Interfictions, edited by Theodora Goss and Delia Sherman
Reviewed by David Soyka
25 July 2007
If you want to know the definition of "interstitial writing," skip the introduction by Heinz Insu Fenkl. ("An interstitial work provides a wider range of possibilities for the reader's engagement and transformation. It is more faceted than a typical literary work, though it also operates under its own internal logic" (p. vii). While I'm not sure what that exactly means, I think it might make for a great interstitial story in which someone is "transformed" into something, maybe one of those Japanese robots, after reading a story.) Instead, go straight to the afterword in which the editors of Interfictions, Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, explain how they know what it is when they see it:
DELIA: ... An interstitial story does not hew closely to any one set of recognizable genre conventions. An interstitial story does interesting things with narrative style. An interstitial story takes artistic chances ... every interstitial story defines itself unlike any other. (p. 280)
DORA: I did have a general definition. But interstitiality has been defined in so many ways ... that I wanted to forget my own definition, to say to the writers, I've asked you for an interstitial story. Now show me what you think is interstitial ... So one response I associated with interstitiality was, "I've seen this before—but no, it looks quite different after all. I've never seen it done this way." (pp. 279-280)
The murkiness of what constitutes interstitiality (much like the similar discussions of "slipstream"—see last year's Feeling Very Strange) isn't the fault of the editors. The coinage is that of the Interstitial Arts Foundation (imagine that, an entire organization for something not easily defined; and it's not even sponsored by the government!), which was founded to create, promote, and discuss art forms—not just literary, but visual, musical and performance—that seek to break out of traditional boundaries. By that sort of loose definition, Bob Dylan became an interstitial artist when he went electric.
In terms of fiction, my general understanding is that a story is interstitial if it employs genre tropes, but then subverts reader expectations of how the tropes are generally used. Goss uses the example of a tale in this volume called "Willow Pattern," by Jon Singer. The story is only a few pages long, comprising alternate commentaries on pottery etchings by a museum curator or professor lecturing about strange artifacts and someone's (a member of the audience? The curator? Someone who was there when the image was first sketched?) more immediate experience of the images. The conclusion suggests that one of the narrators (who is maybe the same person) has been thrust into the artwork, or the very situation that produced the artwork. Goss describes it as science fictional, and there is a hint the artifacts are from an alien civilization, but it's probably not the kind of science fiction that Asimov's would publish, if only because it lacks conventional narrative structure.
As my explanation indicates, the story is a study in ambiguities. Your guess is as good as mine as to what it's about. (Mine happens to be that humanity's self-destruction is inevitable despite attempts to transcend its baser instincts through art). Whether it really challenges "genre expectations" is debatable. This is, after all, the kind of alternate realities territory previously explored by Philip K. Dick, so in what ways is "Willow Pattern" sufficiently different from that to be interstitial? It's easy to imagine some editors sending the author a standard form rejection, while others, such as Goss and Sherman, say, oh, it's interstitial! Let's put it in the anthology.
In the final analysis, of course, it doesn't much matter what the hell you call it. As the editors suggest, if you care, you'll know something is interstitial when you read it. And at least it will give you something to argue about if you're one of those people who hang around in the blogosphere and don't have to do things like go to work or raise kids, or you're an academic, and have a lot time on your hands.
Putting the "what the hell is interstitial?" question aside for the moment, this is a very nice collection of strange stories. My favorite here is "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom" by Holly Phillips. A writer attempts to continue working even as she awaits news of the fate of her husband, a hostage taken in some unnamed foreign land (though, of course, Iraq immediately comes to mind). Writers everywhere will identify with such descriptions of the writing process as:
..typed the title. Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom. Then I looked at it again, and tried it with a 'The' at the beginning, but no. Too definite. There's something dreamy about it the other way ... A few more spaces down, and I typed Chapter One. And then, after a while, I got up and went down two flights to shower and put on some clothes. (p.249)
But the story is much more than an inside joke. It is an investigation into the imagination, specifically the imagination under stress and the propensity to project both Pollyannaish and hellish outcomes to uncontrollable situations. In this case, it seem as if sometimes there are happy endings. Unless they're a product of wishful thinking.
The story fits the definition of interstitial as it veers from a straightforward "realistic" work to the fantastic to meta-fiction about how we author, or try to author, our own narratives. As Phillips puts it in an author's endnote, "which is more real?" (p. 262).
Which, ultimately, seems to be the question posed by all these interfictions. Whereas conventional fantasy is concerned with world building to produce a convincing alternate reality with a set of guiding precepts based in magic or Greek mythology or some such epistemology, interstitial fiction mixes and matches these precepts—ghost stories, science fiction, nursery rhymes, detective story, whatever may be handy—as part of a variegated prism to focus on the psychology of existence even while bending its collectively recognized state.
Perhaps John Clute's notion of "equipose" as it applies to yet another attempt at categorization—new wave fabulism—works here as well: "Equipose ... may be described as comprising stories set in worlds which are impossible but which the story believes ... built upon sustained narrative negotiations of uncertainty, without coming to any necessary decision as to what is real" (p. 424, "Beyond the Pale," Conjunctions: 39, The New Wave Fabulists). Indeed, each "interfiction" shares this sense of disjointed narrative, but in very different ways that do not lend themselves to easy genre categorization.
Case in point is my second favorite story, "Alternate Anxieties" by Karen Jordan Allen, a meditation on the disasters we imagine and what happens when imagination crosses over from existential pondering to personal reality. Funny and disturbing, much like life itself. Which, of course, is the point.
The collection opens with Christopher Barzak's "What We Know About the Lost Families of _____ House," which traffics in Poe-like horror. Leaving the name of the house blank is a time-honored genre convention that, in seeming to protect an individual identity and/or the location of events, both makes itself seem more real (as if there really is a ______ House to be protected by anonymity) and points to a universal applicability to the general human condition. This is a ghost story with subtitles about generations of eccentric families and the various tragedies that befall them as residents of _____ House. It is also about how you know who people are and what happens to them, without ever knowing much about them. Or wanting to know.
The Velvet Underground's second album, White Heat/White Lightning, contains what you could call a proto-interstitial song called "The Gift" in which John Cale narrates a strange ditty about Waldo Jeffries, who mails himself to his estranged girlfriend, with tragic results when she uses a knife to rip open the package. Leslie What offers something similar in "Post Hoc," but with happier results. Stella is pregnant and her boyfriend isn't returning her calls. So she mails herself to him. The problem is that he won't sign for the parcel, and Stella is left with all the other unclaimed mail at the post office. As her condition progresses, the kindly postal employees take care of her. In any other collection, this would be a sweet, strange story. Here, it's just sweet because everything else is so strange that in comparison it seems almost conventional.
"Black Feather" by K. Tempest Bradford presents a Native American allegory of transformation in an urban setting. The moral, I think, is what one character describes as, "Flying is nothing more than controlled falling." In "A Drop of Raspberry," Csilla Kleinheincz depicts a bittersweet love affair between a man whose wife has left him and a lake. You read that correctly, a body of water in which the man tries to drown himself, but is rescued by the consciousness of the lake that can take human, albeit still watery form (and isn't the human body primarily composed of water?). A lovely allegory about the pain, the wonderment, and the boundaries of overwhelming emotions, translated from the Hungarian by Noémi Szelényi. Water also figures in the Spanish writer Adrián Ferrero's "When it Rains, You'd Better Get Out of Ulga," which ponders the inevitable ebbs and flows of existence in a sort of H. Rider Haggard travelogue without the breast beating.
"The Shoe in SHOES' Window" by Anna Tambour satirizes the bureaucratic blunderings of government ministries of central planned economies whose sole (pun intended) intent is to protect people from themselves, thereby ensuring maximum ratings on the absurdity scale. Chloe, the protagonist of "Pallas at Noon" by Joy Marchand, has, as they say today, "issues." Flashbacks hint at the root causes, and mourn lost possibilities. According to the author's note, the story is about boundaries that are not crossed, about "borderlands in [Chloe's] smallish life invaded, and her vast inner spaces illuminated."
"The Utter Proximity of God" by Michael J. DeLuca could be cross-filed under "magic realism" in explaining why a village inhabited by God is rendered off-limits to mortals, and therefore protected from mortal folly, due to the pratfalls of fools and cripples. And thank God for that.
Speaking of religious themes, "Burning Beard: The Dreams and Visions of Joseph ben Jacob, Lord Viceroy of Egypt" is what the title suggests. Rachel Pollack retells the Biblical narrative from a contemporary perspective (e.g., "And there are those who say the Pharaoh's publicity people exaggerate his powers" p. 124), pondering how Joseph at the end of his life may have come to view his gift of prophecy. Perhaps hip irony is another feature of interstitial fictions?
Mikal Trimm satirizes religion's focus on the afterlife in "Climbing Redemption Mountain," in which the dead are literally delivered to an afterlife, though perhaps not quite the one anticipated, illustrating that true redemption is more appropriately sought in the here and now, and not the promise of something that may or may not exist. Along the same lines, in a "Dirge for Prester John," Catherynne M. Valente considers the fate of a human missionary in the realm of the truly non-human, and how this leads to an unanticipated afterlife in the existing world, if not the next.
"Rats" by Veronica Schanoes is another one of those modern retellings of fairy tales. The intent here is less the irony typical of such ventures than a depiction of the true horrors that confront young people, more true to the tradition of the Grimm Brothers than Walt Disney. Loosely based on the murder of Nancy Spungen by Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols punk band.
Colin Greenland depicts a doomed love affair in the midst of suburban ordinariness in "Timothy." Think of a cross between Updike and "Puss in Boots." Vandana Singh offers one of the more straightforward narratives in "Hunger," though the New Delhi setting may be sufficiently "unreal" to most Westerners. Here, a woman who would prefer to spend her time reading science fiction finds her life changed by the death of an old man in her apartment complex; although there are hints that this change incorporates supernatural abilities, the story would fit into any non-genre collection, despite its references to genre. Consider this striking observation: "And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unravellng, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years."
Matthew Cheney, who is perhaps better known as the blogger behind The Mumpsimus, presents a love story in the context of fantastic circumstances in "A Map of Everywhere," which suggests that things are more interesting without referring to said map. Or, as Cheney himself puts it, "each story is a story, and that's all we know." Similarly, Léa Silhol presents a Buddhist parable in "Emblemata" in which things aren't explained, though they are what they are, without further significance.
Which, as far as I can figure out, is as good an explanation of interstitial fiction as any other.