Surreal worlds of J.G. Ballard, ‘Armitage Family Stories’ and more
1Comfortably over a thousand pages, “The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard” “The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard” (Norton: 1,216 pp., $35) isn’t just a doorstop but the door itself, a portal to the worlds that Ballard (who died this year) hatched in his fictions. In the relentless consumer society of “The Subliminal Man,” a giant ad is vandalized and revealed to be flashing the words “BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW,” followed by “YES” 10 times in a row. In the surreal “Vermilion Sands,” artists make singing sculptures and poets plug commands into a Verse-Transcriber.
2Chase the Ballard with the late Joan Aiken’s “The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories” “The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories” (Big Mouth Press: 320 pp., $20). The wit is irrepressible, the invention wild: A baby is transformed into an elephant, which Harriet and Mark Armitage then need to stuff into a decommissioned phone booth. (Don’t ask -- just read.) Secondary characters do their inimitable turns, then disappear, or get transformed into animals. (Even animals can’t escape morphing into other animals: A neighboring sorceress turns Walrus, the Armitage cat, into a wolf.) Such delicious lightness, paradoxically, is the fiction’s raison d'être.
3Who belongs in “American Fantastic Tales”“American Fantastic Tales”? This two-volume anthology, edited by Peter Straub (Library of America: 1,500 pp., $70), seems to contain everyone, from the usual suspects (Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King) and their latter-day acolytes (Michael Chabon, Kelly Link), to canonical literary figures you might not expect: Edith Wharton, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are plenty of offerings from triple-named obscurities (Madeleine Yale Wynne, Ralph Adams Cram), and once-popular writers (humorist John Kendrick Bangs, whose story about a story is clever and haunting). The most potent tale is arguably “Mr. Lupescu,” a 1945 five-pager by the influential editor and critic Anthony Boucher. (Boucher offered Philip K. Dick important early encouragement and was a correspondent of Harry Stephen Keeler’s.) A friend reported that he heard his wife gasp twice when she read it. I know exactly which two moments were to blame.
4 Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”“The Magicians” (Viking: 416 pp., $26.95) manages a literary trick: It’s both an enchantingly written fantasy and a moving deconstruction of enchantingly realized fantasies. I have a theory about the ending that is wrong (I asked Grossman about it when I interviewed him for this newspaper), but my fondness for this reading proves the strength of his spell.
5In Victor LaValle’s “Big Machine”“Big Machine” (Spiegel & Grau: 384 pp., $25), one odd encounter leads to another with a phantasmal logic laced with humor, the whole thing building up to a monumental dream work. This unruly and entertaining novel finds the surreal or supernatural (soul-sucking cats, swamp spirits) from Vermont to the fictional Garland (read: Oakland), Calif., with blood and revelations in Florida, shocking bits of business in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and in an apartment complex in Queens.
Park’s novel, “Personal Days,” was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award. He writes the monthly Astral Weeks column at latimes.com/books.
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