Book #2 (January 14, 2010): McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon.
I’m a great fan of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy and horror. I am therefore going to make an unfair generalization: It sometimes seems as though these genres, along with mysteries and thrillers, are among the few remaining forms of fiction where authors bother to be entertaining or to engage in something that used to be called (and, in fact, still is called) storytelling. At some point in the last century the literature of entertainment (and I use the term “literature” deliberately) forked off from literary fiction (which, as Michael Chabon notes in his introduction to this anthology, is as much a genre as any other, with its own well-worn genre conventions) and became mildly disreputable. I’ll have more to say about this in upcoming weeks, especially if I get around to reading Chabon’s collection of essays Maps and Legends (which is sitting, in actual book form, on my shelf), where Chabon engages with this subject at book length, but for now I want to talk about what Chabon has put on the table in this particular anthology.
One of the things I like about Chabon is that he’s a literary writer who is willing to take genre seriously. This short story anthology is a sequel to his earlier McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which was originally published as a special issue of Dave Eggers’ quirky literary magazine Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Chabon’s aim, according to his introduction (about which more in a moment), was to play with the concept of genre and to assemble a collection of writers who produce fiction somewhere in the margins (or would that be median strips?) between genre fiction and literary fiction, including literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates who frequently spill over into genre writing and genre writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub who occasionally manage to achieve literature.
Chabon’s introduction is one of my favorite parts and I’m tempted to quote from it at length. It’s about the tricky, indistinct boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction and how it’s mostly a matter of publishing categories, not actual content. I’ll indulge in a single (albeit lengthy) quote:
“Genre, in other words, is–in a fundamental and perhaps ineradicable way–a marketing tool, a standard maintained most doggedly by publishers and booksellers. Though the costly studies and extensive research conducted by the publishing industry remain closely guarded secrets, apparently some kind of awful retailing disaster would entail if all the fiction, whether set on Mars or Manhattan, concerning a private eye or an eye doctor, were shelved together, from Asimov and Auster to Zelazny and Zweig. For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers’ books, with elegant serif typefaces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the atom is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been widely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction.”
This is a longtime complaint of genre fans, especially fans of fantasy and science fiction. Not only does a large portion of the literary world refuse to take even the best work in these genres seriously, but on the rare occasions when some work of fantasy or science fiction is so unquestionably well written that even the snobbiest of critics can’t fall back on calling it hackwork, they simply deny that it’s genre fiction at all. It’s as though the very definitions of science fiction and fantasy contain the term “poorly written.” When that term ceases to apply, so does the genre label.
I’ve wandered a bit far afield, which doesn’t leave me a lot of room to talk about the stories in this anthology, but I’ll talk about them anyway. My favorite is David Mitchell’s “What You Do Not Know You Want,” which reads like something Hunter Thompson might have written if he were trying to be Elmore Leonard. It’s about an antiques dealer in Hawaii trying to locate the knife that writer Yukio Mishima used to commit seppuku, and from this already bizarre premise Mitchell concocts something not only very dark but darkly funny. It left me interested enough to want to know more about David Mitchell’s writing and I’ll probably read one of his novels sometime later this year. I also liked Stephen King’s “Lisey and the Madman,” which is apparently a portion of his novel Lisey’s Story, though that novel hadn’t been published (or, as far as I know, even completed) at the time the Chabon anthology came out. I greatly enjoyed “Minnow,” a clever horror story by Ayelet Waldman, who happens to be (though the editor sneakily neglects to mentions it anywhere in the text) Chabon’s wife. And “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville, a slight, quirky, highly original story about feral, time-traveling alleyways. That’s certainly not an idea that’s been done to death.
Chabon never actually assigns these stories a genre, which I suppose is the point, but most of them fall into a niche that I’d call hyperliterate horror, which is exactly the kind of horror fiction I like. The whole collection is excellent.