"A Paradigm of Coats" by Steve Nagy
"Disorder" by Mary Madewell
"Rare Bird" by Daliso Chaponda
"She Wants To Be Saved (City Pier Part IV)" by Paul Tremblay
Perplexed? So’s Germaine. But the nature of the payment soon becomes clear, and Tenele, quick to believe in magic, decides she wants a tattoo of her own. Unfortunately, Tenele has expensive tastes. The price she pays for her “Rare Bird” becomes evident in a conclusion which is both surprising and inevitable.
This story is a gem; I reread it for pleasure. I savored the emotional coolness of Germaine’s and Tenele’s marriage—the unspoken idea that seven years consisted not just of time, but of distance. I appreciated the way Chaponda gave only a glimpse into his character’s lives, enough so that his conclusion worked beautifully, not so much that the ending felt obvious. I love it when a writer treats me like a grown-up with more than a half dozen neurons upstairs.
The author’s website calls “Rare Bird” an urban fantasy, and the label is apt. “Urban fable” would also be true. Either way, the result is a delight.
In grade school, we called them yard ladies: tough old gals whose job it was to keep us from killing ourselves. Ruth Booker, protagonist of Steve Nagy’s wonderful “A Paradigm of Coats,” is nicer than any yard lady I ever knew. She loves her little charges, watches over them as if they were her own. Trouble is, Ruth has a jones for keeping kids’ coats zipped up on a cold winter’s day.
John Adams is one of the most willful kids on the playground. He enjoys careening about, pretending to be an airplane, especially when his coat opens up and billows outward like wings. Soon, a number of little ones are imitating him—something zipper-loving Ruth Booker has a hard time tolerating. Conflict between the two is established quickly:
. . . she watched for leaders like little John Adams, stones around which the stream of life churned and rippled. Stones she could move and so influence those who flowed around them.
The struggle between the two never feels forced or overdramatized. Before long, John Adams becomes something more than just a free-spirited kindergartener, and this transition, too, feels natural. By the story’s end, “A Paradigm of Coats” can be clearly seen for what it is: an artfully conceived allegory of growth, freedom, and change. Even a tough old gal like Ruth Booker can understand that.
Mary Madewell’s “Disorder” is a harsh, mean, thoroughly creepy tale of a sixteen-year-old girl dying of anorexia. Carson, Danielle’s mother, sits loyally by her daughter’s hospital bed, but we soon learn that her devotion has its flaws. She hates her husband with a ferocity which builds as the story progresses, and her feelings for Danielle are somewhat less than motherly. For Carson isn’t doing the bedside watch to be supportive. She’s waiting for Danielle to die.
“Disorder” is a compelling read, but as with any story told from the villain’s point of view—particularly when it’s this rotten a villain—don’t expect to feel cozy. If Madewell intended to illustrate the destructive power of hatred, she has succeeded quite well. By the end, I felt like giving my wife and son a big hug and swearing off all bitter thoughts.
The writing is taut and hard-driving, flawed only by Madewell’s overuse of run-on sentences. But that’s a minor quibble that I forgave a third of the way through, because by then she had me by the jewels. Forget about breaking for dinner in the middle of this one; once you start, you’ll have to finish it.
It’s hard not to be sympathetic to James Dorr’s “Carnival of the Animals.” I suspect the core image came to the author in a flash, perhaps in a dream, and demanded that a story be built around it. In a post-catastrophe metropolis, New City, a parade of bizarre animals stampede down a main street, a street which leads to a causeway, which leads to the Tombs:
Scaled birds and wingless birds, yet with sharp, razored beaks, shrieking into the sounds of the others, of lowings and snarlings, roarings and high, sharp barks. Squealings and harsh scrapings—lobster-like creatures, adapted to land-dwelling. And snakes and beetles.
Dorr captures the rampage with his vivid, poetic prose. It’s a striking image. I can well imagine the author waking up from such a dream, running to his laptop, and pounding the keys.
The trouble lies with Dorr’s technique, which puts style ahead of substance. It may seem unfair to criticize an author’s style over the story’s content, but when that style blocks the reader’s appreciation of the story, it makes itself an issue.
“Carnival of the Animals” begins with a man and woman who remain unnamed until the eighth paragraph. For me, this resolute insistence on pronouns over names suggests that the author is striving for Significance with a capital S. I like to know whom I’m reading about, thank you.
Dorr overuses italics, and tends to italicize perfectly decent English words as if they were foreign—chador, animus, psyche. There’s even a bit of gratuitous French.
The author’s stilted dialog kept me from immersing myself in his world. He asks us to accept this from the man by repeatedly calling him a scholar and a pedant (although I’ve known my share of scholars, and no one ever spoke like this guy). And why must the woman speak so stiffly? Elsewhere, sentences like this bring the narrative to a halt:
One could of course afterwards invite old lovers into one’s home, with one’s husband’s approval, to compare with him the ones one did not choose.
Throughout the story, there are hints of a world richly realized in the author’s mind. Some sort of weather catastrophe has occurred, making it plausible for the woman to imagine that the ocean may have boiled over. Daily, the dead are carted off to the Tombs. Ghouls roam the New City, carrying with them “flickering blue ghoul-lights.” It’s a haunting nightmare-scape. The man and woman try their best to understand the march of the beasts, wondering if it’s some sort of warning, speculating whether the animals have souls. The argument meanders and never quite achieves any resolution. By the end, I felt stupid. I’d clearly missed the point. Like the protagonist Ipanema, I “couldn’t quite grasp it.”
This issue’s longest offering is Paul Tremblay’s “She Wants To Be Saved,” the fourth installment of Tremblay’s “City Pier” series. Also included here are stories one through three, which is a good thing; “She Wants To Be Saved” would be well nigh incomprehensible without some knowledge of stories one and two. Before considering “She Wants To Be Saved,” then, let me give you a quick precis on the previous three tales.
The City Pier, a mammoth forest of sequoia trunks cross-linked with countless wooden planks, covers an area of hundreds of square miles and rises two hundred feet above the ocean. It is home to underworld crime figures and the City’s homeless flotsam. In the hardboiled-SF fusion “Meat’s Story,” Bill (AKA Meat) is a tough-talking pier-wise goon hired to escort prospective City clients to Harry Faulk, who “was once a famous molecular biologist and chemist and physicist. Then he became a government weapons designer and shill. Then he became legend, fable, a crime-boogeyman, living forgotten—except by the mob and gangs of City—under the Pier. Now he’s the most popular and elusive weapons dealer above or below City.”
Whew. Quite a resume. Bill’s current prospect happens to be Harry’s estranged son, a kid who wants more from dad than just fatherly love, and is willing to play dirty to get it. He has framed Harry and Bill with the murder of drug kingpin Julius Steps. We are supposed to believe that the son has become a powerful enough crime figure that he can execute “the most powerful drug-lord in City”, and yet his dad—the fabled crime-boogeyman—doesn’t know junior’s in the same biz. Following some violence and fireworks, the story ends on an unfinished note.
“Dole As Ribbit”, the most successful of the four stories, introduces us to the Padre, a trash-talking Catholic priest with psychic abilities. The police call him in to try out his “freak show” abilities on a Pier-dweller who witnessed the Julius Steps execution. Trouble is, the witness can only say one thing: “Dole as ribbit.”
We eventually learn that the witness pushed, or accidentally let go of, a stroller containing his baby boy, leading to the child’s death. He’s scum, in the Padre’s book, and deserves to hang out with the other lowlifes who populate the Pier. The Padre’s psychic abilities eventually kick in, and we find out the true story behind this alleged child-murderer.
The best hardboiled stories are tragedies, and that’s why “Dole As Ribbit” works at all. Unfortunately, Tremblay chose to bury the witness’s story in a morass of stream of consciousness prose which, for me, diluted the emotional impact.
The third story, “The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas: An Excerpt from A History of the Longesian Library”, is an unusual outlier, differing from the other three in tone, style, and subject matter. We’re still at the Pier, but if anything else connects to the other stories, I missed it. This is a Lovecraftian tale (like Lovecraft in style, but not content) about a libarian’s encounter with magical balloons that serve as portals to alternate universes. I liked the surprise ending, but I found the style—a series of disjointed notes written by a stuffy academician—to be overwhelmingly dull.
Which brings us to “She Wants To Be Saved.” Here, Tremblay has chosen to tell his story backward, much as Christopher Nolan did in the movie Memento. In Memento, however, this gimmick had a purpose; it made the viewer identify with the protagonist, who has a short term memory deficit. Here, the gimmick is just a gimmick.
It’s hard to explain “She Wants To Be Saved” without giving away the punch line. Suffice to say that the tale brings together Bill (from the first story), the witness from “Dole As Ribbit,” and the mother of the witness’s dead son; so if you haven’t read the first and second stories, you’ll miss the point. As it was, I found myself referring back to those two stories, using my browser’s “Find In This Page” function to identify character names. Even after studying those stories and rereading this one backwards (which is forwards . . . get it?) I’m still not sure why Bill did what he did in this story.
The writing has flashes of brilliance, and Tremblay sprinkles the page with vivid images: “There isn’t a needle inside the package, but there’s one still sticking out of Terry’s arm, like a divining rod, the vein it found already turning black.” But other passages fall flat: “Her breathing is ragged, like an exposed lie, and her heart trips off of 4/4 timing into a complicated jazz-shuffle that tightens up her chest and dims things a bit, but she’s relaxed and calm and warm.” Where’s the logic in that?
If the story doesn’t make sense to me, I leave feeling unsatisfied. No amount of fine writing or stylistic innovation can make up for that.