The River Knows Its Own by Jay Lake

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"Adagio for Flames and Jealousy”
“Iron Heaven”
“Heading West”
“Hard Times in the State of Nature”
“The Philosopher Clown”
“Green Grass Blues”
“Tiny Flowers and Rotten Lace”
“Those Boiled Bones”
“Eye Teeth”
“Fading Away”
“Eggs for Dinner”
“The River Knows Its Own”
“Bringing It On Yourself”
“Of Stone Castles and Vainglorious Time”
“Hunting Angels”
“The Algebra of Heaven”
“Hayflick Limit, 12 Miles”
“The Black Back Lands”
“Apologizing to the Concrete”
“Changing the Game”

The River Knows Its Own
is a collection of 21 stories showcasing the wide range of Jay Lake’s writing—characterized by magical realism, but dipping into literary and mainstream, and my personal favorite, slipstream. I’ve read the entire collection and review the 11 new stories here. Links to Tangent’s reviews of the remaining stories are provided.

The overarching theme of this collection is balance. “Green Grass Blues,” one of the longer tales, is more representative, in my opinion, than the titular story “The River Knows Its Own”, which was published in Jay Lake’s previous collection, American Sorrows.

Both slip in and out of reality into fantasy with a well placed word or phrase, straddling the crevasse and seeking “balance.”  In “The River Knows Its Own,” the edgy, erotic content addresses the struggle between land, water, and air and the witches and creatures entrusted with protecting their special interests.

In “Green Grass Blues,” the grassland wizards work in concert with natural forces to divert “the sending.” The transit wizards and financial wizards, and even local law enforcement, are presented as forces to be worked with, not against, using banishments and symbolic rites.

In “The River Knows Its Own” the metaphor and deep nuances of the Earth’s elements battling among themselves and outside forces are buried much deeper. The struggles are more violent, the personalities more oppositional.

It seems to me that “Green Grass Blues” speaks from Jay Lake’s heart and soul:

“Our purpose, as grassland wizards, is to help that balance along without giving away too much of what people need, nor taking too much of what the land needs. Remember balance, and you’ll never go completely wrong.”

Themes of justice, revenge, everyday magic and mysticism, and alternative lifestyles flow through the entire collection. A sense of place, rendered with exquisite description, and the protagonist’s place within it, are especially strong. Lake has a strong love for the Pacific Northwest and the familiarity and homegrown comfort with his surroundings belie that fact that he was, in fact, born in Taiwan and has lived in West Africa and Texas.
There is a nod to Lake’s childhood in China in the mainstream story, “Bringing It On Yourself,” which shows that bullying and peer pressure may be culturally ingrained, even in children transported to another world.

“Adagio for Flames and Jealousy” dips back and forth between the Civil War era and modern times, using epistolary entries by the protagonist’s grandfather as the plot device to bridge the time gap. This is a dance between immortality and death in the gritty, realistic setting of a wildfire.

“The Philosopher’s Clown” is the most representative of carnival symbolism in magical realism. The clown’s flapping, red oversized shoes keep reappearing, haunting a cop gone bad, after he delivers a disabling sucker punch and eventual salvation. Lake does a point of view switch from third to second person at the end that was so smooth, I barely noticed that something changed until I read it a second time.

“Heading West” is an apocalyptic tale that had little verisimilitude for me. The lack of external chaos and desperation in the folks Roy meets after the Earth stops spinning didn’t fit with his desperate struggle to get home before the end of the world. It is reasonable to assume that some would act selflessly in the face of disaster, but the world as I know it wouldn’t go that quietly to its doom. Then again, I live in New York City.

Lake likes the macabre, though his writing teeters just below the kind of blood and guts, slashing horror that gives me nightmares. The imagery is vivid and in some tales, the prose is sexually explicit and profane, though never gratuitous.
Two murdered children haunt a garden and a house in “Tiny Flowers and Rotten Lace” (previously published in Realms of Fantasy, February 2004) and “Those Boiled Bones.” The latter is new and seemed like a continuation of the former. They will not rest until the truth is exposed. The writing in both stories evokes images that struck me as both beautiful and horrifying at the same time, using flowers as an image of life and bones to signify death.

From "Tiny Flowers and Rotten Lace":
“The skull stared at the street, blood red flowers already creeping like snakes from its eye sockets and the bullet hole in the temple.”            

And was that a snuff tale (albeit a female against a male for a change) in “The Algebra of Heaven” (previously published in Full Unit Hookup, #5, Spring 2004), or just a twist on an abused child, thrust into mental illness and haunted by a dirty angel?

“Of Stone Castles and Vainglorious Time” is more subtle, with the speculative element a science fiction, time travel allusion. Eloise Striker, transported from Victorian elegance to a mining town enjoys being thought of as madam, and I don’t mean the respectful version of that term.

Many of the stories focus on the effects of industrialization on the land, particularly railroads, dams, and mining. “Iron Heaven” (previously published in Intracities, edited by Michael Jasper) continues along in the sub-genre of steampunk. Lake incorporates immigrants and their struggles into many of his other stories as well.

There are religious and philosophical themes woven into the collection. In “Fading Away” (previously published in Abyss & Apex, Issue 21: 1st Quarter 2007), a male angel is kind to a child and his dying mother, helping her to “go on” and him to understand that she will always still be there watching over him—all the while impersonating a certain charismatic singer whose fans still refuse to believe is really dead.

In “Hard Times in the State of Nature,” God takes over the body of an old lady and hires Leviathan for some business only a bad-ass hood can handle. Lake incorporates “Jackie Rousseau’s” philosophy that man is neither inherently good nor bad when in the state of nature, but is corrupted by society.

“The Black Back Lands” (previously published in Shimmer, #2, Winter 2006) is about an incident in the life of an ordinary village boy who daydreams as he hauls water and converses with the Old Dead whose bones lie along the way. I think the best way to interpret this sparse, disjointed story is to view it as an allegory about putting the demons that haunt you to rest.

In “Eye Teeth” (previously published in Challenging Destiny #22), the narrator, Lorenz, is a clerical worker who finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the Ukrainian mafioso Big Yakov, and a quartet that may be more than they look.

In “Eggs for Dinner” (previously published in Fantastic Companions, edited by Julie E. Czerneda), Lake nailed the female point of view in this bittersweet story, where a talking salmon turns out to be the key that unlocks the mysteries haunting her family.
I often find flash fiction, particularly magical realism, difficult to interpret. “Hayflick Limit, 12 Miles” left me with a furrowed brow, reading and re-reading to figure out what the message was. Time travel, aging, loss?

Angels in the guise of “salvation” stick in John’s throat in “Partitioned” a flash fiction tale of a guy seeking to find someone to accompany him home on the “last bus to glory.” That one is more slipstream than the slightly longer “Hunting Angels” in which even they give up on a homeless “krusty.” Both were less obtuse, dwelling on the fringe elements of society, alluding to the compulsive nature and confusion of the mentally ill.        
In one of my favorites, “Changing the Game,” the memoir like, first-person tone and scattered short reflections that mirror the often illogical process of thought as one arrives at a decision is painfully apparent. This mainstream, compelling look at a man struggling to finding himself, fighting the battle of self versus others, hurt me as much as the wife and child callously tossed aside. But it offers a glimmer of the reasoning that staying together is often not the best thing. Lake captures universal truths characteristic of memoir in a fictional piece, probably because of its verisimilitude and the pain he layered between the words.

In the same style but of a more slipstream nature is “Apologizing to the Concrete,” a tale of a man’s anguish after witnessing a murder. Again, the anguish at the random nature of violence and the inadequacies of justice screams out of the otherwise quiet prose.

The River Knows Its Own is a look at life, with all its realities and hardships.  The stories take place in dystopic settings (another characteristic of magical realism) but there is occasional ironic humor through out.

There is none of the biting sarcasm or in-your-face-confrontation of urban fantasy. Just a gentle acceptance of the differences among people trying to co-exist, even though we keep destroying each other and the Earth.  I found Lake’s soft voice a move toward healing. His writing seeks a sense of resolution and closure, despite the tragic material and disturbing imagery. Just like real life.
The "Introduction" by Ellen Klages is succinct and a perfect way to prepare yourself for the dive.
Lake is a prodigious writer, having written more than two hundred short stories and five novels. He embraces experimentation. In his own words:

“I like the fact we’ve grown this really interesting stew of literary adventurism inside our field. Is it science fiction? I know people who will argue passionately that it isn’t. But one of the nice things about science fiction is it’s got room for everything. We’re the field that’s everything nobody else is. There are people working in this field because there’s nowhere else for them to work. We are the last refuge of the weird! And to me that’s part of the beauty of this stuff.”
 —Locus Magazine Online

Amen, Mr. Lake!

Publisher: Wheatland Press (2007)
Price: $19.95
Paperback: 263 pages

ISBN: 0975590391