By Ed Park
Last fall, the Portland, Ore.-based literary journal Tin House published an issue titled “Fantastic Women,” a satisfyingly plump gathering of work by what could loosely be called the new breed of fabulists.
The fiction displays slipstream-sleek supernaturalism (Samantha Hunt’s were-deer tale), formal playfulness (Aimee Bender’s winning monologue, “Lemonade), or myriad other disorientations (Gina Zucker’s sex-trade nightmare “A Hard Worker,” made all the more brutal by its girlish narrator). The sole male contributor is Rick Moody, who offers a remembrance of his teacher, Angela Carter, a presiding spirit of sorts over this quasi-movement. (“Fantastic Women” is still available at the magazine’s website.)
Not included in the issue is Catherynne M. Valente, whose devotion to the conte fantastique rivals that of any of the Tin Housers.
(And her productivity overwhelms most of theirs: Not yet 30, she’s already published five books of fiction and four of poetry.) Valente shares their fascination with altered beasts, uncanny conceits and unpredictable narration, and she embeds them in a delirious structure -- call it “If on an Arabian Night a Traveler” -- that sees one storyteller splinter into another and another and another, the pages like mirrors set against each other in something as near infinity as two covers can contain.
“In the Cities of Coin and Spice” (Bantam: 516 pp., $18 paper) is the second book of “The Orphan’s Tales,” but you needn’t read the first (2006 Tiptree winner “In the Night Garden”) to be extravagantly entertained. Indeed, you probably don’t even need to read this book from the beginning -- for in a sense every chapter here is a beginning, the start of a new thread that will lead to another and another and another.
The frame is the same as in Volume 1: An outcast girl, with a bewildering number of stories inked in fantastically minuscule script across her eyelids, tells stories to the one boy -- he happens to be heir apparent to the Sultanate -- who does not shun her. (The dermal canvas recalls Shelley Jackson’s “Skin” project, in which more than 2,000 volunteers agreed to be tattooed with a different word from her otherwise unprinted story -- not to mention the coed student at the start of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” who blinks “Love You” to lecturer Indy.) In a twist, the second set of tales collected in “Coin and Spice” requires that the boy read the stories to her: These are the last tales, the ones she can’t read herself, since they start on one eyelid and continue on the other.
Edges of this frame, appearing amid the vast, cluttered weave, are designated “In the Garden,” a nod to Jorge Luis Borges’ ramifying short fiction “The Garden of Forking Paths.” It’s easy to get lost in the dense proliferation of Story; in fact, getting lost is the point. The girl tells the princeling about someone named Seven, who pays a ferryman, Idyll, to take him across a treacherous lake. Noticing the unique coin that Seven tenders, Idyll urges him to tell his story; Seven relates how, as a child, he was captured along with others by strange, long-necked creatures -- one of whom, Vhummim, tells Seven about how the extravagant city where she lived was destroyed . . . and on and on.
(In my running notes later in the book, intended as a Hansel-and-Gretelish trail of crumbs to lead me back to a clearing, I see that a goldfish has been telling a story about how it was once a dragon, who met a firebird, who explained to the dragon how it once encountered a spider who worked as a tailor, who told it -- the firebird -- about meeting three mute sparrows, who had related to him the story of a nearly drowned girl who was also, somehow, a compass; around here, I gave up trying to reconstruct the trail.)
Flashes of wry humor balance Valente’s lush imaginings, like banana peels strategically placed inside the greenhouse. A little figure in a fountain features a statue that’s missing her eyes, “and her knees aren’t so good, and I never could tell if she’s got the Bark of Plenty in her hands or some old toys the children stuck in there when they got bored with them.” When an inventor tells a story to the mechanical hen she has ingeniously constructed, every word is new to her creation. Thus she must define “Once upon a time” (“It means a very long time ago, or at least, long enough ago that it would be impolite to reveal the actual number of years involved.”). The next small bit of narration, “There lived a maiden in a castle,” requires explanations “about virginity, and about dowries, and marriage contracts, and hymens, and paternity, and primogeniture, and the various expressions of royalty, systems of rank, and court etiquette.” It’s the postmodern version of the never-ending story.
Sometimes the incessant concatenation of narratives has a touch of ADD, the pieces resembling curious shards rather than complete tales. But when Valente lets a story reach its full shape, the effect is stunning. Her fable of the Hungry Lord (which breaks off of Vhummim’s tale, mentioned above) is a powerful myth, the Fisher King by way of “The Tin Woodman of Oz,” in which a wife gives up parts of herself to feed her husband’s shameful, monstrous appetite.
Late in the book, an opera performer in Ajanabh (a doomed enclave/de facto artists’ colony) takes off costume after costume: First, he’s a seal, then a bear, then a pelican, then a “handsome young man” . . . and then, finally, a jackal. He tells a visitor why the land is barren, spinning a stage-worthy yarn about two identical young women (one noble, one poor), their jaunty agreement, and the petrifying basilisk who comes between them; it’s all fiction, he admits, but how is it any different from the other fictions we’ve been wading through?
Reading “In the Cities of Coin and Spice” is like spelunking in a cavern that has no bottom, gazing at spellbinding mineral formations and worrying whether you’re ever going to make it back to the surface. The sensation is there in David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” and in Harry Stephen Keeler’s “Thieves’ Nights,” but Valente takes us to new heights -- or depths? -- of dizziness.
Here, in her garden of forking paths, I’m reminded of another Borges piece, “Partial Magic in the ‘Quixote,’ ” an essay that has disturbed me ever since I read it nearly 20 years ago. In just a few pages, he catalogs instances of stories within stories -- how the characters in “Hamlet” watch a play called “The Murder of Gonzago,” how the characters in “Don Quixote” read other works by Cervantes, which vexes them to nightmare.
If fictional beings can read novels, or see plays, then who is to say that we are not being read or viewed by some other being, floating beyond our frame of reference? Valente captures such structural vertigo, the voluptuous free-fall in which subject and object trade places: “The ceiling spun away overhead, into the broken bell hook and beyond, and the night poured in.”
Ed Park is an editor of the Believer and the author of the forthcoming novel “Personal Days.” His column Astral Weeks appears monthly.