Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And Now, Apropos of Nothing, Six Really Awesome Writers You May Or May Not Have Heard Of

The world of literature is a mighty big place, and I'm always seeking out new authors to broaden ye olde literary horizons (and yes, I am still reading the Hugo nominees, thank you very much, even though the Hugos happened a few weeks ago and I'm behind on reading in general--thanks, school). Every once in a while, I'll come across a writer whom I consider to be absolutely brilliant, whose words ring coin-like in my head long after I've read them, and whom virtually no one in my immediate social circles has heard of. (That's not a slight on my family and friends, mind you--there are plenty of writers that I'd never heard of whom I happily started reading after recommendations from friends. Raymond Carver, for example. See? Ignorance is correctable! Wowee!)

To help remedy this, I've come up with the list below. I'm also including little selections from one or two of the authors' works, to give the curious reader a better idea of their respective styles. Note that most (but not all) of these authors fall into the category of speculative fiction, though not so much in the "fantasy and science fiction" sense as the "oh my god this is so unbelievably deliciously weird" sense. But that's how I like 'em.

Thus, in no particular order, Six Really Awesome Writers You May Or May Not Have Heard Of:

1. M. John Harrison

An author (and renowned rock climber) from the UK, Harrison writes decidedly sf-nal/ fantastical fiction with an absurdist bent to it. It's not exactly light stuff; a lot of Harrison's work is not only weird but also unsettling, fueled by an underlying feeling of dread, alienation, and inescapable doom, and that's certainly not everyone's cup of (very black) tea. But his writing consistently blows me away, and he's unrivaled in creating an oblique, disturbing ambience that lurk underneath his stories. I read his novel The Course of the Heart last year (liked it quite a bit, despite it giving me awful, awful nightmares); here's the opening paragraph:
When I was a tiny boy I often sat motionless in the garden, bathed in sunshine, hands flat on the rough brick of the garden path, waiting with a prolonged, almost painful expectation for whatever would happen, whatever event was contained by that moment, whatever revelation lay dormant in it. I was drenched in the rough, dusty, aromatic smells of dockleaves and marigolds. In the corner of the warm wall, rhubarb blanched under an upturned zinc tub eaten away with rust. I could smell it there.
2. Kelly Link

Kelly Link writes badass short fiction. That's all there is to it, really. Her stories (which often play on the idea of the mundane and the fantastic intersecting) are quirky to the extreme, featuring undead babysitters, dueling librarians, tap-dancing bank robbers, demonic beauty pageant contestants, and in one truly odd case, a farmer with a collection of artificial noses. But they're not just weird; Link's storytelling carries a remarkably affecting human element to it, as many of her characters suffer from private, unspoken pains or find themselves entangled in complicated relationships.

If you're into stories that make you feel something akin to derealization, Link is not to be missed, especially her second collection, Magic for Beginners (which can be partially downloaded here). Here's a snippet from one of her stories, "Shoe and Marriage," which features three vignette-ish pieces united by, oddly enough, shoes and marriage:

The dictator's wife lives in the shoe museum. During visiting hours she lies in bed downstairs with the rest of the exhibits. When you come in, you can't see her but you can hear her. She is talking about her husband. "He loved to eat strawberries. I don't care to eat strawberries. They taste like dead people to me. I'd rather drink soup made from a stone. We ate off the most beautiful plates every night. I don't know who they belonged to. I just kept track of the shoes."

The museum is a maze of cases. Visitors wander through narrow aisles, elbows tucked in to bodies, so they don't brush against the glass displays. They drift towards the center of the exhibit room, towards the voice of the old lady, until they come upon a bed. Glass boxes stacked up in tall rows hedge in the bed on all sides. In the boxes are pairs of shoes. In the bed is the dictator's wife, covers pulled up to her chin. Visitors stop and stare at the dictator's wife.

She stares back, old and fragile and crumbly. It is disconcerting, to be stared at by this old woman. In proper museums, you go to stare at the exhibits. They do not stare back at you. The dictator's wife is wrinkly like one of those dogs. She's wearing a black wig that's too small for her head. Her false teeth are in a souvenir glass beside the bed. She puts her teeth in.

The dictator's wife will stare at visitors' shoes until the visitors look down too, wondering if a shoelace has come untied.

3. China Mieville

Okay, okay, so if you know me personally, you almost certainly have heard about this guy, given that I won't shut up about him. But I can't help it; if I so much as hear his name I collapse into a pile of fanboy squee. And no, I do not have a man crush on him, even if he is kind of attractive in a sort of Mr.-Clean-meets-Jason-Statham kind of way.

Mieville's style is perhaps best described as as H.P. Lovecraft meets Charles Dickens meets Mervyn Peake, with some Jorge Luis Borges occasionally thrown in. He's definitely not for everyone; his writing gets almost decadently baroque at times, and he dwells a lot on descriptions of place, as in the opening section to his novel Perdido Street Station:

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.

Interestingly, his prose has gotten quite a bit more pared down recently; his Hugo-winning book The City and the City opens with a markedly more sparse tone:
I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course--a child's mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put it in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.
But style is definitely not all there is to Mieville, and in fact his substance is where he really shines--he comes up with some of the coolest ideas I've ever encountered in literature. To name a few (mild spoilers follow):

•Cactaceae - a race of cactus-people that populate his fictional world of Bas-Lag. Yeah, cactus-people. With the spines and everything.

•Bookaneers - featured in Un Lun Dun, Mieville's YA book about an alternate version of London, bookaneers are librarians who rappell down the massive Wordhoard Pit (a giant tower of books that also connects all libraries in the world together) in search of obscure books.

•The Remade - by far Mieville's most badass invention, the Remade are convicted criminals in the fictional city-state of New Crobuzon who are organically or mechanically modified as punishment for their crimes. So you wind up with, say, a woman with tank treads for legs. Or a guy with (deep breath) a giant praying mantis claw for an arm. So sweet.

I could go on about Mieville for hours, but before I completely melt, I'd best move on.

4. M. Rickert

Rickert (the "M." stands for "Mary") might not have made it onto this list, except that she holds the singular honor of having written what is probably my favorite short story of all time, an unnerving, strangely beautiful piece entitled "Journey into the Kingdom" that was published in the April 2006 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and is notoriously difficult to find these days, outside of best-of collections). I won't say too much about the story, except that it shattered me as a 17-year-old, and that I still think about it pretty frequently to this day.

Fortunately, "Journey" wasn't just a fluke for Rickert, and when I sought out her other stories, I found her to be a capable storyteller, with a García Márquez-esque style tying her stories together. From "The Super Hero Saves the World" a story in her first and only collection Map of Dreams:
When Marcado was three a python swallowed her alive. Her mother was dead but when they cut Marcado out, she was sucking her thumb, peacefully asleep. The rescuers crossed themsleves, then spit on the red ground. Her father stared at her in the split belly of the beast, the odd stamen of its brutal flower, until the cook, who was used to dealing with the bloody facts of appetite, pushed past the men and lifted her out. She tried to hand the bloody child to her grieving father but he would not touch her, shocked, the veterinarian said, by the double miracle of the mother's death and child's recovery.
5. Breece Pancake

This one's a pretty new name for me, as I just came across Pancake's only collection of short stories a week ago, published posthumously after he killed himself. One has to wonder what he might have produced had he kept going. Vonnegut called him "merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read."

What I dig about Pancake's stories is the exquisite sense of place, the idea that Pancake is grappling with the West Virginian Appalachia in which he was raised. He's been compared stylistically to Hemingway, but one could also compare him thematically to Faulkner, inasmuch as both were so preoccupied with their places of origins, as well as the idea of the past constantly invading the present. From "Trilobites," the first story in the collection:
I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and the stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.
6. Gene Wolfe

Reading Gene Wolfe is unlike reading anyone else. When I first encountered his work (I was 15 or so), I didn't like him at all, but now I realize I was honestly much too young to understand it at the time. He loads his stories with hidden messages, with obscure allusions, with the fantastic-yet-infuriating unreliable narrator who can't be trusted to tell the truth, ever. His stories are puzzles, locked in labyrinths, buried far beneath the earth. But if you can figure out what's going on, it's extremely rewarding.

His stories aren't puzzling in the superficial sense--you can easily parse the plot, and his style is typically simplistic and easy to read (though not always). The tricky part is realizing that the blind, abandoned kid seeking the hobo utopia "Sugarland" in a world where robots have supplanted human labor in the story "Eyeflash Miracles" is actually a sort of retelling of Pilgrim's Progress, or that Tessie in "The Friendship Light" might really be Saint Teresa de Ávila, and the winged, murderous creatures seen in the story are actually the cherubs she purportedly saw. (Not a coincidence that these are both Christian concepts, as Wolfe is a devout Catholic.) It's hard to explain without reading the stories themselves, but this is how Wolfe writes--he's never straightforward about it, but that's the fun.

Rather than provide any snippets of his writing (his stories are best experienced whole), I'll point you to the fascinating (and intimidating) old and new Urth archives, a series of discussions about Wolfe's works that have been ongoing since 1997. Seriously, these guys make Lost fans look like amateurs. This is a little too extreme for me, but it nonetheless highlights how difficult (and engaging) reading Wolfe is.

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