Have You Ever Been Here?

This train of thought originally started life as a comment responding to something Matt Cheney said in the thread on this post, but it seems to have gone walkabout, so I’m redirecting it over here. Of M. Rickert’s work, he said:

… in general I’d say what has most impressed me is the complexity of the narratives, the openness to ambiguity within them, which, when it works, creates a rich reading experience (at least for me). […] In her best stories, the prose is not sloppy at all, but it can feel that way if you’re only looking at one of the levels of the story–every sentence does have a purpose, every word a function, but the purposes and functions are often toward different goals.

This isn’t quite what does it for me. I come to this just having read Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here” in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s Feeling Very Strange anthology, and on my way to the conclusion that it’s one of my favourite Rickert stories to date. It’s told in the second person, and “you” find yourself disconnected from reality: looking around, you don’t see people, you just see bodies. You’re on a train, and then you’re in a mysterious hospital, on the waiting list for an ambiguous operation. It could be a dream, or a delusion, or real–it’s a fantasy of equipoise, then, although a fantasy about a science fictional possibility, which adds a distinctive zing to the proceedings. But that’s not what makes the story so impressive to me.

I’m not saying that ambiguity can’t be impressive: either ambiguity of plot–the surreal resolution of, say, “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link–or ambiguity of setting–such as is found in many of Margo Lanagan’s or Carol Emshwiller’s stories, where nothing overtly fantastic takes place, but there’s a strong sense that it could–can be extremely powerful. These are stories that cannot be resolved; they exist in balance.

And you could certainly read Rickert’s stories in that way. But for me, crucially, they’re often not so much in balance as in tension, and that, I think, is down to the emotional weight placed on the presence or absence of the fantastic. A story like Lanagan’s “Wooden Bride” is unerringly strange because it keeps threatening to turn into a fantasy, but in a sense it doesn’t actually matter whether it does or not. In Rickert’s stories, it matters, often hugely. In “Anyway“, the fate of the world depends on it.

More overtly fantastic stories that ask us what we want to believe in are relatively common. Lucius Shepard’s “Trujillo“, for example, is a story about demonic possession, but stops short of confirming that that’s actually what’s happened. We are left wanting desperately to believe in the supernatural explanation–to believe that something terrible has been done to the likeable protagonist, that it wasn’t simply something black and rotten in him–but with the nagging doubt that to do so would be an act of denial. Similarly in “Foundation”, China Mieville tells the story of a town built on the corpses of murdered soldiers: we don’t have to read the story as fantasy, but we want to. We want to believe that the soldiers are reaching out from beyond the grave, because we are angry on their behalf; we want them to have a voice. Much, or perhaps even most, supernatural horror takes the opposite tack, of course, leaving us wanting to believe that the supernatural is not real, that the nightmares will go away.

At the end of “You Have Never Been Here”, we are left wondering which level of the fantastic we want to believe in. Do we want to believe that the entire story is a dream? That the dream-within-the-dream is real? Or would that, we wonder, be an abdication of responsibility? This is ambiguity, yes, but it’s not the sort you can mine limitlessly; rather, it’s a series of carefully constructed choices, under tension, pulling against each other.

Of all things, I find that this reminds me of a moment in a recent episode of Doctor Who. Specifically, the moment in Steven Moffatt’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” where the Doctor, having frozen one of the bad guys, starts to examine it. He is astonished and enchanted by what he finds under the shabby disguise:

Field trip to France, some kind of basic camouflage protocol … nice needlework. Shame about the face.
[pulls off the mask]
Oh! You. Are. Beautiful!
[puts on glasses, peers at the revealed robot]
No, really, you are, you’re gorgeous!
[to Rose and Mickey]
Look at that! Space-age clockwork, I love it! I’ve got chills!
[to the robot]
Listen, seriously, I mean this from the heart–and, by the way, count those–it would be a crime, it would be an act of vandalism to disassemble you …
[beat, holds up sonic screwdriver, serious]
… but that won’t stop me.

Because, of course, Matt’s right that every part of an M. Rickert story is essential. They are marvels of 21st-century clockwork. Clearly no good writing can truly be summarised–if what a story does can be achieved in some shorter way just as effectively, it’s not much of a story–but there’s a difference between describing the arc of The Sparrow and trying to write about a story like “You Have Never Been”. In the former case, it’s possible to comfortably convey the feeling that Russell’s novel is a perfect crescendo, knowing that you won’t diminish the effectiveness of that crescendo when actually read; in the latter, it almost feels as though to write about the story is not just to somehow flatten it, but to actively violate it. It is to dismantle an artifact of dark beauty, wondering if the damage is irreparable.

The miracle of the story, of course, is that on re-reading it’s as good as new.


6 thoughts on “Have You Ever Been Here?

  1. I don’t think we’re disagreeing, actually, though I may be thinking of the word “ambiguity” as containing what you’re calling “tension” (doesn’t the tension produce a balance in its unresolveability?). The reading you give of the stories here is pretty much what I’d say, and I’ve said similar things about Rickert’s work before, though I perhaps galumphed through it a bit in the comment you quoted.

    I got into an argument with a friend once who berated me for defending “Anyway”, which he thought was a sap-headed New Agey piece of drivel, because he was reading it as having an entirely reliable narrator, while I thought it was interesting because I didn’t think we had to trust the narrator’s account, that the story left plenty of room for doubt, which is what made it compelling to me. It’s that sort of complexity — whether tense or ambiguous — that is hard to pull off, and that I particularly respect in Rickert’s best work.

  2. You may be right that I’m splitting hairs; I have a habit of doing that. :) But I quite like the balance/tension thing, I think; the former conjures up a mental image of a spinning plate, the latter a suspension bridge. Both require skill of execution and skill of construction, but in slightly different proportions, perhaps.

    And yes, I know you’ve written about M. Rickert‘s stories before–the post wasn’t really intended as a disagreement as following through a train of thought that your comment sparked to my own end.

    In conclusion: bring on Map of Dreams.

  3. Somewhat tangential to your main debate, as I’ve not read the Rickert, but:

    it almost feels as though to write about the story is not just to somehow flatten it, but to actively violate it.

    Have you read the opening bit of Clute’s Look at the Evidence? He says there – rather interestingly, I think – that to read any story is to get it wrong and therefore to violate it; a reviewer’s job is to explain how and why you misprisioned the work. You seem to be saying that the Rickert is a story which foregrounds a sense that *any* reading is a misprisioning…which is a very interesting (and characteristically slipstreamy) effect for a story to achieve.

    I’m with Niall on there being a distinction between balance and tension. The former is a dynamic state, the latter static: it’s the difference between the tightrope cable and the walker atop it.

  4. Yes, I’ve read that bit of LatE, I think. I’m not sure I’d go quite so far–which is to say that what Clute says is literally true, because none of us are mind-readers, but I don’t think it’s practically true. I think there are stories that offer their intent openly enough that the difference between interpretation and intent becomes almost no difference.

    Having said which, I think you’re right about what the Ricket is doing, and it is one of the most satisfyingly slipstreamy stories in the anthology, even by my specific definition of the term.

    Also, your balance/tension metaphor was better than mine.

  5. Re your first para, yeah. Though I have come to think of some stories as, in effect, bullying: making all too plain what you’re supposed to think of them, what’s the interpretation you’re supposed to take away. It’s kind of like being blackmailed – “if you don’t think *this* about the story, you’ve got it wrong.” (Very rare is the story which blatantly tells you what to think about it and always wins you over – “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is the only one that springs to mind.)

    But, equally, I don’t think of difficulty or ambiguity as necessarily aesthetic goods – sometimes, they’re clearly not. There’s a sense in which some authors attempt to evade meaning by using ambiguity their material doesn’t justify. So I have a profoundly contradictory set of aesthetic criteria. Sue me. :)

  6. Ah ha — it’s clearer to me now. (I can be a slow learner at times…) I see the distinction, and you’re right, it’s a good one, though difficult to apply.

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