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Mothers & Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh
Posted byGregory Feeley
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"Ancestor Money" "In the Air" "The Cost to Be Wise" "The Lincoln Train" "Interview: On Any Given Day" "Oversite" "Wicked" "Laika Comes Back Safe" "Presence" "Eight-Legged Story" "The Beast" "Nekropolis" "Frankenstein’s Daughter"
The “Mothers” of the title occupy only the most recent stories in this, Maureen F. McHugh‘s first collection, which ranges over most of her career—the earliest story dates from 1992, while the latest is original to the volume—but is strongest in those published since 2001, stories that abjure future or alternate-history settings for a here-and-now (sometimes problematically so) in which women, most of them mothers (though again often problematically) seek to negotiate landscapes for which their lives thus far have left them unprepared.
The protagonist in “Eight-Legged Story” obsessively sees herself as a wicked stepmother, though she has in no way wronged the troubled, maddening boy who came with her marriage, which his problems are now unraveling. The mother in “Frankenstein’s Daughter” has indeed done a great wrong, though she was driven to it by unbearable bereavement and with good intentions, which do nothing to prevent its awful consequences. Rachel, in “Ancestor Money,” is long dead; she is impelled to travel across space and time because of a dubious gift made to her by a descendent—meaning that she too was once a mother, though the descendant appears to be an in-law. And the middle-aged narrator of “Presence,” who must watch her slightly older husband descend into the abyss of Alzheimer’s and then, following a radical treatment, climb a different path partway back, becomes something like a mother to her spouse.
Only in the most recent story, the two-page “Wicked” (McHugh now sticks the bad-stepmother theme on a pike and waves it before us), are we offered an outright Bad Mom, with a comic forthrightness that puts the reader squarely on her side. Do you think it’s easy, McHugh seems to be saying, to be merely like this and not worse?
The motifs of mother and monster are sounded together and separately, then played through variations. The narrator of “Oversite” (“Renata paints pictures of girls hit by cars”) is both mother and daughter, meaning she gets it in both directions, like the girls caught in traffic in her teenager’s disturbing paintings. Grasping to hold onto her loved ones—her mother is slipping away into dementia, her daughter into something less easily defined—she has implanted both with a global tracking chip, an electronic trail of breadcrumbs. Does this make her bad? Her mother wanders, teenagers do reckless things, and the woman in the middle is responsible for both. The brave and plainly correct course of action, so confidently sought out in genre fiction, is in McHugh’s work simply not available.
The older stories include her best-known, such as “The Cost to be Wise” and “Nekropolis,” which became in time the opening sections of her most recent novels, and “The Lincoln Train,” a Hugo winner. It would have been nice to see these stories in their own volume, filled out with other memorable early work such as “Protection” and “Whispers” (omitted here, presumably for reasons of space), and the more recent stories—shorter and even better, showing their own sibling resemblances, and less likely to have been nominated for awards—given a separate collection.
As it is, the thirteen stories here show their own unity—“We blinked in the darkness, holding our gifts,” the devastating final line to “The Cost to be Wise,” hovers like an epigraph over all of them—as well as a greater range than many Hugo laureates evince over an entire career. The earlier stories tend to be about daughters, and while their powerless state does not absolve them of moral responsibility—McHugh knows too much to suggest that—their moral choices and dilemmas are finally less anguished than those facing the older women in the later work. “Interview: On Any Given Day,” published in 2001 and the last of the stories told from a youth’s point of view, pointedly raises the issue in its final pages, where the relative moral culpability of an adolescent and an adult is presented with almost unbearable intensity. Reportedly the opening section of McHugh’s current novel in progress (the practice of developing novels from the seeds of shorter works, common in commercial science fiction, is a sign of McHugh’s genre origins), it make one look forward to the novel, and to more stories.