‘We’re not in Munro country anymore’

Short fiction, genre, and the New Weird

Given their marginal place in today’s publishing world, one wonders if short stories are in danger of becoming an exotic and insular form of literary life. Separated from a larger breeding population in the cultural mainstream their development has begun to take on the characteristics of island biogeography, spawning giants, dwarves, and other freaks. Various labels have been forwarded to describe where this development has brought us. Slipstream, weird, and speculative fiction are among the current favourites for designating a mixture of genres—­predominantly science fiction (SF), fantasy, and supernatural horror—that resists categorization. Today’s weird fiction is even sometimes called the New Weird, as though the Old Weird had a firm enough meaning to have been outgrown.

Where does that leave literary or dramatic fiction? We don’t usually think of literary fiction as being a genre so much as what isn’t genre. It’s what’s left over after you’ve removed all of the stuff that’s easier to classify, even if only as weird. But one of the characteristics of weird or speculative fiction is that it is literary: more genre-inflected than the tall tales of magic realism or the ­experimentations of what remains of the avant-garde, but at the same time not the kind of thing for those who prefer to take their genre formulas and conventions neat. The weird is unfamiliar literary ground but it sets itself apart from mass market fiction by marking a convergence of SF and fantasy with experimental storytelling techniques and psychological depth. It’s a Janus-faced genre, drawing strength from both perspectives.

Nobody would mistake any of these new story collections by Canadian authors to be genre fiction, and yet in their pages, we travel as far afield as Mars and Saturn, and encounter trained dinosaurs, talking wolves, birds who turn into women, and people who receive text messages on their skin (“a testimony to the body’s weirdness”). To some extent genre is their subject matter, but the strangeness of the stories isn’t restricted to their dismantling and rearrangement of genre tropes. Obviously we’re not in Munro country anymore, but more than that what we see are the comfortably familiar structures of the short story being distorted in ways that drag us away from naturalism and toward a fragmentation and widening of the real.

A turn toward the exotic is immediately apparent in Erin Frances Fisher’s diverse debut collection That Tiny Life. Fisher’s stories take us, in order, to the Old West, Yellowknife and Inuvik, Revolutionary France, a fossil dig in Argentina, and a mining station on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons (the rest of the book is a more down-to-earth novella, set on a falcon farm).

These exotic destinations are used in ways that underline Fisher’s themes of escape and the struggle for self-understanding. No matter where we are there is no getting away from the constrained or tiny life of established roles and routines. While the settings are strange (or strange to most of us) they are also generic, in the sense of being identified with specific genres: western, historical fiction, SF. In this and other ways the weird becomes paradoxically domestic and familiar. It is on Earth as it is on Titan. There is, I think, a joking reference to this at the end of the title story when that eponymous icon of naturalistic fiction, the kitchen sink, makes an appearance while the narrator is “seated in the mud” of Saturn’s moon. She has come a long way to spend so much time thinking of home.

Johanna Skibsrud, who has developed into a writer to watch since winning the 2010 Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists, begins Tiger, Tiger in a similar way, with a scientist obsessing over the microscopic genetic remains of a long-extinct tiger in an SF-tinged story that turns out to really be about the familiar tensions that arise within a relationship. In the book’s later stories, however, the bonds of conventional narrative reality are loosened further as we go deeper into the weird.

“The Visit” gives us two boys, referred to only as the small boy and the tall boy, entering what may be a hotel room. At least it smells like a hotel room. There they discover, or slowly come to recognize, a man. The man speaks to them, but what does he say? This is a question the rest of the story worries over but never answers. The man’s words are slurred and we’re told they make little or no sense. The fragments that are related directly are hard to interpret, and while the man seems to want to explain himself further the boys aren’t listening. Then the boys leave.

Such a story seems like a riddle on how we set about constructing meaning out of the basic building blocks of narrative: voice, point-of-view, action and setting. But despite its oddness and obscurity, “The Visit” isn’t a difficult read. The action is clear, the language unambiguous. Fisher and Skibsrud visit the weird but are still writing a reader-friendly form of fiction.

With Paige Cooper’s Zolitude we enter a different space. To show the distance, here’s the first sentence to one of Skibsrud’s stories:

One day—long after the end of this world and into the beginning of the next—the director unlocked the gates to the first museum that had existed in nearly four thousand years, and the people streamed in.

Obviously we’re being introduced to a world far removed from our own, but it’s one we can still relate to. This is a sentence that is perfectly comprehensible on its own, and if Skibsrud were writing microfiction she could end things right here.

Now here are a couple of first sentences from two of Cooper’s stories:

The dream is its own reality, so I can’t be sure I’m awake until I walk into the office at eleven fifteen and see who’s at reception.

This view, I make explicit to the child, has shattered the unity through which I had thought I could extend my sovereignty to the bodies of my past.

None of this is self-explanatory, nor is it meant to be. Such openings are deliberately cryptic, cutting the ground out from beneath the reader’s feet. It’s impossible to tell what they might be getting at. We don’t know where these stories are going, and even when we finish reading them it can be hard to say where we’ve been.

“Record of Working,” for example, may be an SF fantasy about a group of male scientists employed at some kind of tropical research facility, but it’s never clear what it is they’re up to. The science is presented as bafflegab, and is quickly replaced anyway by references to some kind of archetypal quest to summon a mythic Elemental Woman.

As another story tells us, “If there’s a difference between science and mythology it’s not perceptible within the scan of human sense.” In the genre sense of the word, this is a very weird thing to say. Perhaps the scientists are going crazy, and perhaps they’re just another instance, of which there are many in Zolitude, of people coping with loss. But even if Cooper wrote in a more direct manner it would still be hard to fully piece together what is going on. Many of her stories could be “about” almost anything. They inhabit a twilight or border zone where we seem to have one foot in the real world and one in the weird, just like the title of the collection, which represents both a rather humdrum place (a residential district in Riga, Latvia) and a hallucinatory state of mind characterized by an aggrieved sense of loneliness.

Her indirection also highlights a movement in Cooper’s version of the weird away from the subject matter of the story and toward the weirdness of its telling. In a handy but not very helpful word, she is difficult, which is something that genre fiction never is. Cooper’s thorny style results in stories that demand re-reading, but at some point you have to recognize that there simply isn’t enough information provided to arrive at any final way of understanding them, any more than there is a way to know what it is the man in the hotel room says. The story isn’t going to tell.

If Cooper can leave us wondering what her stories are about, Maria Mutch in When We Were Birds steps even further into the weird. The canons of realism and naturalism are left behind and the line between science and mythology is, as Cooper forecasted, no longer perceptible within the scan of human sense.

Mutch’s theme is metaphor and the presiding spirit of her collection is Ovid singing of souls transformed to bodies new and strange. Her stories read like fragments of Angela Carter fairy tales (Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, and so on) that have been collected in collage or scrapbook form, interspersed with what I found to be random illustrations and some of the author’s own photography. As with Cooper there is a sense of simultaneity, of inhabiting several different realities at once: mythic and real, rational and imaginary, now and whenever (“time is layered and nonlinear” in a fairy tale, as Sleeping Beauty says).

Even more than Cooper, Mutch leaves it up to the reader to do most of the work of figuring out what her stories mean. Their fragmented nature adds to the impression of a puzzle dumped out of a box, with a note warning that there may be some missing pieces. You have to put it together—and don’t count on any help from the narrative voice. The narrator may be insane, and indeed in several stories there is enough information provided to feel confident that this is the case. Not that knowing this is of much help.

I mentioned before that to some extent fictional genres are the subject matter of the weird, and in each of these four books we can see the same eclectic borrowing, drawing on fantasy, western, SF, fairy tale, romance, and historical fiction. The weird is not a room of its own but a house of many mansions, and this employment and complication of generic tropes is something that’s essential to how it functions, which is through a combination of the familiar and the alien, the mass market and the literary, old forms taken in new directions.

This is not, however, an entirely new development. Even as the New Weird it has already been with us long enough to have given rise to an annual anthology of the best Canadian weird writing: the Imaginarium series published by ChiZine, whose fifth and final volume will be published later this year. And to see just one example of how this shared sensibility plays out in practice, take the Maria Mutch story I mentioned where a woman receives messages on her skin. This is a bizarre premise, but it’s one that is very similar to that of a Helen Marshall story from a few years back named “Sanditon” (from her collection Hair Side, Flesh Side) where a Jane Austen novel starts appearing on the heroine’s flesh. In ways like this, both general and specific, these four books can be seen as part of a larger trend. But what accounts for fiction taking off in such a strange direction?

In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books Martin Amis had this to say:

I think most writers are wedded to social realism, these days—social realism is the only genre left. And there’s been a contraction, as I was saying, of what you can expect from the reader. It’s not a conscious decision to cease to be as complex as you might once have been; it’s just going with the flow of things. It was Trilling, wasn’t it, who said we like complex books? The truth is, we may once have liked them, but we don’t anymore.

What Amis means, I think, is that social realism is the only literary genre left. To return to the analogy I began with, perhaps what each of the authors discussed here is attempting is an experiment in fictional crossbreeding, introducing the stronger commercial bloodlines of genre fiction into the weakening literary gene pool. It’s both a response to the marginal place short stories occupy in the marketplace and a way of bringing complexity back in through a side door. While the future direction of cultural evolution is impossible to predict, the resulting hybrids may be the most durable of our literature’s inheritors.