K. J. Bishop's novel The Etched City (2003) drew an enthusiastic audience with its blend of Wild West grit and fin-de-siècle decadence. Now Bishop is back, with That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, a weird and wonderfully heterogeneous collection of short fiction. The book—which Bishop has self-published as a Kindle ebook, though according to her website a print edition is forthcoming—spans Bishop's career, from her earliest publication, "The Art of Dying" (Aurealis #19, 1997) to work not previously published, and feels more like an anthology than a single-author collection—a tribute to Bishop's technical versatility and emotional range.
"We the Enclosed" introduces a narrator on the trail of a lost beloved. "In my efforts to find you," the searcher confesses, "I had acquired a good working knowledge of a number of divinatory methods." Among these, the narrator's favorite is "cledonomancy, the art of interpreting seemingly random events, such as overheard speech or an object encountered at a certain moment." It's a demanding art: the practitioner must remain perpetually open to meaning, willing to make use of anything that happens, to find significance in "coincidences, metaphors and puns." For the narrator of "We the Enclosed," this means developing a particular attitude toward language, one that might be described as reverent—or obsessive. Trapped in a maze, the determined investigator plays a word association game in order to choose whether to go right or left:
"Right" suggested correctness and beneficial action, and so initially appealed to me, but it also suggested a state of all being well, while "left" suggested departure and absence, residues and remainders, and the state of being forgotten or abandoned; in other words, things either missing or else redundantly present and not likely to be missed if removed. The left resonated with my own circumstances. But on the other hand, wasn't I trying to leave my circumstances?
"We the Enclosed" spirals around the narrator, and the reader, like an Escher staircase. Not all the stories in Mad Ancestor create that sense of structural impossibility, but they do share what might be called a cledonomancer's approach to language. This approach assumes that anything can be meaningful, or develop an aura indistinguishable from meaning. Several of the stories were written in response to single words or phrases—"My brain seems to like writing to strange prompts," Bishop writes in her notes—such as "Alsiso," written for Andrew Hook's The Alsiso Project (2004). The word Alsiso started out as a typo; the assignment for the writers involved in The Alsiso Project was to write a story with this nonsense word as a title. In Bishop's story, Alsiso is one of the last words in a dead language, scrawled in blood on the carpet of a dead nobleman: an apparently meaningless found object. History attaches meaning to the word: it becomes the name of an assassin, a bogeyman to frighten children, a revolutionary hero, a legendary lover, a dangerous woman, and more, until the world is "too crowded with Alsiso." The empty container of Alsiso becomes loaded with meaning, iconic, talismanic: an elegant demonstration of cledonomancy.
Several of the strongest stories in the collection were written to "strange prompts." The brilliant "Last Drink Bird Head" was written for the 2009 anthology of that title, in response to the question of editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: "Who or what is Last Drink Bird Head?" Bishop's answer begins with the declaration: "Last Drink Bird Head didn't fit in at school. When the others were candles, she was lemons." In order for this not to be nonsense, you have to practice a bit of cledonomancy yourself—a project the story frustrates in the most intoxicating way, becoming more and more fragmented, demanding further revisions of whatever meaning you've constructed, unraveling into a surrealist poem. "The Heart of a Mouse" was inspired by Jeff VanderMeer's prompt, "Giant mouse-man moving through a post-apocalyptic setting, looking for a mate": here, Bishop takes a very different approach, literalizing her material rather than unleashing it from meaning. "The Heart of a Mouse" really is about a mouse. It's about a man who has become a mouse, in a world where everybody is turning into something: pigs, cats, angels. The mouse is traveling with his son, who's turned into a creature "kind of like a hairless gopher." It's a cruel world for rodents, and the father and son spend their time surviving: searching for food and shelter, hiding from predators. The story's depth comes from the brash tone of its mouse narrator, which fails to conceal his deep sadness at the trauma his son his suffered, the bleakness of their future, and his own inadequacy as a parent. "Saving the Gleeful Horse," another prompted story—this time the prompt was "A man cares for a wild animal that has been injured"—unites the surrealism of "Last Drink Bird Head" with the literalism of "The Heart of a Mouse," presenting a bizarre world where toys live and a sorceress presides over "all the vintages of magic," and then taking that world absolutely seriously. Molimus the Great, the story's huge, compassionate hero, is one of Bishop's most irresistible characters, and his efforts to save the toy animal he names the Gleeful Horse make for one of her most memorable tales. In its evocation of beauty, mystery, and the cruelty of children, "Saving the Gleeful Horse" recalls the living playthings and mistreated Christmas trees of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, but it reworks this material in a weirder key.
Bishop's ability to conjure wonders out of the briefest prompts indicates an adventurous imagination. That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote is in some ways a catalog of artistic adventures, a collection of romps, experiments, and dreams. Bishop tries on different hats: "The Memorial Page" is a Borgesian fantasy about the lost books of lost nations; "Beach Rubble" takes place in a cyber-reality where strange bottles float in the ocean, "jostling with the spam"; "Vision Splendid" uses UFOs and the style of classic science fiction to critique what Bishop calls the "willful narrowness" in Anglo-Australian culture; "Mother's Curtains" is a cheerful feminist fable. And, of course, there's surrealism—no cledonomancer worth the name is going to miss the chance to submit to language in that absolute, trance-like way. "Domestic Interior," "When the Lamps Are Lit," and "The Crone Meets Her Son (On a Battlefield)" all enter the poetic and delirious territory of "Last Drink Bird Head," creating images that feel like automatic writing. "When the Lamps Are Lit" gives us "a unicorn in the outfield" and "dreams full of fish and spies"; in "Domestic Interior," we are advised that "It is . . . very elegant to wear gloves in the bath; then one's hands easily become amorous starfish that attach themselves to one's face and breasts in good-natured, pentacular, leathery concubinage." "Two Dreams" may or may not consist of two of Bishop's actual dreams; it certainly reads as though it does.
There are themes in this exuberant variety. The most striking of them has yellow eyes. His hair is usually long. He's a paragon of elegance, especially when it comes to killing. He is Gwynn in "The Art of Dying" and "She Mirrors"—a dashing and unrepentant criminal who will be familiar to readers of The Etched City. He is also Maldoror in the stunning "Maldoror Abroad," a piece inspired by the hallucinatory poems of the nineteenth-century Comte de Lautréamont. "Maldoror Abroad" opens with the exclamation, "The flourish of the razor through my cheek!", paving the way for a series of artful horrors. Maldoror is not exactly Gwynn, but the two share a joyful amorality, a pleasure in the well-executed execution. Alsiso the assassin shares it, too. The Marquis, who shows up in "Two Dreams" and "Madame Lenora's Rings," is perhaps another avatar of this seductive and casually murderous personality. The narrator of "Two Dreams" describes the Marquis as "a kind of discarnate being or character who in waking hours inhabits my mind as a friend and collaborator, but who has manifested in frightening forms in one or two other dreams." The nobleman's title, of course, evokes de Sade.
In "Between the Covers," the "demon lover" is a book: the writer's first novel. For this writer, stories aren't works she constructs, but creatures of happenstance that come to stay with her and dictate themselves: "One moment I was alone and the next moment it was there, a few sheets of blank paper clipped together and supported on spindly legs, telling me in a piping voice that it was a story and we'd both have some fun if I was willing to write it." More stories come to the writer, and even a novel, but only a first novel. That's when the Devil enters, and informs her that the two of them have an agreement: the writer, in a meeting she's forgotten (there's an amnesia clause in the contract) signed over 20% of her soul in exchange for the success of her first book. She also gave up the ability ever to fall in love with another novel.
It's a devastating little story. It reads like a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of cledonomancy: that openness to language that can make poetry out of anything, but only if the practitioner feels something for the material—a process she can't control. Whether or not K. J. Bishop is actually a cledonomancer, her strange and wonderful stories give the impression of having been written under a spell: hatched through some pseudo-magical process, like hypnotism, or séances with a mad ancestor, or perhaps a pact with the Devil.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). Her poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Clarkesworld Magazine, Weird Fiction Review, Stone Telling, and Goblin Fruit. She is the nonfiction and poetry editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. She blogs at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.