It hurts. That has to be said. M. Rickert's brilliant debut collection hurts from the first sentence of the first (and title) story, a bald statement of loss that sets the tone for much of what follows. "My six-year-old daughter," Annie Merchant tells us, "was shot and killed by a sniper while we were visiting New York City in the summer of 1992." That the rest of the first chapter of what is really a short novel does not dwell on the incident itself—a brief, almost journalistic laying out of the facts, who else died and in what order, is almost all we get—does nothing to diminish the clarity of Annie's pain, nor to hide the extent to which it has warped her life. It's there in the way her husband, David, pats her knee consolingly after a dinner party guest makes an unconsciously thoughtless remark, then turns to compliment the hostess ("expert," Annie notes, "at rescuing others from my despair," p. 4); and it's there in what is plainly an unreasonable fascination with one of the other bereaved, Max Von Feehler, a physicist-turned-novelist with seductive ideas about the true nature of time. Describing his book at a reading, Von Feehler explains how the protagonist "suffers an extraordinary loss, which basically removes him from the mainstream [...] he finds out how to leave the limited line of time and enter curved space" (p. 5). And, it is implied, find the person he lost. Convinced this theory is rooted in real experience, Annie inveigles her way back to Von Feehler's hotel room: the physicist doesn't admit he's on to something, but he doesn't deny it too forcefully, either. The chapter ends with Annie "discouraged and depressed," bitter at those around her who "suffered easy lives" (p. 9), but also determined to find a way back to her daughter, with Von Feehler or without him.
The rest of the story divides roughly into two parts: a past-tense section, which describes the initial stages of Annie's search, the weight it places on her relationships with friends and family, and her increasing frustration ("Family, friends, husband [...] all stand at a distant shore and promise that they love me if only I will return to the beliefs they hold. They believe they stand on solid land. I finally understand that none of us do," p. 25); and a longer present-tense section, which describes the cost to Annie of finding what she seeks. The trajectory is one of increasing strangeness; what keeps the enterprise from coming untethered is the precision with which the layers of Annie's obsessive grief are excavated. (Which is to say that it all hurts.) Along the way, however, Annie does discover one partial corrective for that grief: like Von Feehler before her, she takes up writing, and when she completes a story she feels "lightened, as if unburdened of its weight" (p. 45). As it turns out, the remainder of Map of Dreams—sixteen previously published stories, divided into four groups of four, each with an introductory vignette—is presented as by Annie Merchant, with the implication that some or all of the tales may have been told to her by other lost travellers. This could easily be cute, but proves surprisingly easy to swallow, and serves double duty as both a tribute to the effectiveness of Annie's characterisation, and a comment on our willingness as readers to link fiction to reality. (That pain has to come from somewhere, we say to ourselves, as a way of explaining it, as a way of avoiding infecting ourselves with it.) But most importantly, it establishes Rickert as a writer unwilling to pretend, as so many writers, perhaps particularly in the genres of the fantastic, seem willing to pretend, that stories spontaneously self-organise out of dictionaries. In M. Rickert's stories, the identity of the teller always matters.
To put it another way, what the organisation of the book means is that by the time we get to the sixteen stories, it's hard to ignore the fact that we've passed through a number of frames to get there. Map of Dreams is published by a genre small press, Golden Gryphon; the author's name is carefully neutral (in a 2004 interview, Rickert stated that she obscured her gender because when she used a male narrator she didn't want her name to "break the fiction"); it is presented as the possibly not-entirely-fictional work of "Annie Merchant"; and its reprinted content is arranged into subsections titled "Dreams," "Nightmares," "Waking," and "Rising," each of which has its own internal flow. These frames are not entirely complementary, which means they do not impose any one meaning on the stories they present. Instead, they alert us to possibility, forcing us to choose how we are going to approach the text, to decide which frame, if any, we are going to accept. It's a strategy that makes conscious a choice that we make unconsciously when we start to read anything. For the stories that Rickert is interested in telling, many of which function like literary Rorschach blots, this can only be a good thing, because if the identity of the teller matters, then the choices we as readers make about the teller matter, too. Several of the stories in Map of Dreams, for instance, are brief, intense monologues that tell us about extraordinary things—visitations from the Virgin Mary, in "Angel Face" (2000), or a statue being carved into life in "Art Is Not a Violent Subject" (2004), or a haunting in "More Beautiful Than You" (2004)—and provide no objective way of judging their truth. We may harbour suspicions, but proof is denied us, and in fact, we are often given reason to doubt. The narrator of "Angel Face" is giving us a tour of a barn where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, righteously pissed off, to one Mrs Vanderwhitter. That's not the miracle; or it might be, but it might instead be the girl who interrupts one of Mrs Vanderwhitter's sermons, confused as to why she can't also see Mary, "because she makes it rain roses in my backyard every morning," and wondering (in an endearingly unselfconscious way) "why wouldn't she let me see her here?" (p. 142). Or maybe there's no miracle at all: the narrator, after all, is the sort of paranoid individual who sees CIA spooks everywhere "because the government don't want us to have our faith" (p. 138), and they might be seeing magic where there's none—or they might have decided it would be fun to pull an out-of-towner's leg with a tall tale. What really happened, in a sense, is irrelevant; the question that lingers at the end of the story is simply, do we trust this person?
Religious imagery crops up several more times in Map of Dreams, and when it does—as in, say, "Many Voices" or "The Harrowing" (both 2004)—it's usually a sign that the story isn't going to admit whether it's a fantasy or not. "Many Voices" is one of the most elaborately structured pieces in the collection. The protagonist, whose first-person statements begin and end the story, is Rose Miller, known as "the Joan of Arc killer" since claiming she was acting under the instruction of angels' voices when she murdered a mentally ill young woman. There are many voices in the story as well as in Rose's head, however, and so alongside Rose's monologues we get a note from her victim, transcripts of interviews between Rose and other people, newspaper clippings, and a letter from Rose's mother. It's clear that Rose believes absolutely that she is hearing angels' voices; it's equally clear that everyone else believes she's schizophrenic. The ambiguity of the story doesn't reside in what happens (as it sometimes does in, say, Kelly Link's stories), but in how we are asked to choose what has happened. There are only two options, neither of them appealing—if Rose is ill, her life is a tragedy; if she's right, then our world is a tragedy—but it seems a betrayal of the story to avoid choosing at all. In "The Harrowing," the situation is somewhat different. There are only two voices—that of the protagonist, who is telling us about a time when he was traveling, trying to find himself, and that of a man he meets, who tells the protagonist (and us) the story whose truth we have to decide, about his experiences studying to be a priest. The story is one of the few failures in Map of Dreams, but the reasons it fails are telling: in part it's because the material (dabbling in the occult, an abusive senior priest) is familiar, even if the story's ending puts an interesting spin on what comes before, but more significant is the fact that the story is one of Rickert's few failures of voice. The protagonist is, essentially, a middle-class boy slumming it, but he doesn't sound like it; there's no compelling sense of how his experiences have affected him (you wonder what Lucius Shepard would have done with a similar character), and so when the encounter imparts a new angular momentum to his life, we don't feel as moved as we should. And compared to "Many Voices," the stakes involved in believing or not believing in the story as fantasy are low. It doesn't matter who the mysterious stranger really was; he had an effect either way.
At the other end of the scale is "Anyway" (2005), in which the stakes could not be higher since—if the story is a fantasy—the fate of the world hangs in the balance. If the mother at the centre of the story decides to sacrifice her son's life (by burying a box of what may be magical bloodstones when he goes off to soldier), and it works, there will be no more war in the world, ever. Structurally, the piece is one of Rickert's most straightforward tales, and more focused on its protagonist's decision to believe or not than any of the other stories I've mentioned so far. Annie Merchant and Rose Miller are fervent believers from the time we meet them; this mother, on the other hand, is in the throes of the hard choice. She wrestles with the impossible on our behalf. Not coincidentally, "Anyway" is one of the best showcases for Rickert's eye for detail in Map of Dreams. The sketching-out of family dynamics is deft, filled with the telling gestures and glances and grunts of a tightly-knit unit, a domestic idiom very obviously freighted with meaning to those in the know. And the setting is fully contemporary, more engaged with the wider world than stories like "Many Voices" and "The Harrowing"; the war that looms in the background is clearly the conflict in Iraq, and this mother's choice would be familiar even without the fantastic charge it carries. Another story in the "Nightmares" part of the collection, "Bread and Bombs" (2003), also tackles current politics—or rather, their aftermath, since the story is near-future science fiction, set in a world where the idea that people used to travel in airplanes all the time is greeted with incredulity, and snow is something to be viewed with fear, as a potential biological weapon. The consequences of a small town's mistrust of a newly-arrived refugee family slowly corrupt an almost overly familiar portrait of American childhood ("We were waking to the wonders of the world and the body [...] We threw balls, rode bikes, rolled skateboards down the driveway, picked flowers, fought, made up, and it was still hours before dinner," p. 151), and right up to the end, the story's moral core is thrown into relief by juxtapositioning it with blackly humorous banality ("The grownups assemble to discuss how we will not be ruled by evil, and also, the possibility of widening Main Street," p. 162). Perhaps this time a frame brought to the story from outside the book works in the story's favour—it is the only piece of straight science fiction in Map of Dreams, and at least on first reading it's hard not to expect a fantastic intrusion of some kind, which makes the final image that much more of a hammerblow—but Rickert's choreography of the horror of the situation is still masterful.
"Bread and Bombs" is something of an exception, though, in that in general the more overtly estranged stories in Map of Dreams are the less successful. The collection's title isn't misleading: Rickert's genius, I think, is for the subjective—for making us distrust her narrators and making us question what sort of story we're in—and for evoking that discomfort amidst the detail of everyday life. Her best work does have something of the slipperiness of dreams. But her stories do not usually demonstrate a love for the fantastic for its own sake, for the wonder or the terror of it, and when her stories need to evoke that wonder or terror they sometimes fall short. "Leda" (2002), for example, is a relatively straight-faced retelling of the myth; it's as beautifully constructed as "Many Voices," told with the same care in the same patchwork structure. But where the various sources in "Many Voices" contradict and challenge one another, in "Leda" they support one another mechanically, with no room for argument. The lyricism of "Moorina of the Seals" (2001, revised for this collection), a selkie story, feels a little forced, although the tale also contains scenes of visceral terror and pain. Equally outlandish, but less straightforwardly fantastic, is Rickert's first published story, "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies" (1999); while the strangeness that runs through the story is undeniable, it's too often undermined by overly familiar descriptions. "She was the sort of girl who did not know she was pretty," we are told. "A pale face with the lightest scattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Pale blue eyes the color of dreams. Hair the color of corn" (p. 203). Contrast this with the description that opens one of the collection's more domestic stories, "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way" (2006): "She is a young woman, really, though coming upon her like this, standing at the window staring out at the bright California sun and palm trees, her hair pulled back in an innocuous ponytail, her shoulders slightly hunched, her arms wrapped around herself in a desultory manner, as if hugging someone who has become tiresome, she gives the impression of being a sad, old woman" (p. 184). The woman is immediately more real than the girl, because every part of the description is less generic; almost as though in the more mundane setting, we're allowed to spend more time looking at the character.
Rickert's stories, then, are strongest when the fantastic is in some sense contained, when the structure of the story fences it in—when the story provides its own frame. This is not to say that Rickert is a manipulative writer, or that her stories feel rigged, because they don't. The families and marriages and mothers (particularly the last, who are, let's face it, not exactly an over-represented constituency in the genres of the fantastic) that populate this book are beautifully drawn, distinctive and believable; they may (they often) suffer, but never cheaply. It's just that a flavour of the fantastic is a powerful thing, for the element of possibility it introduces, and most of the time that's all Rickert's stories need. The fantastic is held at one remove in "Cold Fires" (2004), for instance: it's the tale of a husband and wife, stranded in a cold snap sketched with almost supernaturally vivid images ("It was so cold birds fell from the sky like tossed rocks," p. 124), who tell each other tales of their history that are themselves almost fantastic. The woman describes how she is descended from pirates, and possibly a witch with a passion for strawberries; the man describes his discovery of the perhaps-magical inspiration behind some desperately terrible art. It is a tremendously intimate, even romantic story, yet bittersweet and shot through with melancholy. The night of huddled storytelling deepens the couple's understanding of each other in a way that reinforces the limits such understanding will always face. And it has to be this way, because Rickert refuses to sanitise our world for her stories: so grace is always tempered by sorrow, and sorrow always holds the possibility of grace. The same is true for Rickert's proxy. Towards the end of her story, Annie Merchant tries to explain how her grief has opened up her life: "It's not, as they said, that I wanted the pity," she says. "It's just that my life, well, this is what it is. This is who I am. The incredible thing is everyone was convinced that this was about hating life but really, it's about loving it. For the way it really is" (p. 97). From beginning to end, Map of Dreams hurts. It's meant to. M. Rickert loves the world for the way it really is.