IN THE FOREWORD TO the Bantam 1992 reissue of her first collection of short fiction, Artificial Things (1986), Karen Joy Fowler recounts a time in her life when she was the author of all of three short stories, and was mainly known at an SF convention as "the person who won't write a novel for Bantam." Indeed, she had declined an invitation from editor Shawna McCarthy to do just that. According to Fowler, she felt she had not yet mastered the short form and had "no ideas that couldn't be explored in fourteen pages." Now, of course, while she might still hold that she hasn't mastered the short form and no longer expects to, Fowler is known in much wider circles as the author of five novels: Sarah Canary (1991), The Sweetheart Season (1996), Sister Noon (2001), The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), and Wit's End(2008). Each of these is considerably longer than fourteen pages; three of them have been designated New York Times "Notable Books;" one, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; still another, The Jane Austen Book Club, was a "runaway bestseller" that subsequently became a comfortable movie which Roger Ebert insists is not a chick flick. And Fowler has now authored three collections of exquisitely enigmatic and widely anthologized short fiction, Artificial Things, Black Glass (1998), and What I Didn't See (2010). Karen Joy Fowler, the author who wouldn't write a novel for Bantam, is now one of the most accomplished and most adroit fiction writers in America.
Which is not to say she is among the most accessible. You may not like all of Fowler's strange stories, but you will not easily forget them. They can weigh heavily on the mind, making you suspect you missed something important. Things happen — or do not happen — in a Fowler story in completely unpredictable ways and to indeterminate, often unsettling effect. Her fiction is rarely plot driven, instead focusing intensely on character or on relationships, particularly those between parents and children, and between sisters or young women who are ostensibly close friends. And, of course, the complex interaction between women and men undergoes Fowler's interrogation again and again, sometimes in pseudo-anthropological fashion, as in her Black Glass stories "The View from Venus: A Case Study" and "Game Night at the Fox and Goose."
Time is always shifty in a Fowler story, one of many unstable aspects in her consistent depiction of a mutable reality. Her stories dip in and out of history, but it's often not clear whether the history is actually ours. Fowler obviously relishes research and she frequently builds her stories around gaps of historical detail, although she does so in a way that must drive many of her readers to Google to find whether some seemingly incredible fact is indeed historical or the product of the author's impish imagination. Her stories also dip in and out of other stories, both fiction and nonfiction. Indeed, her narratives are often driven by complex conversations with other works, conversations that are sometimes announced and sometimes quite difficult to perceive. And the best way to understand a Fowler short story is almost certainly through reading other Fowler short stories.
What I Didn't See does not contai...