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Eyes of the beholders

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In last month's column, I pointed out some recent short stories that shine a light on their own construction. This month, we begin with David Marusek's clever epistolary yarn, "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," in which the whole motivation behind the writing is tied up in the odd, repetitive title.

But then, every bit of correspondence, from a terse business e-mail to a tear-soaked confession on lavender-scented stationery, is a narrative with built-in motivation. Something is desired, whether it's the removal of a credit-card charge, or the return of a lover, or simply an expiation of the writer's guilt for not having written in so long. To effectively amuse or upset or inform, the writer must bear the recipient in mind, gauging tone and structure accordingly. The pages of the letter work like frames, fixing aspects of the relationship between writer and reader: their respective locations, the level of intimacy or enmity, the time since the last communication. Such considerations make the letter a sturdy form for the short story writers.

In the introduction to "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," collected in "Getting to Know You" (Del Rey: 269 pp., $15), Marusek relates how elements of the plot had fermented in his head for years. It was only after attending a literary panel, in which magazine editors read "actual cover letters they had received from aspiring authors desperate to break into print," that he figured out how to write the story.

"Yurek Rutz" unfolds as a letter from one David Marusek to Gardner Dozois, longtime editor of "Asimov's Science Fiction." Marusek, "a borough zoning code examiner" whose literary career is a secret to his Fairbanks neighbors, accepts a strange commission by a not-quite widow named Emma Rutz: She wants him to compose her husband's epitaph. The rate: a thousand bucks for four lines.

Marusek confesses to Dozois that he writes to him "with grave misgivings" and to "pass along a certain questionable proposal." (Every letter is motivated.) Emma's husband, the eccentric Yurek Rutz, is ailing from Alzheimer's; Marusek learns that Yurek is distinctive only in his deeply narcissistic yearning for immortality. If Yurek's plan to keep himself cryonically preserved for future resurrection doesn't pan out, he's happy to achieve immortality via the world of letters. He's not a writer himself -- which is where the author steps in. Marusek will get a hundred dollars (from the Yurek Rutz Fund) every time he works the soon-to-be-deceased egotist's name in a published story. (Perhaps Marusek means to poke fun at those well-intentioned authors who agree to name a character after the highest bidder for a charity auction.)

Thus the letter to Dozois, replete with multiple instances of Rutz's name, becomes, in fact, the story itself (which Dozois, in the real world, published) -- a loop that's appropriately gimmicky and satisfying all at once.

As the title hints, Japanese writer Yasutaka Tsutsui's U.S. debut, "Salmonella Men on Planet Porno" (Pantheon: 272 pp., $21.95), bursts with wildly surreal situations. It too contains a loop story of sorts, "Rumours About Me," in which anything that happens to Tsotomu Morishita, the everyman protagonist, gets bruited by the mass media. One evening, the TV news notes that Morishita has been turned down for a date by a co-worker, then reports that "[a]ccording to well-informed sources, Morishita went straight to his apartment after work today, and is eating a meal that he prepared himself." It's a spryly absurd reduction of the very concept of narrative: It's literally what happens.

If nothing really happens, is it a story? It is -- if the frame is there, if the cameras are rolling, if anyone is paying attention. Narrative is in the eye of the beholder, and the simple fact of being observed changes the nature of the subject. Initially Tsotomu assumes that he hallucinated his appearance on the nightly news. Then the morning paper hits, with the headline "Morishita Rejected Again."

Any paranoid is a complete storyteller. In his version of the world, he's of utmost importance, the beleaguered point around which grand conspiracies (detected as the faintest whisper, a clump of bleached letters on a billboard) swirl. It's no great feat these days to satirize celebrity culture or the solipsistic virtual existences we create online, and by letting his conceit float in the realm of the fantastical, Tsutsui digs deeper. He externalizes all of Morishita's grandiose suspicions (triggered, we imagine, by his bungled attempts to woo the secretary), thus showing how a paranoid's auto-narration can work as an insanely incessant fiction.

The headlines alone are worth the price of admission:

"TM BUYS A TAILORED SUIT IN MONTHLY INSTALMENTS!"

"TM SLAMS CO-WORKER FUJITA OVER PAPERWORK ERROR."

"SHOCK! MOZZA'S SEX LIFE!"

When the world stops caring -- any narcissist's greatest fear -- the story ends.

The standout piece in "The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy" (Del Rey: 400 pp., $16), edited by Ellen Datlow, is also one of the collection's shortest. Jeffrey Ford's masterly "Daltharee" begins:

"You've heard of bottled cities, no doubt -- society writ minuscule and delicate beyond reason: toothpick-spired towns, streets no thicker than thread, pinprick faces of the citizenry peering from office windows smaller than sequins."

It's a sly strategy: "You've heard" slips us instantly into Ford's universe -- part of us always wants to appear in the know, so of course we've heard of those tiny worlds.

The city of Daltharee is one of these enclosed municipalities, and by the second paragraph Ford is already multiplying his conjurer's trick, giving us vertigo by presenting a miniature (a short story) about a miniature (a world that can easily fit atop a kitchen table). A conversation recorded by scientists (who are presumably the same size as us) reveals the inhabitants of Daltharee pondering the nature of their world, wondering if anything exists outside the glass.

The creator of Daltharee, the wayward scientist Mondo Paige (world on a page), is then reflected in the figure of the narrator himself -- or does Ford mean Ford himself? "Daltharee" ends on an exhilaratingly nightmarish note, with stories sprouting everywhere we look: "Each idea I have is a domed city that grows and opens like a flower. I want to tell you about cities and cities and cities named Daltharee." The narrator becomes his narration.

Ed Park is the author of the novel "Personal Days" and a founding editor of "The Believer."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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