It seems that more and more, the books that cross my desk don’t fit into any sort of traditional category. I have to assume that’s deliberate, since there is a whole generation of young writers who are deliberately blurring the lines between mystery, fantasy, surrealism, magical realism, what have you. Needless to say, the results are often mixed.
I think that the stories in Michael Cadnum’s collection Can’t Catch Me would have made a very different impression had I run across them singly. Most of them, those based on the pattern of “take a fairy-tale (or a story from mythology) and tell it from another character’s point of view, and make that character kind of smart-alecky and down on the world in general,” become minor variations on a theme, no matter whether we are dealing with Cinderella, Medusa, or Ophelia, and after a while the repetition becomes deadly.
The collection starts off with this kind of variation on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” told in a world where bears have become friendly neighbors and responsible citizens, and Goldilocks, past the first bloom of youth but still with what it takes to catch a man — and no hesitation about doing the catching — decides to change things.
Regrettably, the tone and the diction become repetitive, and the stories themselves suffer from it, although Cadnum is a strong enough writer that it’s easy to keep reading. It’s only when we get toward the end of the collection, with a group of “non-fairy-tale” stories, that they become truly engaging. “Elf Trap” “Arrival,” and “Gravity” all have a little of that spark that makes a truly good story. The fact that they all start to bend genre boundaries helps, I think, if for no other reason than that they are not required to deal with the expected, and so don’t show the strain reaching for the unexpected evident in the rest of the volume.
Tim Powers, in A Soul in a Bottle, plays a variation on a type of story I’ve run into many times before: a somewhat eerie romance in which one party is very mysterious and doesn’t seem to live anywhere. In this case, the locale is Hollywood, which comes with its own burden of strangeness, and the young woman in question may be a poet who committed suicide. Or maybe she didn’t.
It’s an intriguing tale, especially since, even though he relies on a nicely broken in story idea, Powers manages to bring in not only some mystery but even a surprise or two. Not only does George Sydney meet a strange young girl who calls herself “Shy,” but just after she disappears in front of him while they are walking together, he discovers an anomalous, signed copy of Cheyenne Fleming’s More Poems. And then he discovers the real mystery of a poet who didn’t commit suicide as history records. And he actually does something about it.
The multiple-printed photocollages by J. K. Potter in Powers’ story are a nicely surrealistic touch, although not all are of equal interest. Some, however, are exceptionally well done and catch the mood and details of the narrative admirably.
(Tachyon Publications, 2006)
(Subterranean Press, 2006)