Sunday, March 25, 2012

Map of Dreams by M. Rickert

In this book, there is a perfect story. It's called "Cold Fires." It's about a couple stuck indoors together on a bitterly cold night. The weather's so bad that cars won't start and the power lines are frozen, so what can they do? "They decided to tell stories, the sort of stories that only the cold and the fire, the wind and the silent dark combined could make them tell."

The woman begins. "I grew up on an island." She tells a story of witches and strawberries, a story that makes her look strange to her companion, "like a statue at a revolt." The man tells a story about a rotten artist who created a beautiful painting, and the search to discover how that happened, and why. Both of these stories, and the frame story--the couple in their ice-bound house--are rich in atmosphere and imagery, and related with the authority and precision of a great storyteller. But what sets "Cold Fires" apart for me, what makes it a perfect story, is that it doesn't say too much.

In this--a fine-tuned sense of when to shut up--M. Rickert reminds me of Isak Dinesen at her best. And no, her best is not Out of Africa. Her best is Seven Gothic Tales. Dinesen loves embedding stories inside other stories, an art she goes nuts with in the Tales. They're brilliant partly because the connections between the stories are not over-explained. It's not like "Let me tell you a story that will illustrate this point." The stories are deeply connected, but Dinesen refrains from saying how. She just lets them meet at the edges, as in a collage. Even when a character gives an explanation for his or her story (as Rickert's do), the effect isn't a reduction in meaning, but a layering. This, of course, is all in the great tradition of Shahrazad. Dinesen makes the point explicit in her story "The Deluge at Norderney": she ends the tale with a line from the Thousand and One Nights. "A ce moment de sa narration... Scheherazade vit paraître le matin, et, discrète, se tut." At that moment in her story, Shahrazad saw dawn appear, and discreetly fell silent.

I've dwelt on "Cold Fires" because it's my favorite in the collection, but also because it exemplifies what I love about Rickert's writing: the lyricism, the inventiveness, the willingness to experiment and trust dream logic, the resistance to making everything come out right. Everything doesn't come out right, in life or in these stories. Rickert deals with difficult subjects: rape, genocide, the death of children. Not every experiment succeeds, but that's how you know they're experiments and not tricks. The successes will be different for different readers--I loved the story "The Harrowing," about not knowing whether you're on God's side or the Devil's, which Niall Harrison, who (glowingly) reviewed Map of Dreams for Strange Horizons, wasn't crazy about. For me, it was the juxtaposition of the mass killing of Australian Aborigines with a woman's loss of her daughter in the title novella that didn't quite work: the former crime is just too vast to be worked into a story about the latter, despite how carefully it's done. Again, this is what I call a double-voiced criticism. On the one hand, I'm saying it didn't work for me; on the other I'm saying I'm glad Rickert tried. We need writers who try. We might as well all stop reading if everyone's going to play it safe.

Though they treat very difficult material, Rickert's tales ultimately affirm life. "You look up to the sunless white sky," ends the final story, "The Chambered Fruit," which I read in one breathless sitting even though it is so hard to read. "Cold snow tips your face and neck. You close your eyes, and think, yes. Oh, life. Yes."


Anonymous said...

Sofia, Thank you for the kind analysis of my book. You know, I never actually thought of the odd juxtaposition of the mother's personal loss in the context of the vast suffering of the Aborigines. This seems very obvious now, and I wish I had seen it all more clearly at the time.
Thanks for pointing it out in such a supportive manner.

Sofia said...

Thank you for the comment, Mary! Again, with the novella, I thought the pieces worked well individually, but I had trouble putting it all together in my mind.

The criticism shows (I hope) my sincerity. No flattery here. I am floored by your talent. Thanks again.