Astral Weeks: Fiction that’s strange and fantastic

“Though the tradition of realistic fiction is a rich and a verdant one, it is a mistake to believe that it exhibits the oldest or grandest trees in the forest of literature,” writes novelist Kevin Brockmeier in his introduction to the new anthology “Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Volume 3" (Underland: 318 pp., $14.95).

Brockmeier cites an august lineage of writers and stories drawing on “the magical and otherworldly,” including Homer, Ovid, “The Thousand and One Nights,” Poe, Ballard and García Márquez. Brockmeier writes that in many of these works, “the branches of the ordinary and the extraordinary are so tightly intertwined that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart.”

He’s right, of course, though I wonder why it’s necessary to invoke this formidable ancestry as a preface to the 20 tales (or “grafted trees”) collected here. What selection of recent stories could hope to hold its own against such immortals? It also seems like a play to the consumer of more firmly realist literary fiction, the hypothetical dude or dudette at the bookstore debating between picking up this anthology or something more earthbound -- say, the latest “Best American Short Stories.” (In his preface to “Real Unreal,” series editor Matthew Cheney notes: “While finishing work on this book [Brockmeier] was an instructor at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an institution that counts many of the most prominent writers of literary realism in the last fifty years among its alumni and teachers.”)

But my guess is that this is preaching to the converted. The audience for “Real Unreal,” I suspect, are those fans of writers whose gift for the fantastic has not precluded mainstream notice: writers like Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Michael Chabon (who provides a vigorous front-cover blurb, calling the book “an important -- no, a crucial -- map of the richness and strangeness and startling range of the modern American short story”). Which is to say, a better way of marketing “Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3" might have been to scrap the defensiveness, switch the title to “Excellent Recent Short Fiction” and leave it at that.

Brockmeier has discriminating taste, and “Real Unreal” is a satisfying mix of styles and sensibilities, featuring fiction drawn from such diverse sources as Fairy Tale Review, Tin House and the Oxford American.

Entertaining long works such as “The Last Unicorn” novelist Peter S. Beagle’s warm, precisely dialogued “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel” and John Kessel’s joke-transcending Austen-meets-Frankenstein pastiche “Pride and Prometheus” alternate with brief but potent pieces. Jeffrey Ford’s “Daltharee” turns a city-in-a-bottle experiment into a metaphor for storytelling (I raved about it in this space in 2008, after its appearance in “The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy”). Martin Cozza’s even shorter “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” is a three-paragraph parable that begins “The president came over for lunch” and ends with the commander-in-chief defacing the narrator’s family pictures. (Published in the July 2008 issue of the literary journal Pindeldyboz, it’s a cryptic nightmare of Bush-as-invader.)


Other succinct delivery systems include Laura Kasischke’s “Search Continues for Elderly Man” and Stephen King’s “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates”; their detached titles open up into haunting, tense journeys to the border of the living and the dead. Both pieces are from Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, which just went from a monthly to a bimonthly this year. (King’s story, with its uneasy slippage of time, also feels like it’s in direct communication with his 1998 story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French,” included in Library of America’s two-volume “American Fantastic Tales” also reviewed in this column.)

Several pieces have fun with form. Lisa Goldstein’s “Reader’s Guide” takes that most condescending literary apparatus, the book-club guide, and turns it inside out until it becomes a thing of Borgesian wonder. “How does Mary Bainbridge, the author of ‘Winter Swan,’ let us know that Donny is unhappy?” runs the first question, followed by the stumper: “Is it significant that the novel takes place in winter?” Soon enough, a narrator materializes behind these questions, just as one does in Padgett Powell’s recent novel “The Interrogative Mood,” and the insipidity of the format gives way to a vision of a vast Library of Story: “I think that the shelves are infinite, or at least I’ve never reached the end of them, row upon row of bookcases, room after room opening out one after the other.”

In “Serials,” Katie Williams performs a reductio ad absurdum on the media’s serial-killer fixation, imagining a whole society in which publicized, fetishistic murder is more of a pastime than a crime. That the whole thing is related in the voice of a chipper, unfazed teenager is at once hilarious and disturbing. Cliché is taken to the breaking point: “I want you to know that I don’t hold any grudges against you,” her boyfriend tells her, “and that I sincerely hope you’ll make it home without being serial-killed.” Artfully confusing the issue are a series of footnotes for articles that gradually reveal their spuriousness, such as one supposedly taken from a 2005 Maxim article “Ten Signs She’s Worth Killing -- And Five Warnings She’s Not!”

Other visions of the absurd abound, and the authors locate both the humor and horror of their initially outlandish situations. Ryan Boudinot’s “Cardiology” begins as spry fabulism (a town where everyone shares one huge heart) and ends with a vision of rising blood, a “leak that slowly fills an entire house,” that recalls the trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

Likewise, Will Clarke’s “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children” executes a double-dare, turning the whimsy of its premise into a resonant parting image. The Redbird, a minor-league superhero with the power of flight but nothing else (“You couldn’t very well fly a super villain to death”) leaves the city of Shreveport with his numerous illegitimate, ginger-headed children, born to a variety of mothers. Using the first-person plural, Clarke plays up the antic tone while shepherding it to an Old Testament climax. (Kuzhali Manickavel’s short “Flying and Falling” is an effective chaser, a folk-tale-like treatment of similar themes.)

Two of the most affecting pieces are meditations on mortal time. The protagonist of Chris Gavaler’s quiet, surprising “Is” is a girl named Isabelle who finds a hidden door in her house; in a bravura move, Gavaler uses the door as a pivot to swiftly swing our perspective on her life, portraying her several years and many sorrows later. Her grad-student boyfriend’s cynical deconstruction of what she saw as a kid (“Your subconscious is projecting backward”) is only one explanation, and the feeblest.

Shawn Vestal’s “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death” gives us an afterlife in which all people from history exist as they were at the time of their passing. The result is funny and strange: The narrator is about the same age as his father, while his son, who died a nonagenarian, is too senile to remember him. You mingle with people from different historical eras. You tend to order the same favorite dish you had, while living, for every meal. But Vestal also gets at the complexity of family dynamics in what feels like a wholly original way -- magnifying all its terrible poignancy by freezing it in eternity.

Ed Park is the author of the novel “Personal Days” and an editor of the Believer.