July 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss

In the new anthology Interfictions, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, Small Beer Press seeks to provide a definition for the genre of interstitial fiction. Described on the back cover as, “the literary mode of the new century, a reflection of the complex, ambiguous and challenging world we live in,” interstitial fiction is revealed through the collection as stories that dwell in areas both obviously and obtusely fantastic. Author Heinz Insu Fenkl provides an introduction and is uniquely qualified to do so. His book, Memories of My Ghost Brother, was published several years ago as a novel even though he wrote it as “the story of my childhood in Korea, drawn from life but told in such a way that there is a clear aesthetic consciousness behind it.” Interestingly enough, he reports that another publisher would now like to repackage it as a memoir.

That would be the first example of how interstitial writing moves in and out of preconceived notions and definitions of literature: falling easily within some boundaries while simultaneously stubbornly defying others. On the surface, it would appear to be one of those things that you know when you see (or in this case read).

Interfictions begins with Christopher Barzak’s truly wonderful “What We Know About the Lost Families of ----House,” a haunted house story somewhat in the vein of Shirley Jackson’s classic, but told in a thoroughly original way. This is no conventional plot-driven (or even character-driven) tale, as Barzak separates each small section under headlines such as “The latest victims” and the “The first lost family.” He uses chronology to lead readers along as he tells them everything they need to know: that the house is haunted, there have always been families who suffered within it, families drawn to know its secrets, families who sought to find their lost selves within its walls.

Barzak reveals many histories in his story, culminating in the history of the house told through the lives of those who lived there. Some are crazy, some stoic, and the unnamed narrator, a townsperson who relates the whole sordid story as if giving a macabre tour, is just as befuddled as the reader as to why these people stayed until the bitter end. It's Barzak’s friendly writing style that makes the story different, which seems so comfortable when imparting horrific anecdotes like this one:

Suddenly a rumbling came from inside ----House. Mrs. Blank looked at the dark backside of the house, at its gingerbread eaves and its square roof, at its dark windows tinseled with starlight and shuddered at the thought of going back in without anyone waiting for her, without her son beside her. The house rumbled again, though, louder this time and she went without further hesitation. Some women marry a house, and this bond neither man nor God can break.

Williams’ body was never found, poor child. Like his brother, he vanished into nothing.

But we say the orchard got him.

Horrifying? Yes -- but in such a friendly, factual, how-it-is kind of way. It’s almost like reading about a Tupperware party, this story.

Switching gears, Leslie What’s “Post Hoc” is a confection of sorts. Stella, pregnant, is distraught over a bad breakup, and after trying everything she can to get her ex’s attention, she slaps an address and postage on her forehead and mails herself to him. The former boyfriend refuses to accept his delivery and Stella takes up residence as an undelivered package in the back of the local post office. She meets several others who are in transit and eventually builds a life there. In the end, the woman who was determined to force a family with her ex, finds a family in the oddest of places. And What shows how that oddly personal relationship that we all share with the local PO, where they handle so many of our hopes, dreams and disappointments, can be the source of countless stories.

In "Rats," Veronica Schanoes uses the life of the punk rock tragedy that was Nancy Spungen and gives readers a gripping look into how little girls can be born lost and never find their way. The writing in this modern fairy tale is so sharp, so brittle that you will flinch as Lily proves herself from the very start to be a child that defied all chance at a happy ending. The lifelong battle here is with the “rats” that eat at her soul, her heart, her very life. The drugs are the antidote for the nightmare, the only thing that takes her away from the agony of living.

He shot her up and just after the needle came away from her skin -- it stopped. It really stopped, not just the rat-pain that she knew about, but the black tarpits of her thinking and feeling -- they stopped too. It stopped, and God, it felt so good and free that she didn’t mind the puking, it even felt fine, because everything else had stopped and she could finally get some sleep, some real sleep.

In many ways Schanoes rescues the legacy of Nancy Spungeon with “Rats,” something she acknowledges she felt compelled to do: “I wrote ‘Rats’ because I was angry with the recent coffee-table histories of punk that seem to have no problem with demonizing a dead, mentally ill, teenage girl.” Lily, like Spungeon, is not a likeable character, but what if she was born with a burden that few of us can understand? What if so many of those tragic fairy tale girls were born with similar burdens, with voices that plagued them, thoughts that made them suffer, worries that made them hope for that long blissful sleep? But it took more than a kiss in this fairytale -- which is always the way it is, you know.

Elsewhere in the anthology, Matthew Cheney ponders the nature of cartography (and the freedom of no maps) in “A Map of the Everywhere” while Lea Sihol shares the pages of a traveler’s 1931 notebook as he seeks the past in Afghanistan in “Emblemata.” Adrian Ferrero visits another distant land in “When It Rains, You’d Better Get Out of Ulga,” and Catherynne M. Valente uses the 12th century “Letter of Prester John” as the inspiration for her fictional journey, “A Dirge for Prester John.” Because some places, as she admits, “never existed, but should have.”

My favorite in the collection is “Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom” by Holly Phillips. The protagonist is adrift in a foreign country, waiting for word on her diplomat boyfriend who has been kidnapped. Stuck emotionally in a place where the phone rings every day to tell her there is no news -- and she is terrified of the day the message may be different -- she struggles to write, to accomplish something that will give her some relief. But her book refuses to accept her attention, and her mind wanders at whim. She thinks about what she would write, she ponders it, but always she comes back to where she is:

If Ryan were a character in a book I was writing, I would peel him like an onion. I would strip away a layer of him for every succeeding stage of his capture and confinement, make him denser, simpler, truer -- smaller -- for every door he is dragged through, every narrower, darker, harder cell he inhabits, until he is so small and pure he can slip through the bars of his cage, the keyhole of his door.

Waiting for what might happen, the writer begins to doubt not only her sanity but the reality of the world she inhabits. She is visited by fantastical creatures (from her own fiction perhaps?) who challenge what is real. And then one morning the phone does not ring.

I think Phillips has done something truly special with “Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom.” We live in a time when millions have gone missing all over the world -- stolen, lost, vanished, buried in long forgotten gravesites -- and Phillips asks readers to consider just how long you would believe.

Altogether Interfictions is a collection of 19 intriguing looks at fiction that refuses boundaries. The concluding interview with editors Sherman and Goss provides further insight into how these specific stories were chosen and the overall plan the editors had for the book. I found a similar sense of adventure in all the writing found within Interfictions and certainly enjoyed exploring the ideas and formats put forth by these exciting authors. There is much here to delight and confound readers of any age. Seek it out for the bedside table and decide for yourself just how successful these experiments in fiction truly are.            

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing Edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss
Small Beer Press
ISBN 1-931520-24-9
291 pages