Text: UR – The New Book of Masks, edited by Forrest Aguirre

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“Faure, Envenomed, Dictates” by Nadia Gregor
“Monkey Shines” by Eric Schaller
Image“The Avatar of Background Noise” by Toiya Kristen Finley
“Parchment and Twigs” by Christine Boyka Kluge
“Bluecoat Jack” by Sarah Totton
“The Lindberg Baby” by Terese Svoboda
“Strangers on a Train” by Tamar Yellin
“Bitter Almonds and Absinthe” by Joe Murphy
“No Mooing in the Moonlight” by Christine Boyka Kluge
“The Theater Spectacular” by Catherine Kasper
“Last Transmission or Man with a Robotic Ermine” by Joshua Cohen
“Peace Rituals” by Darren Speegle
“Incipit” by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold
“Six Questions for an Alien” by Lance Olsen
“A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets” by E. Sedia
“Documenting My Abduction” by Christine Boyka Kluge
“The Fifth Tale: When the Devil Met Baldrick Beckenbauer” by Tom Miller
“The Scouring” by Rikki Ducornet
“Fugue-State” by Brian Evenson

“Most Excellent and Lamentable” by Jason Erik Lundberg

Text: UR – The New Book of Masks debuted this past weekend (Feb. 28 – March 3, 2007) at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference and presents readers with a rich selection of stories.  Those familiar with editor Forrest Aguirre’s work in the Leviathan anthology series will already have an idea what type of story to expect:  experimental, literate, at times cerebral, and overall well-crafted strangeness.  The anthology gives no editorial introduction, no grand statements of what’s going on or even contributor biographies, but simply presents the stories as they are.  The only guideline a potential reader might find comes from the back cover blurb, that it is a “beautifully surreal masquerade.”

In “Faure, Envenomed, Dictates” by Nadia Gregor, the narrator, Pierre, has assisted in the poisoning of his supervisor, the Faure of the title.  The fractured story gradually reveals the details of where they are, what they’re doing, and the relationships of the different characters.  Gregor does a good job of keeping the reader on the overlap between perplexed and intrigued as it develops, with Pierre recounting the experience of laying digital infrastructure through the jungle for a local government interspersed with Faure’s reaction to the poisoning.  Pierre reveals little about himself through this telling, except that he’s a cautious man and has a complex relationship with his supervisor.  It is not a story to resolve what is perplexing even at the end, but neither does it lose the strange allusiveness that gives it interest.

“Monkey Shines” by Eric Schaller is divided into three parts, each interesting in itself and certainly connected to each other but lacking an overall arc that would tie them together satisfyingly.  The first part seems initially to be highly surreal with two apes, a male King Kong and a female Mecha Kong, who go from fighting to having sex.  As it develops, the narration reveals that these are simply humans in costumes.  The second part is the most successful of the three, taking place a number of years later as the wife fills their house with plants, followed by a two-story greenhouse, and finally a pet monkey, only to take their daughter and leave.  The husband’s reaction, to replace all the plants by identical-looking plastic ones and the live monkey with a clockwork monkey, really forms the core of the story.  It’s poignant in what it reveals about the character and also seems to step outside the story, to interact with the reader’s world.  The final section follows the daughter years later as she returns to the now-ruined house she grew up in.  She’s an interesting character, but her section feels like no more than a coda to the earlier parts.

Toiya Kristen Finley’s “The Avatar of Background Noise” is a stunning piece of metafiction and the longest story in the anthology.  It includes quotes from the journal of a young writer, Jasmine Waters, who has come to a fictional world invented by a writer named Toiya Kristen Finley.  In that world, which is a thoroughly modern one with connections to our own, though imperfectly cut off, Waters publishes stories set in a place they consider fantasy, our world.  A fun, intellectually playful backdrop…but backdrop is all it is so far.

The real story is told by a character who calls himself Endnoter as he searches for Waters, who has gone missing.  But he doesn’t even know who he is or what his relationship with either the world of the story or the fantasy world that is our own.  It isn’t that he’s an amnesiac, as so many other stories might take this conceit, but that until a few days ago, he had no body, was simply an invisible companion to Waters.  From this setup, the story takes Endnoter and the fictional people he meets—for throughout, Endnoter is very aware that this is what he calls a “narrascape,” the fictional setting created by author Finley—through intrigue and danger and metaphysical questions about reality.  Recommended.

This is followed by the shortest story here, “Parchment and Twigs,” one of three flash pieces by Christine Boyka Kluge.  It is a beautifully told story of a lonely woman who creates children out of parchment and twigs, children who “required little: a sip of water, a fairy tale at bedtime.”  Very enjoyable.

“Bluecoat Jack” by Sarah Totton is told by a man who serves as a go-between and caregiver, bringing certain children who won’t be missed to a women who somehow uses their deepest pain to create art.  The children, or conduits, never survive more than a few sessions with her, but he’s learned to harden himself against that.  The new conduit, however, brings on what those in the caregiver business call “compassion fatigue.”  It is a dark story with a melancholy ending that is well told.

There is one aspect of the story that remains bewildering—near the end, it plays with the arrangement of text on the page, culminating in two text outlines reminiscent of shadow puppets—a dog, perhaps, and some unidentifiable animal.  It’s an interesting experiment, but seems to have nothing to do with the story itself, certainly doesn’t complement the story like such an experiment ought to.

Another short piece, “The Lindberg Baby” by Terese Svoboda, tells of an illicit baby-watching operation on a boat.  Parents drop off their children for a few hours so they can enjoy the town, however one child gets left behind, and the couple running the operation wonder if it’s the missing Lindberg child who has been in the news.  A strange and fascinating story that plays on historical events and changelings.

“Strangers on a Train” by Tamar Yellin is about memory, especially its unreliability.  The protagonist, Terri, is the wife of an actor who feels out of place when she and her husband are invited to dinner with another couple involved in theater.  Her sense of unease is augmented by the strangely decorated house, which looks and at times even feels like the inside of a train from the 19th century.  Throughout the evening, her memories and her husband’s memories don’t seem to quite match up, as if they’ve each lived completely different lives even though they’ve been together.  And as the evening progresses, she has further causes to doubt herself, her husband, the hosts, even the past itself as an immutable concept.  This story certainly embodies the slipstream ideal of feeling very strange and does so in an engaging way.

“Bitter Almonds and Absinthe” by Joe Murphy gives readers a fascinating imagined setting and society, a city that moves every night and a people that forces its women into either upper class Lamianettes or lower class Satyrinettes through bindings and surgeries.  In addition, the people are served by a class of animated clay figures.  Our introduction into this milieu comes through Beasel, a city garbage man who must guide his clay servants through the early morning streets to clear up whatever has been left behind by the movement of the city’s towers.  As the story opens, however, he realizes that something is wrong.  The garbage he finds is not like what he’s been collecting for years, and the streets themselves seem surprisingly identical to the day before.  The city rapidly deteriorates in the next days, and Beasel becomes involved in the intrigue between city factions as he attempts to do what he can to save the city.  And a garbage man is exactly the person required to save the city so it can move again.

Murphy gives readers a very sympathetic protagonist to bring us into this complicated story, and the story is well written.  About two-thirds of the way through, I thought I knew exactly how the story would go (and was enjoying it), when it seemed to veer off from my expectations.  Which, in this case, was a good thing—the ending was a logical development even if unexpected, and it made the story a stronger examination of the underlying society, of the ways different people within it were treated.  Recommended.

“No Mooing in the Moonlight” is the second of the three flash pieces by Christine Boyka Kluge.  In it the protagonist is dating a dairy farmer…only to discover that her date’s cows are not quite what she expected.  While I found it less engaging than the first, it is good for a laugh.

“The Theater Spectacular” by Catherine Kasper has no plot.  It is a setting, no more—but what a fascinating setting, one well worth visiting.  The story is essentially a travelogue of this strange place of puppets where visitors can participate in the creation of the puppets or even experience being one with strings attached to their bodies.  Through the various approaches to the puppets—and, later, to the dioramas which make no pretense at realism and the 1:1 scale models—"The Theater" serves to examine the relationship between imitation and reality as well as an exploration of the nature of art and fiction and especially speculative fiction.  Recommended.

In terms of its surface, of the language itself, Joshua Cohen’s “Last Transmission or Man with a Robotic Ermine” is the most experimental in this anthology.  It is purportedly the transcript of a man’s distress call because a robotic ermine he created has become a killer.  So the full story is written in this manner: “shell eat me dead the ermine / it / it hungry / I made it that way too / her to domesticate her / too hungry Ive made her too well…”  At times it is urgent as he scrambles to seal himself into his studio and later as he fears the robot is breaking in, but most of it is a rambling discourse about art—especially a renaissance painting, Lady with an Ermine—and the man’s life.  It’s an interesting ramble at times, but in the end, it felt like it added little to the list of other stories that play on being the final letter or telephone call or recording of some form from a doomed person.

“Peace Rituals” by Darren Speegle is a well written story of Tonto, an aging hippie in Amsterdam.  The story is heavy with drugs, some legal in the Netherlands and some not, as Tonto goes through one Thursday, which he keeps repeating, as if to remind himself that Thursday is a day for peace.  His own history plays an important role in his thoughts for the day—the demonstrations against war as well as the brother who returned from Vietnam in a wheelchair.  Through the drugs, he sees a puppet play that seems to mimic this same history.  The strength of this story is in its storytelling and in the slow revelation of the absence of peace that Tonto feels.

Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold give us the next standout-piece here with “Incipit.”  The story draws from the Gilgamesh epic, legends of the Wandering Jew, and thousands of years of our own history.  Enkidu, of the Gilgamesh epic, is a Neanderthal who has survived the extinction of his people and been brought to civilization by a man called only the Great King (though he matches Gilgamesh), but when Enkidu should die, according to the epic, the Great King takes his place, and Enkidu wanders through time undying but looking to be reunited with the Great King, which is to say, looking for death.  He meets the Wandering Jew several times and is present at many historic events in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.

Interspersed with the story are text boxes with a variety of quotes, from Shakespeare to Columbus’s journal to a Wikipedia article on Neanderthals.  This, like Finley’s story earlier, is an example of such textual experimentation that works, that adds to and integrates with the story.  Recommended.

In “Six Questions for an Alien” by Lance Olsen, a team of researchers gather to ask an alien some questions.  They have discovered from earlier interactions that this alien race does not appreciate being asked more than six questions about their lives, so the team chooses its questions carefully.  Any attentive reader who has read even a few science fiction stories will quickly deduce that this alien is actually a human, and the team of researchers are from another planet.  This allows the alien to make comments and observations about our own race, some of which come out as rather ham-handed, but others come out as very thought-provoking.  The story also includes some brilliant descriptions as the human tries to express the differences between him and the aliens, for example, “I am trying to use your language… Your nouns seem to me dead rocks hovering in the air.  You have many dead rocks floating around your head as we speak.  Your verbs magnify the disorder of the universe.”  And later in describing his feelings in traveling so far away, he says, “Often [our sky] is the color of sadness, yours the color of abstraction.”

The answer to the final question pushes this story from more standard speculation into surrealism that doesn’t quite sit easily with the rest of the piece but is still interesting in itself, as is the story as a whole.

“A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets” by E. Sedia is structured as if it’s a play, divided into acts and scenes with background and stage direction.  But it’s clear that the story within those scenes is not really meant for performance.  Each scene is a monologue by a sock puppet who is used by Them (puppeteers who are never seen) to perform for autistic children.  The narrator is always the autistic child within these plays that are meant to teach the children how they ought to act.  The sock doesn’t like it, doesn’t like performing, doesn’t like the messages they try to send the kids, and especially dislikes the way they treat one child, labeled as recalcitrant.  So the sock escapes and tries to find the boy on his own to give him his own message.  This is surrealism, no doubt, and there’s more going on than strangeness for its own sake, making this a good read.

“Documenting My Abduction” is the final flash fiction by Christine Boyka Kluge.  It’s the story of an alien abduction and the relationship she develops with her two captors, who eventually return to earth with her.  A strange and fun piece.

Tom Miller’s “The Fifth Tale: When the Devil Met Baldrick Beckenbauer” is incredibly funny.  It is supposedly the fifth chapter of what will eventually be a book of the collected (invented) folktales of one Marvin Berger.  The story itself is amusing, of a man who refused to deal with the devil for the cornerstone of his house, but the real fun is in the extensive footnotes.  In these, Berger and Miller’s persona within the setup argue back and forth about different points of the story and how it’s written, despite the fact that Miller reveals that he is recreating, after Berger’s disappearance, a transcript of a lost story that Berger often told.

Rikki Ducornet’s “The Scouring” is a short, melancholic tale of a future without plants or animals, weather or food, or most of the things we now associate with being human.  The narrator remembers the time before the scouring when all such things were destroyed and humans changed, and at first he seems glad that it has happened, that he doesn’t have to deal with all the things he remembers from before.  But as the story goes on, he undermines this as he recalls things and interacts with the newer generation that doesn’t remember.  Recommended.

“Fugue-State” by Brian Evenson is a disquieting story of a strange plague and its effects.  At first, the story seems to be just another account from inside the point of view of someone going insane.  Details don’t match up to what he expects, the reactions of those around not fitting his own perceptions.  Where the story gets going is when it’s revealed that this insanity, this fugue state, is a contagious and usually fatal plague that has created a strange, postapocalyptic-type world.  For the protagonist survivor, the plague has left him without his memory, so the reader discovers the effects as the protagonist does.  Most others who still live do so because they’ve avoided contracting the plague.  The actual source of the fugue is never explained, but the story is well written and quietly creepy.

The final story in the anthology is “Most Excellent and Lamentable” by Jason Erik Lundberg.  It follows the actions of an immortal character who constantly imagines ways in which he might die, and longs for it.  As narrator, he recounts how he knows different mortals, each of them thinking (because he wants them to) that he’s someone else—a poet, an artist, a filmmaker.  He dupes and betrays these mortals while picturing them finding some way to kill him.  This story has a surprise ending, which usually I wouldn’t like, except in this case it turned what would have been a forgettable story into one that demands to be reread and enjoyed a second time.

Overall, this is an excellent anthology.  The standouts for me were mostly those set in other, imaginary realities, but that may say more about my own preferences than about the strengths of the stories themselves.  Forrest Aguirre has done an excellent job here of bringing these stories together.

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press (Feb. 2007)
Price: $10.85
Paperback: 232 pages
ISBN: 193329339X