Fantastic Women: 18 tales of the surreal and the sublime from Tin House
(Tin House Books, 2011)
The introduction to Fantastic Women describes this 18-story collection, all by women writers, as a “flowering” of the surrealist literary movement, and the description is unfortunate. Lovers of fantasy and science fiction may assume the book isn’t for them, and the marker “fantastic” may scare off a more mainstream audience. Slipstream? Magical Realism? What’s a literary press to do? Genre-labeling: here there be dragons.
In recent years, fantasy and science fiction have seen increased commercial success. Could this explain the literary presses’ embrace of genre? Perhaps, but here there is an uneasiness with speculative fiction, slick on the surface, which makes for an uneven collection. The genre reader in particular may wonder if some of the writers are holding back, unwilling to cross the line from surrealism over to genre. Speculative elements can be suffocated by pretty prose, lavish description, and purposeful ambiguity, and many of the stories in Fantastic Women present their genre elements as metaphor only. This may please readers who want their genre light and their prose literary in flavor, but it is unlikely to satisfy fantasy and science fiction fans.
The best stories, however, are knockouts all around. Kelly Link slips us into a science fictional realm with “Light,” dropping by a Florida bar just before a hurricane hits. It’s a world where your shadow can spawn an unwelcome twin and your pocket universe can overrun your house with too many iguanas. Aimee Bender’s “Americca” twists the ordinary into the unsettling when a girl in a suburban family grapples with the unexplained appearance of seemingly ordinary household objects, like a can of lemongrass corn chowder soup in the pantry. And Julia Elliot’s “The Wilds” is the antidote I didn’t know I needed to an overdose of young-adult-paranormal-coming-of-age romances. A blackout prompts a neighborhood cookout and one young girl gets cozy with the oldest of a pack of almost-feral brothers who dons a Wolfman mask each month.
I was a bit surprised by how many of the stories were primarily concerned with boyfriends, husbands, (male) lovers, and fathers (or father figures). Stories about women in relation to men are seriously over-represented, as though feminist fabulation has nothing to talk about besides our manfolk. Still, two of these men-focused stories did stand out from the pack: Lucy Corin’s “The Entire Predicament,” which chronicles the horror of a woman’s final hours, and Stacey Richter’s “The Doll Awakens,” an unexpected resistance story. (And I recommend you read them in that order!)
While far too many pages of this anthology were taken up by writers who seem uneasy with speculative tropes, the gems of the lot are very, very shiny indeed.