November 2003

Adam Lipkin

fiction

Trampoline edited by Kelly Link

Kelly Link, one of today's best and brightest speculative fiction writers, has inherited (along with her husband, Gavin Grant) Terri Windling's role as Fantasy Editor of the annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collection from St. Martin's. As such, her new anthology, Trampoline, could be seen as a precursor of next year's Year's Best anthology. Alas, this decidedly mixed collection of stories doesn't bode well for Link's ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Link aims high with this anthology, trying to give us the same edgy mix found in such groundbreakers as Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Nielsen Hayden's Starlight books. The variety is certainly there, with stories covering genre ground from horror to science-fiction to mainstream literature. Likewise, few of the writers fall back on formula genre plots, much to their credit. The problem, alas, is that too few of the writers are capable of putting together a solidly crafted story, and those who fail do so miserably.

Link sets the tone for her anthology early, with Christopher Rowe's "The Force Acting on the Displaced Body." Leading off the anthology, Rowe's story is a nearly-unreadable mess of pretentious prose poetry repackaged as something resembling fiction, as a man rambles on about building a boat to take him from Kentucky to Paris. It's the sort of masturbatory mess that McSweeney's was theoretically founded to counter, and like so much of this tripe, makes you wonder if the author thinks he's actually writing something worthwhile, or if he's throwing crap on the paper in an elaborate literary practical joke. Either way, it's not a great first impression for an anthology to make.

The book's footing continues to falter over the first third of the collection, with a few passable stories (including a nice tale of whimsy by Village Voice editor Ed Park) mixed in with two genuine gems. Shelley Jackson (yes, she of the infamous story-by-tattoo)'s "Angel" is a disturbing look at the very twisted life of a taxidermist, and balances creepiness and black humor nicely. Mind you, Jackson's prose is so beautiful, she could probably get away with writing her own pretentious prose-poems, and I'd still rave about them. But she doesn't cheat us at all, giving us layers of character and plot to delve into.

As dark as Jackson's story is, Alex Irvine's "Gus Dreams of Biting the Mail Man" is a whimsical take on so many classic science fiction tropes, somehow managing to capture the feel of both the Simpsons and The Twilight Zone. For all the whimsy, it's not a light story at all, but a delightful read nonetheless.

Alas, Irvine's story comes right before this anthology's nadir. Greer Gilman's "A Crowd of Bone" (a title that sounds like it wants to be a George R.R. Martin novel) isn't just bad in the plotless way the Rowe tale is bad. Rather, she starts with a trite plot, then tosses the most turgid prose on it you could imagine. Wait. I'll save your imagination: "Cast out of that cold sky in which my lucid soul was stringed, I did undo myself, redo: not Thea of the braided hair, but tangly Thea, tattery Thea, Thea of the grubby knees who crouched and plaited in a tinker's petticoats." This isn't literature; it's bad fairy porn, minus the porn. And at 75 pages of bad fairy porn, it's nearly a quarter of the book.

Once you've survived that dreadful passage (and since you're probably not reviewing the book, you can easily just skip ahead), things get much better. All but three or four of the remaining stories are good, but a few stand out.

Perhaps the best of them is Vandana Singh's "The Woman Who Thought She was a Planet." This a beautiful, funny, yet dark story of a couple as they approach old age, and the unusual way one of them reacts. It's as close to perfect as this volume gets, and it's a lock for next year's Best Of anthology (regardless of who's editing it). It's especially nice to see a story this good from one of the newer authors in the anthology, in light of the drek some of the veterans have published.

Other standouts are Jeffrey Ford's "The Yellow Chamber," which nicely blends the surreal with Lovecraftian concepts; Richard Butner's "Ash City Stomp," a tale of a couple on a road trip who offer a ride to a hitchhiking Satan; Rosalind Palermo Stevenson's "Insect Dreams," (possible the best story in the anthology after Singh's) which manages to somehow thread a needle between the styles of Jane Austen and Edgar Rice Burroughs; and Karen Joy Fowler's "King Rat," which closes the volume, a short but bittersweet story of a little girl realizing, later in life, how little magic there truly is in the world.

Link's debut as an anthology editor (which, incidentally, does not contain any of her own superb fiction, a drawback on some levels, but something that I have to respect in any editor) is decidedly mixed. She's assembled some great stories, but there are some truly dreadful tales that drag Trampoline down, and make it hard to recommend purchasing until it's released as a mass-market paperback.

Trampoline edited by Kelly Link
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 1931520046
336 pages