Write Down Everything You See: Reading Molly Gloss
Observation is the central conceit of Molly Gloss's "The Grinnell Method," a story published in two parts by Strange Horizons in 2012. The narrative begins with an unnamed character, a naturalist, returning to a campsite after a winter away and continues as she spends the season there, observing the birds' spring migrations, and observing, too, a strange storm and its aftereffects. The title refers to an ornithologist's method of note-taking, involving a notebook and a journal. The notebook is kept on hand at all times and contains the quick notes and sketches taken down during a day's walk. The Journal -- capitalized in this case -- is the expansion of those notes and drawings, made legible and comprehensible at the end of the day before bed. The ostensible purpose is identification and discovery, but as used by Gloss it becomes as much about taking in the world. At one point, the naturalist gives a young girl named Alice a notebook of her own and tells her, "write down everything you see, everything in nature, any animals you see, what the weather is and what the plants are doing..." At home, the naturalist says, she has two shelves filled with her own notebooks -- filled with the world.
I've been a fan of Gloss since I stumbled across her novel The Dazzle of Day in the local library's science fiction and fantasy section. The cover had a gorgeous depiction of a stylized sunrise, with an earthlike planet in place of the sun, and a massive blurb from speculative fiction goddess, Ursula K. Le Guin. Though I went on to read several other novels by Gloss, The Dazzle of Day has remained a favorite for its beautiful combination of the what-if of hard (or hard-ish) science fiction and the what-if of social science fiction. The brilliance of Gloss's writing, whether devoted to the Quaker residents of a colony spaceship, as in The Dazzle of Day, or a single naturalist in the Pacific Northwest, as in "The Grinnell Method," lies in her sinking into daily life, taking in the world as the note-taking method describes. She finds the story in the regular pulse of life, letting it come out in the feel of overcast skies, wind cutting across cheeks, stones slipping under boots.
A few months ago, in the second of these columns, I mentioned Viktor Shklovsky's idea of enstrangement (ostraniene) which, in its various translations, has been taken on by some fantasy theorists as a useful term to talk about fantasy. It also represents much of what I look for in what I read, whether or not explicitly fantastic: that moment of story or description (or music or art) that by jolting me out of my normal place in the world forces me to look around with new eyes, to stare longer than I would have otherwise, and thus pushes me deeper into the world. Like most powerful experiences, it is difficult to put into words, and perhaps impossible for someone who hasn't experienced it to fully understand. The best I can do is point to those works that push me and hope that they push others, too. The Dazzle of Day and "The Grinnell Method" are two of those works and they do so through a narrative observation that the shorter work comments on directly, with its observant narrator and discussion of notebooks and journals.
These observations aren't indiscriminate. In The Dazzle of Day, the observation is focused on how people live in concert with their world, whether on a spaceship or on an alien planet. For the main character of "The Grinnell Method," the world is made visible through its birds. Her way of seeing is made clear in the opening, in which she surveys the mess left in her camp by those who made use of it while she was away -- hunters and soldiers. Her first action is to look over the feathers left in the fire-pit "to reassure herself they were largely from pintail ducks and black brant." She is contrasted with the hunters and soldiers not so much because she values life while they kill, but because she worries they wouldn't differentiate between birds that could be eaten, whereas she sees the birds through the details of coloring, type, and whether they are common or rare.
Behind the naturalist's plovers and wigeons, Gloss's precise descriptions reveal the world as we know it, or at least a version of our world from when the U.S. was at war with Japan and a woman had to be better than all the men in order to be recognized (let's pretend that this is past). She gives us a world of salt marsh and scrub, pintail ducks and oystercatchers. And then, in the midst of that recognizable world, she begins to slip in what is unrecognizable:
The small bits she had collected from the wind-roughened puddles were not feather, as she had thought, but something like flakes of ash or thin scales of paint, blue to her eye, even now in daylight, but colorless under the lens -- motes as clear and insubstantial as breath. She wrote, I do not know what they are.
At the same time as finding the ash, the naturalist finds dead birds scattered across the beach, their air sacs holding a dark, viscous liquid that isn't oil. She writes, "death from obstruction of the airway? Or from causes unknown." The inexplicable weaves through the explicable as a glittering thread, remaining unknown even as it becomes more visible, shifting from the subtle to the obvious, from the curious to the wondrous. By resisting that desire to understand, the narrative pushes me deeper into an awareness of the world, particularly of the gaps in what I know, the chasms between walls around me, the lacuna beyond the roads I travel. In the narrative, people attempt to identify and categorize the unknown, layering it with feelings of loss and hope. Nevertheless, it remains alien -- a dark gash against the sky.