Obsessing in the Slipstream
Reviews by Claude Lalumière
It could be argued that neither of the following books Mark Chadbourn's The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke and Lucius Shepard's Valentine are works of fantastic fiction, although both authors are known as genre writers. They come to this slipstream territory from opposite directions. Chadbourn's tale is overtly fantastical, yet all that may be nothing more than the narrator's hopeful self-deception. Maybe. Shepard's novel is, for the most part, a work of mimetic realism, yet the narrator's casually dismissed paranoia may in fact contain more truth than he cares to believe, imbuing the book with an unexpected science-fictional conceit. In any case, as it should be, neither Chadbourn nor Shepard pays much attention to genre boundaries or conventions. They write what the work requires, brashly heedless of prefabricated categories. And, to great effect, neither resolves its ambiguities. On the surface, then, these two books have much in common.
An even deeper resemblance, though, unites these two works. Both are first-person narratives whose point-of-view protagonists are passionate obsessives who are relentlessly intelligent, if somewhat maniacal and perhaps too easily deluded.
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, by Mark Chadbourn (PS Publishing, 2002)
If the world of Faery holds no fascination for you (certainly it holds none for me, and, because of the title, it was with great skepticism that I started this book), you need not fear that The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is yet one more repository of fantasy clichés. Far from it: it is a mesmerisingly candid account of the inner life of an imaginative young man, who, as a child, guided by his smartly eccentric mother, fell under the spell of Richard Dadd's painting, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”.
Our hero, Danny, is a prodigiously bright and precocious child. His intelligence, despite his mother's sensitive guidance, eventually causes him to withdraw from the world in fits of egocentric vanity and leads him to embark on a path of self-destruction. But nagging in the back of his mind are the mysteries hinted at in Dadd's painting, a work he first encountered at age seven. In the wake of a particularly bad drug trip, he decides to retrace Dadd's steps and sets forth on a long journey through Northern Africa and the Eurasian continent.
And then his life gets really complicated. Revelations, conspiracies, family tragedies, delusions, strange visitations, hallucinations, and more all tangle messily, leaving Danny confused and heartbroken, skipping desperately from new insight to fresher insight, needing his life to be imbued with larger meaning.
Chadbourn's prose is beautifully rich, and his narrator is utterly convincing and believable. Chadbourn skillfully balances the character's self-knowledge and his penchant for self-delusion, thus creating a narrator who is unwillingly unreliable. Danny never tries to deceive the reader; when he does so, it's only a side-effect of his attempts at lying to himself.
The only weak point in this story is the portrayal of Danny's girlfriend, Beth. Simply put, she's too convenient to be true. We never get a sense of why she's so attracted to Danny, who treats her like furniture, and why she sticks with him so relentlessly. Every other character is complex and nuanced, but Beth is little more than a pretty decoration who inexplicably devotes her life to a guy who, despite his smarts, is a self-involved asshole. I don't have a problem with Danny being unsympathetic in fact, I applaud this brave choice but I needed more about Beth for her to come across as anything more than an egotistic boy's wet dream: intelligent and pretty, but quietly servile and blindly devoted.
In contrast, Danny's mother, who has very little "screen time" (but whose presence haunts the whole book), is the character who is the most fascinatingly imagined and the one to whom my heart went out.
Whether or not The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is fantasy fiction per se, it is an engaging exploration of the role of the fantastic in our imaginations, a literary tradition that includes such outstanding novels as J.G. Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company, Geoff Ryman's Was, John Barth's The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Steve Szilagyi's Photographing Fairies, Jonathan Carroll's After Silence, Brooks Hansen's The Chess Garden, and Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
Valentine, by Lucius Shepard (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002)
Lucius Shepard's Valentine is by far the most erotic piece of prose I've ever read. Basically, it's a long love letter from the male narrator to the woman he loves. In it, he recounts in detail their chance meeting after years of separation, a meeting that leads to a prolonged series of sexual encounters, described in obsessive detail.
Although the narrator is unquestionably a romantic at heart a passionate man who loves with his whole being and who believes that love can and will save him he does not romanticize or sentimentalize. The text's combination of deep, heartbreaking love with realistic and uninhibited descriptions of messy sex portray love and lust as the most arousing of combinations.
Despite the almost non-stop explicit sex, Valentine feels neither prurient nor pornographic. What seduces above all is the profound connection that attracts the two lovers to each other. What would have been dirty, ugly, and pornographic would have been to gloss over their sexual encounters, for it is there that their most moving intimacies are revealed, their most tender fragilities laid bare. The juxtaposition of such trusting abandon with frank sexuality intensifies the erotic tension of the narrative.
Shepard is one of the most skilful prose stylists currently writing, and the full weight of his talent is brought to bear on this powerful tale. Reading it is itself a great sensual experience, regardless of the content. But the story, too, is a beautiful achievement.
In most (if not all) longer Shepard works, there is a point, approximately two-thirds of the way through, in which reality is warped: characters cross over to another dimension, a revelation changes the nature of life as we know it, protagonists undergo ecstatic experiences that may or may not be hallucinations, etc. In Valentine, a book that is most likely a work of realist fiction, such an event would be jarring. Nevertheless, faithful to his own scenario, Shepard finds a way around that problem. The narrator is a writer, and, on page 107 of this 181-page book, he tells his lover a story, a lustful love story of a trip they never took, nor will likely ever take. And thus Shepard's signature narrative choreography is maintained.
There is, however, a place where science fiction intrudes into this story. When the narrator leaves the town where he accidentally encountered his long-lost lover, something happens to trigger his simmering paranoia (glimpsed as playful silliness throughout the story). He mostly dismisses it, as does the reader. And yet, it might be because of that tentative SF element that it was necessary for him to write this book-length letter. Or maybe he's just being paranoid.
But to disbelieve in his paranoia would mean also to lose faith in the strength of his lover's desire for him; while if his paranoia is justified, a life of love is stolen from him most cruelly, but his lover's affection remains unblemished.
There's no happy ending, no satisfying option. Either he loses, or he loses. And we know profoundly, in heartbreaking detail the importance, depth, and magnitude of his loss. This is high tragedy, unabashed, unashamed, and searingly resonant.