Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists edited by Peter Straub

in New York Review of Science Fiction 175, March 2003

A little context to start with. Conjunctions is a hefty, paperback-sized literary magazine published twice a year by Bard College in New York State. It is somewhat reminiscent of Britain’s Granta, but, on the admittedly thin evidence of this one issue, a rather thicker but less precious enterprise. The editor is Bradford Morrow, who has himself published some magic realist-tinged fiction, but for issue 39 he handed over to Guest Editor Peter Straub who has assembled a collection of 16 stories, two novel extracts and two essays by what he calls, in the title of this issue, The New Wave Fabulists.

The title is interesting. New Wave, in artistic terms, was first applied to a group of young French film-makers — the nouvelle vague — in the 1950s. They were primarily critics, writing for publications such as Cahiers du Cinema, who started to get a chance to make films themselves. The results were impressionistic but essentially realist, full of street scenes, working class or criminal characters, naturalistic dialogue, and the sorts of camera angles and lighting that had started to appear in post-war Italian films but were otherwise uncommon in European cinema.

The term was appropriated by Christopher Priest, who applied it to British science fiction writers clustering around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds in the early to mid-1960s. Although there was a lot of surrealism and modernist literary ‘experimentation’ associated with the British new wave, it was predominantly concerned with eschewing science fiction’s essentially optimistic interest in the furniture of worlds distant in space and time, in favour of a satirical engagement with the here and now, and an interest in psychology (‘inner space’) rather than machinery (an impressionistic realism not too remote from the French nouvelle vague). As the ’60s progressed, the term was taken up by a new generation of American science fiction writers who, led by Harlan Ellison’s original Dangerous Visions anthology, used it to apply to a form of iconoclastic fiction that can often be at odds with the British form of new wave.

By about 1974 the new wave in science fiction, on both sides of the Atlantic, was over, though its influence can still be identified in the work of a wide variety of contemporary science fiction writers. Although the heady heights of the new wave proved unsustainable in both cinema and science fiction, the long term effect in both cases is seen to be liberating and revitalising. Is that, then, the intent behind applying the term to fantasy in this way? In other respects the stories gathered here show little of the iconoclasm of the American new wave, but there is a strong and persistent sense of impressionistic realism though this can sit a little uncomfortably with the basic thrust of fantasy.

Though, of course, these are not straight fantasy. The other significant term in the title is ‘Fabulists’, not ‘Fantasists’. Fable is not a straight translation for fantasy, it suggests fantasy with a moral, with an instructive tone, which in turn suggests some at least didactic engagement with the world of here and now. (It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the term ‘fabulist’ occurs only in the title; neither Straub in his editorial nor Gary Wolfe or John Clute in their essays refer to anything other than fantasy.)

So we are cued, by the title, to expect stories that use the devices and metaphors of fantasy to produce a sort of impressionistic realism that will teach us something about our world or ourselves, and that will in some way shake up the whole genre of fantasy. What we find, in the mostly excellent stories that follow, touches tangentially but not wholeheartedly upon these expectations, but will not, I suspect, come anywhere near achieving the aim.

‘Impressionistic realism’ certainly wins out over fantasy: getting on for half of these stories are not actually fantasy, or count as fantasy only by some half-hearted nod towards familiar fantasy devices rather than a necessary narrative impulse. A similar proportion of the stories are about storytelling, in some form or other; they are about the relationship between our imaginative and our actual engagement with the world. The first story, ‘The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines’ by John Crowley, falls into both these camps. It is also the keynote text for the whole collection (the too brief introduction by Straub that precedes it does little more than twitch the curtain aside and list those New Wave Fabulists who are not actually featured here: Terry Bisson, Ted Chiang, Tom Disch, Geoff Ryman, Ray Vukovich, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff Vandemeer, Graham Joyce, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Mark (sic) Chabon, Dan Chaon, Stewart O’Nan), so this is what we read to get our first clues as to what New Wave Fabulism means.

Crowley’s story is wonderful. I am second to no man in my admiration for his work, and this is up there with his best. But it is not fantasy, it is not even a fable. The fantastic, in so far as it is there at all, lies in the mind set of the author rather than any necessity within the story. It tells of two teenagers who meet in the late 1950s when they are both helping to put on a Shakespeare play in summer stock in rural Indiana. During that fateful summer they both contract polio, and we glimpse them again, many years later, when they are somewhat awkward lovers. It is, as you would expect of Crowley, delicate in its prose, precise in its observations, loving in its evocations of a particular time and place. To this extent it feels almost like a pendant to The Translator, but without the sense of magic hovering as potential in the wings. There is a haunting in the story, but it is a literary haunting. Our two protagonists learn about the idea that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and the notion will come to shape their intellectual, imaginative lives as much as the polio will shape their physical lives. Did this story not appear in the company it keeps, under the label it carries, there would be no diminution of its power if it were read as mainstream.

‘Lull’ by Kelly Link is another story about story. This time there are numerous elements we associate with fantasy — aliens, hints of the supernatural — but does that necessarily make it fantasy? A group of men meet regularly to play cards and exchange familiar desultory tales of infidelity and sexual prowess that no-one quite believes. Imagination is losing out to the dullness of reality. Then one of them mentions a phone sex line where the girl will tell you a story. So they call the number, and she starts to tell them a story in which it appears that the wife of one of the men is complicit in an alien invasion. And embedded within this story is another which seems to take us back to a place that is almost but not quite where we started. Which is where Link leaves us; rather than withdraw from each embedding so that we return safely to (fictional) reality, she leaves us trapped within the world of story.

There is one writer you always expect to find where the borders between truth and fiction are breaking down, where story shapes our reality. And ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’ by M. John Harrison is everything you might expect, a slice of gritty northern reality, dialogue like fragments of overheard conversation, everything predicated upon personal and social failure. Again, as with Crowley, reading this as fantasy is entirely dependent upon the expectations of the reader and the attitudes of the writer, not upon anything overt within the text. The title says it all: our narrator is unaware of any angels he might be entertaining as he helps repair the tower of a country church, but what we are unaware of can still affect our lives. Which is what he learns from the stories his partner tells him, for this is yet another tale which combines realism with story.

As does ‘Little Red’s Tango’ by Peter Straub. I’ve read nothing by Straub before, and thinking of him as a writer of horror stories I was unprepared for the intricacy and delicacy of this marvellous story. And marvellous it is, in the sense of being a fantasy, even though the odd incursions of the supernatural into the world of Little Red may not really happen. This is not a story so much as a concatenation of stories and legends and lies told about Little Red, a peculiar, lonely character who has an amazing collection of rare jazz records taking over his tiny New York apartment, and who, from time to time, may act as a sort of fairy godfather to young jazzmen starting their careers. Even without any overt fantasy elements, even if we don’t believe all the stories told about him, it is clear that Little Red lives at a slight angle to reality, so that the apparently supernatural incidents which occasionally occur seem a perfectly natural part of his world.

So far we have had four excellent stories which could very easily be read as mainstream perceptions of reality. Indeed, the fantastic elements are so wrapped in coils of story that in a couple of cases at least it is harder to read them as fantasy than as realism. Whether the undeniable quality of the writing is in any way consequent on this oblique relationship with reality I wouldn’t care to say, but when ‘The Wisdom of the Skin’ by James Morrow takes us into an overtly fantastic world, the quality does seem to dip. Which is not to imply that this is a bad story, only that the control, the fluent creation of character and of effect, seems less assured than in its predecessors. Here we have sex as a public performance, and two of the most famous performers cloning themselves when they wish to retire. There is some good stuff in here, it is interestingly constructed for a start, but the world feels too artificial, deliberately contrived to make a specific point, for the story to feel natural. Which is why this story for a start does not feel as if it is taking fantasy in a fresh direction.

Nalo Hopkinson, on the other hand, has built her career on taking fantasy in new directions by, in effect, going backwards: old legends reimagined in the lilt of Caribbean storytellers. ‘Shift’ continues the pattern, this time picking up on Caliban, Sycorax and Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and casting them forward in a new attempt to engage with the real world. Again this is overt fantasy, but it is the concentration on the interface between fantasy and reality, and the exploration of the psychology of those crossing that interface that makes this feel as fresh (and in a sense as unfantastic) as the stories by Link and Straub.

‘The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door’ by Jonathan Lethem is another story about storytelling, and another which need not be read as fantasy at all. Okay, there’s a talking sheep, but the story is all about the mental state of a man who writes dystopias in a world where utopias are the big seller; it could all be in the mind. It’s a slight story, one of the shortest in the book, and I kept waiting for Lethem to make more of his situation than he in fact did. But it is interesting that once more the way to the fantastic is presented not as a passage through a wardrobe (metaphorically, only a couple of the contributors take that route to fantasy) but as the act of storytelling.

The first of  the two novel extracts in this collection comes from Guardian by Joe Haldeman. This was the piece that worked least well for me, mostly because it seems to take us where too many people have gone before. One of the first science fiction anthologies I ever read was A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight which contained an extract from Worlds of the Imperium by Keith Laumer. I never did get round to reading the entire novel, but this passage, in which an uncomprehending protagonist is whipped from one extravagantly weird world to another in quick succession has always stuck in my mind. The extract from Guardian follows exactly the same pattern, and if the entire book is like this I’ll be throwing it across the room in rage and frustration before I’ve got half way through it. This is an exercise in sloppy extravagance, not in thoughtful engagement with the alien, let alone the real.

‘Familiar’ by China Miéville is also an exercise in grand guignol extravagance, as I suppose one might expect from his novels, but in this instance the growth of the familiar through the accumulation of the detritus of human existence marks a very solid engagement with the real. And the kicker at the end, when we see the growth of the familiar is linked to the decay of his creator, marks this as a dramatic representation of the way the supernatural can have realistic affect (as well as being an oblique commentary on the relationship between storyteller and story that seems to run all through this collection).

One of the few contributors who does, in effect, take us through the back of the wardrobe into fantasy is Andy Duncan with ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’. One of the forms of fantasy that I don’t really have much time for is one that takes a familiar myth or legend and retells it more or less straight, and that is what Duncan does here. It is well done of its type, but I don’t think it actually takes us anywhere fresh or interesting. The Big Rock Candy Mountain was the Land of Cockaigne of the American hobo during the Depression, the place where losers win, where their limited conception of the good life was available for the picking. Duncan has a resident of the Big Rock Candy Mountain follow a girl back into the real world, discover the horrible truth (that he is dead), and return. I was left with a distinct feeling of ‘so what?’.

The second novel extract is from Knight by Gene Wolfe, which is another secondary world story, but much more subtle and intriguing in its execution. I’m not sure where in the novel this passage comes, so I’m not sure whether this is representative of the whole book, an aside, or even a story told in passing – with Wolfe, all three are possible. We have a character, apparently from contemporary America, who awakes and finds himself in an archetypal medieval fantasy land. Is not a new idea, Mark Twain did it with A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, and many lesser writers have followed the same route since then. But what Wolfe does that makes it interesting is play up the ambivalence. Our protagonist falls with remarkable ease into the ways of this medieval world, so that one finds oneself asking is this real, the place of his belonging, and are the memories of America the fantasy? It is also interesting that this is another story in which storytelling is central – it always has been in Wolfe’s work – with our protagonist relating it all as a letter to a relative back home in America. Wolfe is important to this book: Straub, Gary Wolfe and Clute all proclaim him the ‘touchstone’ (to use Gary Wolfe’s term) for New Wave Fabulism. He is the place it starts, the original from whom all others draw their inspiration. In which case, it is telling that Wolfe’s own contribution to this showcase harks back to earlier forms: secondary world creation, crossing between worlds, pseudo-medieval setting, knights and magic. But though there is a commitment to the reality of this world and, as I have suggested, a questioning of the reality of our own, this secondary world is drawn with an eye for the gritty detail of poverty and hardship, and with a world-weary cynicism about the tropes and traditions it supposedly embodies. This is a contemporary, twenty-first century take on the naiveties of genre fantasy, fantasy imbued with imaginative realism (and with the self-consciousness of the storyteller). If there is such a thing as New Wave Fabulism then this brief passage from an as yet unpublished novel embodies its character and its purpose more succinctly and more successfully than the two long essays that close the book.

And having been thus convinced of the agenda of this collection, the next three stories made me doubt it all over again. ‘The Bearing of Light’ by Patrick O’Leary is a weary little tale of the devil becoming human in which fine writing is employed to no point. ‘Simon’s House of Lipstick’ by Jonathan Carroll is another instance of surreal images and repetitions being explained by the fact that our protagonist is dead. If this is New Wave then it is exactly the same as the Old Wave, without even self-consciousness to excuse it. ‘The Invisible Empire’ by John Kessel is the best of the three, and would make a decent showing in any science fiction or fantasy anthology, but there is nothing in it that particularly marks it out as New Wave. It is that most standard of satirical tropes: clothe a modern wrong in the attributes of a past evil. In this case, women are so oppressed that they take to behaving like the Ku Klux Klan of old. To be honest, it doesn’t work. Perhaps it might have done better if the Ku Klux Klan had been a black organisation, or if the Klan in this world were men keeping uppity women in their place. But because the historical analogy is off target, it leaves the whole story feeling facile. Okay, it’s a piece of right-on feminism written by a guy, but that, surely, is not enough to make it fresh or innovative or New Wave.

Kessel’s story is based on ‘Game Night at the Fox and Goose’ by Karen Joy Fowler, but she got the political tenor right. Now, Karen Joy Fowler crops up here with ‘The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man’. Fowler began her career writing science fiction, and is still closely associated with the genre, but in fact most of her best writing is only tangentially related to the genre if at all. And despite the promise of the title, this, like the stories by Crowley and Harrison and Straub, is not fantastic. Ralph Ellison made invisibility a metaphor for blackness, Fowler makes it a metaphor for the awkward shyness of adolescence. This story of the child of a single mother forced into playing baseball, which he hates, is a wonderful tale of growing up, but it is not fantasy (though it might conceivably be a fable), nor does it provide the surprising perspectives or iconoclastic approach that we might expect of something labelled New Wave.

‘Abduction’ by Paul Park is the one story here I’m not sure I’ve got to grips with. We are in a remote part of British Columbia at some unspecified time in the future when there has been a takeover by what may be aliens or may be Chinese, at any rate the locals are forced into a restrictive poverty. The incomers live in environmentally regulated reserves, and one couple may or may not have abducted the child of our protagonist, who may or may not have committed an act of murder or possibly rebellion. In the end I found there were too many imprecisions, too many hesitations, for me to be quite sure even what sort of story I was reading, let alone whether it is any good or not.

‘The Least Trumps’ by Elizabeth Hand, on the other hand, is undeniably good, and another story which combines the realism and the fascination with storytelling that seem to be the abiding characteristics of New Wave Fabulism. Our narrator is the now-adult child of a famous children’s author, she is also obsessed by a series of children’s books written by a friend of her mother, a series of which the final volume was apparently never completed. She is a lonely, rather alienated person, living alone in the grand house on an isolated lake island which her mother built, and earning a living as a tattoo artist. Then, on a visit to her mother and her lesbian lover who now live in a retirement home, she finds a pack of tarot-like cards in a jumble sale. The label on the cards is ‘The Least Trumps’, which was an invention in that unfinished series of children’s books; all but two of the cards are blank. She decides to tattoo the design from one of the remaining cards onto herself, and when she has done so discovers that the card is now blank. Then someone she had thought dead turns up out of the blue, and echo of one of the most important sequences in that series of books. And somehow, with just the slightest flavouring of the fantastic (the fantasy elements of the story are actually very minor, but they could not be removed without destroying the story), art and story combine to bring redemption. If this isn’t the finest piece in the collection (that accolade, I feel, must go to Crowley), or the most important as an exemplar of New Wave Fabulism (of necessity, that has to be the Wolfe), then it is pretty damned close on both counts.

The last fiction is heavy on the fantasy, but also heavy on the storytelling. ‘October in the Chair’ by Neil Gaiman, like the Kelly Link story, harks back to the framed narratives of yore (archetypal examples are The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, and, as John Clute points out, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). Traditionally, in such a tale, a group of characters are gathered, and one tells a story. Both Link and Gaiman subvert the pattern, Link by leaving us at the end still within the story, Gaiman by not completing the tale within a tale. Here we have the months gathering around a fire (Gaiman has great fun establishing the individual character of each month), they bicker, one will begin a story but be shouted down by the others because it is familiar (of course it is familiar, the months are caught within an endless cycle, there can be no innovation in the routine), eventually October begins a tale that looks as if it will spread out to fill the rest of the narrative: a boy runs away from home and meets the ghost of another child. But just as it approaches what seems to be a climax, it stops. Story is all about storyteller, again there is the self-consciousness that seems to linger over most of the best stories in this collection.

Is such self consciousness part of the character of New Wave Fabulism? Is there even such a thing as New Wave Fabulism? The trouble with an enterprise such as this, part anthology, part propaganda, is that one looks to find what they say is there. Were the contributors writing to an agenda? I doubt it, but the Guest Editor was almost certainly working to an agenda when he chose the authors he would approach to contribute. The assumption is that it is these people, in the general tenor of all that they have done up to this point, who constitute the character, the tone, he was looking for. The hope must have been that anything they submitted, so long as it was publishable in the first place, would somehow embody New Wave Fabulism. (And we should pause for a moment and wonder where that title came from. Was it Straub’s? Was it wished upon him by the magazine? Certainly the phrase ‘New Wave Fabulists’ does not occur anywhere in Straub’s introduction, or in either of the critical essays that conclude the volume.) There is no guarantee, however, that the stories which were gathered for this particular collection do all display the characteristics supposedly being advanced, nor that the repeated features and similar tropes we might identify in reading the stories are actually intentional aspects of the work or what is intended to define ‘New Wave Fabulism’.

We must turn, therefore, to the critical apparatus that accompanies the fiction: ‘Malebolge, Or the Ordnance of Genre’ by Gary K. Wolfe and ‘Beyond the Pale’ by John Clute. Wolfe begins by recounting how, when he was a graduate student, a bunch of them spent a term debating what actually constituted a novel, and decided in the end that the ‘properly formal novel’ consisted of Middlemarch alone. (This is an exercise which reminds me, though Wolfe strangely doesn’t mention it (Clute, however, does note the echo: ‘a knife too sharp for sense’), of Tsvetan Todorov’s analysis of fantasy which concluded that The Turn of the Screw was the only work that truly fitted his theory of the uncanny.) Over-analysis, it seems, can reduce anything to a universe of one. But rather than use this argument to consider the dangers of defining too tightly (which could lead, in turn, to the damage over-analysis of fantasy can do to what is fantastic in the literature), Wolfe simply turns to consider Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot as an Anti-Middlemarch. I’m not sure what this tells us about either fantasy or about literature: a universe of one, whether the one novel or the one anti-novel, does not open up a broader discussion that can be of much value. Wolfe seems to recognise that this is heading off down a blind alley, for he deftly switches the argument at this point to look at reading for pleasure, at delighting in marvels, which leads him off on an historical survey which touches all the right points: Schlegel, Hoffmann, Tieck, Blake, Coleridge, Freud, Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, etc. Having explained how fantastic literature dropped below the horizon of serious critics and academics, he then comes to ‘the renascence of the fantastic’, which lies, he assures us, in ‘the emergence of a generation of writers … whose ambitions lay in what we might call recombinant genre fiction: stories which effectively decompose and reconstitute genre materials and techniques together with materials and techniques from an eclectic variety of literary traditions, even including the traditions of domestic realism.’ So we were right to spot the deliberate nod towards the British new wave in science fiction, though we must realise that the modernist experiments of that era are forty years in the past now and science fiction at least has found other directions, which include cannibalism as much as they include foraging among the waste heaps of other literary traditions. Fantasy, he suggests, is beginning to catch up with science fiction with the emergence of authors ‘whose work seems to demand a reinvention of the ways in which we read genre’. His examples of what he calls the ‘postgenre fantastic’, curiously, are just those writers featured in this collection. ‘None of these writers,’ he argues, ‘can be read fully without an appreciation of their use of genre materials – of the valorization of Story that remains at the center of the fantastic genres even in their most demeaned forms – but none can be fully read with only an appreciation of those genre materials, either.’ My sense of realism playing a necessary part in what propels these stories, therefore, also seems to be part of the project. Finally, Wolfe identifies ‘the nongenre genre story’, ‘those stories so closely informed by genre-based structures and sensibilities that they may convey the feel of a particular genre, and may open up to genre readings in a way different from how they open up to conventional readings, even though they lack traditional genre markers.’ The numerous stories in this collection that are not actually fantastic are, therefore, an important part of what makes New Wave Fabulism.

I confess, much of this makes me uneasy. There is, I think, a renaissance in fantastic literature, though I think it has been powered by the critical acceptance of magic realist fiction and its offshoots (writers as varied as Angela Carter and Peter Carey) in the 1970s and 80s as much as by any acquisition by new fantasy writers of techniques from outwith the genre. Concurrent with this, perhaps part of the same process, there has been a rejection by many writers of traditional genre fantasy tropes, mostly because these are perceived to have run their course as far as genuine creativity is concerned, and to have become mired in repetition and safety. This appears to apply as much to horror as to the standard quest format of heroic fantasy. As a result, writers who want to push the boundaries of what they do have been looking for ways to subvert the traditions, and find new issues to address with the tools of fantasy. This far I will go with Wolfe, and yes, the authors highlighted here – Crowley and Harrison, Fowler and Hopkinson, Miéville and Lethem – do seem to be the ones most interestingly pursuing these new directions. (And yes, after this I suppose we will have to call it New Wave Fabulism, though personally I detest the name.) But I balk when it comes to nongenre genre. I know precisely what he means, we have all read stories by fantasy or sf writers that are not themselves fantastic but which seem to be imbued with the genre, like an invisible presence in the atmosphere through which they move. But we must be careful, it is all too easy to make this special pleading, to say that a story is fantasy because it is written by someone we recognise as a fantasy author, regardless of whether or not there is anything in the story to make it fantasy. This is to define a genre, to provide a basis for its critical consideration, on the strength of what we expect to find rather than what is actually there. I do this myself, the boundaries I draw for science fiction and fantasy are deliberately wide precisely because I would rather be inclusive than exclusive, I would rather look at a lot of novels rather than just Middlemarch. The fantastic does not play a necessary narrative role in the stories by Crowley, Link, Harrison, Straub or Fowler; it makes it strange to hold these up as exemplars of a new movement in fantastic literature.

John Clute takes as his starting point Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a book which proves remarkably malleable for critics of the fantastic: I used it myself as the starting point for a talk on 20th century science fiction that I gave two or three years back). This proves to be a useful starting point, for Heart of Darkness is a Club Story, ie. a story that begins with someone telling a story, a model that Clute sees replicated in several of the stories collected here; Heart of Darkness is ‘built upon sustained narrative negotiations of uncertainty, without coming to any necessary decision as to what is real’, as is, ultimately, much of the content of this collection; in Heart of Darkness ‘Conrad’s language here is not a meditation but a grammar, and … certain tools of understanding will find that grammar invisible’, the tools, of course, are those which understand fantasy, and the grammar is shared by John Crowley’s story here; Heart of Darkness expresses the ‘modern experience to be bifurcated by the world into mask and twin, to experience évolué guilt for no greater sin than that of attempting to match the beat of a world which will not stop’, and this bifurcation afflicts the hollow men who populate most of the stories here.

Clute ends his essay by running briefly through all the stories gathered in this issue of Conjunctions, and explaining how Heart of Darkness sits beside, or echoes, or prefigures each of them. I find Clute’s argument for what makes each story a part of the project of the fantastic more persuasive than Wolfe’s (even though each is supposedly arguing the same thing), but it is notable that in making this case he sets the stories within ‘the project of the fantastic since 1800’. This is not a new wave in fantasy, it is part of the tidal movement in fantastic literature that has swept back and forth across fiction for two centuries and more. The New Wave Fabulists are not new wave, nor are they fabulists; they are engaged in the exercise of applying imagination to the world which every writer of fantasy has followed, they are just doing it better than some, differently than others.