Fool to Believe: Remarks on Some Short Stories By Pat Cadigan
Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
31 August 2011
1. Nothing Personal
I would like to talk about a few of Pat Cadigan's stories from the 1980s, and focus in particular on "Pretty Boy Crossover." I'm starting off with this personal and metatextual voice because I want to make sure you don't enter into all this thinking I'm some sort of Cadigan expert with a direct line into her brain. I've read some of her stories and liked them very much (though I've discovered, to my sadness, that I'm not the right audience for her novels). I thought about coming up with a great theory for why I'm going to talk about her stories from the '80s and not some of her later stories, but the truth is, the reason I'm going to talk about her stories from the '80s is that they're the ones most readily at hand to me right now. Despite that terribly shallow and desperate fact, I think there are some interesting connections between these stories, and one of the things that most interests me is the moment at which Cadigan went from the efficient, focused, somewhat narrow narratives of such stories as "Rock On" and "Roadside Rescue" to the more open, wide-ranging narratives of "Angel" and "Fool to Believe"—a moment I would identify as "Pretty Boy Crossover," and would (and will!) justify as one of the great masterpieces of 1980s short fiction exactly because it is the fulcrum of that transition from efficient, focused, narrow narratives to more open, wide-ranging ones. But before I delve into that, I think it is necessary, or at least honest, for me to emphasize that this hypothesis about Cadigan's development is based on an incomplete data set, not only because I can't jack into Cadigan's brain, but because I couldn't find the copy of her story collection Patterns (1989) that I was sure I had, and now it's too close to the deadline for this essay for me to get a copy of that book, so I am working from a pile of Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies and the February 1990 issue of Asimov's that includes "Fool to Believe," which means not only am I not able at this moment to examine a large sample of Cadigan's short fiction, but also that the sample of stories I can examine were all selected by Gardner Dozois (since he edited the February 1990 issue of Asimov's), and thus my sample of Cadigan is really Dozois's sample of Cadigan, further undermining any generalizations about her career that I am careless enough to conceive. And one more caveat and self-subversion: I'm not going to talk about "Fool to Believe," even though it's sitting here in front of me as I type, because it really should be discussed within the context of Cadigan's novel Fools (1992), but I'm still going to cite "Fool to Believe" as evidence of a more capacious narrative tendency in Cadigan's work after "Pretty Boy Crossover."
2. Truth and Bone
How do you know that anything I wrote in the previous section is, was, or will be true? Why do you believe anything I write here?
Perhaps you believe what I wrote in the previous section is true because I said I do not have an implant that will allow me to jack into Pat Cadigan's brain, and because you know such technology is, indeed, non-existent (as far as we know), therefore you think you can trust the other statements I made, at least until you encounter clear contradictions to them.
Or perhaps you were convinced by the way those sentences in the first section undermined my position as an expert reviewer-critic-person (RCP). You might have been annoyed by those sentences, just as you might be annoyed by the sentences you're reading right now, but I bet you nonetheless found them somehow honest, given that most RCPs fill their writings with all sorts of grand statements that pose as both objective and insightful, and everybody sees through the pose, but still the RCPs insist on it. A break in that routine has the potential to be refreshing, but is it refreshing, or do we like the conventions that encourage RCPs to hide the random, incomplete, and desperate elements of their thinking and writing? Do we really want to jack in to the mind of an RCP? No, dammit, just tell us what to buy, what to read, what to rebel against, what to agree with—and then we can choose to agree or disagree or qualify or whine or synth the logos to the hilt. Shit man, that's what we want, dontcha gettit?
Tone and diction. What we talk about when we talk about voice. Hoo-ray, baby.
Weren't the '80s rad?
Also, before I forget, I should note that one of the most interesting features of Cadigan's work is its close attention to questions of perception and subjectivity, as well as its foregrounding of voice. Many of the stories are written in the first person point of view, and the third person stories are tightly limited in their omniscience and full of free indirect discourse.
4. Fifty Ways to Improve Your Orgasm
"Rock On" and "Pretty Boy Crossover" are conceptual cousins, and probably Cadigan's most famous stories from the 1980s. "Rock On" was reprinted in Mirrorshades, the seminal cyberpunk anthology edited by Bruce Sterling and published in 1986, and in which Cadigan was the only female writer. Indeed, during the '80s, cyberpunk was primarily a guy thing, and Cadigan's was the only female byline to be regularly associated with the movement. "Rock On" first appeared in Michael Bishop's 1984 anthology Light Years and Dark, a book that included a wide range of established and newer writers, but was not seen as a cyberpunk text. (Nonetheless, it is one of the best anthologies of its era.)
"Pretty Boy Crossover" first appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the January 1986 issue, was reprinted in multiple Best of the Year anthologies, and has been reprinted frequently since, most recently in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010).
"Rock On" begins:
Rain woke me. I thought, shit, here I am, Lady Rain-in-the-Face, because that's where it was hitting, right in the old face. Sat up and saw I was still on Newbury Street. See beautiful downtown Boston. Was Newbury Street downtown? In the middle of the night, did it matter? No, it did not. And not a soul in sight. Like everybody said, let's get Gina drunk and while she's passed out, we'll all move to Vermont. Do I love New England? A great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit here.
"Pretty Boy Crossover" begins, after two epigraphs:
"Who made you?"
"You mean recently?"
Mohawk on the door smiles and takes his picture. "You in. But only you, okay? Don't try to get no friends in, hear that?"
"I hear. And I ain't no fool, fool. I got no friends."
Mohawk leers, leaning forward. "Pretty Boy like you, no friends?"
"Not in this world." He pushes past the Mohawk, ignoring the kissy-kissy sounds. He would like to crack the bridge of the Mohawk's nose and shove bone splinters into his brain but he is lately making more effort to control his temper and besides, he's not sure if any of that bone splinters in the brain stuff is really true. He's a Pretty Boy, all of sixteen years old, and tonight could be his last chance.
These are strong, confident openings to stories that are models of assured tone. They give us a lot of information in a few words: information about character and setting, but also information about attitude and the narrative we are entering. They tell us we'll have to read carefully, because not everything will be spelled out. We'll need to suss out clues. We'll need to join in the imagining.
Both stories tell tales of media environments, of entertainment and escape. In "Rock On," Gina is an aging (indeed, at just-a-little-past 40 years old, elderly by youth standards) rocker whose particular skill is as a synthesizer—someone who remembers rocknroll radio and can jack in with kids who don't know how to play an instrument, helping them make music on their way to global stardom. She is used and abused; the experience of synthesizing (sinning) is akin to sex, and the kids objectify and assault: "Five against one and I couldn't push them away. Only, can you call it rape when you know you're going to like it?" Not a pleasant thought, but it tells us a lot about this world and this business and Gina's place in it. It also tells us at least a little bit about Gina.
"Pretty Boy Crossover" gives us a glam world through the eyes of a boy who thinks he wants nothing more than to be exoticized and stared at: "He always loved to get the looks. To be watched, worshipped, pursued." People in this world, Pretty Boy learns, don't know the difference between being loved and being watched. The two epigraphs to the story reveal much: "First you see video. Then you wear video. Then you eat video. Then you be video," comes from The Gospel of Visual Mark ("Visual Mark" is a name that will reappear in Synners). The second epigraph is labeled "Pretty Boy Credo" and states, "Watch or Be Watched."
In such a world, there are two positions: watcher and watched. Active and passive. Subject and object.
These are worlds of commodified, technologized pleasure. The protagonists see through the glitz, they've used up their illusions, they yearn for a Something More that's tough to identify. They live in a world of poses, and their confidently informal voices are poses, too, authentically inauthentic.
Authenticity is overrated. Authenticity is its own pose.
5. Is There Life After Rehab?
In On Becoming a Novelist, a book published the year after his death in 1982, John Gardner decried two styles of writing that, he claimed, masked evasions of reality: the Pollyanna mask and the dis-Pollyanna mask. For the latter, his example was a passage by Harlan Ellison (the opening paragraph of the introduction to the collection On the Edge), which demonstrated evasion of reality in its stock phrases, "ill-founded cynicism," sentence fragments ("a standard means of falsely heightening the emotion of what one says"), dropped commas ("all right except if one's purpose is to increase the rush of the sentence and thus suggest emotion not justified by what is being said"), vulgar humor and imagery, and the general attempt to "shock prudes."
No one is shocked, of course, though a few may misread their annoyance as shock. One is annoyed because the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before. The problem with such writers, it ought to be mentioned, is not that they are worse people than those who wrote in Pollyanna. They are almost exactly the same people: idealists, people who simple-mindedly long for goodness, justice, and sanity; the difference is one of style.
I agree with Gardner that we should be wary of such a style, either as Pollyanna or dis-Pollyanna, and I also agree that inexperienced writers, especially, have a tendency to think the dis-Pollyanna style is much more original and edgy than it is, and I further agree that experienced writers can give in to it when they're not being careful—but what Gardner misses, or at least leaves out, in his general dismissal is that sometimes it's exactly the right style for a particular character.
Take Pretty Boy. The dis-Pollyanna style, which I prefer to think of as the hardboiled schtick, fits perfectly for someone in a world of surfaces and poses, a world where everything is performance. It's also a convenient defense mechanism. Gardner is right that such a style is a form of sentimentality, of unearned emotion, but it's also a way of keeping messy, complex emotions at a distance. It's the perfect style for an adolescent.
All the hallmarks of the style are present in how Pretty Boy's thoughts are related to us by the narrator, but by the end, the story has taught us to see through it. The last section is deeply, honestly moving if you can read Pretty Boy as beginning a new journey, a journey toward something more meaningful than yet another night of whoring for eyes. He's still a kid, still himself, still just at the start of this journey, but the pieces are in place, and he's asking the right questions. (A lesser writer would have given us a bigger reversal, something hokey and happy or something drastic and tragic. Cadigan's smarter than that, and she trusts us to come to our own conclusions, to feel our own feelings.)
"Rock On" uses the same style for a different point—instead of a kid, we've got a woman more mature than anyone around her, but trapped in the youth-fetishizing world of celebrity. The hardboiled schtick here is another defense mechanism, a defense against time and weariness. But the weariness comes through, and the story conveys mood as much as plot. The mood is in contrast to the diction, though, and that's one of the remarkable things about it. We get a sense of Gina because the words and sentence structures she uses suggest a false front, a good fight against the day-to-day desolation of her reality. Cadigan uses this style to show us her characters' evasions of reality, and by doing so she has represented reality with greater art than most of her peers.
6. Dispatches from the Revolution
"Pretty Boy Crossover" seems to me an advance beyond "Rock On" and other early Cadigan stories because its world is richer, its characterization fuller, its narrative more complex while remaining extraordinarily compact. The movement is similar to the development of Anton Chekhov's early fiction: from the small gem of "The Huntsman" (1885), perfect in its own way, to the more ambitious and innovative "A Dreary Story" (1889) and "Gusev" (1890). (I don't think Cadigan has yet hit the stage Chekhov did in his last decade, but that's no criticism—there are hardly any short story writers of any sort who have.)
"Angel," first published in the May 1987 issue of Asimov's, is a longer story than any of the others I've discussed here, and it is a more conventionally satisfying narrative than any of the others because it has a clear beginning-middle-end structure, and it has an eventful conclusion. I don't think these are necessarily the highest of virtues—forced to choose, I'd say "Rock On" and "Pretty Boy Crossover" are more artful stories, by which I mean stories with more room for the reader's sensibilities to enrich them, more possibility of satisfying rereading, more interesting choices of language—but the shift is notable, and it demonstrates Cadigan's expanding range.
"Angel" was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award, which is a rare honor. It's an odd story for the World Fantasy Award to note because it's clearly dressed in the garments of science fiction: the narrator is in a strange relationship with an alien. The nomination was appropriate, though, not just because the story is well written and emotionally satisfying, but because its concerns are as much those of sad fairy tales as of science fiction stories—I can imagine Hans Christian Andersen reading it with pleasure. This is not to malign its sci-fi cred, but rather to suggest that one of the strengths of the story is that its genre doesn't much matter. (It would have been an entirely appropriate nominee to the O. Henry Awards that year as well.)
Throughout her stories, Cadigan shows us outsiders who yearn for some sort of connection with a more fulfilling world than the one they're in. They are people who may, like Pretty Boy, want to be more exotic than anyone else, or they may be like the intersexed narrator of "Angel," who would like a bit more normality in life, but lacking that will settle for magic.
Normality, like authenticity, is overrated and likely an illusion.
7. A Lie for a Lie
I've been stealing titles for the sections of this essay from Cadigan's short stories. I almost called this section "Fool to Believe," because I haven't mentioned that story yet, even though I said I was going to use it "as evidence of a more capacious narrative tendency in Cadigan's work after 'Pretty Boy Crossover''."
8. She's Not There
As of today, I am one of Pat Cadigan's 2,351 Facebook friends. I have 345 Facebook friends. We have 71 mutual friends.
Pretty Boy like you, no friends?
Once this essay is published by Strange Horizons, I will be able to link to it from Facebook and Pat Cadigan might get an alert and then click over and glance at it.
He always loved to get the looks. To be watched, worshiped, pursued.
As far as I remember, I've never had any interactions with Pat Cadigan other than reading her fiction and keeping up with her status updates on Facebook.
Facebook feels like something from a Pat Cadigan story in the '80s. (Pat Cadigan, reading this, thinks, "Damn, I should have patented that idea!" I know this because I have an implant that lets me jack into Pat Cadigan's brain.)
(Pat Cadigan just unplugged me from her brain. I am lonely now, but I'll get over it. Thanks for your concern, friends. I like that you're concerned about me. Do you like that I like your concern?)
Or maybe it's not that Facebook feels so much like something from a Pat Cadigan story (not enough tarnished glitz), but that people on Facebook feel like people in a Pat Cadigan story, especially people we don't know very well. Like the guy who always posts the minutiae of his life. Why do we need to know that he's cutting his toenails? Why do we look at the 10-minute videos of his dog staring at him?
First you see video. Then you wear video. Then you eat video. Then you be video.
Maybe YouTube is more Cadiganian than Facebook. Is Pat Cadigan on YouTube?
Watch or be watched.
9. Worlds of Possibilities
There's a lot that could be said about sex, sexuality, and gender in Cadigan's stories. Take as an example "Roadside Rescue," first published in the July 1985 issue of Omni. It's a story of alien sex, or alien pleasure, really—of a human used for alien pleasure, with that alien's pleasure being the human voice. It's a story of rape, but, well, no, not quite, but yes, sort of, maybe, I don't know. The story is a bit too explicit for my tastes. Not explicit regarding sex, but explicit in its themes and meaning. Despite that flaw, a flaw that would sink a lesser writer's tale, it remains strange and unsettling.
And then there's gender ("Roadside Rescue" has fun with definitions and implications of the words sex and gender), a topic particularly useful for discovering some of the layers of implication within "Pretty Boy Crossover." Consider this:
Pretty Girls are too easy, they've got to be better than Pretty and besides, Pretty Boys like to be Pretty all alone, no help thank you so much. This Pretty Boy doesn't mind Pretty Girls or any other kind of girls.
There are Rude Boys in addition to Pretty Boys, and Pretty is not the same as pretty. And love's got nothing to do with it: "He can't remember in his whole sixteen years even hearing one person say, I love you my friend. Not Bobby, not even himself."
And then there's "Angel," in which the narrator has undisclosed intersex conditions that somehow don't allow any sort of sex life. We don't know whether this is for biological reasons or social ones, but I've got my suspicions, and the story's social setting becomes more frightening and more interesting if we assume nurture over nature in this case, and more meaningful.
There's a lot more that could be said about sex, sexuality, and gender in Cadigan's stories. But there's no need to make everything explicit.
10. The Power and the Passion
The alien in "Angel" has been exiled to Earth as punishment for not being willing to mate. He says,
I'm not sorry I wouldn't mate. I couldn't mate with my own. It was too . . . I don't know, too little of me, too much of them, something. I couldn't bond, it would have been nothing but emptiness. The Great Sin, to be unable to give, because the universe knows only less or more and I insisted that it would be good or bad.
"Angel" ends with the narrator heading off, alone, having been given the power to see other aliens and exiles:
I could find them all now, all the ones from the other places, other worlds that sent them away for some kind of alien crimes nobody would have understood. I could find them all. They threw away their outcasts, I'd tell them, but here, we kept ours. And here's how. Here's how you live in a universe that only knows less or more.
This passage seems to me the secret key to all of Cadigan, the jack into her head. What her stories do is just what the narrator of "Angel" seeks to do—they tell us how to live in a universe that only knows less or more.