A short story collection, including:
- “The Pure Product” — Interesting, filled with some wonderful details, but confusing. In the future people will be much the same as they are now? Ok, but why go to such lengths? I don’t connect the implied meaning with the nihilism of the character.
- “Mrs. Shummel Exits a Winner” — Read this originally in Asimov’s, as well as re-read it in Kessel’s first solo novel, Good News from Outer Space. Wonderful story, about not necessarily wanting what one wishes for.
- “The Big Dream” — I haven’t read the “post-modern” classics, like Donald Barthelme, John Barth, or Robert Coover. What I tend to term “post-modern” may not match up with the generally accepted use, so I’ll define the way I see it here post-modern fiction is about itself, or, more generally, about fiction itself. This may leave the door open for works before 1960, for example, Tristram Shandy? Gargantua and Pantagruel? In any case, this story by Kessel fits my definition–it revolves around Raymond Chandler–the real RC? I’m not sure, not knowing anything about his personal life. But it definitely is loaded with criticism of his work. Maybe that’s the “fuller” definition of post-modern it’s fiction that criticizes fiction. I like it, but I can see where it might have a limited audience. Most people read a story for the story; some people read a story for what it might mean; only writers and critics read a story about a story. Kessel could probably have written this as straight criticism of the non-fiction type (maybe he has?), but I found this style much more fun. (Is William Goldman’s The Princess Bride post-modern? A criticism of fantasy tropes? Hmmmm.)
- “The Lecturer” — This one isn’t post-modern, yet it has that same feeling of criticism as “The Big Dream.” Here, Kessel as professor is criticizing teaching, whereas, in “The Big Dream,” it was Kessel as writer criticizing writing. SF as criticism is nothing new; most utopia/dystopia fiction deals in implied, if not overt, criticism. The difference that Kessel brings to it is that he doesn’t even attempt to answer the criticism. For him, the point is to point out the problems.
- “Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine” — This is the powerful kind of character driven SF that made Kessel’s reputation (and Asimov’s SF, as well, under the editors Shawna McCarthy and Gardner Dozois). A simple idea erasing memories. The flip side of Phil Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” But why would someone want to erase a memory, and what if the trouble went deeper than memory? Emotional, yet logical. A wonderful story.
- “Faustfeathers” — I believe this is the lone original story to this volume, which is not quite true, because a version of this is in the wonderful Kessel/Kelly collaboration, Freedom Beach. Basically, this is a humor piece–and what a piece, but not a peace, it is. Faust is played by Groucho Marx. Chico and Harpo are hired by the villain to get evidence that Faust is in league with the fiend; Zeppo is Faust’s “favorite” student. And then there’s Helen…. Simply imagine the story of Doctor Faustus as a Marx brother’s movie and you won’t be far off. I’m glad to see this here. When NOVA Express interviewed Kessel in 1988 (was it that long ago?), we expressed an interest in publishing this story, but never got past the purely talking part. Ever since Kessel told me about this tale, I’ve been anxious to read it. It was well worth waiting for.
- “A Clean Escape” — Aiee! Oh, well…here’s another story about someone with Korasov’s Syndrome, done very well and interesting reading. In fact, this reminded me a lot of the best of Phil Dick’s work. Why I screamed is because I’ve been working on a story related to someone with Korasov’s, and when I workshopped it, one of the things that kept coming up was “I read a story similar to this wherein….” I guess this type of disease is tempting to the SF writer. If you would like to be tempted, too, the best place I’ve found that talks about disorders of this type is Dr. Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (Actually, I think the appeal of these disorders goes even farther than SF writers–there was an opera based on Sack’s book a couple of years back.)
- “Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!” — Okay, you can take this literally–like 60s SF (and 70s, and some of the rest, as well), this may be the future, but it’s not the future that is probable, nor possible. Okay, so let’s read it as allegory, and that’s where it works. It’s not John Milton (Thank, God), and it can be read straight (although I think if you read it only straight it wouldn’t be much of a story). I think this style of SF is fading, being replaced by the even more fantastic style of people like James Morrow. This was Kessel’s first published story, and has aged fairly well. (Kessel later told me that this wasn’t actually his first published story, although it was very early. He said that most of his first published works “have, happily, never been reprinted.”)
- “Man” — Whoa. Another powerful story, this one on the order of “Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine.” This is the new SF style–the style of the 90s? Basically, something weird occurs (it starts raining fish, the dead rise, penii detach, strange animals appear) and while this is recognized by the characters as something different, they do not panic. Roll with the changes, don’t rock the boat. Maybe it will go away. The important thing is not the change, but how the characters are affected by change itself, individually as well as in groups. Here, a man moves into the protagonist’s basement, as if the man was a rat or termites, yet not, because he also can interact with the characters. Getting rid of him by killing him is one accepted solution, yet the protagonist can’t bring himself to do it–not because he considers it murder, but for a more undefinable reason (ennui?). Then the situation is compounded. I also sensed a vague autobiographical nature to the story, but I may be reading to much into it (that’s always the danger of readers thinking a story is about you the writer, rather than the characters).
- “Invaders” — Another piece of meta-fiction. Three separate settings, yet interconnected. One, the Spanish invasion of the Incas. Two, Kessel in the now. Three, the future, where aliens invade the earth like the Spanish invaded the Incas (well, not quite, but the effect is the same). This is a comment piece, underlined by Kessel’s straight- to-the-reader essay section. Again, this is as much about science fiction as it is science fiction. Whether or not you agree with Kessel, it makes for interesting reading.
- “Judgement Call” — Like “Mrs. Shummel Exits a Winner,” I read this when previously published and also as part of Kessel’s novel. It is an interesting story, about truth, and honor, and ethics. Excellent.
- “Buddha Nostril Bird” — Well, I don’t get it. I like the weird societal set-up, especially Athenian (Socrates, Protagoras), vaguely buddhist (the Zen like proverbs, the ending). Yet the events do not take shape for me. I’m as lost at the end as I was at the beginning– that’s vaguely Zen-like, isn’t it? (John Kessel later commented that “[this story] is a personal fave that most people don’t like, an assault on Alan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) that I plotted using the I Ching like Phil Dick did The Man in the High Castle.”)
[Finished 6 October 1993]