Filter House by Nisi Shawl
Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
22 October 2008
Filter House collects fourteen stories that are generally thoughtful, often skillfully written, and yet, with only occasional and fleeting exception, lifeless.
Given that there is so much rich and vibrant fiction available to us, the problem with competent, lifeless fiction is that it is a distraction, a waste of time. It keeps us from more worthy books, books that build more vivid worlds in our brain, books that infiltrate our imaginations, books that sing and dance and howl at the moon all at the same time.
The question of what causes dissatisfactions within a particular work of mediocre fiction is one of the most challenging questions for a reviewer. It's easy to mock truly bad books, and nearly as easy to praise truly great books, but it is much more difficult to analyze books that are neither particularly bad nor particularly good.
In a 1981 essay, John Gardner said that good fiction does a number of things "elegantly, efficiently":
it creates a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind; it is implicitly philosophical; it fulfills or at least deals with all of the expectations it sets up; and it strikes us, in the end, not simply as a thing done but as a shining performance. 
While I don't think all of these qualities are necessary for all types of great fiction, they are a helpful guide to what makes a certain type of traditional fiction artistically successful.
For me, the visions Nisi Shawl's stories provided were mostly continuous, but seldom vivid. The stories often seem to strive for philosophy, and they frequently set up situations to question certain assumptions of both their genre and society. For the most part, they deal with the expectations they create, at least in terms of plot. All of them, though, are simply a thing done; not one is much of a performance.
And it is Gardner's final point about the story as performance that is most important for distinguishing lifeless fiction from excellent fiction—mediocre stories are capable of creating a continuous (perhaps even occasionally vivid) dream in the reader's mind; they can possess a philosophical impulse; they can deal with the expectations they set up. But they lack gusto and verve, chutzpah and charisma, fascination and savor. They are dead on the page and forgotten soon after they are read. While I find it easy to believe readers will experience Shawl's stories in different ways—such is the case with any basically competent fiction—I cannot imagine how a reader who is sensitive to literature's capabilities and possibilities could possibly say these stories offer much of a performance.
A few of the stories in Filter House sink below mediocrity, and they do so for one of two reasons: they are either hobbled by cliché or they are less of a story than a situation. Thus we have "The Rainses'," which would read like a stale parody of a Southern Gothic story if it had any humor to it, and "Bird Day," which has the nugget of an interesting, Carol Emshwilleresque story in its concept, but is nothing more than a sketch—some women wait to commune with birds, and then one of the women sees and follows a bird. It is not a story that has enough substance to even begin to answer the natural question a reader is likely to pose at the end: so what?
Most of the other stories offer the reader a little bit more to enjoy. I found the most continuously engaging story to be "Little Horses," a tale of a kidnapping that is the only story in the book to generate any suspense. The suspense doesn't last, partly because Shawl lacks the imagination of a writer like Flannery O'Connor (whose "A Good Man is Hard to Find" makes this story look like a fairy tale), and partly because the ending is, like many of the endings here, awkward and clumsy.
A story like "Momi Watu" takes a mildly intriguing idea of a future world where disease has become widespread among various classes of people and barely develops the idea, instead trapping us, as many of the stories try to do, with the sentimentality of an imperiled child. The end is an attempt at some sort of epiphany, but the story has not committed enough energy to the presentation of its characters' inner lives for the last paragraphs to resonate.
Writing honestly and without sentimentality about children or, especially, from a child's point of view is a particularly difficult feat, and one that Shawl is not able to pull off in a way that enhances the stories about children in Filter House. "The Rainses'," for instance, is told from the limited third-person point of view of Anniette, and so it is through her perceptions that we understand the strange events of the tale—events which involve, among other things, ghosts and genealogies. Because everything must be filtered through Anniette's limited knowledge and experience, the reader is forced to plod along with Anniette's ratiocinations, but her perception of the world and her growth toward knowledge are not the least bit interesting (in the sense of being different from how we might ourselves imagine a child to perceive things), and so there is no compelling reason for us to be trapped in the child's viewpoint except that it obfuscates how familiar and clichéd the central events of the narrative are. As readers, we are not given enough material for our own intelligence to exert itself on the story, and so the effect is infantilizing.
Mediocrity may be familiar and, because of that, dull, but no mediocre stories are entirely lacking in virtues. The primary virtue of Shawl's stories is their wide range in influence, genre, and setting. There are stories set in the past, present, and future; there are stories of fantasy, science fiction, and horror; there are stories whose inspiration comes from folktales and fairy tales; and all of the stories include characters who are not white, middle-class men (still the most common protagonists in fiction). More writers should strive for such range. It is no guarantee, as Filter House proves, of achieving greatness, but it helps assure that when greatness does arrive, it is a greatness that adds new perspectives to our imaginations. The hope for such new perspectives keeps many of us reading contemporary writers, even if it would be safer to stick with the time-tested greatness of the past. It is the difficulty of aspiring to such greatness that keeps any writer (or at least any writer who wants something more than money or fame) writing, when all the odds suggest we should be thrilled to be able to be merely mediocre. But striving matters. After all, the next sentence, paragraph, or page may yield a miracle.
 John Gardner, "What Writers Do," originally published in Antaeus (Winter/Spring 1981). Collected in John Gardner, On Writers and Writing, edited by Stewart O'Nan, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.