Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Color Master

I tend toward an aversion of Slipstream, though not too long ago I held a polemic or two for it closer to heart than I do now. These days, it seems to me mostly a non-issue, or a convenient term denoting the sort of fantastika that - fine, old polemics die hard - de-ghettoized magical realism, itself conveniently absent of most writers of color. I assume, by now, that this is probably not true, statistically speaking, given the broad confines of the affect (at least in Sterling's original quotation) cum genre. On the other hand, of course, I don't especially care.

I came to be aware of Aimee Bender through a recommendation by a friend, a year or so ago, of her story published in the Slipstream anthology. I thought more highly of it than I expected to, even if I wasn't struck, and her name stuck in my head for whatever reason. So when I saw that she had a collection of short stories out, and I was in the mood to get a book, and with this project in mind, I bought it. My expectations remained fairly low.

Bender is very much a writer who functions at the level of the sentence, and she does so, for the most part, exceedingly well. With a few exceptions -- I was not especially fond of her experiments with voice in stories like "Lemonade," although there is a kind of pleasure in them (in the experimentation, at least, if not the voice itself) which make them not entirely misguided -- the book is exceptionally well crafted at the micro- level. Many (if not most) of the sentences excite, in the way that seeing something described in a novel or particular way is uniquely capable of (if only because it is a consequence of the medium itself).

At the larger level, the structure of The Color Masterstarts incredibly strong and then sort of peters around for the bulk of the book, failing to build; putting “On a Saturday Afternoon” at the end of the first section, a story totally devoid of the slipstreamy quasi-allegorical touches that had previously been universal, is something of a gut punch. "Afternoon" is a fairly straightforqard story about a woman asking two male friends have sex for her pleasure. It is very much through the absence of the fantastic, which the reader is conditioned to expect through the previous stories, that the story's power is underlined; without the preceding context I expect that it would read like any other pretty good but not especially effective story about “contemporary life.” I could, of course, be absolutely wrong about this, and it is as well written as much of the rest of the collection, but either way its context adds a dimension that would otherwise be absent. This is, of course, what slipstream does, or is supposed to do; but in the context of the juxtaposition of stories, rather than simply within one, its effect seems all that much stronger.

A large part of the effectiveness of this juxtaposition results from its initial unpleasantness; Bender's collection opens with the story "Appleless," a sort of fairy tale or allegory unlike anything else in The Color Master. It is much shorter than the rest, as well as being the only story which is entirely fabular. It’s also a story in which little happens aside from a woman being raped.

In addition to many other things, this heavily codes the subsequent use of the fantastic in the collection, making the way that "On a Saturday Afternoon" avoids it equally charged in an opposite direction. When the first story of Part Two, “The Fake Nazi,” follows a man who assumes responsibility for Nazi war crimes, up to and including claiming that all the guards in his camp had the same name as his own (Hans), the thread holds; even though this too has no overt fantastical moments, the pain and trauma of violence, more even than the consistency of tone, which marks it as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange,” to (finally, begrudgingly) quote Sterling’s initial claims for slipstream.

After this point, though the stories themselves remain strong, the structure seems to become less interesting. Part Two is the ebb of the fantastic while Part Three is its flow, would be one way to put it; another might be that the parts each delineate a sort of thematic cluster, with three’s emphasis of time probably the most successful (and resulting in an especially incredible concluding story). This is not really a problem; the set up through the first part is strong enough to carry the rest of the stories, and it does. What shifts with “The Fake Nazi” though, or at least becomes more evident through it, is again at the level of the sentence.

“The Fake Nazi” is the first story in the collection that explicitly marks its own structure; temporal jumps in the lives of the characters are marked by sections, with a simple number (1-5) followed by a period and a line break. In itself, this isn't particularly remarkable; but as a tool for reading the rest of Bender's stories, it is.

"Americca," for instance, is a perfect little slipstream story: narrated by a ten year old, it focuses on a household where consumer goods start appearing from nowhere. It follows the family's consternation and puzzlement, their theories of ghosts or inexplicable assassination by poison. The father's employment instability and the mother's feelings of inadequacy factor in as short, declarative asides. The whole situation is painted beautifully, and Bender knows exactly which details to insert where to allow the reader the opportunity to form the whole story without endless explanation. It also, I feel without being able to explain to my own satisfaction, works in some sense as a counter to Sterling's own story "Maneki Neko," which might be seen as the point of origin for the particular organization of affect into a semi-formal movement dubbed slipstream, which presents a sort of Internet-facilitated resurgence of the gift economy; in "Americca," however, the gifts are inexplicable, the family having never opted in to this particular economic form (which is how economies tend to operate in non-utopian worlds) and so forced to live within it without the reliance on an individualist genre construction of the action narrative.

What the structure of "The Fake Nazi" highlights, though, is just how productively Bender uses not just her sentences, but the space between them. She consistently uses the period not just as a break, but as a fulcrum, letting the weight of the narrative swing in a whole new direction entirely. A sharp 90 degree angle from what the previous sentence lead you to expect; but never, as soon as it is done, unwarrantedly. Each shift is a tiny moment of friction that keeps the mundane fascinating, and the ultimate payoff, framed as it is by Bender's hard reading of the fantastic, makes sense and is much more affecting than it has any right to be.

It is only with the final bit of the final story that the scope of The Color Master is (finally) laid bare; in its last pages the perspective shifts, courtesy that intersentence strength, from the human wife of an ogre to that of a magical cake that endlessly rejuvenates as it survives through the death of the universe. Its arc sees it first as a functional plot contrivance, then as a symbolic ornament for the narrator's struggles. By the end it is itself the whole of the universe. This is the culmination of the collection and it works, as the structural elements worked through primarily in the first third mix with the genre's strengths in providing a particularly linguistic affective realism to the estrangement of objects, and provides them with a scope beyond the human. It is the catharsis of objects.

Is this all dispiritingly clinical? I'm worried that it comes off that way. If it is, consider it the opposite of Bender's collection, which is full of warmth without being saccharine or sentimental. The Color Master is not about its themes (like, say, The Childhood of Jesus often was) or the solemnity of its content (as I fear Apology was); that it can be read as a very impressive formal accomplishment shouldn't (although I obviously fear it does, given that I am writing this) detract from how those impressively formal aspects are impressive precisely because they are in service to the often fantastic stories collected. Which is, I guess, just to say that don't let my prevarications on slipstream or structural coherence dissuade you; these are the concerns I have had in writing, not in reading. Noticing, in the paratextual thanks, that Bender has some sort of relationship with Mark Z. Danielewski left me unsurprised (I suspect that one of the reasons that I was inclined to this book, in addition to those already mentioned, was that its cover struck me as reminiscent of Danielewski's The 50 Year Sword, which I kind of adore but which also has many of the problems present in all of his writing). What gets forgotten by many critics of MZD is his ability to tell a story, which his obvious structural theatrics do much to obscure; even Only Revolutions, if you can fight your way through it, resolves somehow into a set of temporal images, causally linked, that touches on the readerly tendency to breathe (one's own) life into the written word.

Bender doesn't share MZD's ostensible project, and so her use of form isn't nearly so obstructing; but the sister of the narrator of "Tiger Mending" shares more in common, I think, than just their seamstressing with T50YS' Chintana. I suspect this will not be as high praise to most as it is to me, and certainly not as prospect rather than in retrospect, but many things about The Color Master excited me in ways that I don't usually get excited about books, even as it had its problems, and so I don't quite know a way to articulate them better than this.

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