Strange Tales

By Brooks LandonAugust 29, 2011

What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler

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 ThingsBlack 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 contain a single story that must be read as science fiction, but a conversation with science fiction can frequently be imagined, if not glimpsed, in Fowler's fiction. For those of us who consider science fiction a way of reading as much as a mode of writing, no piece of writing by Karen Fowler has much chance of not being read as science fiction. To readers of science fiction, Sarah Canary will always be a First Contact story, the title character absolutely an alien. Similarly, "The Pelican Bar" in What I Didn't See may tempt readers to "see" a rebellious young girl so inhumanely tortured that it must be at the hands of aliens. "What I Didn't See" can only be a deconstruction of James Tiptree's classic "The Women Men Don't See;" "Always" relates the story of a young woman's immersion in a cult that may or may not insure her immortality; "The Marianas Islands" features a patently science fictional homemade submarine that is not put to any science fictional effect, and all stories in the collection offer teasingly brief hints of unfamiliar worlds intruding into our own. Gary Wolfe, writing in Locus, probably came as close as anyone can to identifying Fowler's sensibility when he noted that she characteristically employs "the choreography of SF, but without its familiar iconography." Much has been written lately about the phenomenon of Slipstream literature, a hybrid form that doesn't quite fit any established literary category but seems to occupy a ground between science fiction and something else. The one identifying trait of this hybrid literature critics seem to agree about is that it leaves readers "feeling very strange." Fowler's "Lierserl," (BG) a critique of Einstein for ignoring an imaginary daughter, represents Fowler in James Patrick Kelly's and John Kessel's Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. The truth is, any number of Fowler's stories would fit in that anthology. Indeed, Fowler may be to slipstream what William Gibson was to cyberpunk, her Sarah Canary the form's signal work. And yet the reader who has never turned a page of science fiction and knows or cares nothing about hybrid offshoots of SF will also find much to treasure in her stories.

Two of the most striking pieces in  What I Didn't See are "The Pelican Bar," which opens the collection, and the eponymous title story. The great difference between these two indicates the span of Fowler's talent. In "The Pelican Bar," Norah, a fifteen-year-old girl deeply into teenage rebellion and drug use, is shipped off by her parents to a mysterious, vaguely Caribbean "boot camp" for troubled teens. The camp is brutal, run by a sadistic "Mama Strong" and apparently designed simply to break the spirit of the children sent there. Norah's parents are so happy not to be bothered by her that they blithely abandon her for three years, either convincing themselves that the camp is a benign educational resort or simply not caring. When Norah is finally released from the facility on her eighteenth birthday she has been stripped of all but one tiny part of her defiance, and she — and Fowler's readers — must wonder whether Mama Strong is even human. Norah's treatment in this story is horrific and terrifying, an angry indictment of clueless parents. But Fowler has always been a politically active writer, with two of her most troubling stories focusing on the guilt and irreality associated with the Vietnam War: "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things" (AT) (anthologized in The Norton Book of Science Fiction) and "Letters from Home" (BG). The title story in Black Glass weaves together the war on drugs, voodoo, and the avenging spirit of Carrie Nation in a wickedly funny send-up of the DEA. So the larger political critique of "The Pelican Bar" can hardly be missed, as it depicts the lack of concern with torture and complete violation of rights in a facility in the Caribbean, where the "problem cases" sent there can be conveniently put out of mind.

While "The Pelican Bar" is a story as subtle as a sledgehammer, "What I Didn't See" is a story so delicately constructed that its interpretation may turn on a carefully chosen word or two within the text and on crucial intertextual references. This story perfectly captures the uncategorizable nature of Fowler's short fiction, as it won a Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Short Story even though the story is set in Africa in 1928 and features not a single ostensible science fictional icon or theme. Crudely summarized, it is a story of an expedition to Africa obliquely designed to help save peaceful gorillas from trophy hunters. The story builds not only around the differences between men and women on the trip, but between two women who also fail to "see" each other clearly. The younger woman mysteriously disappears and is never found and the older woman is left in later years to try to understand what actually happened on the expedition. But, as L. Timmel Duchamp explains in her fine essay in Justine Larbalestier's  Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (2006), "What I Didn't See" is also a brilliant exercise in science fiction intertextuality. Duchamp considers how readers "see" or do not see crucial aspects of the story depending on whether or not they "see" it in the context of a tradition of feminist science fiction. In similar but much abbreviated fashion, Marta Randall parallels much of Duchamp's reasoning in an online essay that persuasively demonstrates the ways "What I Didn't See" is in conversation with James Tiptree Jr.'s (Alice Sheldon's) celebrated "The Women Men Don't See" — Randall's focus being on the story's feminist critique rather than on its genre affiliation. 

For me, the emblematic and emblematically enigmatic Fowler short story must be "The Faithful Companion at Forty," originally published in  Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazinein 1987 and collected in Black Glass. Narrated by a very hip and — although never overtly named as such — Indian sidekick, a "Faithful Companion" who drives a Saab with KEMO vanity plates, this story mashes up the fictional semblance of The Lone Ranger episodes with a contemporary setting in which an apparently retired — also unnamed — Masked Man with a penchant for listening to "The William Tell Overture" on his stereo, who misses "those thrilling days of yesteryear" so much he seems to barely acknowledge his friend's fortieth birthday. (When we remember that copyright issues forced Clayton Moore — the actor who portrayed the Lone Ranger on TV — to wear custom sunglasses rather than his customary mask when he made personal appearances following his Lone Ranger days, the fine line Fowler had to follow in writing this story becomes even more remarkable.) Our Faithful Companion, "your basic, quiet, practical minority sidekick," seems well adjusted to a post-Vietnam, post-Rocky IV present in which adventures foiling bank robbers and the Cavendish gang are only rueful memories to be critiqued for their racial insensitivity. But the ex-Masked Man is working to perfect a "Displacement Theory" that will allow him to return to the "thrilling days of yesteryear." Call it pomo time travel. And when "he" finds "a way back," of course he wants his disgruntled sidekick to return with him. At this point in the story, talking buffalo appear outside the Faithful Companion's door and he returns to contemplating the competing merits of the Great Man Theory of history and the Wave Theory, the former seemingly suited to the ex-Masked Man, the latter to his unassuming sidekick. Weighing a decision that has always already been made, the Faithful Companion muses: "Well, maybe somewhere between the great men and the masses, there's a third kind of person. Someone who listens. Someone who tries to help. You don't hear about these people so much, so there probably aren't many of them."

Except, of course, in the fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.  Sarah Canary, Fowler's first novel was essentially a novel peopled only by sidekicks. "I suffer from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Syndrome," Fowler has admitted, "a condition expressed as an excessive concern with peripheral characters." In "The Travails," for example, a story in Black Glass, Fowler explores the developing independence of Lemuel Gulliver's wife as she writes to him during his prodromic travels. As "The Travails," "The Faithful Companion at Forty," andSarah Canary all demonstrate, Fowler has a kind of genius for shifting the emphasis of her fiction to unlikely protagonists. What I Didn't See offers us two stories set around Lincoln's assassination but focused on characters largely lost to history — John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin and Mary Surratt's daughter, Anna. In "Booth's Ghost," Edwin may or may not be sustained by the ghost of his father; in "Standing Room Only," Anna Surratt's infatuation with John Wilkes Booth distracts her from noticing that time travelling tourists are showing up outside Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, hoping to witness that night's fateful performance.

Fowler is particularly adroit at crafting personable narrators who comment on the stories they tell, whether those comments are addressed to other characters in the story or to the reader. Ordinarily, this might be seen as metafictional, but in Fowler's hands it simply makes the reader more comfortable with a very sympathetic narrator who seems reliable whatever strange twist the narrative may take. The "Faithful Companion" is one such personable narrator, but Fowler's most engaging narrators tend to be women who are sensible, self-deprecating and usually a tad cynical — at once wise beyond their years but still very vulnerable. The marvelous daughter of Irini Doyle who tells her mother's story in  The Sweetheart Season is my personal favorite, as she repeatedly reminds readers that she is telling "a story set in storyland," explaining "this is not my story in any other way except the largest possible one, that I am the person telling it":

You must keep in mind that I've not been nineteen myself for many years now. If, from time to time, a more cynical, more fatigued tone creeps into my mother's teenaged voice, you'll know I've slipped up, and that's me, not her. She's the mother and I'm the daughter, but she is young and I am not; this is one of those time-travel paradoxes and we just all have to deal with it.

"The Marianas Islands" (WIDS) introduces us to another characteristic Fowler narrator when a granddaughter's story that seemed to be about a radicalized grandmother takes a particularly unexpected turn: "Perhaps it is a little late to be bringing up the submarine. Not quite cricket, not exactly Chekhovian of me." Then there's this in "Familiar Birds" (WIDS): "I didn't like Daisy and she didn't like me and this was because neither one of us was likable. Anyone but our mothers would have seen that straight off." The tension and competitive resentment between two girls so perfectly captured by the narrator in "Familiar Birds" takes on new and much darker significance in the narration of "Duplicity" (BG) and is taken to new levels of resentment in "The Last Worders" (WIDS). "King Rat" (WIDS), which follows the narrator's memory of getting lost as little girl trying to find her father's office with the mention of the tragic loss of another child. The story ends with the grown narrator's moving address to that lost child's father, a colleague of her own, who had helped her when she had been lost and given her a treasured book of fairy tales:

I hate this story. Vidkun, for your long-ago gifts, I return now two things. The first is that I will not change this ending. This is your story. No magic, no clever rescue, no final twist. As long as you can't pretend otherwise, neither will I. And then, because you once brought me a book with no such stories in it, the second thing I promise is not to write this one again.

Fully engaging characters in their own right, people we think we know and instinctively like, Fowler's narrators also help account for the sense one gets, from reading her, that one is in a conversation with the author herself, as she looks over her own shoulder and offers a running commentary on the very story she is writing. What results is an unusual feeling of authorial intimacy and wit, an act of friendship from a remarkable writer to her readers.

LARB Contributor

Brooks Landon teaches at the University of Iowa, and has written books on Thomas Berger, science fiction, and writing sentences. His collection of 24 lectures, Building Great Sentences, is available from The Teaching Company.


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