Best American Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
“Best” -- how does one measure it? “Fantasy” -- is this a genre whose stories always have dragons and magic in them, or is there a wider definition? In the first of a new series of Best American anthologies, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer attempt to answer these questions.
It’s strange to review an anthology, since you can’t fully pin down anyone to blame or praise for its failure or success. The editors are the ones who chose the pieces, true. But in the case of a Best American anthology, the editors work with pieces that were published in a huge array of publications -- print or web, small or large -- and their choices, though plentiful, are limited. And don’t forget, the authors have to take ultimate responsibility for the pieces they create.
Depending on which story I was reading in Best American Fiction, I found myself asking, “This is the best piece they could find?” or “Why can’t they all be this good?” Jeff and Ann VanderMeer apparently asked themselves the same questions: on their blog, VanderWorld, Jeff complains about the slurry he found while searching for his hooks. “Reading for [Best American Fantasy] has been very interesting. Unlike reading a slushpile, there is a basic level of competence but sometimes not much more than that... Perhaps more depressingly, there have been whole issues of publications which feel like dead weight, where the stories are inert and lifeless.”
Unfortunately, the same could be said for some of the stories that they chose. Certainly there are stories that dwell unquestionably in the “Best” category for this year. Let’s look at those first.
In “The Whipping,” first printed in The Georgia Review, fantasy newcomer Julia Elliot introduces us to the teenage Kate, who has to wait through two tortuous summer hours until she will enter her parents’ air-conditioned bedroom and receive a spanking from her mother. Her family is riotously grotesque: after Kate’s twin younger brothers kill a pack of robins with their BB guns, Kate’s father disembowels them on the picnic table, sautés them up, and deglazes the pan with milk, Worcestershire sauce and Texas Pete hot sauce. The Runt and Little Jack try to eat them at their father’s urging. “You must eat boys, or the spirit of the robin will haunt you. The spirit of the robin will fly around your room at night, slither into your ears, and peck your brains until you go crazy.” “The Whipping” is a delirious treat, absurdly fantastic without a unicorn in sight, and Elliot’s prose is strong and clear, her characters disturbing but believable.
The VanderMeers also included a story by the veteran sci-fi and fantasy writer Kelly Link. “Origin Story” is told from the perspective of another young woman whose world seems, at first, only slightly skewed from reality, until we realize that her lover is a superhero and the mountains that surround her town are inhabited by mutants. Mutants who have started a rock band. Even at the end of the story Link doesn’t make it clear what distinguishes “superhero” from “mutant,” since the protagonist Bunnatine Powderfinger can float (only up to two feet from the ground) and her friend Kath can make her body glow at will, but are apparently considered neither hero or freak. The story is sweet and nostalgic, given depth by Bunnatine’s flaws -- flaws that any young woman in any small, rural town will find recognizable.
My third favorite story in the collection is Tony D’Souza’s “The Man Who Married a Tree,” originally published in McSweeney’s. D’Souza goes the way of As I Lay Dying, splitting his narrative between 20 different narrators who include a coroner, the author’s mother, the sun, and a red-tailed hawk, but neither titular tree nor man. D’Souza, a fiction writer turned investigative journalist, has put his travels in Africa to good use in this alluring fable. The story bespeaks a tribal sensitivity, both on the part of the townspeople who tell it and the animalism that holds its center.
My three favorite stories are all subtly fantastic, taking place in recognizable settings that could be our own world, but there are plenty of elements in Best American Fantasy that die-hard genre readers will want: dragons, armies, alternate dimensions, robots. There are a number of very imaginative stories that are quite good, but perhaps not the best of the year; these stories have sparkling central ideas, but their details have not yet been finely crafted. Among these are Maile Chapman's “Bit Forgive,” in which a man receives letters from his friend who died at sea, and Eric Roe's “The Stolen Father,” about a family that corresponds with their banished father by tying letters to rocks and tossing them high into the air so that they reach the end of the world. Plenty of the stories in Best American Fantasy sit above the bar, and the variety of the styles and subjects make the anthology a delicious read.
A few morsels stuck in my craw, however. The insufferably pretentious “The End of Narrative (1-29; or 29-1)” by Peter LaSalle passes off, at best, as a postmodernist short story, but has little to do with “fantasy” -- even the eclectic version set forth by the VanderMeers. Nik Houser's sloppy, rambling “First Kisses from Beyond the Grave” was not only predictable, but used gimmicky writing, such as interrupting the narration to spook the reader with onomatopoeia ( “curl my fingers around the rusty locker, and- BA-RIIIING!!!” “The door SLAMMED! on his words”) which made it feel more like beginner’s work than something that should appear in an anthology with the word "best" in the title.
If we’re looking at this anthology as the sum of its parts, Best American Fantasy is a worthwhile read among the year’s collections. I may not fully concur with the VanderMeers’ definition of “Best,” nor their view of fantasy as a catch-all genre. But I wholeheartedly agree that, as they write in their introduction, “imagination is a form of love: playful, generous, and transformative.” And I look forward to next year’s collection.
Best American Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer