Wild Life by Molly Gloss: Speculative Fiction in the Wilderness
Reviewed by Christopher Cobb
28 January 2002
Strange Horizons' review of Molly Gloss's exquisite Wild Life isn't as timely as it might be (the book came into print in 2000), but I don't know that the book has yet received the attention it deserves in speculative fiction circles, even though it recently won the Tiptree award. I myself was only led to read it when I ran across it this past December while I was browsing for holiday reading. My local independent bookseller had placed a copy of it with the science fiction and fantasy, despite the fact that the book is clearly being marketed as mainstream fiction. She has my gratitude. Wild Life inhabits the boundaries of speculative fiction -- it's about speculative fiction as much as it is an example of the genre -- and it inhabits those boundaries with such a combination of panâche and tenderness that I was immediately drawn in to explore this strange boundary country.
These qualities emanate especially from the narrator and protagonist, Charlotte Bridger Drummond. In the opening pages of her narrative, we find Charlotte weeping over the news that Jules Verne has died, explaining to her five-year-old son Jules (named for the author) that a bride is "a woman with a romantic inclination which has led her into reckless behavior," and contemplating the deviousness with which the family cat hides her litters:
Someone has taught the cat to count, is my belief, for she has never failed to notice when we have sneaked off with the weaklings and the crooked-born of her kittens, and she has become more and more wily with each successive litter, determined to raise them all, runts and mutants all, in a behavior that to my mind must be proof of the basic tenets of Darwin, or disproof; which, I cannot as yet decide.
Charlotte constructs her own life right on the border between hard-headed feminist realism and heroic fantasy. Even if the novel had no plot of mystery and high drama at all, her personality would make of daily life a worthy adventure.
The plot, in fact, has plenty of mystery and high drama. In the spring of 1905, Charlotte Bridger Drummond, feminist, successful authoress, single mother of five children since the disappearance of her husband, native of the Washington state frontier, sets off into the deepwoods of the Cascades range. She is joining the search for young Harriet Coffee, granddaughter of Charlotte's housekeeper, who has gone missing from the camp where her father works as a logger. It is rumored that the child was carried away by a great, hairy ape! Can it be true? Charlotte, scientific and rational, is skeptical; she joins the search in part to dispel the wild illusions surrounding it. The main narrative of Wild Life is Charlotte's journal of her experiences, beginning on the day Harriet's disappearance becomes known.
The basic plot works as a mystery-adventure (and summarized it may sound quite far-fetched indeed), but suspense is actually almost ancillary to the book's appeal. It is assembled as a pastiche. Charlotte's journal entries provide a linear narrative, but interspersed with that narrative are excerpts from other writings: reflective journal entries from earlier and later in her life, fragments of her fiction, quotations from contemporary authors and thinkers: all these materials have been arranged together by Charlotte herself to examine the meaning of her adventure. This pastiche presents the reader with another mystery: how much of the journal itself is a fiction, and how much is truth. I found it just as satisfying to jump backwards and forwards in Wild Life as to read it straight through, reconstructing the chronology of Charlotte's writings to discern how her experience changed her. Which of the excerpts were composed before her journey into the deepwoods? Which after? How are they different? What actually happened to her? How was she changed by her experience?
It's through the pastiche that Wild Life works both as speculative metafiction and as a psychological novel. Charlotte Bridger Drummond is the author of numerous popular stories of fantastic adventure, which are, in her own words, "trivial novels of moon voyages, African adventures, time travel, stories of Black Wizards with mysterious powers of invisibility," but she aspires to accomplish something more. Would that mean turning to realism? Or does Romance have access to higher Truth? Has she reached the limits of her talent? Or do the demands of raising and supporting children prevent her from fully developing it? For Charlotte, the mysterious disappearance of Harriet and the deeper mysteriousness of the woods themselves, lead her to explore the mysteries of art and of her own inner life. If in her assemblage of the pastiche, she leaves the factual questions that drive the mystery of the plot unanswered, she does so not as a literary tease but as a way of exploring deeper mysteries about herself and about the culture through which she, as a writer and as a feminist, moves as a social pioneer. The gradual modulation of her consciousness under the pressure of events is thus portrayed with marvelous subtlety and complexity.
Abetting this subtlety is the minutely detailed realism of the narrative style. Like her mentor Ursula Le Guin, Gloss crafts prose in which every word is well-chosen. Charlotte's style has the prolixity of the late Victorian writer -- it both shows and tells, in violation of the later Modernist dictum -- but it is unfailingly precise and unsparing in its renderings. If the events of the plot seem outrageous when examined out of context, in context they never appear so, because they are so clearly and vividly grounded in the realities of the logging frontier. While walking back from purchasing supplies for her journey in the mill town of Yacolt, Charlotte happens upon a young man watching a baseball game from a rough set of bleachers:
A boy with a wooden leg sat on the three-tier bleachers between third base and home plate. . . . He sat on the lowest bench and rested his elbows back on the next high, with his wooden leg and his other one outstretched before him. An east wind had sprung up and cleared out the smoke of burning slab, sawdust, and mill-ends, the great piles that go on burning day and night for years in such towns as these, and the sun shone through for a moment. The bleachers struck me as a fine place to enjoy the improbable spring sunshine and several minutes of free entertainment. . . .
I leant back and rested my elbows on the bench beside him and commented upon his wooden leg in a mild and roundabout way. "I believe I've seen half a dozen crippled men in coming four blocks through town," I said, which didn't seem to offend or surprise him.
"Donkey boilers blow up," he said easily. "People fall from flumes, band saws break, a tree walks, a leg gets caught in the bight of the donkey cable. I guess there is about a hundred ways to get killed or hurt in the woods and mills."
. . . [We] exchanged one-legged man stories. I told him about the old Russian whose leg was lost in a fishing accident, and when he applied to the Columbia River Fisherman's Protective Union for help, they bought a wooden leg and leased it to the fellow, for fear that an outright donation would set a dangerous precedent.
When Charlotte shifts into the manner of the frontier story-teller with her one-legged man story, the need for the shift is clear: one must soar above these hard realities, or be buried by them. The realism of her style justifies her interest in romance. The novel leaves it to the reader to decide whether the story as a whole is realism or romance. Does speculative fiction show us something different from the world we know, or does it show us that the world is not what we took it to be?
While I won't say any more about how the plot's mysteries are resolved, I will reassure prospective readers that Charlotte's anxieties about her literary talents are surely resolved by Wild Life itself. In her most definitive statement about writing, Charlotte reveals the kind she most prefers: "My preference is for the writer whose language is gorgeous, whose characters are as real as life, and whose stories take my poor little assumptions and give them back to me transformed; I prefer, then, Verne and Griffith, Poe's short tales and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Wild Life is just that kind of book.
Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.