A long time ago, I took a creative writing class once (it was terrible, btw, but I'm afraid I can't blame my poor fiction skills on that...). Our instructor was a great believer in exercises. You know, like "Write a 26 line poem where each line starts with a different letter," or "write a story about Robin Hood, set in the old west."
Well, one of his favorite tricks was to take two random words or phrases, and make us write a story that combines them. Like 'treadmill' and 'pickles'. Or 'pistol' and 'nun'. I hated these exercises, probably in part because I wasn't very good at them. In fact, I'm not sure ANYONE was good at them. There was always someone who THOUGHT they'd done a fine job, and they'd stand up and you'd listen, and go 'why yes, that story DOES sound just like you were finding a way to include nuns and pistols in the same story beause some strange, wicked god told you you had to.'
Ms Lanagan, I think, was the exception. Ms Lanagan must have been very good at this game. 'Clown' and 'Sniper'. 'Accordion' and 'Progress'. 'Pretty, Pretty Princess' and 'French Revolution'. Because each of these stories, as strange, sometimes disturbing, as they are, feels at the same time convincing. Cohesive.
Of course, that makes it sound like Ms Lanagan's purpose is simply virtuosity, that these stories come across as clever or smug - they don't. Reading Ms Lanagan is more like Synaptic Tango - Invigorating and exhausting, strangely intoxicating, moving the synapses in ways you didn't expect you were capable, and absolutely gorgeous to participate in. Ms Lanagan takes a long step into a place where clowns and snipers belong together, and then dips you down in a slow, hard arc of the mental back, and murmurs 'There now, what do you see?' One can almost imagine the metaphorical rose in her teeth.
And the footwork is mesmerizing in this book. The first story ('La Brea Tarpits' and 'Fried Green Tomatoes') is one of the most gut-wrenching, vivid stories I have ever read, ever, somehow managing to simultaneously be as sickeningly horrific as Edgar Allen Poe and as starkly kind as Willa Cather. Yowlinin ('killer weasel' and 'caste system') hides combines a heavy handed sense of injustice with the gentle tickling reminder of the feeling of falling in love. Every story in here does this, reminding me with the violence and subtelty of a tango, that these conflicting things - love and fear, friendship and intolerance, blood and soul - exist, and HAVE to exist, in the same world, in the same instants of life, no matter how much we might like to imagine them forming separate narratives.
(Image by Sean Dreilinger)