PARASPHERES

Edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan

Reviewed by Tim Lieder

Consider for a moment the publishing labels of "genre" and "literary." For publishers these are convenient marketing tools. For writers they are aggravating pigeonholes. Literary writers receive rewards like the Kalamazoo Third Prize for Short Fiction involving Cats of 2004 and the respect of their peers. Genre writers receive awards like The Hugo, make more money and find little respect in the "real world." They will always be "like those geeky guys who played D & D in 8th grade."

Paraspheres is a collection of short stories that fall between the categories. With Paraspheres you are either getting literary fantasy tales or fantastic literary tales. Kelly Link and Peter Straub blurb the back cover as Michael Moorcock, Jeff Vandermeer and Ursula LeGuin contribute stories. As an experiment in the blending of literary and genre it works.

If literary stories with fantastic elements were the only criteria then the book would be a resounding success. Unfortunately Paraspheres suffers from hubris. It's not the only book in the world to combine genre and literary fiction. Jay Lake is publishing his sixth volume of the Polyphony series. Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende and Toni Morrison routinely use fantastic and horror tropes in their fiction. Yet the editors have put together this anthology as if it was the first and the last of its kind. With 49 stories, the book is bloated; many authors appear twice. Paraspheres could have been an excellent 15-20 story, 200 page anthology. Instead it's a doorstop monstrosity where the good (and even excellent) stories are overshadowed by the pages upon pages of mediocrity that surround them.

Paraspheres gets off to a shaky, but hopeful start. Ira Sher's Lionflower Hedge makes no sense, but it's got some great lines. Leena Krohn's Son of Chimera is your standard mad scientist story, but told from the perspective of the child of one of these couplings between human and beast-man. Angela Carter gives us a post modernist take on Edgar Allen Poe's life with The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe followed up by Kate Kasten's Ever and Anon. At this point the book reminds me of the line from This is Spinal Tap about how there's a fine line between clever and stupid. Ever and Anon combines all the Prince Charming stories into one narrative with Prince Charming (and is the prince really named Charming in these stories?) as a serial monogamist who's endlessly falling in love with beauties trapped in towers and under glass. It's clever. It's cute. It's also annoying.

The book picks up with Michael Moorcock's The Third Jungle Book in which Mowgli runs for London parliament. Kim Stanley Robinson provides the rather too earnest The Lucky Strike, an alternate history in which the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima dies and the replacement pilot wrestles with his conscience. The story feels like a treatise against nuclear weapons from beginning to end and I'm not entirely convinced that any pilot who has been flying for months in an extended war would have qualms about dropping atomic bombs as opposed to the standard variety.

The book hits a high point with Stephen Shugart's Making Faces and Justin Courter's The Town News. The former is a story of Halloween masks. The latter is a Kafka-like meditation on doom and love. The book then plunges into the crapper with Carol Schwalberg's The Midnight Lover, a story about an unhappily married woman dreaming of an alternate life with a Chasidic Jew. Every line in the book comes straight from the world of hokey Yiddish clichés that weren't terribly funny when the Catskills provided the center of stand up comedy. Shelly Jackson's Short-Term Memorial Park relies on clever tricks rather than actual story telling.

This is the 200-page mark. At this point I despaired of ever finishing the book. The next few stories only added to my depression. Randall Silvis' The Night of Love's Last Dance is a bad approximation of Magical Realism with a woman who loves dolphins or is a dolphin. It'd be innocuous had it not reveled in tortured prose like: "my left hand fingering the chords of her desire, my right hand stroking her resonating soul." and "Her luxurious gyrations were not mere dance, they were a response to my long root of ardor as it wormed its way inside her." These lines come from speeches by the pervy grandfather character. They not only suck on their own merits, but also you just know that Silvis wrote them thinking that he wrote the most profound insights into the human condition. They are the kind of nonsense lines that Creative Writing teachers routinely praise as deep.

At this point I'm screaming at the book. I'm not hitting into the wall; that action is reserved for crap like Memnoch the Devil or The Book of the Mormon. Yet, I'm writing "Boring" and "Shut up!" and "Die, pretentious prose, die!" in the margins and sometimes on the pages. I'm not certain, but I bet I also doodled just to keep myself from complete boredom.

Thankfully, better stories do raise their heads in the next 400 pages. Brian Evenson's An Accounting is a brilliant parody of Lord Jim. Terry Gates-Grimwood gives the reader a clever ghost story of sorts with Nobody Walks in London. Sadly, the rest of the stories follow the omg boring school of literature. Brian Morrow's Gardener of Heart boils with lousy prose. Noelle Sickels gives us dopy post-feminist sermonizing with The Tree and Kevin W. Reardon throws up a doomed gay love story with The Cloud Room.

Finally after 623 pages (including a non-genre story by Michael Moorcock) the editors wrap up the anthology with YET ANOTHER essay on the difficulties of marketing fiction, especially fiction that's both genre and literature. At this point, I get their point. I don't care. How much don't I care? I have a small press, and I should have been fascinated with the marketing tales.

In conclusion, Paraspheres is a good idea for an anthology and some stories do live up to the lofty goals set by Omnidawn, but in execution it fails to hold or sustain interest. For the most part, it's full of the same dull literary stories that you find in any collegiate literature magazine or class room. One hopes that when the editors try their hands at another anthology they place quality first and leave the lofty idealism about breaking genre barriers on a shelf where it belongs.

Paraspheres edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan. Tpb, 637pp, $19.95. Published by Omnidawn Publishing and available in the UK from Amazon

Website: - www.omnidawn.com


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