Two Views: The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories by Kit Reed
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid and Chris Kammerud
24 April 2013
What is wrong with this picture?
In 1959, Kit Reed was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for New Author (she lost out to No Award). It is the only time she has ever appeared on a Hugo ballot.
Other than that, she has been shortlisted once for a World Fantasy Award, once for an International Horror Guild Award, once for a Shirley Jackson Award, and three times for a Tiptree Award. She has won none of them. Her appearances in the various best of the year anthologies are similarly scarce.
Yet in any discussion of the best genre writers working today, her name is almost certain to come up.
Why is there this disconnect? Why is her work so regularly praised, yet so rarely in receipt of the various honours given out to genre fiction? This superb retrospective collection (it contains 35 stories ranging in date from 1958 to 2013) might provide a few clues.
The first thing you notice is that though there are one or two out-and-out fantasies, a couple of startling science fictions, and a few elegant mainstream stories, most of the stories here occupy an indeterminate hinterland. They are mainstream stories that suggest something horrific or have an atmosphere of the fantastic, or they are genre stories where our attention is drawn to the mainstream virtues of characterisation or language. And though there are certain recurring themes and tropes, which I'll come to shortly, there isn't the sense of ploughing a familiar furrow, which is often what it takes to attract a popular following. Quite the opposite, in fact; Reed is a restless writer constantly picking up and discarding new genre tricks or trying out different voices, different approaches.
And if her approach to writing does not permit facile recognition, what she does in her stories is very carefully judged to unsettle the reader. She is the only writer I know who is as comfortable as Steven Millhauser using the first person plural narrative voice: we observed, we thought, we did. It is a distancing device that makes us part of a mob rather than allowing us to identify with an individual. In "Special," for instance, a famous writer moves to "the last unspoiled village on the Hudson" (p. 366) and the plural voice allows us to share in the contradictory responses of local society, anxious to attract her attention but without actually approaching her, wanting to be drawn into her circle without ever actually liking her. It is a subtle portrait in which vivid characters emerge briefly from the chorus only to be absorbed back into the mass again. That sense of multiple responses to the same situation keeps recurring. In "Songs of War," for instance, we watch a women's army forming on the outskirts of town, growing as more and more women from the town are drawn to it, and then disintegrating. But our viewpoint shifts constantly from committed activists to sceptical outsiders, from those who see the army as a bit of an adventure to those who see it as a desperately needed corrective to the humdrum nature of their lives, from those who support the army unquestioningly to those who oppose it viscerally. The story (which has a distinct flavour of Carol Emshwiller about it) has nothing to do with whether the army wins or loses. In the end, though women are drawn to the cause, men bring superior firepower to bear, but that really isn’t what this is about. The point is summed up, for me, late in the piece when one of the characters "suspected that they had come up against the human condition [and] failed to recognize it" (p. 285). That failure of recognition runs throughout the collection, and it is most vividly dramatized by moving us from one viewpoint to another, by showing a multitude rather than an individual.
Such multiple voices have, of course, a distancing effect that frustrates simple identification. Engagement may, therefore, be less likely, but that is precisely the point. In the story that opens the collection, "Denny," the story is told in turn by Denny, a bemused, frustrated teenager; his mother, who still sees him as he was when he was a baby and who marks his birthday with a cake in the shape of a bunny because it pleased him when he was two; and his father, who is so disturbed by his reticent, goth son that he keeps reading up about Columbine-type shootings. By presenting the three different voices we see the inevitable rush towards tragedy not as a fault on the part of any of the participants but simply as a consequence of their failure to recognise the human condition.
Families crop up regularly in these stories, and they are always prime examples of people not communicating. In "How It Works," a daughter's distrust of her mother's new boyfriend is complicated by the fact that neither she nor her mother can talk to each other. In "The Wait," the earliest story in the collection, and one that clearly shows the influence of Shirley Jackson, a young girl finds herself trapped within the arcane rituals of a small southern town when her mother falls ill, but central to the story is the fact that the pair cannot communicate. Families, by their very nature, push people so close against each other that we fail to see the necessary differences, a failure that is regularly a source of horror in these stories, perhaps most notably in "Family Bed." In this story every member of a large family shares the same bed as an outward display—taken up by newspapers, television, the public—that they are the perfect family, but gradually the eldest daughter begins to discover imperfections, leading to a grim conclusion.
The title of one of the shorter stories here, "The Weremother," succinctly illustrates the transformations wrought by family. In "High Rise High," for instance, we are presented with a combination of high rise tower block and high security prison that serves as a school for children who are considered too disruptive, too frightening to be a part of normal society. As in "Denny," the old cannot comprehend the young, and so react with fear and anger. Inevitably, the children riot, take hostages, turn their prison into a fortress. As in so many of Reed's stories, our viewpoint shifts restlessly across a large cast of characters, the kids who are part of the revolt and those who aren't, the teachers held hostage, the agent who infiltrates the school, the ex-army janitor making his own secret plans, the forces of the establishment organising a counter-attack. In among all of this, and there is a huge amount going on in this elaborately structured yet tightly controlled story, one of the incidental vignettes shows the mothers of the children who were once only too happy to shut away their troublesome and frightening teenagers, but who now move en masse to protect their children. It is a story full of contradictions and misunderstandings; it is also one of the most highly coloured pieces in the book, building in a series of vivid clashes and dramatic set pieces. But it doesn’t reach the bloody climax that we might anticipate; rather, as Reed says: "most things in life as we know it aren’t resolved in fireworks or car crashes or explosions, instead they happen simply or accidentally or capriciously; they are settled out of fatigue or ennui or sheer boredom" (p. 97). In this, a sensibility that we find throughout the collection, there is perhaps another clue to why Reed hasn't found herself on so many genre award ballots. Her stories don't provide the widescreen baroque thrills that we tend to associate with genre fiction, but rather generate a subtle dis-ease, and they lead to endings where the wildest events seem to collapse back into a sort of status quo ante. But you find yourself asking, uneasily, what is really going to happen once the curtain comes down.
Reed's stories are full of a sense of aftermath that isn't always made explicit in the work itself. "On the Penal Colony," a story of prisoners forced to play parts in an historic recreation, suggests a violent climax, but if so it happens off screen. "Incursions"—which begins in typical but telling manner: "Lives go to pieces incrementally, not all at once, although it may take some of us a while to notice" (p. 326)—describes an ordinary but dissatisfied man called Dave who gets off a commuter train one morning at an unscheduled stop and finds himself in a house filled with other men called Dave who all walked out of their lives in similar fashion. In the end, Dave returns in search of the railway line; he is returning to something but we really can’t be sure what that something might be. There is an echo of the same scenario in "Pilots of the Purple Twilight" when women gather at the Miramar hotel waiting for their menfolk to return from war, but we gradually realise that the men have marched off to all the different wars of the twentieth century, and the women still wait. We wonder, by the end, how the women might react if their men actually did return, but we don't know.
It should be obvious by now that there is no simple way of talking about Kit Reed's fiction. There are recurring themes and images. For instance, both "Wherein We Enter the Museum" and "The Outside Event" present writing as a competitive endeavour, in which success is due to the last one standing rather than any actual talent. Both have a suggestion of violence that is never entirely explicit, both are satirical in tone, yet they are very different stories and the repetition we see here is not to be found in any of the other stories. There are lost people, completely outside of society, in both "Weston Walks," in which they live below New York's Central Park, and in "The Legend of Troop 13" where a troop of Girl Guides has gone missing on a mountain close to an observatory, but again these are treated very differently, and the resonances do not sound throughout the rest of the collection. In the end, there is no readily identifiable Kit Reed story; these stories are united simply by being superbly realised, vividly written, and decidedly unsettling. Whatever else they are, these are not comforting stories, but they do constitute one of the most compelling collections you are likely to read this year.
A father calls his four daughters home to take apocalyptic, miniaturized refuge within the warm confines of an alligator. A were-mother struggles with the devouring nature of her love. In New York a giant baby terrorizes Manhattan. Hidden in the mountains, a group of women engage in revolution and, in the end, struggle as much with their own self-imposed limitations as they do with the oppressions of their society. Kit Reed's stories confront us again and again with the prisons of human existence—guilt, love, family, sex, gender. Her narratives turn on how her characters respond—revolution or acceptance? Delusion or daring escape?
Kit Reed was born in San Diego, California in 1938. She moved around a lot as a kid. Her father was a submarine commander who died in World War II. Perhaps this has something to do with why so many of her stories feature characters dislocated in body or soul, searching for a home, for something real and lasting. A dislocation marks the stories themselves, too, their varying styles, perspectives, and content having led to their appearance in venues ranging from The Yale Review to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Reed likes to refer to herself as "trans-genred." Much of Gary K. Wolfe's introduction to this new collection of stories, The Story Until Now, remarks on how her writing lives in the "interstices between various fictional categories." He likens her "acerbic sensibility and finely tuned prose" to Thomas M. Disch (p. x). In her penchant for mordant absurdism—in one story, a kitschy historical village doubles as horrific prison for the town's convicts—she serves as a forerunner to the likes of George Saunders, another writer whose stories fall between the streams of lit and spec.
Reed spent the early part of her career writing for newspapers like The St. Petersburg Times and The New Haven Register. The perspectives of some of her short stories resemble that of an omniscient reporter, bouncing from mind to mind, examining all the angles, digging for different stories, different truths. Her prose often rat-a-tats in the way of a wise-ass war journalist who has embedded themselves deep behind enemy lines. It's a cocktail mixed with equal parts immersion and detachment, splashed with grotesquerie, bitterness, and wonder. In one story, "the lemon eyes" of a nightmarish dog "glimmer like paired moons" (p. 190). In, "Sisohpromatem," a reversal of Kafka's Metamorphosis, Joseph Bug, a cockroach, wakes up as a human being. "Gone was my crowning beauty; gone was the brave carapace which had glittered in the dim light" (p. 224).
For Reed, war is a thing neither literal nor metaphorical, so much as omnipresent. Most of her stories deal with one larger battle, or another, some endless struggle that builds, tears, and cages her characters’ identities. One finds in The Story Until Now a thick catalogue of war: between sexes, between genders, between artists, between generations. Sons killing fathers. Writers poisoning other writers. Sisters eating the meat of dead men. Soldiers devouring death itself. Reed's stories project an exuberant sort of cynicism—so exuberant as to be, at times, nearly romantic. The titular marine in "The Singing Marine" finds himself trapped in a melody of blood and death that he can't quite place, and can't quite stop singing, for no reason, for every reason. The notes of his subconscious lift and burden him. He tells a woman, in a break between songs, "I was born of blood and violence. If you can't handle either, you don't want me sitting with you." When she asks what he's singing, he says, "It sings me" (p. 186). Searching for himself, for treasure, for a way out of the song that sings him, the marine enters a labyrinth of three lemon-eyed dogs. He exits into a narrative where still "his heart is breaking and the song he sings will not stop singing itself." The only way out from the song that is who he is, "the song of love and death and rebirth and violence," is death (pp. 195-6).
In "High Rise High," Special Agent Betsy, aged 25-35, grabs a scrunchy, dyes her hair day-glo green, pops a wad of chewing gum in her mouth. She goes undercover 21 Jump Street-style in order to infiltrate High Rise High, a cliffside school cum citadel in the midst of revolt. High School is a prison. Adults are the jailers. The story punches gleefully through every high school and movie clichè—prom nerves, gym humiliation, drama geeks. Special Agent Betsy, a veteran of Attica, a policer officer's orphan, struggles in her assignment to infiltrate and overthrow the revolution. She calls herself Trinket and finds herself bound, imprisoned, in her own act, her rising popularity, her traitorous heart. She falls in love with the teenaged revolution's leader, a boy named Johnny. She thinks if she had a diary she would write, "They really like me. And Johnny. Johnny likes me" (p. 86).
In "Songs of War," a pillar of smoke rises from the mountains beyond suburbia. It's the mid-1970s. A group of women have gathered to discuss the "vagaries of life, and women's condition." They wonder, "why [aren't] any of them happy?" (p. 257). Sally Hall, one of many women, of many housewives, feels the pull of the smoke, the distant flame on their horizon, "thinking wistfully of campfire camaraderie, of everybody marching together in common cause . . . dreaming of revolution" (p. 255). As in many of her stories, Reed floats among several viewpoints. Beyond Sally, she visits Patsy, a young upstart who falls in love with a man named Andy, as well as Sheena, a leader out for blood, and June, a bedraggled housewife who, alas, gets tasked with kitchen duty in the revolution. Sally Hall joins the revolution, eventually. She finds it inevitable, sad, and confusing. She loves her husband. Her children. She wishes things were better. Here's how she puts it:
Sally was drawn toward home but at the same time, looking around at the disparate women and their growing discontent, she knew she ought to stay on until the revolution had put itself in order. The women were unable to agree what the next step should be, or to consolidate their gains, and so she met late into the night with Sheena, and walked around among the others. She had the feeling that she could help, that whatever her own circumstance, the others were so patently miserable she must help. (p. 275)
The remarkable ambivalence towards war, revolution, and freedom in "Songs of War" is characteristic of Reed. Revolutions and movements (feminism, among others) tend to demand a united front. They obliterate the self sometimes as much as the oppression being fought against. The struggle for freedom becomes, perhaps demands, a kind slavery. The prisons that trap us best, and perhaps we most need to escape, usually end up being prisons we’ve absorbed, or built, within ourselves—believing them to be necessary or natural. In the struggles of women, of children, of parents, of soldiers, Reed explores both the need to rebel and the need to be safe. The need to escape and the need to find ourselves. For her part, Reed seems to have spent spent her writing life not caring too much for the limitations of one genre or another. One venue or another. One time or another. The Story Until Now is organized not chronologically, but thematically, so that one is surprised, at times, to see that a seemingly modern sensibility was penned in 1962. She writes, she says, what she writes. It's all of one piece.
One of Reed's characters thinks, "I know in my heart that people make their lives what they want them" (p. 289). And of course this is true. And of course it isn't. What Reed has done so well in the stories collected here is to draw out that contradictory truth, leading us into a maze at once comforting and disorienting, letting us see how people, in the end, are on their own, blessed and cursed with the power to imprison or free themselves—and yet, and yet, how can you free yourself within a society that imprisons you? How can you free yourself from the prison you call home? It's a forever war if there ever was one, and Kit Reed is one of the better war correspondents we've got.