Reading Joanna Russ: The Hidden Side of the Moon (1988)

After the short collection of essays on sexuality and feminism, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985), comes Russ’s final collection of short fiction, The Hidden Side of the Moon. Containing nearly twenty-five stories—more than, if the two-parter stories’ halves are considered separately—this collection spans from Russ’s first published SF tale, “Nor Custom Stale” (1959), up through stories published in the mid-80’s. The Hidden Side of the Moon was originally published by St. Martin’s Press and was reprinted by The Women’s Press in 1989; both editions are currently out of print.

The Hidden Side of the Moon isn’t just the last collection of short stories; it’s also the last fiction book in Russ’s whole oeuvre. As such, it’s a kind of retrospective: stories from across nearly thirty years of her fiction-writing life gathered in one place, the majority of which have never been collected elsewhere (with a few exceptions). The pieces range from humorous short-shorts to emotionally complex feminist metafictions, covering all of the now-familiar ground in between, but the overall tone of the collection is one of playfulness.

 Possibly, this is because there are a lot of humorous stories here that presumably hadn’t fit in Russ’s other collections. The Zanzibar Cat and Extra(ordinary) People were both tonally more serious collections, though they had their moments of comedy and play, whereas The Hidden Side of the Moon contains such works as “Foul Fowl” and “The Clichés from Outer Space.” I had originally said that The Zanzibar Cat was a faster, lighter read than most of Russ’s other work, and that’s doubly true of The Hidden Side of the Moon. The vast majority of the pieces are under ten pages, some as short as one or two; this leads to quick, fanciful reading, slipping from one story to the next like a stone skipping across water.

In one way, it’s almost anticlimactic, after the intensity and wildness of Russ’s novels or Extra(ordinary) People; in another, it’s a perfect close to Russ’s fiction career. It lets the reader down slowly and easily, inviting experimental reading, inviting enjoyment, inviting laughter and play and, often, self-acceptance. Stories like “The Little Dirty Girl,” the first in the book, have a personal, inviting resonance. In it, the narrator—a semiautobiographical one—has continual run-ins with a somewhat-spectral young girl who is constantly in need of care and cleaning, until finally realizing at the end that the little girl she must love is herself. Even the more serious, vicious stories—”Daddy’s Girl,” for example—have valuable things to say about introspection and the state of self, and as such are tied into the light-hearted rest of the book in a way that makes quite a lot of sense.

But, back to the comedy for a moment. I’m not often a reader of flat-out humorous fiction; it tends to fall flat for me, or gimmicky. Russ’s comedic stories, however, just blow that expectation out of the water. “The Clichés from Outer Space” is a particular favorite of mine from this collection and Russ’s body of work as a whole. For one thing, it’s uproariously funny. For another, it’s witty and sharp and mean as hell in the best possible way; oh, and it’s metafiction about the slush pile and the truly fucking weird things that come up over and over again in it. The narrator/Russ explains that after discussing these things with a (fictional) friend who had been editing a feminist anthology, she was possessed by the terrible slush she’d read and “began to write trash,” or her typewriter began to do so without very little intervention. The only way she thought to get it to stop short of exorcism (which is, by the way, “typ[ing] all five hundred and twelve pages of Sexual Politics“) was to try and publish the crazed junk it was spitting out. The story-outlines that follow are so funny that I laughed so hard I cried a little while reading them. And they’re funny because, well, they’re true—we’ve all seen these stories, and probably more than once.

Then, there are powerful short pieces like “It’s Important to Believe,” which brought tears to my eyes in a whole different way and stopped me reading, hard, for a long moment. It’s not even a whole page long; merely a paragraph. The story is devoted to Alice Sheldon, and is about the possibility that “time travelers or aliens went back to England in 1941 and rescued from suicide by drowning You Know Who…” –referring to Virginia Woolf. That paragraph and the two short single lines following it are simply shattering. I would quote it in its entirety, if it weren’t for the liminal weird space of quoting a whole story (not allowed!), despite the fact that it’s so small.

Immediately following this piece is another startling, powerful one about a dead literary figure who means quite a lot to queer writers, “Mr. Wilde’s Second Chance,” wherein the narrator’s friend tells her a story. In it, Oscar Wilde is given a chance in an afterlife of sorts to rearrange his life and get a second opportunity to go back and put it all in a more manageable order. The art-piece he creates of his life is beautiful, but: “Oscar Wilde, poet, dead at forty-four, took his second chance from the table before him and broke the board over his knee.” The two people in conversation, the narrator and her friend, admit to not knowing what happens next, only wishing that he had a second chance anyway, somehow.

Of particular interest to me in this book, also, were stories like “Nor Custom Stale,” Russ’s first published piece of science fiction. This story hadn’t been reprinted in either of Russ’s previous collections, but it’s oft-cited by scholars and readers—plus her contemporaries—as a brilliantly evocative entry onto the scene in the wider field of SF. After reading it, I have to agree. The critique of the smothering, isolating rule of the “feminine mystique” and the lot of a housewife is particularly incisive, wrapped up in the almost-comedic story of a hermetically sealed House that begins to malfunction, trapping its residents inside without changes in routine or a way to measure time, until the end of the universe. One thing about “Nor Custom Stale” that I found breathtaking was not so much the story, but the beginnings of what would become Russ’s singular voice on display in the prose. It’s not quite clear yet, not quite all-there, but traces of her later work are all alive and prescient in this piece of short fiction.

Looking back, I’m immensely glad to have read the story, and I see why it’s cited with such appreciation: from the first, it was obvious that Joanna Russ would be someone to watch for, someone with great things on the horizon.

And she was.

*

Next: To Write Like a Woman (1995), a collection of essays and articles.


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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