It's a truism that writing is about choices; I'd also argue that most writers in SF and fantasy spend far more time making choices about content than about form. It often winds up being an unexamined axiom that they happen to write prose narratives that start at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop. To put it another way, much speculative fiction has an attitude to narrative that doesn't take into account the wider possibilities opened up by modernism and everything that's followed. That perhaps accounts for the limited or befuddled response to authors who break the "rules" of straightforward storytelling—such as John M. Ford and Gene Wolfe.
And such as, I'd suggest, Bruce Holland Rogers. He has been writing for some time in his chosen forms (see below), and he's had a couple of collections published, but there was some surprise when his most recent, The Keyhole Opera, beat out Kelly Link's Magic For Beginners and Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts for the World Fantasy Award last year. (The surprise was compounded by the fact that few people had read the book: it was patchily distributed, even for a small-press work, although it was and is available via Amazon, as well as via the publisher's website.)
Rogers's chosen form is the very short story. The works in The Keyhole Opera mostly range from one page to ten. As I suggested above, everything about a work represents a choice by the writer, and so should make a case for why there's a word on the page instead of nothing. The choice to restrict oneself to this narrowest of compasses, therefore, clearly reflects a kind of modesty about what can and can't be said. In purely economic terms, it's a brave choice in a world where you get paid by the word. The form also carries aesthetic risks, of course: the obvious one is the risk that you will wind up presenting a verbless vignette, a static tableau left to float in the breeze of whatever significance you happen to waft its way.
Whatever else it is, The Keyhole Opera is the most intelligently structured book I've read in the last year. It's divided into five sections, prefaced with an introduction by Michael Bishop that perhaps explains rather too much about Rogers's concerns and methods and so should be saved till last. (It also has, unfortunately, some of the worst book design decisions I've seen in a long while: the cover features a moody looking robe-draped woman leaning across an Art Nouveau keyhole, and the interior is defaced with a similarly busy font for the contents, titles, and running-heads. Since Rogers's art is as far as could be imagined from Art Nouveau filigree and fussiness, these choices are at best inappropriate and at worse a severe distraction.) The first section of the book is called "Stories."
The first of these, "Avery's Story," is barely a page long. The narrator notices a woman crossing the road carrying Christmas presents. She sees a car heading for her and "in the next moment her eyes filled with resignation" (p.3). She looks beyond the car to the narrator, and in the instant before it hits her, their eyes lock. He gives her, somehow, the gift of not being alone in the moment before she dies. The second, "The Last Unseen Window in the Last Unseen Car," is couched as an act of denial. It begins, "I take it back. No phone call woke me at two in the morning" (p.5). The narrator spends the next two pages denying that he followed the instructions he was given on the phone, that he went down to the train station in the middle of the night, that he saw there a train rushing past that perhaps contained the father he had never known. (I say "he," although the narrator's gender is never identified, because of a subjective sense from the story's text and phrases like, "the man I imagined [the narrator's father] couldn't disappoint me when I could see no trace of myself in him" [p.6].) "As Far East" is, for Rogers, a lengthy work, at nine pages, but like the others builds towards a single image. The narrator, a child, recounts one of many instances when his father, in response to failure, decides to drive his family as far away as possible—in this case, as far east as possible. Descriptions of the journey and a little exploration of the family history are only a prelude to the final image: the father's hand on the narrator's neck, bringing a kind of peace. One way to think of Rogers, I'd suggest, is as a writer interested in taking photographs rather than—the usual—making movies. Each of the stories I've described so far works up to a climactic image—emotional as well as visual—and attempts to fix it. The same is true of "Valentine," which describes a man standing by a store trying to get strangers to deliver a Valentine to his ex-wife, who realises what he has denied, that he still needs to talk to her. "The Burlington Northern Southbound" is another love story of a kind, about a man obsessed with the eponymous trains and unable to talk to a woman called Christine. He writes her a poem comparing her to the railroad, and doesn't hear back from her: "What woman wants to think she is like the Burlington Northern southbound?" (p.30)
At this point, I thought I could paraphrase what I saw Rogers's concerns as being. Think of the moments of connection that make life worthwhile—with a lover, with friends, with family, with colleagues. Rogers's subject (I said to myself) is those moments of connection, and how in particular they sometimes fail to come to pass. He wants to write about how the modern world keeps us apart. A couple of other adjectives could be attached to his work: adult, for a start, for his refusal of fireworks, of action, of showing off either in style or content. Nomadic, too: there is the recurrence of trains as an image of escape and otherness, and a deeper sense of no abiding city. It has to be said that, reading all these stories back-to-back, it becomes apparent that Rogers is using the same techniques over and over again: the rallentando of event as epiphany is signalled, the shift to internal monologue as a story nears its end. There's also a propensity for opening lines that assume more knowledge than the reader can have, like "Lydia's Orange Bread": "Wash four oranges, unless you have just broken up with Jamil Becker, in which case to hell with washing them" (p.7). And there's a range of strategies for avoiding sentiment, which is always going to be a risk in epiphany-centred stories like these. Most obviously, there's a refusal to resolve stories in a way that suggests anyone might achieve permanent peace. But, taken slowly and individually, these first works are some of the most impressive and affecting stories I've read recently.
All the stories I've mentioned so far are from the first section, and none of these is explicitly fantastic, though "The Goblin King" verges that way. A boy grows up listening to his father read him a poem about the Goblin King at bedtime, and recalls one evening when this happened despite a power cut: "As he recited, my father grinned a wider and wider grin. His teeth took on a light of their own, and his eyes grew huge. The rest of his body faded away until I couldn't tell where the darkness ended and my father began" (p.33). There is just enough of a cue here for the genre reader to think that the father might in some sense be the Goblin King, but the story ends before that can be resolved one way or another.
The second section, "Transformations," turns this sort of possibility into actuality, which is part of what I meant when I mentioned the intelligence with which the book is structured. The first "Transformations" story, "Spotted Dolphin," again begins with a young boy, who "from the earliest days of childhood ... dreamed of buoyancy, of floating through water supported by water" (p.51). He travels the world, takes drugs, meditates, and one day calls his sister and asks her to drive him to the sea. When she meets him, he is part-transformed into a dolphin; as he walks to the water, the dorsal fin grows through his shirt, and he dives in, evidently where he wants to be. You don't have to be Freud to see this as a kind of never-wanting-to-be-born, as a desire to return to amniotic warmth and comfort. His picture of dolphin life—and his sister's, and the story's—doesn't particularly involve predators, fish hooks, or the shit we dump in the sea. In other words, the epiphany of "Spotted Dolphin" is easier to step outside of than many of the others in the book, and so it's a weaker story. The same is true, even more obviously, of the next story, "Rich and Beautiful." A rich man in Los Angeles meets and marries a beautiful young woman. He keeps working, becoming even richer, so that she can continue to have cosmetic surgery. Eventually, "he is richer than Croesus [and she] is more gorgeous than Aphrodite" (p.56). But it's clear that this will go on forever and neither will be happy. The end. Many of these stories could be taken as inviting moral readings, but none so crudely as this: I didn't need a story like this to point out to me the facile nature of a social order predicated on beauty and wealth. Indeed, Rogers is often at his crudest when talking about people who have or deal with money: the next story, "Red-Winged Blackbirds," begins: "To the third floor of a glass tower among many glass towers, the men and women came every day to look at gray numbers on the computer screens. They came five days a week, fifty weeks or more a year, to study the numbers and decide whether to buy or sell" (p.59). In fact, this is an instance when Rogers's very adultness—his refusal to raise his voice and get angry at these people—feels like it damages the story. The path he takes instead, depicting the transformation of the men and women who work there into birds who leave and take joy in the natural world outside, is a kind of avoidance tactic. "Don Ysidro," which won a 2004 World Fantasy Award, is somewhat stronger, a posthumous fantasy set in Mexico. But, unusually for Rogers, it heads off too easily in search of simplicity and sentiment as it reaches its close.
That said, one of the "Transformations" stories, "Sea Anemones," is one of the finest in the collection. It's set in and around "a little church by the sea," where the preacher condemns the unnatural lust of men lying with men and women with women. But the old gods are still watching and, provoked by the priest's strictures, Cupid allows a mist to descend over the congregation, filling them with exactly the lusts that the priest has condemned. The rapture they feel is too great to bear, and they soon see that "the sea was a lover that would embrace every body everywhere at once" (p.74). And so, transformed, they live beneath it as anemones, and desire "overcomes them on nights of the full moon when the water grows cloudy with their sperm and starry with their eggs." Again, it's the sea as womb, but here in a striking erotic guise. I'm reluctant to use reviewer hyperbole about a story I only read a week ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if "Sea Anemones" turns out to be unforgettable.
The third section, "Insurrections," is—as its title suggests—comprised of stories which rebel against the frames or expectations they establish. The first, "Murder, Mystery," begins by telling us of a body lying in a field. But it then dwells with rapturous precision on the birdsong, the smell of the grass, the blue of the sky. It refuses to tell us anything more about the body. "A Story for Discussion" starts off as a metafiction: "When the author awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous abstraction" (p.121). I couldn't help but be reminded of Thomas Ligotti's great "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story," which also starts off by seeming to be by and about the guy whose name is on the cover, and which also takes a number of left turns before reaching a conclusion in another register entirely. Rogers's version is less expansive than Ligotti's, but ends—as do so many of his stories—with a kind of epiphany of the everyday. Others of the "Insurrections," like "Invasions" and "Vocabulary Items," allow Rogers to let his sense of humour off the leash a little, which is welcome.
By contrast, most of the stories in the fourth section, "Tales," are po-faced, and it's not a coincidence that, at least for me, it's the weakest segment of the book. They're mostly set in generic fantasylands, complete with sorcerers, beautiful women, djinns, and monsters. In "The Rower," for instance, a young woman rows out to sea, meaning to drown herself in a storm. But she meets a mysterious man in a boat on the water: "He told her that when God had made the world, He had seen at once that sorrow was part of it. Indeed, pain had made the world as much as light had made the world. To make a world was to both begin and end with sadness" (p.141). And so on. This is what Rogers is reduced to when he doesn't have the specifics of the contemporary world to embrace: playing chess with abstract nouns. The woman hears the man's moral and decides to live. In "Half of the Empire," a young man sets off from a fishing village "to the Capital to see what he would see" (p.143). So he's another of Rogers's nomads, and he bests a wizard and comes to reject what he's offered: the rule of half the empire. On the other hand, "Listening, Listening" is quietly impressive. A small village sits by a lake in which a monster is reputed to dwell. The women of the village slip out in secret at night to sing to the monster, and it sometimes comes to listen. A curious man follows them once, and sees what he was forbidden to: the monster as a vast and striking image of stasis.
The last section of the book is called "Symmetrinas," after a new story form that Rogers has created. A symmetrina consists of an odd number of sections of prose, with the longest at the centre, and the shorter ones on either side mirroring each other. It is perhaps a helpful form for a writer like Rogers, who on the evidence of this book isn't comfortable writing extended pieces of prose; it places jigsaw pieces before the reader and asks her to assemble them. The first of the three symmetrinas here, "Something Like the Sound of the Wind in Trees," circles around images of white noise, unfathomable and opaque. It feels a little like an extended version of one of the stories in the book's first section. The second, "Dead White Guys," is a pretty conventional piece for Rogers: the Founding Fathers of the USA come back to life, and fit in (or not) to contemporary life. The last, "The Main Design That Shines Through Sky and Earth," is by some way the longest piece in the book (25 pages), and is an extended meditation on a particular kind of human connection: teaching. Each of the sections provides a model for one way in which teaching and learning can work. In the longest, "Legacy," a teacher called Karen is hemmed in by pedantic administrators who want to see if her lesson plans meet arbitrary tick-box lists. The story is so obviously rigged in Karen's favour that one starts to lose patience with it; but the final turn, as Karen goes to the funeral of the woman who taught her to teach, is affecting. She offers a remembrance: "There may be days when I don't think of Dr. Black in my classroom. But there aren't weeks. She shaped what I do. I hope I'm a good teacher. I think I am" (p.222). That little speech—its very reasonable doubts, its pulling back from rhetorical flourishes—is as characteristic as one gets in this most controlled of books. Rogers's point, that teaching and learning are connection and so must be valued, comes through eventually; but I'm not convinced that he needed this kaleidoscope to make it.
So The Keyhole Opera is a mixed bag, and within the constraints Rogers has chosen, a largely successful one. Partway through it, in a story like "Sea Anemones," you can feel overwhelmed by a kind of generosity at having so many vivid stories so far and having so many to come. But then you wade into the mush—the relative mush—of the fantasy stories. My first-approximation take on Rogers, that he wanted to celebrate moments when humans cease being solitary, wasn't so far off. But he also has a taste—a sweet tooth, I think—for the game for its own sake, for formal experimentation as an end, not a means. I think it damages his work, and that it makes fewer stories tellable than I'd like, but I don't doubt for a second that it's his choice.