Carol Emshwiller is the writer I want to be when I never grow up. She's a satirist whose fiction examines the choices that characters must make when their lives take crooked turns that send them flying beyond the scope of a reader's radar. Emshwiller sometimes writes science fiction, sometimes satire, sometimes westerns -- from pre-feminist, pan-feminist, and post-feminist perspectives.
Emshwiller's writing is witty and unpredictable, hilarious one moment and sad the next. Her satires uncomfortably challenge our assumptions without providing easy answers. She gives voice and life to characters of the imagination, as she writes about the impossible made plausible.
Although her most recent novels, Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill, are beautifully written westerns set amidst a landscape colored by hardship, Ms. Emshwiller may be best known for her speculative fictions. Her range and versatility, which makes her difficult to classify, may sometimes work against her by confusing readers used to finding all the books by a single author on the same easily identified bookstore shelf. Fortunately, much of Emshwiller's work is in print and available from Mercury House in San Francisco, including the fabulist novel, Carmen Dog and three short story collections, Verging on the Pertinent, Joy in Our Cause, and The Start of the End of It All, winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1991.
The Start of the End of It All collects 18 stories about people who just plain don't belong. These are very funny and touching tales that examine the themes of isolation and the search for love through a variety of warped and inventive fabulist lenses.
In Emshwiller's story, "Eclipse," a hungry woman finds herself an underdressed guest at a party where the food is out of reach and she is expected to provide the musical entertainment. She's hesitant, having never played the flute before. She seeks refuge beside the empty pool and takes a moment to think about her odd situation. Someone pushes her from behind, then rescues her by holding her back. The lights from the house go out.
Everyone came outside and there began an eclipse of the moon that everyone but me knew was about to happen. They didn't watch long, though, but wandered back in and soon the lights were on again and the eclipse hardly half over.
Suddenly, the narrator finds herself in the arms of a "powerful" man, a psychologist sent out by the hostess to provide an impromptu session of patio therapy. Another glass of champagne and the narrator achieves an instant state of transference. Her most urgent desire is to please him; she wishes she could play the flute, just for him.
"What you lack is confidence," he tells her, confiding that, while "not actually an analyst, I have office hours every Wednesday evening. Are you free . . . "
She says yes, while at the same time questioning why a Jungian would push her into an empty swimming pool.
He tells her she is ready to perform, and, when at last she agrees, she returns to the house to play a concert that will not soon be forgotten. Throughout this and other stories, the central character's motivations and background remain mysterious. In the worlds created by Ms. Emswhiller, explanations are never fully revealed, and truths are kept partially hidden behind the penumbra of an eclipse.
In "There is no Evil Angel but Love," an elderly stalker decides the time is right to find love the only way she can. Denied marriage and children until now, she epitomizes the nosy neighbor who has never really lived in the world yet still believes she knows what is best for everyone. She's old enough and pushy enough not to wait for the object of her desire, a drinking man who lives across the street, to make the first move. She simply assumes a relationship on the day when illness leaves him most vulnerable to her whim.
Once she walks into his life, he belongs to her.
"What are those plants? Why is the desk over there? What's happening?" "That's a golden pothos and a jade, and that big one is a ficus. They're for you." "I don't want plants." "But you do . . . "
Yet this edgy old lady, while a stalker, is still a woman, and it isn't long before she compromises her moral standards, begins to cater to his wishes, and dares to hope that he will eventually change for the better under her influence. This unexpected satiric twist dulls the edge barely, just enough to slow, but never stop, a blade aimed directly at the reader's heart.
Emshwiller is adept at persuading readers to examine the loneliness of characters we might turn from should our paths cross in real world. She exposes flaws with honesty and compassion, and in doing so, makes readers aware of their own vulnerabilities.
"Fledged" explores the story of a fussy man uninterested in "a woman my own age" and his growing fascination with a naked winged older female who is washed into his life, the debris of a passing storm. He's impressed by her wings, a little less so with the rest of her.
Now her legs were crossed, rather primly, I thought, under the circumstances, and it wasn't the best pose for her. They looked terrible, all black and blue. Her circulation must be awful. I knew that wasn't so unusual in a woman her age, but hers were the worst I'd ever seen.
Something about this creature (perhaps the glazed look in her eyes) reminds him of his first wife, whom he has not seen in twenty years. The presence of a winged woman only reinforces his sense of longing. He replays a Do I or Don't I want her? scenario and finally decides to ask her to stay. Only then does he realize that it must be on his terms, that she must be the one who offers sacrifice. It is in this moment we sense this gentleman's need for control, the kind of rigidity that might have doomed his first marriage. It is in this moment when we understand his hurt and loss, which allows us to grant him sympathy, if only for one moment. And in this moment we glimpse how the unyielding expectations that have been placed upon both men and women have power enough to clip all wings.
It is not uncommon for fiction to celebrate the disenfranchised, but the Emswhiller twist is to cast post-menopausal women in a series of leading lady roles. In an Emshwiller story, an old-lady character, with all her charms and flaws, maintains both dignity and an unnerving sensuality. She refuses to go gently into that good night, strutting out wings if that's what it takes to make a statement. Smell the chamomile tea and be very afraid! Any old lady is potentially a goddess or the consort of aliens. The person you first spy may not be at all related to the person you will get by the end of a story. The characters in The Start of the End of It All will never quite belong, but through work and quirk they will learn to find a place in a strange and ever-changing world.
In Ms. Emshwiller's satiric novel Carmen Dog, the world is changing, not just metaphorically, but physically. Animals metamorphose into women while women become wild animals, no doubt signifying an evolutionary leap up. A cherished silky-haired Irish Setter named Pooch takes on the role of loving mother when her mistress turns into a snapping turtle who thinks only of her appetites, and bites her own infant.
As Pooch's mistress sheds her humanity to turn into a bitch, Pooch changes from bitch to woman, and takes off for the big city. There she discovers that she longs to sing the Opera, especially the tragedy of Carmen -- the archetypal female, whose reach cannot extend far enough to hold onto what she has grasped. How ironic then, that Pooch's need to care for her mistress's infant is the first of many problems that interfere with her newly-chosen career path.
A doctor, who has been studying the unusual goings on, takes to his grant-writing journal.
"I propose to build a sort of two-part cage connected to a computer, with electric shock plates on the floors of each side that can be used simultaneously or alternately. Also a dispensing machine from which one may receive either a reward or a chit of some sort to be saved up and used to purchase small necessities of which I plan to keep a stash. The experimental activities will take place in basement rooms that will be heavily shielded from contamination by the outside air and particularly the moon."
The narrative continues with
He rounds off the grant request with this last: "I shudder to think what the world might degenerate into if studies of this sort are not carried out by qualified people such as myself. . . . And what, gentlemen, tell me, what of motherhood!"
The novel asks, in the most humorous way imaginable, where we might be as a civilization without our pets and sacrificial caretakers. The humor helps disguise the horrific implications, but never is the bite taken from the dog.
Midway through Carmen Dog, Pooch asks herself, "Has she not always remained faithful to the baby and to her beloved master as well as to his principles? But has she remained faithful to her sex . . . to her sisters? Lived up to the SPCAC standards?" Pooch is the symbolic female animal, collared and responsive to others. But give her too long a chain, and it's possible that she just might run away.
Carmen Dog has been compared to Orwell's Animal Farm and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. A later novel, first published in France, postulated a woman turning into an animal and was called, Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, by Marie Darrieussecq. Although marketed as mainstream literary novels, these works make use of speculative elements in their satiric warnings about our failed attempts to overcome our animal natures.
Satire thrives in worlds governed by the laws of the fantastic. In the late 19th Century, an American architect named Louis Sullivan proclaimed, "Form follows function," as a way of explaining the complex relationship between the shape of an object and its place and purpose in the world. Said Sullivan, "All things in nature have a shape, . . . an outward semblance . . . that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other. . . . Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is 'natural' it should be so."
Change the shape of an object, and you may change its purpose. A teapot with its strainer on the bottom becomes a sieve. Turn an old woman into a winged creature and you give her a new set of qualities, a new nature that must be reckoned with. Give voice to a dog and you must explore the limits of full and free expression. Ms. Emshwiller uses fantasy, because realism cannot provide equal opportunities for satire.
Carol Emshwiller is an important writer at the top of her craft. In an Emshwiller story, a character may not get what she wants, nor what she needs. She certainly will not get what we, the readers, expect. Instead she will take what she can get, and through her journey, we are permitted to glimpse genius.
Read her and laugh; read her and weep. It's all the same, when you think about it. As Carol Burnett once observed, "Comedy is tragedy plus time."
Leslie What has published one collection of short stories, "The Sweet and Sour Tongue," from Wildside Press. Her writing has won cash awards from Story magazine, Writer's Digest, and the Oregon Writer's Colony. Short satires are forthcoming in Nebula Awards Showcase 2001, Bending the Landscape Volume Three, Asimov's, and The MacGuffin.