Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. For the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about chapbooks and short collections. This time, I’d like to shift back to current magazines—in particular, Interfictions Online edited by Sofia Samatar, Christopher Barzak, and Meghan McCarron alongside executive editor Delia Sherman. The first issue, released May 2013, contained four pieces of fiction alongside several poems and pieces of nonfiction.
As a whole, the issue leans toward the weird or surreal end of the fiction spectrum—the sort of thing that generally gets called “slipstream,” which seems just about right for a publication concerned with the interstitial as a mode. For example, “Acting Lessons” by Janalyn Guo is removed in narration, surreal in description, and fairly enigmatic in terms of its world; the details are all given without much context, particularly what “acting” means in the story, and what the families and the director signify. I’d also like to note that Keith Miller’s “The Tale of Robin Duck” was interesting in terms of its use of illustrations and multimedia presentation; however, the story itself didn’t do quite enough for me. So it goes.
Of the two stories I’d like to contrast in this discussion, Kiini Ibura Salaam’s “The Taming” and Jedediah Berry’s “The Thing Under the Drawing Room,” only one falls under the slipstream umbrella neatly—and that’s “The Taming,” a piece narrated from the point of view of a captive animal about his experiences. “The Thing Under the Drawing Room” is the exception to the slipstream rule, being a longer form action-fantasy sort of piece, and that’s part of why I wanted to talk about it alongside the other stories in the issue.
As for Salaam’s story, “The Taming,” I found the narrative choices and the design of the point of view intriguing. Of course, both of those things make it a more opaque, nontraditionally structured story. After all, the worldview of an animal is quite different from that of a human (or even alien, the way most folks write aliens) worldview. Salaam’s attempt to render that in prose is worth paying some attention to, particularly as it’s not something I see a lot of.
The challenge of writing as a thing, or as an animal, or as a mind unlike that of the common human mind—the challenge of radically altering one’s own perception and attempting to inhabit another form of perception—is one that generally doesn’t get met. It’s a high bar; jumping over it is a sort of Olympic-level achievement. (And even then, let’s be honest: the gap to jump to assume that we know what a wolf’s mind is like enough to judge the accuracy of a prose representation of it? That gap is a canyon.) I won’t say that I think Salaam clears the bar—but I think the attempt is genuinely fascinating, for what she chooses to include or exclude and for how the narrative is rendered and structured.
Of the most successful—or, better to say convincing—elements in “The Taming” was the incomprehensible nature of the action to the protagonist. There is no sense of arc; there are only things that happened, and some cause and effect negotiation, and a quickened sort of experiential, physical world-making. There is no sense, in the end, to the animal—which I read as a wolf, though any sort of canid mammal is possible—of the meaning of what has happened to him, and what will happen in the future, and of what has happened to the female. The reader, on the other hand, can intuit the context: we have a title, after all, “The Taming,” and the ability to pattern-recognize and extrapolate based on our knowledge of human actions in the past.
The balance of tension, there, is pleasant and well-executed. It’s an uncomfortable story—the sense of lost control, of true helplessness, is also well rendered in a way I appreciated. Without being able to say “and he felt helpless,” Salaam describes and enacts helplessness in words for us so that we may physically/mentally experience it as her protagonist does. It’s clever, and I liked that.
The weirdness and complexity of “The Taming” makes for quite the contrast against the more traditional and “fun” story by Berry, “The Thing Under the Drawing Room.” I found the story deeply refreshing, after reading the other three pieces first (note: the layout of the issue puts it before “Acting Lessons,” though I read it last). Having encountered quite a lot of removed narratives, odd places, and discontinuous sorts of storytelling, being immersed in a fantastical story with gods, monsters, barbarians, and family backstabbing is a great palate cleanser, made better by Berry’s clear prose and the likeably gruff characters.
The story, instead of experimenting or pushing onto new ground, inhabits old ground with a love of reinvention and reflection. “The Thing Under the Drawing Room” kept my attention through both intrigues and battles, each rendered with crisp detail. I also appreciated the fact that there is a dual-gendered character, though they only appear in the beginning and end—“Theodora,” who is both Theo and Dora, and is the protagonist’s lover. The homage to adventure stories, with a barbarian come to join a great house by way of his might and smarts, is strong; so is the actual plot, into which I found myself quite invested, as the Sundering Game allows Berry to reveal in little bits and pieces more about the world of the story.
Overall, I would have liked the issue—but the inclusion of the very different and equally engaging Berry piece made me truly enjoy it. That sense of variance is what I look for in many magazines. It’s easy enough to have a coherent tone, but much harder to convey a logical and centered whole while simultaneously keeping the stories different enough to not grow bland in juxtaposition with each other. The editors here have done a good job with both concerns in this first issue, and I look forward to seeing what future installments will bring. (Also, read the poetry. Seriously, you’ll want to do that.)
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.