What the World Might Look Like




What the World Might Look Like by Jordan Larson

'Isle of Youth' and our current bumper crop of female realist authors

December 11th, 2013 reset - +

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN its Kmart and hysterical phases, literary realism got shaken up, when a group of young women writers began crafting a spectral brand of fantastical, strange fiction. In these stories, a horde of grandmothers find themselves on a ship in the middle of the ocean, unaware of how they got there; young women are transformed into silkworms and enslaved in a reeling factory; two sisters working as private detectives watch a man walk into a building, never to walk out; unexplained junk begins appearing in a family’s house. Permeating the stories is a sense of omnipresent strangeness made visible. As Karen Russell, author of two collections of short stories and the Pulitzer-nominated novel Swamplandia!, explained in a 2011 interview with The New Yorker:

I don’t feel like I seek strangeness out — I feel like we’re all surrounded by it — but there’s so much bewildering noise in our culture right now, at such a deafening and constant volume, that it’s easy for me to become inured to the strangeness of any “ordinary” Tuesday.

A belief in the vaunted authenticity of the peculiar — and its manifestations in nature, the unexplainable, and the marginal — is the defining feature of an increasingly prominent group of women in fiction, among them Karen Russell, Ramona Ausubel, Aimee Bender, and Laura van den Berg.

The genre has only gained steam over the past decade, with Bender and Hannah Tinti writing some of the first such stories in the early 2000s with their collections Willful Creatures and Animal Crackers, respectively. These women-writ fantastical stories came to the fore in 2007, when the literary magazine Tin House published its “Fantastic Women” issue; four years later the issue was extended into the anthology Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, which included stories from Bender and Russell, as well as Kate Bernheimer, Miranda July, and Alissa Nutting, among others. And this past year has seen something of a peak — not that it’s over — with the publication of four short story collections: Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove last winter, followed by Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born, Bender’s The Color Master, and van ben Berg’s The Isle of Youth.

This gang of four is among the genre’s most prominent and most celebrated; they are the recipients of MacArthur “genius grants,” glowing New Yorker reviews, contracts with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and even some popular success. Russell often focuses on the inner lives of children and the transformations they undergo — into adults, animals, or other creatures. Ausubel’s stories range from the aggressively imaginative — a world in which people grow a new arm every time they fall in love — to the quietly subversive, as in a story in which a teenage girl, raped and pregnant, convinces herself that she will give birth to a host of wild animals. Aimee Bender plumbs the magic of simple human relationships, whether between a magic kingdom’s aging color master and her young apprentice, or in the fragile and transparently symbolic relationship between a doctor and the rabbi he falls in love with.

Laura van den Berg, on the other hand, casts a darker pall on the fantastic’s possibilities. In The Isle of Youth, her second collection of short stories, she channels the isolation and loss of her characters through a series of exotic physical and emotional landscapes: a couple’s disastrous (and loveless) honeymoon in Patagonia; a sister’s trip to Antarctica to recover her dead brother’s remains; a woman who travels to Florida to visit her twin sister, who then dupes her into trading identities and paying off mysterious debts. Van den Berg and the movement’s other writers share a penchant for the strangeness of reality, for stories that travel just beyond the expectations of traditional subject matter and routine believability. The many twists on these plotlines add up to a veritable realism lite: for many of these writers, the strange and magical act as superfluous toppings drizzled over what would otherwise be considered realistic and humanizing depictions of middle-class American life. And while the stories’ subject matter may surprise a reader raised on “serious” literature, their experimentations are serious maneuvers in themselves.

Part of this strangeness stems from the influence of fairy tales, and their contemporary revivals. As Susan Sellers has detailed in her 2001 book Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, women writers of the 20th century were no strangers to such influences, either. Kate Bernheimer, whose work was anthologized in Fantastic Women and who founded the Fairy Tale Review in 2005, is one of contemporary fairy tales’ most prominent supporters. (She has also edited the anthologies My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales and xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, both of which include stories from Fantastic Women contributors.) Echoing Russell’s claim that strangeness is all around us, buried beneath our culture’s “bewildering noise,” Bernheimer writes in the introduction to My Mother She Killed Me, “I have a sense that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing awareness of human separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent.” To Russell and Bernheimer the strange and magical become equated with the natural. As in fairy tales, these writers find strength in privileging nature above society, the magical over the rational.

In a 2010 essay for The Rumpus, Reese Okyong Kwon traces a similar “monster impulse” in a group of young short story writers, among them Russell, Tinti, and van den Berg. “After the misrule of our last president, after Kyoto, after Copenhagen, after our national barbarisms and colossal, global mistakes, in a warming and divided world, it appears that we are living, once again, on an Earth that might well extinguish us,” she writes. “Is it a coincidence that nonhuman animals and fantastical monsters have been making a comeback in the fiction of imaginative younger writers?”

Nearly every story in van den Berg’s first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, uses nature as an engaging and exotic focal point: a college student’s scientist parents are killed by a poisonous snake in the Amazon; a woman living in New York fantasizes about the trip to Bali her lover has promised her. Five of the eight stories focus on cryptids — Bigfoot, a South American creature known as the mapinguari, the Loch Ness Monster, the Congolese mokele-mbembe, and a Lake Michigan creature known as the mishegenabeg — in an attempt to evoke nature’s strangeness.

But the stories also show a larger obsession with nature as frightening and unknowable, just as it’s also an escape from the problems of civilization. These confused urges — society as inauthentic, nature as more real yet also more strange — undermine van den Berg’s examination of our particular cultural moment and view of nature. “Inverness” is narrated by Emily, a young botanist in Scotland searching for the rare twinflower. Emily finds the twinflower but refuses to expose it to the world: “I left Reelig Glen that day without collecting any data from the twinflower […] And later, when another member of the research team discovered the very twinflower I had abandoned, I acted shocked and said I hadn’t been able to see very well through the rain and night.” The opposition of society as damaging and nature as healing isn’t subtle; Emily’s also fleeing a failed love affair.

The stories in What the World Will Look Like treat nature in much the same way as Russell’s Swamplandia!, Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born, and Abby Geni’s collection of short stories The Last Animal: as an easy foil to the complications of society, the solution that the world so desperately needs.

Yet the authenticity of the natural world — and, by implication, the inauthenticity of modern society — largely goes unquestioned by these fantastic realists. The proliferation of this kind of writing seems to be a reaction to the “bewildering noise” of modern society, a state that paradoxically limits the possibilities of experience in its vastness. In these stories, nature plays the alienated other to civilized and rational life. But though these writers take a cue from fairy tales’ treatment of nature, they also exacerbate our alienation from the natural and strange by treating them as one and the same. By casting nature as unknowable, these writers often make it less, not more, familiar.

But in The Isle of Youth, van den Berg seeks authenticity not in nature but in the margins of society, corners that aren’t quite wild or civilized. Though no less strange, the stories in her latest collection don’t look to nature for answers it doesn’t have, and give weight to what is irrational in contemporary society with still surprising but less romanticized scenes. The characters in this collection are down and out and running from their pasts, their relationships with others always fraught. But they don’t seek healing in exotic and natural locales — those settings still exist, but they serve to complicate rather than to simplify.

In “Antarctica,” a young woman travels to the continent to collect the remains of her brother, a scientist who died when his research station was destroyed in a fire. The story meditates on this place at the end of the world, and the order barely impinged on it: “Much of it was still unexplored. There were no cities. The continent was ruled by no one; rather, it was an international research zone,” the narrator tells us. And, like the place she has visited, the narrator exists in an emotional and ontological no man’s land: “I did not know if one day I would disappear and no one except a missing woman and a dead man would be able to tell the people who loved me why.” This in-between space appears again and again, in a story about a magician and her daughter, their lives spent living in the same cheap hotels in which they perform, and one in which a woman’s husband leaves her while they’re vacationing in Paris, the rest of her day spent following a group of acrobats. Van den Berg seems most comfortable training her eye on the slight line between the strange and the banal, not content to focus on just one. And it’s when the two elements converge that the stories ring true.

But mostly, the writers in this genre wield the tools of imagination and possibility without fulfilling their own demands: revolutions are intimated, but not accomplished, and the countless tales of fantasy, taken together, amount more to callous escapism than transgression. These fantastic realists borrow the tools of other genres — namely fairy tales and magical realism — and strip them of their political contexts. The feminist reimagining of fairy tales by Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and Joy Williams in the 1970s created fantastical, yet pointed and quietly radical, literature. Their influence on the works of recent women fantasists is clear (Bernheimer’s My Mother She Killed Me is dedicated to Carter, and Williams wrote the introduction to the Fantastic Women anthology). However, it’s not clear to what end the writers of this genre are using these ideas. They don’t seem to be taking issue with a Western propensity for rationality, the frequent illegitimation of feminine narratives, or civilization’s destruction of the planet and its natural resources. Rather, they merely take advantage of the space these past movements have cleared.

This muddled question of intent also lies in the tension of form. The ubiquity of contemporary fantastical short stories seems to imply a sort of tentativeness, a desire to show, but not too much. There is seemingly a fear that the panorama will crumble under prolonged scrutiny. These stories are all born out in spurts, typical of the dreams they try to invoke in their unsustainable irrationality. When these authors do try to commit fantastic realism to a novel, the genre’s very foundations are often undermined. Unlike short stories, the novels of this kind seem to derive their power from acknowledging fantasy’s very limitations. Swamplandia! capitalized on the expectations of fantastical narrative possibilities it set up, deliberately misleading the reader until a sharp narrative snap; to stunning effect, the reader realizes, at the exact moment as does the novel’s protagonist, that Swamplandia! is not a surreal or magical story at all. Or, in one of the genre’s few narratives acknowledging historical and political realities, Ausubel’s 2012 novel No One Is Here Except All of Us tells the story of the inhabitants of a Jewish Romanian village during World War II, who attempt to create a new society and dreamily keep themselves safe from the world’s horrors through impossibly magical thinking. In the end, their fantasies aren’t enough, and the village suffers the same violence and destruction that countless others did during the war. These novels depend on the failure of the fantastic, thus begging the question: what is the fantastic really for?

Van den Berg at least begins to give us an answer, more fully integrating the strange with the mundane and creating transformative literature in the process. Rather than deriving power from a startling juxtaposition of the real and the unreal, van den Berg makes the strange normal and the normal strange to the point that her stories add up to something more than montage. While the occurrences in van den Berg’s stories are unusual, they do not overtly break with a common conception of reality. Though incessantly talked about, monsters never actually appear, and we never get an explanation or even a close glimpse at the stories’ strange happenings: a man disappears into thin air and we never find out why; a sister who’s taken her twin’s identity is held hostage for her debts, though we never discover what they are. Van den Berg’s restraint, the seriousness with which she treats her characters and their dilemmas, allows the fantastic to seep in, carefully pooling along realism’s edges, showing us the holes we can never quite fill in.

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Jordan Larson is a writer based in Washington, DC. She tweets at @jalarsonist.

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