Title: Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House
Editor: Rob Spillman
Published: 26 July 2011
Publisher: Tin House
Genre: short stories, magical realism, folklore, mythology
Source: eARC from publisher
My Rating: 6/10
Fantastic Women is a collection of short stories, all written by women, that have been gathered together because they’re “peculiar”. In the introduction, Joy Williams mentions how she once “got spanked by the doyenne of the literary establishment” for using the word ‘peculiar’, despite it having such wonderful meaning – “special, distinctive, different from the usual or normal or ordinary. It even means exemption from the power of an authority to interpret or control” (vii). And that is an excellent description of the tales you’ll find in this anthology. They’re nothing if not unbound by convention. Don’t imagine that this means you can pigeonhole them as fantasy, because you certainly cannot. Fantasy may not be mainstream, but much of it nevertheless bows to the conventions of storytelling and genre. Not so here.
In Fantastic Women, you’ll encounter such odd stories as Lucy Corin’s The Entire Predicament in which a woman finds herself dismembered, gagged and suspended from ropes in a doorway of her home. From the window she can see her children playing with soldiers, and when her husband comes home he holds her hand while he eats a sandwich as if nothing is out of the ordinary. In Beast by Samantha Hunt, a woman wonders how to tell her husband that she turns into a deer at night – “If I tell him, though, maybe he could build a special door for me. He’s handy like that. A door that doesn’t require opposable thumbs”. In Abroad by Judith Budnitz, a couple go on holiday to a third world country, but the man keeps inviting people to their hotel room, until it
“is just a mass of bodies, cookstoves, tents, shanties, music, dancing arms and bobbing breasts, boys pitching pennies, stray dogs, the burned smell of someone curling her hair, a bazaar of stalls selling rugs and copper kettles, laundry hanging on lines overhead, the endlessly overflowing toilet. The walls are grease-stained, the bare-bulb a small-sun”
The narrator refrains from complaining about any of this because she doesn’t want to offend the locals.
Don’t expect to be given reasons for how any of this is possible. It can’t simply be said that it’s all magic. You can’t use the excuse that the stories take place on another planet, an imaginary world or in another dimension. No one is going to wake up and claim that it was all just a dream. What happens, happens, so just go with it.
You could, perhaps call this magical realism, that blurrily defined genre where mainstream literary fiction goes to a tea party with folklore, mythology, and all things fantastical, and leaves in hallucinogenic bliss, full of fresh, bizarre ideas for depicting life’s conundrums. These stories certainly have a very literary feel to them – they abound with metaphors and they’re beautifully written.
It all sounds so lovely, which is why I was so disappointed to find that there was only one story I actually loved – Aimee Bender’s Americca (misspelling intended), in which 10-year Lisa narrates the story of how objects keep appearing in her family’s home. Each object is a duplicate or imitation of things they already own. There’s nothing malicious going on, but the family naturally finds this very unsettling, and the objects themselves suggest discomforting things about their lives.
I can’t quite explain why I enjoyed this story so much, but I was surprised that it was the only one to evoke such a strong reaction. There are a few others I liked such as Snow White, Rose Red by Lydia Millet and The Wilds by Julia Elliot. Abroad (mentioned above) resonated with me because I’ve been living in a country much poorer and less developed than my own and I found the narrator’s sense of being overwhelmed, coupled with her patronising fear of offending people disturbing.
But unfortunately most of the stories in the collection did nothing for me. In the anthology’s defence, these stories aren’t particularly easy to appreciate, so they’re not necessarily bad, just… peculiar. You may find their weirdness enchanting or simply odd. The metaphors might resonate with you, or just leave you confused. Perhaps the most difficult thing to get used to is the fact that many of the stories don’t have a traditional narrative. It’s not clear where it’s going or why and the characters are often too strange for you to understand their motives. These stories seem to be luxuriating in their own oddities, and whether you can do the same is up to you. Joy Williams’s interpretations is that “their take on the psychological viewscape is that it’s endlessly curious [...] They are fictions neither moral or immoral. Rather they are involved contrivances, preposterous in conception, logical in presentation, quite delightful and askew”.
Consequently, even though I didn’t enjoy most of the stories, I nevertheless found this collection to be full of exquisite little details – a character’s quirk, a touch of humour or pathos, a beautiful sentence:
“my dog caught two rabbits in the backyard, finally, after years of failure. He slung them in a bundle over his shoulder and went packing.” (The Entire Predicament by Lucy Corin)
“I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people, our limbs are bound, our intestines and mouths stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great, despite the pain.” (Hot, Fast, and Sad by Alissa Nutting
“I read the newspaper in bed at night, propping it open on my bare belly, my boobs falling off to either side as if they were already asleep” (Beast by Samantha Hunt)
The little details are in themselves rewarding especially if you appreciate good writing. And if you’re a short story reader who thinks “peculiar” is a lovely word, you might enjoy this anthology.