Brit Mandelo at Tor.com reviews Before and Afterlives

And another great review for Before and Afterlives comes in. This one from Brit Mandelo at Tor.com. Brit takes the collection and analyzes it in depth, by way of three particular stories that display three very different styles or approaches I take in my writing. Being able to perceive something like that is particularly available for a reader to notice in a single author, full length collection that spans a decade of a writer’s stories. Which is why I love short story collections. There’s a breadth of vision to story collections, rather than the depth of the immersive experience novels tend to provide. 

In any case, here’s a bit of what Brit has to say. But you should really click over to read the entire piece:

“What We Know About the Lost Families of ——- House” is in the vein of a gothic. It has a haunted house, grim family secrets, incest, murder, and most of the other accoutrements. Barzak, though, takes the typical gothic and twists it by giving the narrative through a communal voice: a voice that represents the town itself, the people who make it up and who have observed ——- House’s history. In a move familiar from Barzak’s other stories, which are often densely and carefully constructed, this piece relies on strong, detail-oriented prose with an engaging voice; however, it also relies on the audience’s familiarity with the tropes of the genre to offer a different avenue of exploration.

The story is not told from the point of view of the young woman who marries into the House to communicate with its ghosts, as I’ve mentioned before, so it’s not a typical gothic. Moreover, and more interestingly, though the town’s communal narrative is concerned with rescuing her by the end and with telling us her story as if it’s tragic, it’s impossible to read it the way the townspeople want us to. Their patronizing tone, their willful ignorance and their excuses, render the reader unable to sympathize with their point of view entirely, so we cannot believe or support everything that they do or say. As with the underbelly of resentment, neighborly knowledge, and gossip in any small town, the town in which ——- House is located is conflicted, uneasy, and often judgmental. (Of course, considering the ending, they are perhaps not entirely wrong to want to burn the House to the ground.) This sense of play with form and with tropes is common to Barzak’s short fiction.

And, of course, so are the ghosts: Barzak’s fantastic work is often concerned with the strangeness that lies just outside of everyday life. In Before and Afterlives, as the title implies, there are many sorts of hauntings, not merely of houses and not all of them unpleasant. There is a resonance to these pieces about death and lingering, or about leaving and loss, or all of the above, that makes them quite memorable—just as much as the generic experimentation and the investment in telling different-but-familiar stories with rich characters and settings…

On the other hand, “Plenty” is a different sort of story, one that represents another thread in Barzak’s body of work. It’s set contemporarily, it deals with economic impoverishment, the decay of industrialism, and the fantastic alongside one another, and it offers—more than a plot, though it has one of those too—a developmental arc or moment in a person’s life. “Plenty” and other stories like it in this collection are, in a word, intimate. They are character driven, observational, and often the narrative arc serves a greater provocative emotional arc. In this piece, where friends come apart and together based on differences in their personalities and life choices, a fantastical table that makes feasts—but only for someone so generous as to want to give them away—helps the protagonist to see what he had been unable or unwilling to see about his good friend’s inner nature. The other man is able to reconsider his own distant friend’s apparent selfishness through his gift of the table, his willingness to part with it and to keep its secret for the betterment of the suffering community. (Put like that, it’s almost a parable.)

These characters and their realistic, unfortunate misunderstandings and misapprehensions are the focus of the tale. When Barzak is studying people, telling us their stories, his work is powerful; these stories incite a great deal of consideration about others, their needs, and the functions of living in a world where industrialism in the West is decaying and whole cities are ground under by poverty. Barzak’s background in an Ohio city of similar experience adds a distinct level of solidity to many of the stories set in or around that milieu, and offers the reader a glimpse into the sort of survival that those places require…

Before and Afterlives reveals a series of confluences and concerns in his short fiction, and as such, works remarkably well as a coherent collection. It’s a thoughtful, pleasant, and lingering sort of book: many stories, many lives, and many deaths to consider—as well as how these things, and the people that power them, intersect and reflect reality in a fantastical mirror.

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James Sallis reviews Before and Afterlives

Something really amazing came in this week: a review of my collection by James Sallis, in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

When I say it’s something amazing, I mean it. Because, man, I have never read a review that was written so eloquently and with its own poetic energy to it like this one.

And on top of that, it’s a great review of my collection, bookended with reviews of Kij Johnson’s latest collection and George Saunders’. Great company to be in!

In any case, I received permission from the publisher to show a decent chunk of the review here on my blog. I’m still bright-eyed from reading a review like this, by someone who reads really closely. This excerpt is the main body of the review for my book, but there are other bits in the whole review, which I’ll link to once it goes up on the magazine’s website:

Boxes, black or not, come in every imaginable size and shape. And there’s that word again. Imaginable. Imagination. Image.

     “Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. […] Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling sensation that grows to feel like fire. As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. […] I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.”

“A Resurrection Artist” is a story that wears its subtext like a second skin just beneath the first, something that might be said of many of the stories collected here in Before and Afterlives. Are they about haunted houses, the death of a classmate one hardly knew, a world in which mermaids wash up so regularly on the beach that the police have clear procedures to deal with them? Yes. But for all their high fantasy and somber tones, the stories speak clearly and directly about straightforward things — verities, daily struggles, and choices. Like going on.

     And they move, forever restless, forever reaching.

     He has a taste for blurriness, Christopher Barzak has said in interviews, for stories that change shape as you read them, for writing fiction that skates around various genres, sometimes going straight through their territories, other times just around the edges, and oftentimes starting out in one kind of story and ending up in another.

     “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House,” the social history of a haunted house, abounds with the stories of those who inhabited it and with finely wrought sentences such as “And Jonas’s father, the gun cracking his life open like a pocket watch, to let all of the time spill out of him.”

     Much as Kij Johnson’s “Fox Magic” led to her novel The Fox Woman, Barzak’s “Dead Boy Found” later grew up to become his novel One for Sorrow. Part coming-of-age story, part the portrait of a dissolving family, part ghost story, it recreates for us the far-reaching effect of a boy’s murder on a fifteen year-old classmate barely managing to hold himself together, tugged this way then that, in the flash and tamped-down fury he sees about him.

     Another begins, “There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.”

     Like Kij Johnson’s, Christopher Barzak’s stories do not take the shapes we anticipate; they continuously mutate, changing as our eyes move down the page, as language doubles back to catch its breath, as a comma pauses to hook its tail into a sentence. And dense as they are — “Dead Boy Found” spins from a domestic argument to the mother’s paralysis in an auto accident, to discovery of the murdered child, to the haunting of the girl who found the body, to Adam’s own unsettling encounter with dead Jamie, then flashes forward to what his life will be — the stories unfold easily, nary a bump in the road.

     Determined that something undeniable and nontrivial will happen to the reader.