A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
08 February 2010
How many children in how many schools have been told never to end their story with the dreaded line, "And then she woke up, and it had all been a dream"? This golden rule speaks to the fact that readers expect a reward for ploughing through a tale of whatever length. Some types of fiction place more importance on resolution than others—detective fiction, for instance, builds to a close with more intent than a reflective work of 'literary' fiction—but all writers must endeavour not to short-change their readers. The pressure of the final moment is felt almost from the first page.
It's audacious, then, to entitle your first collection A Book of Endings. In so doing, the Australian writer Deborah Biancotti, whose work from 2000 onwards A Book of Endings showcases, almost challenges her readers to experience the story as prelude, the final paragraph as paramount. If every narrative must strain to one extent or another to end well, A Book of Endings asks even more of its twenty-one stories, exhorting each to justify themselves by virtue of their closing lines. This is doubly gutsy given that so many of Biancotti's endings are in one way or another marked by a waking from a dream.
The principle strength of this fine collection is how it manages the potentially deadening similarity that both its title and its recurrent concerns might force upon the stories, injecting variety and excitement into each new iteration. Single author collections can easily fall foul either of an overly strict guiding principle or an insufficiently controlled mood—outside of SF this year, Sana Krasikov's stylistically supple One More Year was a good example of the former, whilst Kazuo Ishiguro's entertaining but unwieldy Nocturnes fits largely into the latter category. Biancotti has successfully navigated these Symplegades; her collection is both unified and full of incident. To reveal my hand before delving any deeper, the recent collection within SF of which this book most reminded me was Kelly Link's Magic For Beginners. This is high praise, so give me a paragraph.
Biancotti isn't without her faults, to be sure: for one, she lacks Link's astounding facility with a wide range of forms. When she veers too far from the urban specifity which is her strong suit, she comes a cropper. "Stealing Free," for example, aims for the sort of rich whimsy which is Catherynne Valente's stock in trade, but misses this mark by some way, coming across in the process as overly calculated. But, like Link, Biancotti is brilliant at identifying the troubling gaps in modern consensus reality, and prising them open. So "Number 3 Raw Place," in which an uncomfortable couple develop a curious relationship with their new house, reminds me of Link's "Stone Animals," in which a family's new house develops a curious relationship with them. Both authors have a knack for spinning the world a new axis: "The moon shines down," Link writes as her protagonist takes a walk in his garden, "and paints the world a color he's never seen before." (Magic for Beginners, p. 111.) The last line of "Number 3 Raw Place," meanwhile, has this from its own protagonist, a frustrated architect of sorts: "when the window finally pulled back into focus, it brought something else with it. Something he hadn't seen before" (p. 34). The two writers share concerns, then, but also an ability to frame them in such a way that their observations never seem glib.
The key to Biancotti's stories is in this moment of realisation: something doesn't quite fit the world their characters have been taught to perceive, and the awakening follows. In the opening story, "Diamond Shell," Shel's troubled friend Mishi disappears without explanation; Shel, who has problems of her own in a metropolis which has come to be indifferent to its inhabitants, searches for Mishi but fails, of course—Mishi has left the "fragile sugar castle of the city" (p. 27) for more fantastic climes, "released to live free between the bones of the city" (p. 28). Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr., famously wrote of the chinks in the world machine; in Biancotti, these holes have become the whole, encased within a consensus veneer. In the Pyramus-and-Thisbe-in-reverse of "Stone By Stone," a woman whose married lover has returned to his wife one too many times constructs her own shell: "My hands no longer shook as I picked up the last brick. I pushed it into its slot, carefully lining it up with its neighbours, not tapping it too far with the trowel. Blocking out all light from the room where Jacob lay." Jacob has, naturally, been murdered by the woman taking refuge in her own little world, who realises only in the story's very last line that her lover has perhaps never been true, when he calls out in his death-throes the name Susan: "That's not my name," our narrator sighs as she switches off her cell's lamp.
Unlike the one in "Diamond Shell," the inner world of "Stone by Stone" is, of course, lifeless. A Book of Endings is too subtle a collection to pretend that all escape is by default a good thing. It is split into three sections—"End of Days," "End of the World," and "End of an Era"—which, whilst not particularly rigorous in their fidelity to theme, speak of moments rich with dual potential. The three stories mentioned above are contained with the first of those parts, but stories from the other sections follow the same rubric. In the wonderful "The Distance Keeper," for instance, a possibly autistic man obsessed with measuring distance is left to look after his best friend's pregnant wife; when she suffers a grisly miscarriage, he simply flees: "From here, he wouldn't even hear Melissa scream" (p. 129). In one of Biancotti's "proper" SF stories, "Coming Up For Air," a woman tasked by the increasingly draconian government with closing down a community's electricty generation in a resource-scarce future Australia abandons her job when it becomes too callous a profession: "Well, hell, she reflected, she'd been planning on losing her job anyway" (p. 106). The virtue of escape runs both ways.
This push-and-pull of conflicting forces is at the heart of Biancotti's fiction. Another superb story, "Problems of Light and Dark," follows a circus charlatan who becomes literally allergic to the dark—having made his career wearing luminescent materials and glowing in a darkened big top, he begins to experience bruises where shadows touch him. His lover, Susan, in turn becomes the darkness, and together they become a sort of Yin and Yang:
"Good show, Lennie," Susan whispers. "Amazing."
"Nah," Lennie says, "it's just illusion."
"So's everything then," Susan reasons. "Doesn't make it less real." (p. 205)
As that exchange suggests, if Biancotti is aware that the fantastic is not always good, she also realises that it is not always explicable. So in the discomfiting "The Razor Salesman," for example, there is no attempt to demystify a mother's removal of "thin, silver strands like spider web" (p. 250) from the faces of her son and his best friend, nor the strange knife she uses, sold to her by a hairless travelling salesman. Biancotti's stories are not parables or allegories, but simply stories. "Do the stars ever lie?" ask the final lines of "The Dying Light." "Does it matter," they counter, "once the story is told?" (p. 272) "The Dying Light" is on one hand an evocative story about a father's blindness and a family's grief; it is on another something more, in which miraculous stories have their own power in the telling. This balance is maintained by the equity of fiction and fantasy with that dominant consensus reality which Biancotti has undermined in the collection's earliest stories.
Here we return to my argument that the collection's most impressive feature is its overarching identity, beneath which all manner of invention lurks. Its theses and mise-en-scenes are many, but this intelligent and eloquent interrogation of the worlds we create for ourselves holds them all together. In "Life's Work," the religious faith of Ruby, a mother and absolute believer, twists into a grotesque mania; in "Hush," set in another resource-scarce future in which genetic science has enabled wealthy humans to preserve their consciousness within animal hosts, the morality of the age is questioned by the elderly sister of the procedure's pioneer: "I'd like to think it's all about, what, the sanctity of human life, eh? But it's not that. No. It's the sanctity of the chosen human lives, the ones you think worth saving" (p. 54).
Biancotti's science fiction is usually this way—present day humans projected a little further in time. One of the collection's finest stories, however, is the further future "This Time, Longing," a beautiful elegy of a story written especially for the collection which proves Biancotti is improving her capacity for different modes. The story of the journey of three women to the shore of a blighted and scorching landscape, in order to scatter the ashes of their dead daughter and sister, it frames the whole of a person's life as a sort of storytelling: "It was the journey home that made the rest of life worthwhile, Beth thought. [ . . . ] Though this time she carried the weight of memories" (p. 282). Even in the pitiless, almost unbearable future in which they live, the human will to carry on, to reproduce and to pass on memory, keeps life going: "She wanted to tell her daughters not to take it on, not to try to live," Beth thinks. "But it was too late. It had always been too late. Hero was pregnant with the first of the next generation, and Dare was soon to be married" (p. 281).
Amongst all the confusion, conflict, and contradiction, we will always strive for the next moment, the next memory—the next story. So, in the gentle "The Tailor of Time," a fantasy roughened by the grit of a young girl with what seems to be pulmonary edema, the title character, a being who controls the flow of hours and minutes, sacrifices his life to give the dying girl a few extra days to waste in childish pursuits. Experience is Biancotti's lodestone: Mishi, escaping into the "bones of the city" (p. 28) to live free, or the host dog in "Hush" "eating the man" (p. 54) in order to exert primacy; the endurance of the characters in "This Time, Longing" is echoed, in "King of All and the Metal Sentinel," by the robotic denizens of an irradiated castle in a future feudal state, following their programmes when there is no reason to do so; even in a story with as seemingly terminal a title as "Six Suicides," in which Biancotti shows in a small space her talent for voice, a psychiatrist's deep sadness is explained by the "startlingly empty statistic" (p. 142) that she has never had any children. Life is to be lived—though the world may endeavour to convince us otherwise.
I am aware that I'm providing something of a whistle-stop tour of Biancotti's stories; if this sacrifices close reading I hope it goes some way to showcasing the exciting variety of her writing. To select one of the many fine stories in this collection to look at more closely, "The First and Final Game" is the story of a malevolent presence, the narrator, called into existence by the evil which inspired and was produced by a spate of killings. The presence wishes both to punish and usurp the killer. It is another of those stories in which a fantastic premise is not given a rational explanation, even when one might exist (the narrator is a copycat). It is told in a first person voice clearly reflecting on events after they have occurred. "I will enjoy telling you this story, Martin," it begins, speaking to the killer who seems yet to have arrived. "I will enjoy caressing your cold still hands and delighting in my own pulse" (p. 207). The sexualised creepiness of this narration does not let up: "In my mind," the narrator imparts of opening a door when she first becomes corporeal, "the tongue of the lock drew back from the doorframe, nestling into the bulk of the door" (p. 209).
The narrator is exhorted by the voice of a murdered child in turn to murder Martin. Martin arrives with predictable intent, under the pretext of staying with neighbours and having run out of eggs. "So we kept playing the game," the narrator sighs, "admiring [Martin's] killer's physique" (p. 212). What unfolds is a compelling, but revolting, show of murderous one-upmanship: "Maybe you still believed you had a chance. If not to win, then at least to live." [p. 212] The fact that all this is being spoken to Martin's corpse is, of course, all too clear. Nevertheless, the need of the narrator for the approval of the bested killer is sickly palpable: "I just wanted you to respond to me," she explains as she produces Martin's old knife (how would a mere copycat acquire that?). At this point, the physical element of the story becomes clear, as all that sexual language takes on a new kink: "I wanted to reach out and smooth back your hair, tell you it was all going to be okay," the narrator coos, and then: "your blood slowed and mine flowed faster" (p. 214). The fantastic nature of this horror is of course in the inventive spinning of that old genre staple, the stealer of life-force. But Biancotti also weaves in her broader concerns: Martin realises "the importance of hope" (p. 213); neither he nor his murderer understand the meaning of what they do, the reason they are as they are; and, finally, there is no easy redemption, since Martin is "still incapable of grief or pity" (p. 214).
"The First and Final Game," then, is an expertly turned fantasy horror; it is also, on the evidence of A Book of Endings, quintessential Biancotti: elusive, evocative, discomfiting, and elegant. The emphasis on experience and hope, but the clear-eyed vision of the evil and despair in the world, is ever-present; so, too, is the stubborn refusal of both the real and any fantasy world to grant escape or moral absolution. A Book of Endings is about the liminal places where consensus reality breaks down, and about people who wake up to that fact; but crucially it is about many different such places, and many different such consensus realities—and it depicts all of those storied worlds as having space in them for failure. Intellectually, then, this is a sharp collection; stylistically, it is gentle but complex, offering deeply readable prose which feels more often than not pitch perfect—lean but pregnant, full of memorable and arresting moments and images. Biancotti may resemble rather than challenge Link and her fellow masters of the form, but she will surely graduate from the small presses and continue to eye those thrones.