After 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 Juice — Ana 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.