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Saturday 13 September 2003


  • Trampoline, edited by Kelly Link
    (Small Beer Press, July 2003)

  • Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer

A pleasant sense of taking fantasy for granted permeates this collection of original short stories and novellas. Most of Trampoline's contents are not weighed down by tedious explanations of the fantastical element. And, in some cases, the use of the fantastic is solely at the service of metaphor. Thus, the authors are free to pursue their own luminous, esoteric, and entertaining paths without the dead wood of needless exposition. The writing styles on display are generally to die for — the kind of prose readers return to again and again. Several of these interstitial stories stayed with me long after I had finished reading them.

Christopher Rowe's opening story, "The Force Acting on the Displaced Body", is a pleasant diversion in which the narrator builds a boat and eventually floats from the small creek behind his Kentucky trailer all the way to Paris. The style is light and the description precise.

Similarly, Ed Park's "Well-Moistened with Cheap Wine" provides entertaining diversion and the marvelous opening lines: "It was good where I was. I lived with seventeen beautiful, intelligent woman, all named Tina, so I never got their names wrong. My name was also Tina, and it was pleasant to hear the chatter at dinner." Park's story is rather less whimsical than it at first seems — which is to say, there's something harder underneath about the subject of identity.

The harder underbelly becomes the surface in Shelley Jackson's disturbing character study, "Angel", about a taxidermist who begins to have delusions of grandeur about his craft. As with most Jackson stories, there's the temptation on my part to quote the whole text because her prose is so simultaneously beautiful and steely. But I'll restrict myself to a single paragraph:

Moral was an overstatement. The tableaux were arranged in various ways, depending on his mood. If he had time after he got up in the morning, he liked to set the tone for the day by rearranging his rats. Sometimes he just knew what kind of day it was going to be, and he arranged the rats accordingly, either right in line with how he thought it was going to be or, if he dared, subtly different, so he could try to change his luck. Some days he had no idea and he just did what he felt like, and sometimes these arrangements turned out afterward to be the most perfect ones of all. The morning Darla left him, while she was asleep, he had set up all the rats on one side of the room in rows like an army. He had put the cat on the other side of the room. He had called this arrangement "Reclining Empress Reviews Her Troops," but it turned out the title was wrong, though the arrangement was close to perfect.
Or perhaps I won’t restrain myself. Later, Jackson writes, after describing how to skin a rat: "The eyeless, empty skin and the skinned body wind up facing each other, stuck together at the mouth. It is as though the rat is kissing its own ghost. Like someone having trouble admitting he is dead." Kissing its own ghost. Like someone having trouble admitting he is dead. When I read those lines, the little hairs on my arms lifted and I felt the ghost of Angela Carter nod in appreciation. (Frankly, I’d follow Jackson’s writing to the ends of the earth if necessary. If she only ever published her work in Tibet in 20-copy rice paper editions, I’d be right there at the front of the line every time.)

"Gus Dreams of Biting the Mailman" by Alex Irvine is a big shaggy dog of a story by contrast, using an amiable, unhurried gait in which the plot is not the point. It could as well be titled, "A Day in the Life of Mitch Packard", as Mitch engages in several conversations and speculates about alien life with friends. You inhabit this story the way you inhabit a well-worn favorite pair of jeans: comfortably. Irvine has a good-natured fondness for his characters that serves him well.

Greer Gilman's diamond of a novella, "A Crowd of Bone", provides another contrast within Trampoline. Gilman’s scarcity of published work is matched only by the condensed vitality of her prose — if "A Crowd of Bone" had been her only fiction, still it might reward a lifetime of re-reading. A question like "What is it about?" is as useful applied to Gilman’s novella as asked of a snow leopard. Both simply are, and in the case of Gilman’s novella you must so utterly immerse yourself in the language that you begin to understand how a group of words strung together can be alive, much of the "action" in "A Crowd of Bone" occurring at the sentence level.

Margaret, do you see the leaves. They flutter, falling. See, they light about you red and yellow. I am spelling this in leaves.

The dark has eaten me; I bear it light. I cloak myself in leaves, I fly. The wind unspells this.

Beyond the circle of Whin’s light, the sea moves, sleepless in its heavy gown. She walks beside it slowly, toward, away. And to her, from her, endlessly it shifts the longways of its slow pavane. Within her candle’s burr, sparse flakes of snow blink, vanish. There is nothing there to see. Salt rime and shingle. Sea wrack. Stones, a curve of jetty, tumbed in a storm. Sticks and weed. They stir. A wave? They draw breath, harshly. The lantern swings and halts.
Readers who are wise enough to let themselves inhabit the words before they gloss the meaning of this story will be well-rewarded.

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson’s "Insect Dreams" is another stunning story, half historical fiction, half fever dream in which the noted naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) travels from Holland to Surinam in South America. What brings her to the New World is a passion for the unknown:

There are creatures that no one has seen. Creatures that have not been classified, counted, entered in the journals and the record books of science, whose shapes defy the patterns of logical construction, whose colors are as if from other worlds, self-regenerating, pure, infinity complexity and variety, sketched by God, painted by angels, life miraculously breathed into them, life, alive, free, that no one has seen that she, she must see.
The juxtaposition of memories from Holland, the interjection of the slave trade, Merian’s explorations in the New World, possible love, possible impossible beasts, form a vast yet condensed canvas, told in the most sensuous language. Merian is in love with the details of the world, and so is Stevenson. (In general, this anthology contains some of the most sumptuous language this side of heaven.)

Several other excellent stories are worth more than the passing notice I am about to give them — Vandana Singh’s "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet" and John Gonzalez’s "Impala", for example — although nothing in Trampoline really screams "I don’t belong." (A rare misstep by Jeffrey Ford, a kind of circus story pastiche by Alan DeNiro, and a couple of other stories do disappoint in comparison to the best material in the anthology, but are still worth reading.)

Where does Trampoline fit in the imperfect jigsaw puzzle of modern fantasy — and does it matter? Trampoline is marketed as "in the tradition of Dangerous Visions and McSweeney’s Thrilling Stories." However, it is not as (intentionally) reactionary as Thrilling Stories. It is more daring than Polyphony, but less so than Dangerous Visions. For the most part, it does not share Conjunctions 39: New Wave Fabulists’s penchant for publishing fantasy flensed of the fantastical element. Nor does it share, except in three or four places, points of commonality with the unrepentant dark fantasy surrealism of Leviathan 3. In Trampoline the reader will find modern American magic realism, for the most part, most of it not out of place in a regular issue of Conjunctions, for example. This sensibility is darkened and strengthened by works like Gilman’s, Jackson’s, and Stevenson’s that ground their sense of play in the deeper depths.

In short, Trampoline is yet another unique source of powerful, exciting, new approaches to fantasy and interstitial fiction. It is flexible enough and fresh enough that I hope it proves to be the beginning of a series. It occupies its own rather beautifully fragile place in the fantastical fiction milieu.

World Fantasy Award-winner Jeff VanderMeer’s latest book is Veniss Underground, soon to be published by TOR UK. Like most of humanity, he has succumbed to blogdom:

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