What I Didn't See and Other Stories collects an even dozen of Karen Joy Fowler's notoriously category-defying short stories, only one of which appears here for the first time ("Booth's Ghost"), but several of which have already won major awards. Accordingly, writing a review of what is, for the most part, a reprint collection of superb and already well-received stories comes uncomfortably close to gilding a lily. At the same time, one thing we can consistently say about Fowler's wide-ranging body of fiction is that it is always worth talking about. What I Didn't See is actually Fowler's first story collection in some time, as she seems to have devoted more attention to her novel-writing lately; ample proof that her recent short fiction has remained just as strong as her longer works lies between these covers (What I Didn't See ranges across two decades or so of uncollected stories, but the majority of them date from this millennium). Many readers will recognize the title of the collection even if they have not read the story from which it is taken: 2003 Nebula-winner "What I Didn't See"—part feminist Heart of Darkness and part riff on Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See"—originally stirred up some controversy because of its perceived lack of any science fictional content (for more on the controversy, see L. Timmel Duchamp's account of it, "Something Rich and Strange: Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See" in Daughters of Earth, edited by Justine Larbalestier). Since such "slipstream" writing has only continued to infiltrate SF publications, however, Fowler's distinctive inflections of the family of speculative genres should meet with less resistance today, and there can be no disputing that the story fits perfectly here in the context of her own work, almost a unique, coherent subgenre unto itself. One might be tempted to say that no author walks so fine a line between SF/F and mainstream literary realism, but that formulation would miss the mark somewhat: Fowler in fact continually crosses that line—but often without our noticing when or even that she's done it. If we were to force the stories in this collection into more familiar categories, we could say that they range from historical fiction to fairytale fantasy to the softer sort of science fiction proper, although they always retain that special slipperiness, characteristically in an oblique relationship with the genres they invoke, sidestep, or indeed critique. Because of this range and because of the plain high literary quality of so many of its stories, What I Didn't See would provide an excellent introduction to Fowler's work if you've somehow managed to remain unacquainted with it.
The collection opens with "The Pelican Bar," a story reprinted from Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse Three; perhaps not so coincidentally, Strahan had also selected it as the strong opener for his own anthology. I devoted a considerable portion of my review of Eclipse Three to the story, which has since won a Shirley Jackson Award and a World Fantasy Award, but it merits a few more words for its new context alone: after all, the phrase "What I Didn't See" both names one of the collection's main attractions and provides a sort of overarching theme for many of its stories, "The Pelican Bar" included. (I should also note that the publisher has made this story available online for free on Scribd, so there's no reason not to check it out.) "The Pelican Bar" is a story of abduction and psychological abuse at an almost dystopian boarding institution, but questions like "abduction by whom," or "why the abuse" remain unanswered; as in almost all of Fowler's stories, the balance between the amounts of information presented and withheld—from the characters, from the narrator, from the reader—becomes a key element and indeed subject of the narrative. Although she frequently employs first-person narrative, often considered the "default" or simplest method of narration, Fowler demonstrates how it can be used to great effect in tracing what it means for a character or an author to (attempt to) narrate "What I Didn't See."
"Standing Room Only," one of two stories in the collection to focus on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, provides the best example of a story in which the idea of "What I Didn't See" becomes both running theme and narrative strategy (even though it was, of course, published several years before the story of that title). An omniscient narrator recounts a day in the life of seventeen-year-old Anna Surratt—April 14, 1865, to be specific—right up the beginning of that fateful performance of Our American Cousin, at which point the narrative concludes abruptly. Quite plausibly, Anna, living in her mother Mary Surratt's infamous boarding house, has developed an adolescent crush on the dashing, urbane actor John Wilkes Booth, and the result is a kind of What Maisie Knew narrative in which the key emphasis falls on what she didn't know at all. Yet the story becomes far more than a simple exercise in dramatic irony; through Anna, an individual simultaneously near to and distant from an inconceivably momentous historical event, Fowler explores a notoriously murky moment in history precisely by refusing the contemporary desire to reconstruct a definitive account of the "important" events. Indeed, the later execution of the possibly wrongfully accused Mary Surratt, the first execution of a woman in the U.S., always hangs over the narrative but in an indirect way, in contrast to Robert Redford's recent courtroom drama about the boarding house conspiracy, The Conspirator (I have not seen the film, but Evan Rachel Wood plays the role of Anna). If her mother was involved in the conspiracy, Fowler's Anna certainly knew nothing of it, and the story explores the consequences, personal and otherwise, of this lack of knowledge, rather than attempting to imagine some perfect knowledge. Thus, the concluding moment of "Standing Room Only"—in which Anna finds herself on the edge of a crowd outside the theater and pushed farther to the periphery by a man who refuses to allow her to speak—underscores how someone like Anna, as close to the conspiracy as modern historians all wish they could have been, could still "not see," and how today our own vision remains just as limited in its own way. Fowler's new story "Booth's Ghost" revisits the assassination from an entirely different perspective, that of John's brother Edwin Booth, but again we remain on the periphery, impossibly near to and impossibly distant from the great tragic epicenter. Although "Booth's Ghost" does feature one of those ambiguously genuine spectral presences, neither of these stories may qualify as speculative fiction except to the extent that they are pieces of historical fiction; both of them are so excellent that even the most dedicated of genre readers shouldn't much mind.
As her sustained interest in the Lincoln assassination might suggest, the nineteenth century is familiar territory for Fowler—see also her novels Sarah Canary (1991) and Sister Noon (2001), or The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) for that matter—but other stories in What I Didn't See demonstrate her fascination with several other historical periods as well. For instance, "The Dark," a Nebula nominee and the oldest story in the collection, explores various moments in twentieth century history, ending somewhere in the darkness and aftermath of America's Vietnam debacle/tragedy/enigma; here Fowler uses the trappings of ambiguous scif-fi/horror in order to comment on the unambiguously horrific. Other stories combine historical fiction with the logic of science fiction and/or fantasy in entirely unexpected ways: for example, "Always," yet another recent Nebula winner and one of the finest stories in the collection, not only features one more early twentieth century female who "doesn't see," but is more about the fantasy of fantasy than actually fantastic itself. In other words, there is no trace of ambiguity or Todorovian hesitation here: the narrator's boyfriend convinces her to join a cult that promises immortality, and, even though she remains a believer after the cult itself has completely disintegrated around her, the story gives us no reason to think that her belief is "true." Instead, the narrator's reflections on her life and lifespan force similar reflections in the reader, and recall similar meditations on the human lifespan made from a very different but equally estranging place in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005). "Familiar Birds" employs a similar anti-fantastic device, in that one of the girls in it simply claims to possess the supernatural ability to communicate with birds, a claim that remains thematically tied to the remainder of the highly naturalistic narrative but ultimately insignificant in terms of its own truth value. Although Fowler's stories are often powerful meditations on loss, love, or mortality, I should not pass over the quiet humor and wry observational acumen so prominent in many of them. For example, in another ambiguous ghost story, "Private Grave 9," a writer of murder mysteries visits an archaeological dig while researching her next novel, pestering the narrator and his colleagues with questions about who would be most likely to murder whom, etc., which culminates in one particularly well-observed observation: "That night Patwin complained that I was blocking his light while he tried to read. I told him it was interesting that he thought the light belonged to him. I said, that's an interesting point of view for a Marxist to take, and I saw Miss Whitfield pull out her notebook to write the whole thing down" (p. 108).
If there is a weak point in this collection, I would not assign it to any particular story, but rather to what I would describe as a more general problem of ending apparent in a few otherwise excellently written and excellently constructed narratives. To be sure, every story here is written in engaging, truly masterful prose and boasts an undeniably evocative premise and/or setting, but some of Fowler's quasi-epiphanies can feel artificial or merely fall flat; in fact, this consistent epiphanic impulse may turn off a genre reader sour on literary fiction more than the absence of SFnal elements in a given story. For example, I remain of two minds about "The Last Worders" largely due to its uninspiring non-ending. Yes, I'll confess that I'm always a little dubious about the sort of faux magic realism written by American authors and set in a Hispanophone country named San Something-or-Other that you won't find on a map, but "The Last Worders" manages to avoid common magic realist pitfalls in part because it is about tourists not belonging. I'm also generally suspicious of twins in fantasy, period, but nor is there anything to fear on that count: the twins possess no special twin powers, and instead the narrator simply describes a trip she took with her sister to a mysterious poetry slam to the death—of course, one that we, along with the narrator, never see. The problem I have with this story is not with its refusal to show the reader the inside of the club, but rather that the details of the ending finally make it more puzzling than provocative, a fizzling out rather than any moment of insight or clarity. This sort of flatness infects the endings of a few more of the weaker stories in What I Didn't See, to varying degrees; I find it so problematic in "The Last Worders" only because of the brilliance of the rest of the narrative.
Sometimes, however, Fowler just ends perfectly. A case in point is 2010's "Halfway People," possibly the best story in the collection, although it has not (yet?) been lavished with formal honors and awards. Although one of the plot points on which the story turns bears superficial resemblance to Gabriel García Márquez's canonical magical realist story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," its progression and outcome are very different, and indeed the story shares numerous superficial resemblances to all manner of folk- and fairy-tales ancient and modern. More intricate web than pastiche of familiar narratives and narrative devices, the story shows glimmerings of Jonah, Ovid, Lir, the Grimms, and more, the net effect of which is always to communicate a sense of a larger world of Story—and the processes and magic of which often seem to interest Fowler as much as the magical happenings related in any single narrative. In one sense, then, Fowler's stories can be seen as halfway entities themselves, halfway between the artificiality and the fantasy of the fairytale and something else entirely. Indeed, the story that Fowler has chosen to conclude the collection, "King Rat"—which bears little resemblance to either the (earlier) China Miéville novel or the (later) Gene Wolfe story with the same title—really falls halfway between personal essay and narrative, fiction and autobiography, fairytale and cold reality. From this distinctively Fowlerian vantage point, Fowler examines narrative itself and its relationship to life, and always with a sophisticated intelligence and a deep sensitivity. Surely, we can conclude, the image of the young narrative artist in "Halfway People" reflects Fowler's own practices and motivations to some extent: "But Maura liked the bits of clues the summer people left behind—a strange spoon in a drawer, a half-eaten jar of jam on a shelf, the ashes of papers in the fireplace. She made up stories from them of different lives in different places. Lives worthy of stories" (p. 140). I think it is safe to say that Fowler attempts to craft lives worthy of stories as well as stories worthy of lives, not simply filling in the gaps, inventing where some loss or absence exists, but studying the contours of those empty spaces as well, struggling to fill them while denying they can be filled entirely, or can be seen and understood entirely. In giving us these twelve stories of what we see and what we don't see, Fowler reminds us wistfully if sometimes painfully that narrating or reading a story of what we've missed isn't quite the same as our not having missed it. But she also reminds us that it is something.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.