Black Juice

black juiceAfter I’ve had a bad experience with an author, it’s rare that I’ll return to read more. The world is so full of a number of things, it takes a lot of persuasion to convince me that I just read a bad example of whoever-it-is and what I’d really appreciate is this other example. Back in 2010, I read Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, on the strong advice of Ana and Eva, and while I found the writing strong and the fairy-tale structure appealing, I was deeply uneasy with the book’s tone, theme, and message. The more I considered it, the less I liked it. Still, I’d read such good reviews of Lanagan’s other work, particularly her short story collection, Black JuiceAna and Eva again, and Nic from Eve’s Alexandria — that I thought I would give it a try.

These stories are not like much you could label. Lanagan takes tiny slices of other worlds, times, and perspectives, and spins striking moments out of them. Her prose is very striking and vivid, and her talent for world-building is nothing short of astonishing in the compressed space of a short story. Even when she glosses over history or religion or societal roles, I had the sense that there was more to be had if I asked the right questions or went around the right corner.

That said, these stories are mostly about that world-building, with a nice dollop of Striking Big Event. In the first story, for instance, “Singing My Sister Down,” we’re placed right in the middle of a society that does executions by letting the criminal sink slowly, feet-first, into a tar pit. The criminal this time, Ik (we are never told precisely what she did, but hints about a marriage and an axe handle and killing love suggest a reaction to domestic abuse, swaying our sympathies), has her family around her as she sinks, singing and feeding her cakes and crab and other treats. It’s a little like a party, or it would be if there were no watchers from the bank, ensuring that justice is done; it would be if Ik weren’t dead at the end.

In “Yowlinins,” another very striking story, we’re set down in a society that has recently faced a huge natural disaster, with the possibility of a recurrence at any moment. Lanagan lets us glimpse the way society has tried to re-form itself around the same class lines and other exclusionary tactics, despite the glaring need to work together across boundaries, and then she whisks us away, leaving us with a handful of dialect and a lot of vivid mental images that I, for one, could have done without.

There are a number of these sorts of stories. They take you away from the usual, and show you a picture of something new; something happens in each of them that has never happened before (a demonic angel appears; a second, “thick” son calls down spring from the gods of the wind). And in Lanagan’s lovely writing, it would be easy to miss that nothing much happens in these stories to change the characters. At the end of each one, the characters are still just where they were: if they were sympathetic before, they still are. If they were judgmental or nasty or simple before, they still are. The huge event that occurred has changed nothing, occasioned no hard questions, created no shift in a family dynamic. I can imagine this happening later, or off scene, but Lanagan tells us nothing about it.

The one exception to this is “Red Nose Day,” which consequently is the best, and the most shocking of the eleven stories in the collection. It opens with juvenile soldiers chatting nervously while their targets come out of a building. When they finally exit, “they are so close, I could see the sweat beading through their pancake.” They are clowns.

Lanagan walks a careful line in this story between horror and the absurd. She shows us (again, in her excellent world-building) a society where clowns are at the top of the social hierarchy, but it’s all perpetuated on the basis of child abuse — clowns get their pick of children from the state orphanages. A small, guerrilla army is fighting back, and these two adolescents are picking off their targets without mercy.

Without mercy, that is, until one of the soldiers recognizes two of the victims. Then he changes (in a brilliant and horrifying scene), and the other soldier changes as well, understanding his own role in a chosen community, his role as an outsider/insider, and what he may choose as his future. This story is really quite weird, and in giving its characters a chance to change, it shows what Lanagan could do. For the most part, however, I found these stories vivid but ultimately unsatisfying; I wanted to get further and deeper in.

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5 Responses to Black Juice

  1. Swistle says:

    I’ve almost stopped reading short stories entirely because of this basic issue: they feel like reading one chapter of a book, or watching one episode of a TV series. I always want MORE of the story.

    I read one collection, I think by Jeffery Deaver, where he says (and I’m remembering this from probably 5 years ago, so my recollection may be OFF by a bit) that the good thing about short stories from the author’s point of view is that there isn’t the same contract with the reader: there’s no requirement, for example, to leave the protagonist alive at the end, or to give the reader all the information before hitting them with a surprise. And I HAVE found that horror (or sometimes science fiction, but not usually) short stories fall into a different category for me, I think because of this.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi Swistle! Nice to see you around here.

      I should start this out by saying I do like short stories, and I read them frequently. However, I think there are a very few geniuses (Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor come to mind, but there are a few others) who can put the satisfaction of a novel into a short story. Most short stories, though, don’t do this; however good they are, they’re either bits of razzle-dazzle or, as in the case with horror, punches to the gut that let you forget that not much characterization or real change is happening.

      My opinion is that if you want to enjoy most short stories, you’ve got to read them for what they are — like eating nuts because you want a snack, not a full meal, and enjoying the nuts because they make a good snack. Occasionally you’ll find an author who serves the full meal in the snack package, but it’s not that common.

  2. Swistle says:

    Reading over my comment, I think I need to finish that thought, which is that it sounds to me as if this collection would not fall into that different category, but would instead give me my usual dissatisfied/unfulfilled feeling.

  3. Strong recommendations from the blogosphere notwithstanding, I haven’t been able to pick up Margo Lanagan’s books (so far). I just think they sound like books that would exhaust me with their themes and content. :/

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t like Tender Morsels. But you might possibly like Black Juice, I’m not sure. I’ve come to terms over the years with the fact that, as much as I would like it to be true, and much as I ADORE your blog, you and I do not have allllll the same tastes in books. The stories are shiny and interesting, but they didn’t do much for me? Ana liked em, fwiw. :)

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