Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. While catching up on a bit of magazine reading, I noticed that one author in particular had a strong showing in April: Karin Tidbeck, who had two separate stories out last month, one of them here at Tor.com (“Sing”). We see this a lot from some delightfully productive folks, of course, but it’s still notable to me whenever I encounter two stories in a month, in different publications, from a writer whose work I genuinely enjoy. There was also a stand-out story in the newest issue of Apex by Emily Jiang that I wanted to talk about.
So, this week, I’ll be discussing one of those Tidbeck stories, “A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” (Lightspeed), as well as “The Binding of Ming-Tian” by Emily Jiang at Apex. Both are stories with evocative, detail-oriented prose; that’s where the majority of the similarities end, but reading them together is an interesting contrast between the weird and the poetic, as well as what each accomplishes.
“The Binding of Ming-Tian” by Emily Jiang is a visually-oriented, poetic narrative weaving together the stories of several people: Ming-Tian, her mother, her father, and her suitor. Each has a dream; each is bounded in by personal or cultural strictures. The piece is in many ways quite direct: the repetition of the color red, particularly blood-red, links together the narratives into a cohesive whole where the symbol provides the intuitive connections. However, it is also subtle. In its depiction of Ming-Tian’s mother, who weeps and cannot watch herself bind her daughter’s feet but does so because she knows she must, Jiang takes a complex and sympathetic angle on the social pressures that led women to mutilate their daughters. I appreciated this considerate note, and how it renders the various figures of the story independently culpable for their actions while also forcing the reader to consider why they have done what they did.
The fact that the characters do achieve their desires in the end—the father paints his calligraphy, the daughter dances, the suitor wins the love of the daughter, the mother is able to see her daughter married (we presume)—does not alleviate the weighted bleakness of the piece, something I also enjoyed. While we are pleased as readers that the characters fulfill their needs, we are also still left with the knowledge that Ming-Tian’s feet are crippled, that her suitor has wounded himself in playing the music that she dances to, that her father is still disengaged from his life’s work with music, that her mother has still done something terrible, something that will haunt her. The piece’s structure, too, lends itself to this interweaving of narratives both direct and subtle: consisting of a series of short, prose-poem-esque snippets, it is a sort of tapestry where much of the connective tissue exists in metaphor and symbol, yet still functions strongly to engage the readers’ attention.
“A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” by Karin Tidbeck, however, works differently. It is a recursive, strange story—as I expect from Tidbeck—wherein a troupe of actors who inhabit their roles (and sometimes roles within roles) quite intensely stage plays for no visible audience. The central character, Apprentice, is frustrated with the minor roles she has to play; she is also unsure of the fact that they do not ever have a visible audience. Then, as the troupe goes down to an abyssal plain to do related underwater dramas, Apprentice comes upon an actual person in a submersible who is dying because she’s running out of oxygen. They play for her; during this, at some point, she dies. They take her submersible with them when they leave to keep their audience. That basic narrative structure doesn’t quite give the sense of the story, though. It is eerie in closing, but affective and disorienting for the majority of the piece. The players’ strangeness is even remarked upon from a metafictional remove by Apprentice playing Vivi: they stage performances based on that strangeness, playing players playing.
It is, in the end, a piece that relies on its imagery to give ballast to its odd, emotionally distant and deeply meta narrative. Without the detail spent on angler fish on the plain or the like, the weird shifts in tone, setting, and level-of-“reality” would perhaps be unmanageable or too disorienting. As it stands, those visible groundings keep the piece from devolving into abstraction without function; the setting becomes the point of contact for the reader. The characters, impossible to unfurl and opaque in their alien-ness, do not allow for the same level of immersion—instead, it is the detail of the piece and the meta-commentaries that allow us “in” to experience the narrative as Apprentice does. That’s unique, and more or less the opposite of Jiang’s story, which uses character as the grounding point for its evocative metaphors and emotional content.
Loosely grouping these stories as, respectively, prose-poetic narrative and weird fiction, it’s possible to look at the ways in which different generic toolboxes can accomplish similar tasks—how there’s always more than one way to create affect, or to offer the reader an avenue into the piece, or to alienate them just as intentionally. Both of these pieces effectively accomplish all of these things, but they do so in alternative ways, offering multiple paths to similar conclusions. Both end with a comingled and conflicting sense of success that has not escaped its bleak implications or impressions, either. It is intriguing to me to see two stories, in separate magazines, work similarly while also being wildly, completely different: just gives me a good idea of the broadness of the possibilities we have in this “narrative fiction” deal.
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.