Friday, July 13, 2012

100 Books #63 - Benjamin Rosenbaum's THE ANT KING AND OTHER STORIES

It is said we fabulists live two lives at once. First we live as others do: seeking to feed and clothe ourselves, earn the respect and affection of our fellows, fly from danger, entertain and satiate ourselves on the things of this world. But then, too, we live a second life, pawing through the moments of the first, even as they happen, like a market-woman of the bazaar, sifting trash for treasures. Every agony we endure we also hold up to the light with great excitement, expecting it will be of use; every simple joy we regard with a critical eye, wondering how it could be changed, honed, tightened, to fit inside a fable's walls.
- Benjamin Rosenbaum in "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum"

If you dug all the mixed-up craziness of the "universe without Time" schtick in "The Wedding of River Song" (the Series 6 finale of the Doctor Who revival), then this is the short story collection for you.

It's one of the oddest I've encountered since Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths, and while that oddness is the primary quality the books share, it is far from the only one. Go look for yourself: a few of the stories from this collection have been published elsewhere, in magazines like McSweeney's, and are available online at Small Beer Press's website.

It's all very, very po-mo, but not in that annoying way, though bits of the story quoted above stray into a somewhat precious parody of a certain dialect of academese that I don't miss hearing at all from my college days. No, what we have here is pure, bizarre creativity, as if a Borgesian by temperament suddenly decided to chuck the master's adherence to the cultural touchstones of Western civilization and mysticism and just decided to go gleefully mad.

"Biographical Notes..." is probably the most Borgesian, with its professional constructor of plausible fantasies, who uses the author's own name as a nom de plume, as a hero, but here the action is at least as much in our hero's physical world as in his mind. That physical world is a steampunk dream of dirigibles and gliders and derring-do as he leaps from the one to the other in mid-flight, even as he dreams of an alternate reality in which Brahmanist causality does not hold sway and merely the laws of physics and materialism are true. How would people living in such a weird universe as that fly, he wonders as he clings to the side of the P.R.G.B. Sri Bernard Shaw and preparing to tackle a would-be assassin, or maybe some aerial pirates, or both! And that's just part of it, for in this world, the great colonizing powers on a mission to civilize the clueless of Europe come from Cathay, Gabon, Khmer, the Aryan Raj!* This might not be everyone's favorite story in this collection, but I think it's mine.

And that's just the beginning, kids. "The Orange" concerns an orange, as in a piece of citrus fruit, that actually rules the world**; "Start the Clock" depicts a society in which age is a matter of choice and can be physiologically fixed, its protagonist a girl who has chosen to stay biologically nine years old forever and is never troubled by having breasts or sexual desire but now has to deal with a friend who wants to grow up; "The Blow" depicts a Sam Spade type's bittersweet, limited existence after a blow to the head leaves him half-paralyzed; the title story, subtitled "A California Fairy Tale" concerns a love triangle of sorts, with the lady kidnapped by the titular Ant King while her swain struggles to run a gumball corporation and rescue his love by playing... a video game; "Orphans" re-imagines Babar as an object of human female desire***. And speaking of female desire, there's "Red Leather Tassels," featuring a sex scene between a tycoon's wife and a woodpecker, "like the fluttering of a feather duster... an insistent, passionate feather duster." Some of the funniest stuff I've read in a long time, that.

Ah, but then there's stuff like "The Book of Jashar," which juxtaposes Thomas Pynchon's Oedipa Maas and Philip K. Dick's Timothy Archer in a story of, what else, imaginary Judeo-Christian apocrypha, written in the form of a letter to a small press fiction editor together with an enclosed English translation of what amounts to a Hebraic vampire story, and was a bit too much of a dig in the ribs for me. And "Sense and Sensibility," an oh-so-meta tale of the twee inhabitants of various locales on and in the body of a being known as The Glutton which I could barely endure****. But not every chocolate in the box is going to have hazelnuts, am I right?

All of this, though, good, amusing, annoying, indifferent, all of it pales in comparison to the final story, "A Siege of Cranes," a pulp fantasy dreamscape that is as compelling, emotionally draining and powerful as the rest are merely clever. Were I to get a chance to take Rosenbaum aside and have a little chat with him about his future, I would grab him by the lapels (and if he wasn't wearing anything with lapels, I would force him to put on a jacket so I could grab him by the lapels) and tell him to quit arseing around and showing off and give us more of this, work that bears comparison with Harlan Ellison at his most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking and nightmarish (oh gawd, that chariot!) and true. Because it's all fine and good to be clever, but it's better, isn't it, to write stories that people want to read again and again? Of all of these stories, most of them worth reading at least once, "A Siege of Cranes" is one I think I'll return to, and for which be eternally grateful to Rosenbaum. Worth the price of the whole book, this story.

I took in these stories one by one at odd moments over the course of a good month or so, mostly because when read one after the other, they blend together weirdly and unsatisfyingly. That's the peril of tongue-in-cheek surrealism; when anything can happen, anything can happen, and if you forget what story you're in, you might easily think you're in another and get annoyed at how incoherent it all seems. Best to avoid that (I suspect this might be behind some of the negative reviews of this collection that I've seen).

Many and profuse thanks to Eric Orchard for telling me about this book and its publisher, Small Beer Press. I see now a whole new vista of awesome to enjoy!

*Not the stupid white power Nazi-esque sense of "Aryan". Think of the roots of that race and of Indo-European languages. Yeah. India!

**Too bad it's so short, a complaint one might have about many of these stories. Something else Rosenbaum seems to share with Borges: a certain "lofty laziness."

***Yet another story, "The Fig" reimagines Douglas Adams' famous Vl'Hurg war fleet as an army of little men whose mission is to recover the titular fruit from a cat who stole it from a little girl. One suspects Rosenbaum has a whole stack of these somewhere.

****What did Jane Austen do to deserve all of this, exactly? Seth Grahame-Smith, I'm looking at you as well, of course.

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