Monday, December 03, 2007

Tin House: Fantastic Women

Like many writers I know, I have been savoring the Fantastic Women issue of Tin House which contains magic realist or fantasy-tinged stories and poems by women writers (and oddly enough one essay by Rick Moody). And while I bought the issue for the high number of writers I already admire (Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Samantha Hunt, Judy Budnitz, Shelley Jackson, Stacey Levine, Kelly Link, Miranda July, Lydia Millet...) the real fun has been in the new discoveries. I'm not done reading, so I'm sure more are to come, but the best surprise so far has been a coming of age story, "The Wilds," by Julia Elliot. It's about a girl whose next door neighbors are a pack of boys who lead a pretty feral childhood (actually it's a pretty normal childhood described in terms that point out how feral childhood can be). Anyway, one of the boys in the story spends a part of each month wearing a Wolfman mask and playing Wolfman for his brothers. Now I don't know where Elliot got that idea, but it echoes a great This American Life piece on a pack of brothers who were terrorized, really put into terror, by their older brother who pretended to be a Wolfman whenever he babysat them. And whether or not Elliot heard the piece, it made me think about how the world's connectedness has in certain ways led us to all know the same quirky news pieces, and how many writers gravitate toward the same places for our news (the same blogs, the same NPR shows, etc). And now that's showing in our fiction.

This came up recently with a friend of mine who wrote a great draft of a story that bore the visible imprint of a This American Life story and in my workshop where a student took a local news item about a fifty-year-old corpse of a baby found in a suitcase in a storage unit (by the decendents of the people who rented the storage unit) and built a story out of it. I recognized the origins of the story in both cases. And I'm here to say... I don't think it's a problem.

It's long been a trend to take history or famous figures and place them in fiction, so what's wrong with taking real unfamous figures (or famous in a different way, like for being on This American Life) and placing them in fiction? I say nothing. A few years ago T.C. Boyle wrote a story about the high school kids who murdered their baby upon its birth (after hiding the pregnancy) and a really good recent movie, Stephanie Daley, took on a similar storyline. And both of those fictional pieces clearly came from true sources, sources I recognized, and it didn't matter to my "reading" of the fiction. It added to my reading of the fiction...I liked having a glimpse into how the story might have been built. It seemed a new version of meta-fiction, where you don't necessarily acknowledge your sources but you don't fight to deny them either. It may well be one of the ways that the essay will influence the story. That topics addressed in essays get a second life in fiction. And it might provide interesting evidence into why we need both genres. One difference seems to be that in essay form the Wolfman is the point, the piece is about why he did it, what effect it had. But in story form, the Wolfman becomes a detail in the larger context of someone else's story (not that the essay couldn't have done that, but in this case it didn't). Maybe I'm wrong, but essays seem to me to typically have a focused center in a way that stories often don't. And so the fiction can take this strange detail of the Wolfman and apply it to anybody's story, to move it into a different space in the world than the one in which it actually existed, and therefore examine it from a different angle.

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