Review: Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory, Penguin Books, 2017

I picked up Tales of Falling and Flying on the recommendation of Jeffrey Ford. Since I’d also discovered the weird and wonderful Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio from the same source, I was more than inclined to give this one a try, and was definitely not disappointed, especially in the weird and wonderful department. Tales of Falling and Flying excels in both categories.

At first glance, this looks like a collection of short stories. Once you’re into it, that perception gets stretched a bit, or at least mine did. Not that the tales within ran roughshod over classic definitions of a short story. I mean, they were about something. They had a beginning, middle, and end in the sense that they started somewhere, went somewhere, ended somewhere. It’s those “somewheres” that need a bit of a mental adjustment.

Take for example, the very first piece in the book, “The Dodo.” I’m just going to quote the opening line: “Once there was a dodo, and he died with the rest, but then he suddenly got back up again.” So what does a dodo who should be dead but isn’t do? If you guessed “Get forced into an identity crisis because he’s alive but all the dodos are dead, therefore everyone says he can’t possibly be one,” then you have the idea. Or consider “The Sloth,” which features, yes, a sloth, one who decides he doesn’t really want to hang around the jungle eating leaves and decides to go to the city and get a job.  What sort of job is there for a sloth in the big city? It takes the sloth a while to find out, but the answer follows very reasonably from what the sloth discovers in his search along the way. Or “Death and the Lady” where a woman goes to church and discovers Death sitting next to her, and if you think you might know where that particular story is headed, you’re both right and very wrong. If I had to pick one, I’d likely say that was my favorite, which is silly because you don’t have to pick one. The very idea is limiting.

One thing I can confirm is that there will be tales of “falling and flying.” Along the way the reader could be forgiven for thinking she was reading a book of special kinds of stories called parables, deep into double meanings and lessons and metaphors and whatnot. But then you hit a story like “The Ostrich and the Aliens” which, in its own metafictional way, pokes fun at the very idea. So maybe they’re not parables, or perhaps they are, or some of them, and I found myself thinking about each one even while I was reading it. Normally that sort of thing kicks me right out of a story, but not in this case. The stories invite a bit of consideration. Invite? Say rather they demand it. As for classification, well, I can’t speak for other readers, but after a while I stopped worrying about that and just gladly went wherever Loory was going. Plenty of time later to think about where that was. No conclusions yet, but I’m still thinking.

Which is just about the highest compliment I have to give.

 

 

Advertisements

Story Time: The Plum Blossom Lantern

I’m a bit late with this, so I have to apologize. A remodeling project took most of my day so I’m just getting to this now. Story Time this week is based on an Edo period ghost story called “The Peony Lantern.” The Edo period Japanese did love their spooky ghost stories, and who could blame them? However, I’d always felt there was aspect to the idea being neglected, and that was the ghost’s point of view. Once you look at it that way it becomes a different story entirely, and so my version, “The Plum Blossom Lantern.” Its first appearance was in Small Beer Press’ Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet back in 2003.

Standard Reminder: “The Plum Blossom Lantern” will be online until next Wednesday, October 18th. After that, there will be something else in its place.

New Story Time: “Another Kind of Glamour”

As I’m writing this with Feline Assistance®, typing can be kind of tricky, so bear with me. It’s Wednesday, so as promised–or threatened–there’s a new Story Time: “Another Kind of Glamour.” This one originally appeared in the online magazine  Aeon #6, which is not the current online magazine of the same name (Publishing is often confusing, and sometimes you just have to go with it and move on).

Ahem. Where was I? Or right, Story Time. As I said about the previous entry, “Crack’d From Side to Side,” stories in one aspect are a sort of conversation with all the stories that came before it. “Another Kind of Glamour” is in direct and obvious conversation with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” While it remains one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays, there was something about the dynamic of the relationship between Oberon and Titania that I always found a little, shall we say, out of balance. Or maybe there was really more at stake there than we realized.  The process of thinking about such things tends to lead to new stories, as it did here.

Lawrence Kasdan once said “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” Absolutely true. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun, and “Another Kind of Glamour” was a fun story to write. I hope it’s as much fun to read.

Speaking of free stories, I’m reliably informed that Beneath Ceaseless Skies #235 will go live tomorrow  (Thursday, September 28) and includes “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts,” the next adventure of Pan Bao, Jing, and the Snake-devil Mei Li. There’s an early review up at Rocket Stack Rank.

 

True Things

A wise writer (@saladinahmed) once tweeted something to the effect that the plot of any story will fall apart if you look at it closely enough, because it was a story, not real life. What wasn’t said, naturally, is that the difference between a story and real life is that a story, at least within the confines of its internal logic, has to make sense. Real life, as Mark Twain once famously observed, suffers no such limitations.

So we’re automatically at a disadvantage at least in that regard, trying to write a story where the reader, at least for the space of time they’re reading it, can forget that they’re not really living a story but reading words on a page or screen. We like to talk about something called “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief,” which is the ability to do just that. We like to talk about it because, to a fiction writer trying to reach a fiction reader, it’s beyond important—it’s absolutely necessary. All fiction readers have it or they wouldn’t be reading stories. Some people, I’ve discovered, have this ability to lesser degrees or even not at all. I vividly remember doing a signing where an older lady approached and asked if my books were about “True Things.” It took me a while to realize she wasn’t talking about non-fiction. She was talking about stories that mirrored and reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, the sort of things she saw and experienced every day. Give such a reader a story by, say, Ray Bradbury or Octavia Butler and the immediate reaction would be something along the lines of “This isn’t real!”

Of course not. It’s a story. If it’s a good one there’s Truth in it, but real? No. Then again, the “True Things” which she enjoyed weren’t real either, but try to explain that? No thanks. I’ve seen that lack go even further, and those readers only read news stories or biographies or, well, words on a page which claim to mirror actual events. Nothing speculated, nothing made up. It’s not their fault, but for whatever reason, they lack the toolset for anything else. I’ve tried to imagine what that’s like and the closest I can get is to picture a situation where you hear people talking about different shades of red when you’ve been colorblind all your life. You’d think they were talking nonsense, and from your perspective, you’d be right.

Anyway, to get back to my colleague’s point, no plot is perfect. There’s always a hole somewhere. If we do our job right it’s a little one, hardly noticeable or missed completely if the narrative pulls the reader along as it should. There’s a reason it’s called The Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It’s primarily our job not to muck with it as we spin our stories. Anything that throws the reader out of the story, even for an instant, makes them less inclined to trust you next time, if there even is a “next time.”

There will be holes, and inconsistencies, and whatnot. That’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is that they will ruin the story. If the story works, the question on the reader’s mind will be “What happens next?” rather than “WTF was that?”

It’s our job to make sure the reader’s concern is the former and not the latter. If anyone ever said this was easy, that was not a “True Thing.”

Empty Places, Part 2

In case you missed it, “Empty Places, Part 2” as performed by LeVar Burton launched on July 4. I use the term “performed” advisedly, because that’s a distinction I learned early on. Back when I was attending more sf/fantasy conventions, I was fortunate enough to attend a reading by Parke Godwin. I’d been to a few readings before that and I’d always enjoyed them, but this one was a revelation–Parke Godwin was an actor before he turned to writing, and he approached his readings the way an actor would approach a play–as a performance. The characters each had their own voices, the inflections were placed where he wanted them, the emphasis of one word over another precise and intentional. I was transfixed, and it was a lesson I always tried to bring to my own readings when it came time to do them. I never had the actor’s skillset to pull it off in the same way, but changing my approach improved my readings greatly.

LeVar Burton has those skills. Listening to him perform “Empty Places” Parts 1 and 2 was almost as if I was hearing the story for the first time, and I wrote the darn thing. I can’t recommend “LeVar Burton Reads” highly enough.

LeVar Burton Reads