seemingly to include something from just about everywhere.
The only problem is that, because of this very diversity, "interstitial" works can be almost anything. Of course, that's part of the appeal, too: neither the contributors nor the editors attempt to disguise the fact that the term "interstitial," much like "slipstream," means many different things to many different people—often, mutually incompatible things to otherwise compatible, companionable genre fans. Instead, we see several efforts to make a virtue of this muddle in the non-fictional sections of the book. Henry Jenkins supplies the anthology with an introduction titled "On the Pleasures of Not Belonging," in which he pithily describes the editors' selections as "stories that don't fit anywhere else, stories that are as different from each other as possible" (p. 1). I will examine the usefulness of this definition of "interstitial" later on, but, in my own understanding, interstitial works, on the most basic level, tend to be hybrids, chimeras, or patchworks, cut-ups, mash-ups, or plain old misfits, the hale and hideous progeny of latter-day Frankensteins. And the IAF keeps on working to give these little monsters a place to call home.
A noble cause, to be sure: Interfictions 2 continues the tradition of publishing stories from around the world, including one translation from French, as well as entries originating from places as far-flung as Australia and Norway. The IAF has not only provided these promising authors with another foot in the American market, but, by placing them in the context of current goings-on in American and British speculative fiction like interstitiality and slipstream, the Foundation also gathers invaluable transnational perspectives on these hot-button issues. It's also important to note that, with a few prominent exceptions, the majority of the authors in Interfictions 2 aren't huge names, unlike many of those featured in, say, Feeling Very Strange or Michael Chabon's recent pair of genre-bending anthologies. Does the quality of the writing suffer? I, for one, would answer firmly in the negative; in fact, Interfictions 2 struck me as much stronger overall than the original volume, an improvement perhaps attributable to the attention that the first installment attracted.
The book opens with Jeffrey Ford's "The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper," a short, surprisingly dense dream narrative that drops allusions to both Samuel Beckett and The Shining, and which ultimately reads like a cross between a Freddy Krueger film and an Umberto Eco novel. At least with respect to its genre and execution, Ford's story arguably demonstrates more affinities with the medieval dream vision than the cutting edge of any modern field—or even any modern in-between-fields—but we may have on our hands an excellent case of the "so old it's new."
In fact, one gets this same impression from a number of the other stories; for example, especially because of the supernatural rather than sci-fictional slant of the original Interfictions, I was surprised to discover in Interfictions 2 the triumphant reemergence of the classic Golden Age of SF scientist-hero. Cecil Castellucci's "The Long and Short of Long Term Memory" is the tale of one neuroscientist's quest for a drug that can suppress specific memories: not only is this also a perfect Golden Age premise, but the story is partially set on a moon colony, to boot. Yet the primary concerns of the genre author have undergone quite a shift since the 1940s, and Castellucci uses these now tired old tropes primarily to tell a story of character, rather than to extrapolate future technology. Interstitial? You tell me. I guess one could also argue that this piece counts as interstitial because it falls in the spaces between the short story and the neuroscience textbook—Castellucci includes several diagrams of neurons, etc.—but I'd frankly rather not encourage a proliferation of that particular in-between genre. For Castellucci, it works, and I suppose in the end that's all we ask our interstitial fiction to do.
Elizabeth Ziemska also hearkens back to the Golden Age—or earlier—with a MacGyver-style time machine that makes her story "Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken" feel something like a piece of science fiction without the science part. And one of the most compelling stories in the collection features yet another scientist-protagonist, Carlos Hernandez's "The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria." If the title isn't interstitial enough for you, in the first few pages we get several distinctly sci-fi similes that soon give way to a rather different genre: "The heart of a pigeon was the last ingredient I needed for the Santeria ritual I was performing so Papi could find love again" (p. 97). Hernandez peppers his prose with references to Mr. Spock and the Wolfman, then Grendel and Proust, and he includes enough mathematical content to qualify his story for membership in that small but prestigious subgenre of "math fiction." In his afterword, Hernandez cites Borges and Choose Your Own Adventure novels in the same sentence, and that is perhaps as good a summary as any of the literary heritage of speculative fiction today. Finally, while I wouldn't describe the story's macaronic character as revolutionary enough to require a new label, the revenant that appears in the latter half of the story is perhaps the ghost of the Spanish language as much as it is the ghost of the narrator's mother.
Which brings me to my next point: interstitial fiction is haunted, but it seems to be haunted in a few specific ways. In some cases, we find spectral presences tied to the concept of alternate universes; in others, they are perhaps reflections of a frantically postmodern culture. Indeed, several stories express some kind of desire to change the past, with the implication that, elsewhere in the multiverse, things went down differently; in "After Verona," for one, William Alexander's grieving narrator confesses, "I think about the one thing in the past that, if changed, would fix the present and make the whole story work out the way it should" (p. 206). (We might also chalk up the high frequency of "quantum ghosts" in this collection as indicative of a certain editorial aesthetic, recalling Karen Jordan Allen's "Alternate Anxieties" from Interfictions, a story that shares a similar concern for "fulcrum moments.") Another example appears in Alaya Dawn Johnson's "The Score," a story that takes the form of a wide-ranging collage of media: song lyrics, interviews, e-mails, even a coroner's report. Again, Johnson combines a scientist as central character with unconventional narrative techniques, and I will leave suspended for now the question of whether these features, along with the old maybe-supernatural/maybe-not plot, merit the label "interstitial." If one can get past these questions of genre and the somewhat moralizing political message, "The Score" beautifully traces the ripples a public death makes in the modern media, those ghosts born in cyberspace.
There are, I'm afraid, less intriguing hauntings in the collection. In general, I don't care for stories narrated by Unexpected Inanimate Objects, and Interfictions 2's two entries in the tradition failed to change that preference. In Will Ludwigsen's "Remembrance is Something Like a House," a family home sets off on a decades-long journey from Ohio to Florida, ostensibly traveling at night and keeping to the woods. Here, "interstitial" seems to mean "contemporary fantasy that requires an extra hefty suspension of disbelief." But perhaps what galled me the most about this story was the (accidental?) pun driving it: I couldn't help feeling that the entire story was one overextended play on the phrase "haunted house," since this self-aware domicile is "haunted" by its own feelings of guilt. In "The 121," David J. Schwartz one-ups the walking house with a sentient explosion who not only walks and talks, but moreover embarks on a high-profile career in Hollywood action movies. Again, I couldn't help but wonder if the whole story wasn't just a misguided joke, culminating in the punning line, "I wonder sometimes if anyone dies when a star is born" (p. 305). The explosion is referring to literal stars, of course, but he, the movie star, carries around the consciousnesses of the victims who died at his own "birth." Maybe I only see puns in these lines because I couldn't take either of these stories as seriously as I think they needed me to take them. Decide for yourself.
I much prefer the strand of contemporary Anglophone magic realism that the editors give ample representation here, specifically that sort of Linkesque "kitchen-sink magic realism." (Can we say "Linkesque" yet? Linkian?) Ray Vukcevich's punchy opening line in "The Two of Me" hints at the potential of this kind of story: "I was not quite ten when Renata grew up out of my right shoulder like a second head" (p. 89). It's a wonderful piece, as simultaneously cryptic and matter-of-fact as Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." I suppose, however, that by now this kind of story isn't particularly unconventional in the wider context of contemporary fantasy, but the author also argues for its interstitiality based on the fact that he wrote it in response to a work of visual art. Since I'm very glad to see the story in this collection, I won't challenge that claim, either.
We might categorize Stephanie Shaw's "Afterbirth" as a member of this same genre of domestic magic realism, as well as a piece of "amniotic horror," to adapt a phrase from Angela Carter. After all, our narrator warns us that the dragons haunting the delivery room might not be either fully real or fully fantastic: "They may just be metaphors. Ignore them as best you can" (p. 287). Indeed, "Afterbirth" takes place in one of those irrealist contemporary worlds in which everything may just be a metaphor, but probably isn't: there's something compelling about this kind of fiction, but there can be something frustrating as well. I would place Peter M. Ball's "Black Dog: A Biography" in this same group—"When I say the words Black Dog I am not speaking in metaphor" (p. 178)—but I found its excessive narrative self-consciousness far from avant-garde and mostly off-putting. I'm also struggling to understand why we should necessarily designate as "interstitial" a story like this one, which the author claims is "as much biography as it is fiction, treading the line between the two as best it can" (p. 191). This conception of interstitiality doesn't do much for me, perhaps because that's how I understand all fiction to be generated: from a combination of the author's perceptions, experiences, and speculations. While the justification for this story's interstitiality seems the most similar to the example that Heinz Insu Fenkl offers in the introduction to the original Interfictions—the case of his haunted, dreamy memoir/novel Memories of My Ghost Brother—the important difference here seems to be that no one could possibly mistake a story about a spectral fire-breathing Black Dog for anything close to genuine autobiography.
I didn't want to question the theory behind "interstitiality" too much, but I've got to say that the problems of definition only get worse from here. For example, in her afterword, Theodora Goss explains how, if one takes the alien's perspective, a story can then become interstitial, since, after all, "aliens and monsters are themselves in-betweeny, liminal, interstitial sorts of creatures" (p. 259). Wait a minute—suddenly all aliens and all monsters are interstitial in the same way that 21st century works of fiction can be interstitial? We see how these rampant definitions can grow to claim massive portions of the genres for the interstitial, at which point the term probably ceases to be a useful tool in sifting through contemporary fiction.
Nevertheless, Goss's own story is actually pretty close to what I imagine when I hear the term "interstitial" or "slipstream," and it is, I think, a far better illumination of the current genre-bending aesthetic than her explication of it. "Child-Empress of Mars," a pseudo-pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs—Goss, in a very postmodern move, admits she's only ever read the Wikipedia article on his work—affects a self-conscious high fantasy style: at one point the title character remarks, "The Hero must go on his Quest, for that is the nature of Heroes" (p. 251). But people have been writing self-conscious reflections on sword and sorcery for decades; in Goss's story, we instead get a rewriting of the early genre of "interplanetary romance" by someone more likely raised on post-Tolkien high fantasy, the spectacular result of which somehow ends up being nearer in many ways to Roger Zelazny's thoughtful SF yarn "A Rose for Ecclesiastes." (Just read it.)
For an even more extreme example of good fiction but poorly-defined interstitiality, we could turn to Camilla Bruce's "Berry Moon." The story itself makes for a fascinating, artful reflection on the creative process, yet, in her afterword, Bruce unfortunately describes writers as "somewhat interstitial by nature" (p. 195). Here the term "interstitial writing" has become hopelessly redundant, and therefore a worthless designation. I don't mean to pick on anyone's definition of "interstitial" in particular: it's not the individual definitions that weaken the concept, as such, but rather the sheer number of them that the concept permits. Moreover, this diversity most undermines the concept on its fringes: William Alexander's comment that "eulogies are interstitial sorts of stories" (p. 213) made me scratch my head as well, and I began to wonder whether his story, or indeed any story that simply narrates the aftermath of a death, could possibly be considered "interstitial" for that reason alone.
Yes, bear with me: I'm now going to venture to suggest which kinds of stories don't fit into the anthology of stories that don't fit in. Brian Francis Slattery's "Interviews After the Revolution" takes place in a third-world locale that, even if entirely fictional, remains so generically tropical and war-torn it could be anywhere in Latin America. Don't get me wrong, it's a decent story, but it's also the piece I most strongly believe does not belong in this anthology. The author makes much of the story's presentation as a piece of non-fiction, but the narrative technique seems to me a case of what we would call the "false document" in a work of realistic literary fiction, a technique as popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as it is today. Granted, the general definition of "interstitiality"—or lack of definition—is broad enough so that the stuff doesn't technically have to have anything at all to do with speculative fiction. But, in essence, one gets the feeling that this straightforward "literary" story found its way into an admittedly more genre-oriented anthology precisely because a genre author wrote it, not because of any uniquely interstitial qualities, nor because no mainstream lit-mag would dare publish it.
Finally, sometimes a story seems able to pass for interstitial if it contains just the right balance of metafictional and mimetic content, say, as in a writer story. Even so, there are some interesting things going on in some of the more metafictional tales: for one, Alan DeNiro's unpronounceably titled "(*_*) ~~~ (-_-): The Warp and the Woof" provides very self-conscious commentary on the writing process, but not in a way I find heavy-handed. This wild riff on the possibility of a post-apocalyptic publishing industry presents a theme common to several of the stories in the collection: an ambivalence about writing and art, or, as DeNiro phrases the concern in his afterword, "What happens when writing's power (and pedagogy) gets out of control?" (p. 247). In fact, a few of the stories even attempt to delineate a kind of interstitial ars poetica, and as pieces of fiction they obviously work with varying degrees of success. By far the best of these is Lionel Davoust's "L'Ile Close," a story at once hilarious and beautifully elegiac as it bravely raises the specter of nostalgia: the story is set on an ever-shrinking island upon which retellings of the Matter of Britain endlessly iterate. Davoust both articulates and then takes up the challenge of locating new narrative possibilities in the accumulated weight of these superimposed retellings: as the island shrinks, we are reminded of the risk we always run of exhausting the old story with each new version.
Arthurian reminisces, Golden Age plots, postmodern fairytales, quantum ghosts—is Interfictions 2, or speculative fiction at large, simply nostalgic? It's a difficult question to answer, but the driving idea behind the IAF obviously remains the encouragement of innovation and experimentation. So, we might adjust our original question to something more like, "Is 'interstitiality' the most promising way for the speculative genres to transcend nostalgia and achieve something great and new?" Also a difficult question to answer, especially if we're not entirely sold on the word itself as a valid description of, well, anything. Who, after all, could be entirely satisfied with the answer that the definition of "interstitial fiction" is fiction that's hard to define, or even indefinable?
The best analysis I have come across of this slipstream/interstitial/New Wave fabulist/whatever-else business does not appear in this anthology, but rather in an article in the science fiction journal Foundation, co-written by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer. I don't want to go too much into the details of their argument, but I'll excerpt a few relevant passages; most significantly for the interstitial debate, Wolfe and Beamer refuse to let IAF off the hook with that "difficult to define" defense: "And it's not very useful to have a genre that is essentially indefinable, or definable only in terms of what it is not. . . . In a purely rhetorical sense, this is a very strange way to go about defining a new movement: the very act of claiming that a story is not genre science fiction or fantasy or horror, or that an artist refuses to be constrained by category labels, seems more likely to validate and valorize those labels than to overcome them" (p. 19). Remember, Wolfe and Beamer are speaking in general terms here, but a survey of Interfictions 2 bears out much of what they say: "[T]he new aesthetic is based less in a rejection of earlier forms than in a celebration of them . . . a willingness to borrow tropes, language, techniques from almost anywhere—genre fiction, literary modernism, popular culture, avant-garde experimentalism, fable and folklore, as well as from alternate modes such as music, film, theatre, so-called 'outside art,' graphic novels, painting, or photography—and to incorporate them into an eclectic new mode which quite properly resists labeling" (p. 34).
Of course, there is a world of difference between such a resistance of labeling and being totally indefinable. Accordingly, Wolfe and Beamer proceed to trace the following shared characteristics and patterns across this kind of contemporary fiction: "Shifts in point of view, setting, or chronology"; "Denial of resolution"; emphasis on "[t]he storyteller's voice"; "Domesticity"; "Slippage"; "Contingency of worlds"; "Themes of art and artifice." As far as the stories in Interfictions 2 are concerned, check, check, check, and so on. By "Slippage" Wolfe and Beamer mean that "[t]hese stories frequently draw on the furniture of horror, fantasy, or science fiction, as well as the conventions of domestic realism, memoir, surrealism, even non-fiction" (p. 21). Again, many of these features appear in most of the pieces in Interfictions 2.
As it happens, Beamer also has a story in Interfictions 2, and, not surprisingly, it contains more than a few of these characteristics, as well as a few of the ones I've pointed out in the collection; for one, she uses an ambivalent, ghostly metaphor for the role of the author in creating fictions. In an interesting narratological move, the author's persona jointly narrates the story with a ghost, "two spectral beings" of whom the main character demonstrates his awareness (p. 202). But it is a comment from her afterword, I think, that points to the real value of Interfictions 2 and the work of the Interstitial Arts Foundation: "I get regular rejection letters from genre editors, saying that the speculative element isn't central enough, and have stories bounced from literary markets because genre work isn't serious enough" (p. 203). The recent spate of slipstreamy anthologies has demonstrated that a growing interest in this kind of in-between stuff does exist, but not yet a full-fledged apparatus for connecting interstitial writers with interstitial readers. As Sherman explains in the interview that concludes the collection, her main goal in promoting interstitial fiction really entails placing stories with an audience that they might not otherwise find. True, not all of these fairly experimental stories will emerge as the harbingers of proud new movements: some, it seems, are likely to remain in the cracks, but others should simply not be missed.
Wolfe, Gary K., and Amelia Beamer. "21st Century Stories." Foundation 103 (2008): 16-37.
T.S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him. His non-fiction has also appeared on The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and another article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.