In the season four West Wing presidential debate episode, “Game On”, there’s a rather nice running joke about a Republican, Albie Duncan, who Toby thinks they should use in the post-debate spin session, to counteract the fact that the Republican candidate has a Democrat “shilling for him on defense”. CJ and Toby have the following exchange:
TOBY: This is why I’m talking to you. You’re going to use Albie Duncan.
CJ: He’ll do it?
CJ: He will?
CJ: Look at me. He’s not a little bit crazy?
TOBY: Albie Duncan?
TOBY: No. No. No. [beat] A little bit.
Give or take Richard Schiff’s ever-marvellous delivery, that’s sort of how I feel about Greer Gilman’s story “Down the Wall”. It’s not because of Gilman’s much-discussed use of language, or not specifically. Here’s the opening of the story:
Stilt-legs scissoring, snip-snap! the bird gods dance. Old craneycrows, a skulk of powers. How they strut and ogle with their long eyes, knowing. How they serpentine their necks. And stalking, how they flirt their tails, insouciant as Groucho. Fugue and counterfugue, the music jigs and sneaks. On tiptoe, solemnly, they hop and flap; they whirl and whet their long curved clever bills. A sly dance, a wry dance, miching mallecho. Pavane. They peacock, but their drab is eyeless, black as mourners, black as mutes. They are clownish, they are sinister, in their insatiable invention, their unending.
As I had been led to expect, this is certainly careful, formidable writing — the unfamiliar words (“miching”), the words verbed (“serpentine”) or nouned (“drab”), the striking phrases (“the music jigs and sneaks”), the oddly placed cultural reference (“insouciant as Groucho”), the rhythms — but it doesn’t require significantly more unpacking than the writing of, say, Margo Lanagan, or even Catherynne Valente or Hal Duncan in full flow. What impressed me was what happened next. When the long paragraph (at least double the amount I quoted) ends, we have an extremely vivid image of the bird gods’ dance in our minds, and we think we know what sort of fantasy story we’re reading. And then we’re confronted with one phrase — “the birds are phosphor in a box” — which forces us to reframe everything we thought we’d learnt. The second paragraph continues:
The birds are phosphor in a box. They sift and sift across the screen; they whisper. They are endless snow or soot, the ashes of the old world burning. Elsewhere fire. The hailbox whispers, whispers. There is no way to turn it off. No other channel but the gods. All day and night it snows grey phosphor, sifting in the corners of the air. The earth is grey with ash.
The birds are images seen in the static of a dead tv. And quite suddenly, it starts to become apparent that “Down the Wall” isn’t fantasy at all. There’s a tv the characters can’t, or don’t know how, to turn off; they think of the static as “the ashes of the old world burning”; it all sounds very much like post-apocalyptic science fiction.
I think I’m right in saying that nothing in the story later contradicts this interpretation. The bird gods, it transpires, have an existence beyond static, but it’s an existence in stories of this time. The world of “Down the Wall” struck me very much as world where the horizon has drawn closer, where the giants have been kicked out from under the characters. They describe lightning, for instance, as “godlight”; the bird gods themselves are described so lyrically it’s hard to be sure, but I think we are meant to understand that they are the projections of a people scared by a world they no longer comprehend, and not a literal reality. Which is to say that I think they are wind and sticks and storm, but I could be wrong.
What makes the story — which involves a brother and sister going out from their home, into the world — so decidedly odd, though, isn’t this shift, it’s the way in which the world is rendered. For one thing, the characters all have names — Spugget, Harpic, Fligger, Theek — straight out of Peake, which makes them sound grotesque, although there’s little indication that they actually are. For another, when they speak they say things like “Hush. Nobbut an awd busker. I’ll fend” and “Gerroff wi’ yer. Left, left, down close and top o’t stairs”, which frankly makes them sound like they came from the North of England and brought all their cliches with them. It was all I could do not to imagine the lot of them wearing flat caps — not exactly a common image in sf. But in the end, if the story’s construction feels a bit patchwork, and if its ending is somewhat arbitrary, there’s no denying its urgency or imagination — the descriptions of the gang of children running world are particularly impressive. Later in the West Wing episode I mentioned above, defending Albie Duncan further (the Democrats do eventually use him), Toby says, “Look, he’s Albie Duncan. [...] If he’s crazy, then I don’t want to be sane.” Sanity sounds overrated when reading “Down the Wall”, too.