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The Privilege of a Happy Ending coverThere are never enough words for all our states of being, let alone for our transitions between them—or the many acts that gain great meaning only within niche contexts, the type where a whole backstory might feel necessary to get the fullness of the thought across. But the human longing to fill such linguistic gaps is common. A given language might have a term to describe what others don’t address as easily—duende, ilunga, mamihlapinatapai, saudade. Someone moving through another tongue might thrill at the sound of them, the possibilities in them. There’s something hopeful about how eagerly we latch onto new terms, whenever they arise. Maybe the names for every state of being in our oft-confusing world can be filled in after all. Maybe we’re just not looking in the right places yet, to find them.

Kij Johnson’s career in prose has long been attentive to such linguistic absences, the gaps in whole narratives as well as in the words that build them. Her latest collection, The Privilege of the Happy Ending, reflects this interest well in two novellas and twelve stories, with all but two of the tales having previously been published. Her work, by and large, offers readers the opportunity not just to try to fill certain emotive or experiential gaps in language, but also to reflect on what it means to try to fill the gaps at all. Must all be filled? Or is part of the human experience best addressed by allowing aspects of our lives to go nameless? Is the ache for meaning sometimes enough?

Three works in the middle of this collection offer the most overt meditations on what it might mean to try to name everything in our lives. In “The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary,” “The Apartment Dweller’s Stavebook,” and “The Apartment Dweller’s Alphabetical Dream Book,” the same conceit plays out in three distinct ways: an ache for explanation—of feelings, symbols, and dreams—is described in an assertive guide that nonetheless does little more than affirm only that something of importance exists in this effort to name these states of being. Precisely what remains unclear. Instead, the animals in Johnson’s bestiary reflect some aspect of ourselves that complicates our desire to cohabitate well with others or to make peace with our solitude. We know it’s there, and we know that—as with any other critter in our homes—we have some sort of responsibility to address it. But that’s often where real language fails and the realm of myth begins. Likewise, Johnson’s Stavebook answers a common longing for everyday rituals to defend against dreads, insecurities, and wants that we might not even be able to name in full, and her Dream Book suggests that our desire for meaning in dreams matters more than what the dreams themselves contain.

But what makes these fantastical conceits so compelling is Johnson’s range as an author—which is where the work of a collection like this truly shines. Johnson can and most certainly does craft stories with a more conventional arc as well, and this prowess adds to the strength of tales in which she chooses a different narrative form instead. In “The Ghastly Spectre of Toad Hall,” we get a charmer of a Christmas ghost story for any fans of The Wind in the Willows. In “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe,” we find a novella that comes at Lovecraftian lore from a wee corner of the original worldbuilding, to tell the tale of a dreamlands professor’s quest for a missing student which exists on tonal and thematic terms that are very much Johnson’s own.

Stories like this are liminal creations, because they’ve been crafted in the hazy realm between the original published tales and the mental imprints left in readers for years after. They also support a way of thinking about storytelling that emerges more overtly in two other tales in this collection: the titular “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” and “Five Sphinxes and 56 Answers.” All four works, that is, address the artifice of narrative attention: no matter how much an author might strive to complete their tale, it will always leave behind loose ends and a multitude of characters’ lives with questions unanswered.

Some of those loose ends are picked up by Johnson in works of homage, while others are utterly deconstructed. The Sphinx, for instance, is always a secondary concern in ancient mythology—a sentient being who exists solely to offer an obstacle for a hero—but she’s also an extraordinarily complex character to leave without backstory, motivation, and future. How did such a clever and disciplined being come to be? What brought her to serve in this capacity? What other propulsive energy might she have in her life? For Johnson, this contrast between narrative marginalization and conceptual complexity invites a deeper meditation not only into what the Sphinx’s life might have been, but also into the nature of a world that would not treat the Sphinx as a worthy protagonist. We therefore don’t simply get a number of possible backstories; we’re also invited to reflect on the tiered nature of value granted to different characters in our most cherished cultural touchstones. Why this story, this protagonist, and not another?

“The Privilege of the Happy Ending” similarly calls our attention to all the characters who enter and depart from its main plot—and, in doing so, interrogates how little care we readers often show for what happens to secondary participants. Johnson’s tale offers many stopping points, too, and different ways of imagining what might happen off the page. Taken as a whole, the novella highlights the extent to which readers are always (whether we realize it or not) actively engaged in the work of choosing what a story’s ends might be:

What of the Lucky Village, cradled in a fluke of geography and conditionally cruel? You blame them for sending children to die alone. But they have their own. They must be prudent; they must be reasonable. They must make a choice, and so they do what is right for their own children and not these strangers—though of course there are some that are merely cruel, or selfish, or too absorbed in their own fears to spare thought for others.

Their God does not seem to mind, but we little gods that are readers and writers: we mind. Imagine the Lucky Village destroyed at last, if it comforts you. Or, if you are kind, imagine it learns its lesson and is rewarded with long lives and rich harvests. Imagine there is a lesson here. Still, why is fiction held to a higher standard than reality?

This last question resonates with another facet of Johnson’s stories, which emerges in work as wide-ranging as “Tool-Using Mimics,” “Mantis Wives,” and “Ratatoskr.” The first is a meditation on possible meanings of a 1930s picture that blends a happy child with tentacles (they seem to extend from her dress and shroud her head). The second offers a series of ritual deaths performed by “mantis women” on “mantis men,” a fatal craft that is elevated to an art form which reveals a complex mutualism within the species’ culture. The third follows a child gifted with the ability to see the ghosts of dead squirrels and to glimpse their god. Despite the range in topic and form, all rely on our strong narrative desire to pin down specific meanings and justifications for events when none might exist. When the provenance of a strange photo might simply be its own; when the affairs of mantis women and men might have nothing to do with human relationships; when a human encounter with a squirrel-god yields nothing humanity can use.

Even when Johnson’s stories invite us to dwell more expressly with other animality, as in “Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead,” “Crows Attempt Human-Style Riddles, and One Joke,” and “Noah’s Raven,” the abiding lesson is that human narrative forms and expectations don’t fit easily onto the private aches and priorities of other creatures. “Noah’s Raven” is the most potent of these, in that light: its story of Noah and the Ark, told from the vantage point of a raven struggling in captivity with a heartbroken male of her species, emphasizes how little other species owe us their participation in any of our grand narratives of purpose.

Moreover, when they do consent to be part of our joy, as in “Butterflies of Eastern Texas,” there’s not much point in trying to explain the wonder of simply being present in the world. Part of this tale may well involve the act of naming—a ticket collector suddenly recognizing the taxonomy of butterfly species during a train ride—but the names we give to things are never as important as the feelings themselves and our willingness to embrace them.

While exploring the narrative and linguistic gaps in human lives, the stories in Kij Johnson’s The Privilege of the Happy Ending make no pretense of “solving” the problem of all our missing pieces. The incompleteness of our stories, and of our language, is simply part of the experience of being human, as are all the elaborate ways in which we try to fill the gaps, as are all the gentle and not-so-gentle ways in which the rest of the world pushes back. Johnson’s work imagines a world of mythic possibility where the tension between name and feeling isn’t a problem but rather, an entry point into our fuller selves. A door.

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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