Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

I'm one of those readers who's perfectly fine with the term speculative fiction (or fantastika on the other end of the spectrum). I enjoy a sense of genre ambiguity, as long as it's done well. It's also why I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler's stories. Some of the criticism leveled against her--and it's valid for a lot of the stories in What I Didn't See and Other Stories--is that it's neither science fiction or fantasy. Which isn't quite right. The fantastical or science fictional elements (as the case may be) tends to be subtle, except in a few circumstances (such as "Halfway People"). But at the end of the day, whether a specific story has this or that, isn't the point. I'm more concerned with whether a) I enjoyed the story and b) if it is well-written. The stories in this collection--every single one of them--easily satisfies that criteria.

Some writers like to experiment in style and technique. Fowler isn't that kind of author, although each story is different in its own way. "Booth's Ghost" for example could easily have been classified as historical fiction, "The Dark" is sprinkled with research, and "Halfway People" is subversion of a well-known fairy tale. What's common among all of Fowler's stories--and the appeal of her writing--is her characterization and how we delve into the mindscape of her protagonists. One of my favorite stories for example is "The Last Worders" and one of the appealing aspects of the narrative is how the author never writes condescendingly to the reader. While the conflict and resolution isn't understated, it's not explicit either. It's up to the reader to read between the lines and comprehend the implications. It wouldn't work if Fowler doesn't sell us on her portrayal of the characters but it's quite evident how her protagonist in in denial. And this is just one story. "Always" for example has a different point of attack but Fowler's exploration of her main character is just as powerful and sympathetic. What impressed me here for example is how the reader comes to share the narrator's epiphany, at how convicing the character's paradigm shift is--and how this sets her apart from the rest.

Initially, upon receiving the book, I wouldn't exactly classify Fowler's stories as memorable based on the title alone. But I've actually read a third of the stories from other sources--I quite easily remembered "The Pelican Bar" from Eclipse Three--and it's surprising how the story comes together in your mind after just reading the first few sentences. For me "Booth's Ghost" was interesting because I had heard a reading of it and I imagined reading it from a different book when that wasn't the case (it's a story original to the collection). Even Fowler's older work such as "The Dark" is something that will stand the test of time.

Fowler cements her place in fiction history--genre or otherwise--not because of her fancy tricks but through sheer technique and her excellence in characterization. She should also be given credit at challenging the status quo through her insertion of the genre element in her fiction, even if it at times, it is mostly invisible. In a society where genre fans are disheartened to read about mainstream writers disavowing their clearly-genre work, Fowler is the opposite as she's willingly embracing genre. The metafiction aside, What I Didn't See and Other Stories is a powerful collection with no weak link, providing not just quantity but quality.

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