May 18, 2007

I have heard good things about Elizabeth Hand’s slipstream fiction for years, but I never got around to checking it out because the Erik Davis clones currently perusing the mountain of backlogged books in the universe next door are no longer returning my calls. So you can imagine my glee when, out of the blue, Ms. Hand personally sent me two of her books. Though one of them was a galley for her new one, Generation Lossir?t=techgnosis-20&l=as2&o=1&a=193152021, I could tell by the kind letter she included that the package was not primarily sent my way due to my sometimes capacity as a book reviewer, but because she actually dug my stuff and thought I’d dig hers. Which I do.

Hand’s letter pleased me to no end, because I kinda got a chip on my shoulder about fiction writers. I can’t tell me how many people I have met who, after hearing that I am a writer, ask if I write fiction, and are visibly disappointed when I tell them I do not. “Oh I see.” From Parnassus to Grub Street in a nanosecond. “Have you ever thought about writing fiction?” they often ask, as if only then will I truly find my wings. For someone as interested in the boundaries of the real as me, writing fiction does hold great appeal, an appeal that no doubt disguises great suffering. But for now I am shackled to my truth and my taste, though I can still fantasize that one day I will spew my imagination on the page uncorked, and become, in the eyes of the world at least, a “real writer.”

In any case, it’s a good day when one of the established denizens of Parnassus sends you a flattering letter, and includes some free goodies as well.

Hand often writes on the edge of genre, and Generation Loss is a sorta-horror, sorta-thriller whose greatest pleasures are the author’s sense of place, her exquisite descriptive powers, and her canny sense for subculturewhich in this case includes New York punk rock kids, Maine hicks, and occult ’70s communards. The story is about Cass Neary, a nihilistic and aging CBGB-era shutterbug who travels to Mainewhere Hand has lived for agesto interview Aphrodite Kamestos, a reclusive photographer-genius and boozer who lives on a tiny island. Peculiar characters are encountered, disturbing things happen, and the ritualistic dimension of art is plumbed to its bloody depths. By wedding sacred forces and artistic pleasure, and by reframing the creepy side of mystic hippies, Generation Loss digs much deeper into the mysteries of culture than its accessible narrative might initially suggest. In many ways, the novel suggests a New England cousin of Kem Nunn’s essential darkside California surf novel, Tapping the Sourceir?t=techgnosis-20&l=as2&o=1&a=156025808.

As Cass talks to locals and pokes around the island, I admit that I could sometimes hear the machinery of plot clanking along as it put its pawns in place. But I think this had more to do with the comparatively rapturous power of Hand’s multi-sensory descriptive language, which often outshines the business of dialogue and narrative progression. Generation Loss gives you a good dose of Hand’s descriptive powers, especially in her evocations of Kamestos’ photographs and the island of ruins she explores. But there was even more of the magic in the other book she sent me, a collection of “strange stories” entitled Saffron And Brimstoneir?t=techgnosis-20&l=as2&o=1&a=159582096. Erotic, mournful, sensual, and graced with the flitter of phantasms, Hand writes mature tales that still serve up visionary dollops of genreand by “genre” I mean SF, fantasy, and horror, the main branches of the great oak Gothic. Along with “The Least Trumps,” a fantastic novella about a fantasy novel, my favorite piece was “Pavane For a Prince of the Air,” a very grounded story about the home death of a pot-smoking neo-Pagan man: how he is cared for by his friends, how his wife deals, and how their curious mixture of New Age beliefsnot shared by the narratorshapes the experience. It is one of the better fictions about dying I have ever read, almost a guide for a process that Hand renders simultaneously sacred and mundane.

Hand’s prose style rides the slipstream between straight realism and fantasy. Neither pulpy nor pretentiously literary, she is artful but unassuming about it. Here is the lapidary onset of “Cleopatra Brimstone,” a story about goth geeks, moths, and interspecies S&M:

Her earliest memory was of wings. Luminous red and blue, yellow and green and orange; a black so rich it appeared liquid, edible. They moved above her and the sunlight made them glow as though they were themselves made of light, fragments of another, brighter world falling to earth about her crib.

Hand invokes in her style the very liminal zone where many of her fictions take place: a world that is recognizably our own, anxious and stale, and yet fringed with supernatural enchantment. If your ride it too hard, genre easily grows cloying and indulgent. But if you no longer draw from that well of the Imagination at all then you wind up with those shitty stories that infest the New Yorker. I know I shouldn’t judge the state of mainstream literary fiction by the New Yorker, but it represents something, and for a subscriber like me, keeps representing it week after week. And one thing it represents is literary fiction’s “great divorce” from genre. I guess the walls are eroding some, and sure I dig the exceptionsthe Murakami, the Saunders, the occasional Chabron. But the most memorable New Yorker story I ever readand I kid you notwas by Stephen King. Nothing supernatural took place in the tale, and it was depressing as hell. But it was still, somehow, enchanted.