Strange Horizons, July 15, 2013
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
C. S. E. Cooney’s “Ten Cigars” is a strange and lyrical story that certainly meets whatever expectations are generated by Strange Horizons’ name and legacy. It is organized into short sections, each one a piece of flash fiction with its own title. The characters do not repeat, nor do they develop in the scant paragraphs allotted to them, but this story is not theirs. “Ten Cigars” is about a new and enigmatic species of butterflies.
These butterflies are mysterious creatures, their nature bizarre and complicated – in particular their relationship to… cigars. Yes, it’s rather strange. There are many strange things about this tale, not least of which is the fact that it works. There is no real plot, but there is a story, of sorts: one built by the reader, who assembles, snippet by snippet, an idea about the origins of these mysterious butterflies.
The story is told in evocative prose, with well-chosen images and precise writing. I was reminded of Theodora Goss by the careful and elegant juxtaposition of the fantastic (“She ended her act in a gown of gray velvet, black roses”) and the mundane (“Blues, booze, and boobs”). The situations depicted in these little snippets, despite their brevity, are rich with emotional resonance, particularly the depictions of a lonely man and a widower.
They aren’t all equally successful, of course: the difficulty of writing a story in this manner is that each section must both contribute to the story and stand on its own, and it takes a talent like J. G. Ballard or Pamela Zoline to pull it off perfectly. In “Ten Cigars” I found some of the middle sections to be the weakest; descriptions (purportedly) of the sense of humour and then fastidiousness of the butterflies don’t succeed in depicting either. Likewise, the illustrations add nothing: this story paints with words, its imagery is strong enough to need no embellishing. No artist, in fact, could match the paintings conjured in the mind of the reader.
But despite these criticisms I was impressed with “Ten Cigars.” I couldn’t help but appreciate the daring in the story’s conception and construction. Its strangeness drew me in and its clever writing and emotional content made me grateful for having read it.