November 2014

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Tall Tales: Reading Prophecies, Libels, and Dreams

"Tall tale" carries in its definition the word lie, applying as easily to a fishing trip fib as to legendary heroics. But it's a special kind of lie, in which teller and listener are bound by a winking agreement, a shared playacting. I know you're not telling the truth, the listener's chuckle might say, and you know that I know you're not telling the truth, but we'll pretend anyway. This is far short of belief. In The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, Brian Attebery argues that the tall tale is something other than the fantastic precisely because of that winking agreement. The fantastic, especially as identified in the fantasy genre solidified after J.R.R. Tolkien, is premised on a consistency meant to overcome the reader's resistance and invite them into belief. It's the wide-eyed stare to the tall tale's disbelieving chuckle.

Ysabeau S. Wilce's Prophecies, Libels & Dreams, a collection of seven stories set in the Republic of Califa, is both fantasy and tall tale. The doubt common to the tall tale slices through the book, invited by the afterwords in which each story is dissected for untruths and impossibilities. "In any event," the afterword for the first story says, "this tale's fantastic tone, overly florid language and whimsical approach to larceny and mayhem mark it as clearly intended for children." The remaining stories fare no better in judgment, labeled "balderdash," "twaddle," and the result of an "overgrown imagination." The characters, too, have the feel of tall tales and urban myths, referred to by moniker as often as by name. Springheel Jack. Hardhands. Tiny Doom. At the same time, the book as a whole is a work of fantasy that in all its aspects does exactly as Attebery and Tolkien suggest, building a consistent view of the world created within. The author of the afterwords identifies seeds of historical truth in these stories, ringed by exaggeration and myth, but the history and mythology are that of the fictional Califa and the exaggerations as well belong to the fantasy world. Doubt and belief are combined in one.

As a result, in this collection realities separate and cross like mineral layers in sediment. Each story holds one reality, which is commented on and discounted by a second reality, that of the afterword-scribe, and both these realities are contained by a third, that of the Republic of Califa present and past, which the reader knows to be entirely fictional. These shifting sands are not new in fantasy, nor in fiction, more generally. But I'll admit they feel new precisely because they acknowledge the world I live in, which is a mess of realities, of rumor, myth, and reportage that ranges from outright lie to half-truth. The world I live in is inhabited by people turned inward on their own thoughts, ignoring the whispers and messages that don't match what they already know.

Sometimes the fantastic insists on imbuing the world with blunt meaning -- the simplistic drama of good versus evil -- but other times it unearths the sense that what individuals experience is far less than what is, a reminder that the world is bigger than us. For example, the fantastic is one of the best places in fiction to find the back-to-front story, in which the apparent events of a story turn out to be less important than what is hinted at behind them, happening just off the page. Wilce's afterwords are of this variety, hinting at a history and social structure that the (fictional) author and (fictional) audience know well, while the reader gathers scraps about the Waking World, Elsewhere, praeterhumans, and the world that has grown up in their place since the Waking World and Elsewhere split and magick faded.

Wilce's sentences are also a pleasure. Her tone is assured and clever, shining brightest when it comes to the aforementioned Tiny Doom, who jaunts through two stories accompanied by a stuffed animal known simply as Pig and through a third as an older, but no less stubborn, young woman. Tiny Doom embodies the tension in Wilce's stories between the ridiculous and the serious, which somehow combine into flight rather than a muddle. Take one of my favorite moments in the collection, when Tiny Doom and Pig have scooted out from under the not-so-watchful eyes of a caretaker and onto the streets in search of -- what else? -- candy. They wander down a shadowy street and jump over a man prostrate on the sidewalk, apparently without wondering why the man is on the sidewalk and what might have put him there. Those are thoughts for the reader alone, while Tiny Doom sings about "Rancy Dancy" and worries about Pig's health, staying up so late past his bedtime. They reach a puddle, blacker than the others, and decide to jump across.

Holding her skirt in one hand, and with a firm grip upon Pig, [Tiny Doom] hurtles herself upward and over, like a tiny tea cozy levering aloft. As she springs, something wavery and white snaps out of the stillness, snapping towards her like the crack of a whip. She lands on the other side, and keeps scooting, beyond the arm's reach.

She and Pig taunt the arm, which is joined by a second arm and then a body, pulling itself out of the puddle, on which appearance she and Pig go bounding down the street and away. In Wilce's stories more generally, as in this moment specifically, the silly and deadly converge on heroes at once vulnerable and capable, depicting a reality that may or may not be true, even within the fictional world.

Wilce has written a trilogy of Young Adult novels set in Califa. I haven't read them yet, but I'm curious about whether the layers of reality, of doubt and belief, might show up in novels written toward a younger audience. Even if they don't, it would be a delight to spend more time in the Republic of Califa, a fantasy world that draws on myths and cultural markers from North America rather than Europe. I have even higher hopes to read more of Tiny Doom, that infuriating and brave tea cozy of a young girl. Who knows what contradictions beyond doubt and belief she might stumble into next?