Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl compiles Valente’s poetry and short fiction tied to Japan and Japanese culture. As Teruyuki Hashimoto points out in the collection’s introduction, however, many of these connections to Japan are subtle, even tenuous; instead (or perhaps in addition), we find the pieces united by recurring images and themes. Houses and families, as Hashimoto points out, weave their way through the text, and so too do the subjects of birth, isolation, and creeping uncanniness.
Melancholy could have easily fallen into appropriative narrative or become what Valente herself describes as culturally “fraught.” However, Valente continues to write with grace and cognizance. Her afterword on the matter (echoed to some degree on her blog, here) explains her interest in Japan as a matter beyond scholastics or fan culture; she lived alone there for some time, and the experience affected her to the point that, as she says, “Japan is everywhere in my work.” The collection’s thematic elements build upon one another as the reader progresses, but they’re brought into stark focus with the addition of her autobiographical note. The book itself is full and rich in the author’s characteristic style, but this time, it feels personal—in the best possible way.
Lev Grossman’s blurb about Valente, set to Yuko Shimizu’s gorgeous artwork on Melancholy’s cover, describes the author as the “Bradbury of her generation.” It’s a hell of a compliment, but certainly an incomplete one. Valente’s attention to language and sound creates a style that lends itself to poetry as well as prose, and her work with surrealism and metatextuality read more like Borges than Bradbury. Each piece in the collection varies, of course, and each finds its beauty in different ways. It has been quite difficult to narrow down which pieces to focus on.
“Silently and Very Fast” is a novella that many fans will already recognize. Nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo in 2011 and ’12 respectively, and winner of the 2012 Locus Award, “Silently” represents Valente at her best. The novella is best described in the terms of Auden’s “Fall of Rome,” the poem where the text received its title, and which builds tension toward inevitable collapse. In this case, Rome is represented as Elefsis, a system of artificial intelligence that has grown from house to encompassing family unit. Generations of the family have cared for Elefsis—teaching it to understand the world and humanity—and Elefsis cares deeply for the family. Elefsis is kept, however, from the outside world, where humanity has been trained by fiction and assumption to distrust technology and AI. The telling of Elefsis’ tale is, however, subtler than this, more imbued with emotion and myth-making. I will attempt not to wax poetic considering the novella’s already huge presence in the SFF community, but suffice to say it earned its place as the better half of the Melancholy collection. Rereading it in the context of the rest of the collection’s thematically relevant pieces is immensely rewarding; its place at the end of the book reserves for it a tipping point into the conflicted themes of family and isolation already prevalent in the rest of the book.
“Ink, Water, Milk” makes its first appearance in Melancholy and is the newest text to make its way to the collection. Set in Japan, it details three simultaneously occurring stories: ‘Ink,’ wherein a paper scroll falls in love with the kanji for “wife” (?); ‘Water,’ wherein a yokai that devours flames falls in love with a paper lantern; and ‘Milk,’ wherein an American Navy wife (like Valente herself) struggles with her feelings of loneliness and cultural difference. Each story overlaps then departs from its counterparts, uniting in theme and tone. The scroll in ‘Ink’ writes a story about the wife in ‘Milk,” the lantern in ‘Water’ falls in love with ‘Ink’s scroll sixty years later. Each character, whether human or mythic creature, comes back to the story’s bittersweet tenet—that, in order to love, one must be able to destroy one’s lover, to “easily annihilate one another with the softest breath, the merest flicker.”
Despite the dark tone of the story, though, “Ink, Water, Milk” finds some hope in metanarrative and in the wavering lines between reality and fiction. When the Navy wife finds “?” carved into the trunk of a tree, she finds the death of the kanji from a different reality—one wherein she is a fiction, created by a paper scroll. With each reality equally validated by the story’s narrator, readers are given an unsettling amount of freedom; not only to decide which aspects of the story might be autobiographical, but in creating the story’s meaning, in deciding what fate awaits the Navy wife after the end. It is a story to read and re-read without losing nuance or surprise. It is beautiful, like “three blue bowls nesting.”
Quite different from the somber stories above, the collection’s title poem, “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” (originally published in Mythic Delirium) marries the loud bombasity of cyberpunk to a futuristic feminist aesthetic a la Dana Haraway. It is the closest we come to seeing anime referenced in the text, and it is fun as hell to read (especially out loud); wordplay moves the eye across the page, and enhances Valente’s already distinctive, bubbling imagery. In the future, mecha-fighter pilots might be empowered, kick-ass, killing machines, but they’re still, in their small, human bodies, “just a pretty thing.” Valente shuffles her pronouns with playful intent, conflating robot with girl, girl with robot. She writes,
…It’s not a robot
until you put a girl inside. Sometimes
I feel like that.
the Company forgot to put a girl in.
Both speaker and reader become united in their uncertainty; where does science, and where does “nature” begin, where do they end? Is the speaker’s melancholy a product of the technology around her, or, as Valente seems to argue, of “them,” the willfully misunderstanding, the boys who can’t be convinced that there’s “nothing kinky going on.” The poem acts as a lesson in expectations for readers entering the anthology for the first time—the combination of maddening imagery and conflicting emotion will only intensify from here on out—but is just as vibrant and exciting on the second and third read-through.
The Melancholy of Mechagirl is as fabulous in composite as it is in its individual stories and poems. Valente’s delicate hand in repetition and simile creates a deluge of like images for her readers, and will certainly keep this reader coming back for more.
The Melancholy of Mechagirl is available on July 16th from VIZ Media.
Emily Nordling is a writer and activist from Louisville, Kentucky. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and justice.