There's a book I'm looking for. I don't know its title. I don't know who wrote it. I read it when I was a child, but I can't remember how old I was or where my family lived at the time. In fact, I don't remember anything at all about the book or reading it.
But I know the book is out there; I search for it every time I set foot in a bookstore and I'll know it when I see it. The spine and cover will evoke tree houses and nights at the telescope my parents bought me for Christmas, Saturday morning cartoons and Star Wars figures; I'll glimpse drawings I did in school. It will be a book of half-forgotten dust-covered memories and childish daydreams of my soul, or somesuch thing.
I share all this because I believe that Allen Ashley, author of the stories in Urban Fantastic, is also, like many writers, looking for such a book. Not the same tattered, illuminated manuscript I'm looking for, of course. No two of them are alike. He probably searched for years in dusty used and antique bookstores, as well as the sleek WHSmiths and Barnes and Nobles of sundry cities, before he simply started to try to write the book himself, piecing it together from liminal memories of other times and texts, each story a personal archeological dig.
Of course, I could be pathetically off-base in my intuition. It could be that Mr. Ashley is reading this review right now with his brow furrowed, thinking to himself, "What a nutter. What's all this crap about illuminated manuscripts? I just like to write. It's fun, and I'll admit it, I like seeing my name in print. Sure I do. Makes me feel important. Flatters my vanity and all that. Bleeding hell, what's up with these reviewers who read their own personal desires and insecurities into every book? Why can't they just take each book on its own terms? Do all books have to be looked at like mirrors?"
Or perhaps not. Either way, I'm inclined to feel that looking into a book and seeing ourselves is what gives a text depth. Many, too many, books are not mirrors, or even windows, but walls made of words, forming a maze that doesn't go anywhere, with no heart at its center. We might (or in many cases, might not) go looking for something in a book that helps us understand the world and ourselves, but in the vast majority of stories we are only drawn off the path into wish-fulfillment fantasies or violent catharsis or fleeting amusement. Urban Fantastic, which contains 21 stories published between 1982 (Margaret Thatcher! The Clash!) and 2006 (Tony Blair! Al-Qaeda!), is not one of those books, though fortunately it does contain elements of fantasy, catharsis, and amusement. In a time when books are proliferating and many of them flat-out suck, that's high praise, although I don't wish for it to be taken too far: as will be made clear, I think Ashley's writing still leaves something to be desired.
But I'm trying to tag in Ashley a certain restlessness that is missing from too much science fiction and fantasy, even among the small presses. Ashley uses his writing to search: he's looking for something he lost, I don't know what, exactly: an idea, an object, a story? In this he reminds me of J.G. Ballard or Ray Bradbury (two writers born in different times and places, both very different from Ashley), as well as contemporaries like Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, and Benjamin Rosenbaum. They all live on the same haunted suburban street about three kilometers east of the foggy, ruined downtown where Ashley rents a flat. He's a million kilometers away from gimmicky-but-entertaining technophiles like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, who perhaps enjoy the advantage of broader, less personal visions, and better defined, more prosaic ambitions. A writer like Ashley might never reach a wide audience or win major genre awards. His contribution is too unique, too small.
But that doesn't mean his stories are not worthwhile. The ideas behind the stories of Urban Fantastic are the kinds of ideas that inspire other writers: a man falls in love with a mermaid and provokes a community's hatred; a woman takes the farm scarecrow into her bed; polar bears arrive in Britain to "plead the case against global warming"; a girl the size of a barleycorn who sleeps in a walnut shell; a man whose eyes and ears close up, opening the door to another, inner world. In "The Overwhelm" (which pleasantly recalls a dozen Twilight Zone episodes), Ashley liberalizes the falling sky as metaphor for all the pressures of life. In "Listen to the Lion" (my favorite story in the collection, written, I believe, under the direct influence of Ballard), a man walks out of the office where he works and cannot bring himself to go back. That is, until a phantasmagorical lion nearly eats him. Both of these stories, and many others, center on themes of quotidian fear and anxiety.
The anxiety extends to the writing itself. One of the stories, "The Ideas Mountain," deals in a perverse, roundabout way with how writers inspire other writers. "Mark Singer was your typical struggling small press author with a couple of novels in him somewhere—he hoped," writes Ashley, perhaps describing himself. "His day job paid the mortgage and food bills, just." (p. 83) He meets an older, successful author who takes him to the Ideas Mountain (somewhere in Belgium, apparently), where he finds "Alien invasion ... with a twist," on a tablet, which he crumbles into water and drinks. Hours later he "dashes off a three-thousand word story" that sells immediately and wins an award.
It's a story seething with the desperation that infests any person who knows that she is only as good as her next idea. In the end, of course, the Ideas Mountain is ruined by the writers, artists, software developers, and so forth, who locust-like reduce it to a "low level pile of rubble with a few dispirited souls trudging around and over it." "The best he could find was a broken shard reading, 'Dolphins / real / creatures on this planet / water-fill / spacecraft.' Mike tossed it back and shook his head despairingly" (p. 98).
Hee hee. In this and other stories, you can feel Ashley chasing an SF MacGuffin around which he can wrap his words. It's this fear and anxiety that defines but also holds back the collection. There are glimmers of fearless fantasy, such as "Barleycorn Wife," that point the way to stories that are greater than what we read in Urban Fantastic. In that story Ashley writes without apology, simply thrusting us into a world in which fairy tales are combined with genetic engineering, written from a deeply subjective point of view. It's not completely successful, and many readers would not like it, but I found myself wishing that more stories had been written in the same daring, fragmentary style.
Ashley at times seems afraid to write the book he's been searching for. One senses (OK: I sense it, you may not, and I could well be wrong) that in too many of the stories Ashley fears what writers, fans, and editors will think, as if he's afraid to reveal the book he carries around inside of him. You can hear it (or at least I can) on a sentence by sentence level. There's no point in quoting an individual sentence to justify this claim: there's little wrong with Ashley's sentences. But in some of them, I heard something right, an outburst of the poetry that many genre readers affect to despise.
From "Barleycorn Wife": "To sleep in, her mother gave her a walnut shell. From then on, her pale skin retained an odour of pleasing woodiness. The fruit of the walnut has often been said to resemble the bipartite brain. Thus, even in slumber she was incubated in knowledge and would grow up—slightly!—to be much more than a pretty face and bare white legs beneath a dress of leaves." (p. 113) This passage surprised and delighted me, and called to my mind the brilliance Kelly Link tosses off on every page. If Ashley wrote more sentences like these, I'd cross the line from being his reader to his fan.
I was once assigned to interview an improvisational jazz musician. He played wildly, with his back to the audience. But I couldn't find any emotion in the music and I didn't understand what I was hearing. Later I told him as much. He replied: "When I play, I'm searching for a single point within myself, a place where I've never gone before, a perfect note that I'll know when I hear it. If the audience wants to come along, fine. If not, that's OK too. There are lots of different kinds of music and musicians in the world. We can all find some kind of music that makes us happy."
This is also true of writers and readers. Not everyone should write as the jazz musician played—most shouldn't—but it's good advice for a writer of Ashley's bent. Ashley's next collection might be an even better book if he stops going to the Ideas Mountain and just locks himself in a room and writes the book he's always wanted to write. Let Cory Doctorow have all the good ideas; he'll put them to good use. He'll win more Hugo awards and sell more books and in the end make a decent living. Ashley isn't that kind of writer, nor should he be. My unsolicited advice to Mr. Ashley: don't quit your day job, but don't stop writing. Keep writing until the fear vanishes and the pages glow and you find the book you, and all of us, are searching for.
Jeremy Adam Smith is the managing editor of Greater Good Magazine. His articles have appeared in San Francisco Bay Guardian, Wired, Utne Reader, and numerous other periodicals; his stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines whose audiences can fit in a walnut shell. He also blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic.
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