A shopping mall stands up and walks into the ocean. A woman is plucked from a public restroom and carried off into the clouds. Rapunzel's hair, imbued with a life of its own, takes over her story. These visions and more await the reader of Margo Lanagan's latest collection, Yellowcake.
Margo Lanagan is best known for her stories and for the novel Tender Morsels (2008). Her award-studded bio includes four World Fantasy Awards—best collection (Black Juice, 2006), best short story ("Singing My Sister Down," in Black Juice), best novel (Tender Morsels, 2009), and best novella (Sea-Hearts, 2010). Both Black Juice (2004) and Tender Morsels won Michael L. Printz Honor Awards for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. The latter book—a gritty and gorgeous retelling of the fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red"—has received censure as well as acclaim: the Daily Mail described it as "sordid wretchedness," and Bitch Media removed it from their "100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader" list last February in response to complaints about the book's treatment of rape. Yellowcake is Lanagan's fourth collection of short stories, and a welcome contribution to her inventive and hard-hitting oeuvre. As with her previous collections, these ten stories showcase her ability to use strange settings and devious narratives to depict life in all its beauty and horror.
The reaction to Tender Morsels means that Lanagan is likely to be viewed with caution by some readers, and with greater interest by others. She probably deserves both. As she explained in an interview with Trent Walters at The SF Site, she doesn't shy away from challenging material: "I'm not a big fan of corralling sex, death and war into the adult world and then giving children a terrible shock when they realize their existence." Readers of Yellowcake should be ready for Lanagan's characteristically fearless approach to the human body, living or dead. There's bodily fluids here, kids. There may be less than in Lanagan's other colorfully entitled story collections, White Time (2000), Black Juice, and Red Spikes (2006), but brain matter definitely flies. And it doesn't fly the way it does at the movies, a blam that makes you go "Ew!" between handfuls of popcorn. When brains ooze in the story "Heads," it's because a group of young boys has been mowed down by machine guns in a lawless city. It's because a living boy is crouching among the dead, trying to measure their destroyed heads with a piece of tape. Yes, this story is disturbing. It's disturbing because it's concrete: violent acts are not stylized into the ker-plow! abstractions generally considered suitable for children. "Heads" stays true to its bleak imagined universe, and it will tear your heart out. This is why we need Margo Lanagan.
"Heads" exemplifies another feature of Lanagan's work: her subtle and ambitious play with theme. The most obvious link with the title is the gruesome hobby of the boy Sheegeh: measuring the heads of corpses. But he pursues his private obsession with a tape measure retrieved from a ruined hospital, where it was once used to measure the heads of newborns, an echo that calls up some of the deepest traumas in Sheegeh's world: the loss of routine, of care for the helpless, and of Sheegeh's mother, who was a nurse. The opposition between the heads of newborns and the heads of corpses is stark and powerful, but the improvisation on the theme of "heads" doesn't end there. There's Sheegeh's own head, covered with bright blond hair that leads the Lord of the Flies gang he lives with to call him "Angel" and keep him for good luck, thereby saving his life. There are the shaved heads of the boys after an infestation of lice. And there's the head of Fat Owen, the boys' cook, full of numbers from his days as an honor student, back when there were schools. The thematic web created by these images lends depth to a taut, uncompromising survival story.
I admit that some of the stories didn’t quite get off the ground for me. In "The Point of Roses," I caught the point too soon, and the bulk of the story lacked momentum as a result. "Night of the Firstlings" also failed to move me: calling Egyptians "Gypsies" even though they'd never left Egypt was an interesting move, but once I'd recognized the story of Passover and the flight from Egypt, I found myself waiting for a transformation of the material that never came. But Yellowcake also contains some of my favorite Lanagan stories. "Heads" is one of them. Another is "An Honest Day's Work," a story inspired by shipbreaking in Bangladesh, in which a giant human is broken down for use by smaller ones, and a physically challenged boy struggles to understand strength, weakness, and the power of necessity.
"An Honest Day's Work" highlights a theme that runs through many of Lanagan's stories: that is, work. Her collections teem with descriptions of what people do every day. Much of this is necessary, of course, because what they're doing is often so weird, but Lanagan's interest in work goes beyond fantasy worldbuilding. It's an engagement not just with the jobs people do, but with young characters making choices about the future and coming to terms with the roles they will play in the adult world. That's why they're so often students or interns, or doing a job for the first time, like Charon's daughter in the Yellowcake story "Ferryman." Amarlis, the protagonist of "An Honest Day's Work," is another first-timer: he's an onlooker, armed with a whistle and megaphone, and his job is to keep watch over a team of men dismantling the thigh of a giant. Amarlis, with his "withered leg," is desperate to contribute to his community, which survives largely on the flesh, bones and juices of the huge creatures, but he feels the strain of his choice as soon as he leaves his mother: "I could be a sort of stay-at-home embarrassing half-person by her side, or I could be a cruel son leaving her lonely" (p. 73).
It gets worse. The giant, it turns out, is still alive, and suddenly what Amarlis had viewed with satisfaction as "a plain job, a meat job" (p. 85) becomes dangerous. The creature—clearly human, or at least humanoid, though Amarlis calls it a "beast"—rears up: a one-armed, one-legged wreck with his skull peeled open. "It could be mistaken for a person, this one," Amarlis thinks. "Like what you see of a person sidling in through a nearly-closed door" (p. 90). At this point, the link at the heart of the story grows clearer: the link between Amarlis, the "half-person" with one functional leg, and the "beast" whose leg he's been helping to take apart. Through that connection, the story of his first day on the job becomes an exploration of the guilt that haunts communal ties and the sacrifices we make in order to belong.
One of the best stories from Yellowcake could be seen as the odd one out in the collection: the icy fairy tale "A Fine Magic." Where most of the other stories follow young protagonists, keeping quite tightly to their point of view, "A Fine Magic" employs the distance and authority of "Once upon a time." In this story, Gallantine, a "fascinator"—a type of magician, we are to understand, and as things turn out, a pretty nasty one—unsuccessfully woos two sisters, one after the other. Rejected, he takes a sorcerer's revenge. The sisters are first drawn into a mysterious forest, and then trapped on a diabolical enchanted carousel. The clean line of the story is part of its power: there are no digressions, no moments of comic relief, no attempts at explanation. In short, there is no comfort. In its delicate balance of fierceness and restraint, "A Fine Magic" recalls the work of Angela Carter.
I'll end with a word on young adult fiction. In an interview on the book blog Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast, Lanagan said that although she has consciously written for children and young adults, she doesn't keep the age of her audience in mind so much nowadays: "I tend to write whatever coughs itself up from inside me, without worrying about who it's for." This is a wise approach, since nobody knows what YA is anyway, though that doesn't stop us from trying to define it. I think of it as a sort of Questynge Beste: it hath a head like literary fiction, feet like a graphic novel, a body like somebody's diary and a tail like a text message, and maketh a noise like a cafeteria full of twelve- to eighteen-year-olds. Suffice it to say that like all the best stories for children, the stories in Yellowcake are for people. They are tales of transition, of decisions with lasting effects. If you've ever tried to live in a family, faced an ethical dilemma, or asked "What am I going to do with my life?", they are for you.
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books, the Arabic language, and other wonders at http://sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.