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REVIEW: Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak

REVIEW SUMMARY: There’s a venue for Interstitial Fiction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 20 stories of Interstitial Fiction, as well as an exhaustive introduction and interview with the editors.


PROS: Two standout stories, and a lot of very good stories.

CONS: While there are not outright bad stories, seven fall just below the “very good” category, which actually isn’t too detracting.

BOTTOM LINE: A solid anthology of Interstitial Fiction, with a fairly consistent quality of writing.

The distinction between Interstitial Fiction and other genres isn’t such a big deal to me although the introduction by Henry Jenkins makes for a compelling argument as to why this genre (or rather, lack of a distinct genre) is appropriate for this generation of readers. For me, this is simply a collection of great stories, each of which tries something different and unconventional.

At first glance, Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing is quite good. The stories are memorable and does something outstanding, but not what you’d call all-time favorites. And then I came across two stories which made an impression:

  • “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” by Carlos Hernandez
  • “Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken” by Elizabeth Ziemska

These two are easily stories I’d nominate for an award. They cross the spectrum of genres and deliver a story that’s very gratifying, not so much in the idea/concept department (although it’s not lacking in that area either) but focuses more on the emotional impact. One can’t help but shed a tear by the time you reach the end.

There are a lot of other good stories here, including from personal author favorites like Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Theodora Goss, and David J. Schwartz. But there were also new discoveries for me such as Alaya Dawn Johnson, Peter M. Ball, and Lionel Davoust. More interesting are the stories that are certainly above mediocrity, and are in many ways “good enough”, but aren’t that particularly memorable for me, at least compared to the other terrific stories included here. That, at least, is certainly not a bad criticism.

I do want to point out however that at the end of each story, there’s an afterword by the author. The effect these have range from genuine insight to a need by the writer to defend why their stories are interstitial.

Those that are also curious as to what interstitial fiction is would do well to pick up this book. There’s an interesting interview at the end, as the editors share their own perspectives. And if anything, the stories themselves speak out for what could fall under this non-category.

Individual story reviews follow…

The opening story, “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper” by Jeffrey Ford, is distinctly unique from the author’s other stories. There’s a dream-like quality to it in the sense that events shift from one scene to the next with little preparation yet it makes sense by the time you finish the piece. This story works on multiple levels, from the seemingly-unrelated events to the fiction/non-fiction divide. It caught me off-guard initially but soon became a pleasant read.

“The Beautiful Feast” by M. Rickert lives up to its name. On one hand, the compactness of the narrative is to be praised as the author accomplishes so much with the story’s length and each scene is powerful and integral. On the other, there’s a certain duality to the story, as both beauty and horror are constant motifs.

“Remembrance is Something Like a House” by Will Ludwigsen has a compelling and unique tone but is otherwise competent. While there are interstitial elements, it’s really not that experimental. The story could easily be summed up as a personification story combined with mystery. Not to disparage the writing, however, which is actually entertaining, but it doesn’t go far enough.

“The Long and Short of Long-Term Memory” by Cecil Castellucci is an interesting experiment. It’s more or less functional in terms of narrative and the exposition isn’t jarring. It includes a mix of text book illustrations and non-fiction lectures, and is grounded in both science and science fiction. One problem I see here is that for some readers, the ending might be a cop-out, although in terms of its human impact, it works for me.

The epistolary format is one of the more readily-apparent technique of making a story interstitial. Of course whether the writer can successfully pull it off is another matter but Alaya Dawn Johnson succeeds in “The Score”. When we usually talk about the epistolary form, it’s usually correspondences but Johnson doesn’t limit herself to just that medium. There’s a slow but escalating build-up in the narrative, slowly making the tiny jigsaw pieces fall into places. My only complaint is the second to the last scene, which ties up all the loose ends established in what came previously. It’s not didactic, but it destroys most of the ambiguity that’s established.

“The Two of Me” by Ray Vukcevich relies more on characterization, and uses the tropes of realist fiction. In that sense, it’s at home with a lot of speculative fiction written by authors like Jonathan Lethem. It’s well-written, and the realist tone on a fantastical story is compelling. Doesn’t feel too borderline for me, but it is an enjoyable read.

Fuck. “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” by Carlos Hernandez is simply brilliant. It’s praise-worthy on multiple levels. If it’s the interstitiality, it seems like an ordinary speculative fiction story but it crosses realism and science fiction and fantasy to the point that when the protagonist attempts an untested magical ritual, there’s actually some suspense because you don’t know whether it’ll actually work or not. There’s also the mix of English and Cuban Spanish, with no translation for the latter, yet it’s convincing because the main character is not too familiar with the language either so we share in his confusion. And as someone living in the Philippines, the language barrier conflict the protagonist experiences rings true. In terms of technique, Hernandez has a great opening, and makes great use of flashback. Definitely a must-read.

“Shoes” by Lavie Tidhar is quite atmospheric and detailed, capturing Vanuatu culture’s nuances. What’s enjoyable is how Tidhar focuses on one object–shoes–and how it represents a larger theme. The dialogue needs some getting used to with its reliance on phonetics. Overall, it reminds me of how we use the term magic-realism, and how such labels are meaningless to Vanuatu’s culture, wherein the magical aspect is truly part of reality. While the story is well-written, for me it lacks a certain spark and sense of wonder that’s present in other Tidhar stories. Perhaps it’s the formality of the piece, and how it takes itself too seriously. Still, a formal Tidhar is still a more than competent read.

In a certain sense, “Interviews After the Revolution” by Brian Francis Slattery is similar to “The Score” by Johnson. But whereas the latter utilizes various mediums, Slattery relies on the interview format, and maximizes its potential. One immediately understands the interviewee’s agenda as well as their personalities. The story is upbeat and has a momentum going for it that builds up to the pivotal event hinted at the beginning. And because the narrative is told through very human characters, each side wins your sympathy.

Elizabeth Ziemska is neither famous nor prolific, but she is my personal Ted Chiang. “Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken” simply moves the heart, especially the way the story transitions from a science fiction piece into one of sentimentality. In terms of skill, Ziemska is best described as elegant. There are lots of lovely lines and beautiful descriptions, even when tackling scientific theories. Even her description of interstitial fiction at the end of story is poetic. What’s even amazing is how tightly-packed everything is: this feels like an epic, especially with everything that takes place, but lo and behold, this isn’t even the length of a novelette. The precision, the tightness, and how Ziemska connects everything is amazing.

The title, “Black Dog: A Biography” by Peter M. Ball, conveys what kind of story this is. It’s charming and self-conscious (not in a bad way) and leads to unexpected directions. It’s probably the last part that keeps the reader’s attention, especially since this particular form isn’t unique. The paradox of the piece is how it’s both about the Black Dog and not about it, especially the way the protagonist’s life changes. You can take it away, treat it as a metaphor, and you’d still have a framework to work with, but its literal inclusion is what makes this story a good read.

There’s a lot of great attributes in “Berry Moon: Laments of a Muse” by Camilla Bruce such as its lyrical language or its vivid descriptions. Unfortunately, in of themselves, those aspects don’t really appeal to me. This is a brief piece, flash fiction in length, and the author succeeds in telling a competent second-person narrative. However, I want more in a story, and while this is decent enough for many readers, I’m looking for more plot and conflict rather than fleeting skirmish in the piece.

“Morton Goes to the Hospital” by Amelia Beamer is quaint and is genuinely surprising, despite the title. What seems like a simple story, especially considering its length, is actually complex. There’s the narrator for example and figuring out his place in the narrative. Beamer’s prose is functional but the way she weaves the dialogue into the text seamlessly is commendable. Overall, decent, but not too remarkable.

“After Verona” by William Alexander simply revels in its ambiguity and is a recurring theme throughout the narrative. Alexander has a unique and welcome voice and the length feels just right. There’s a lot of mish-mash elements to be found and I could see the vague lines such a story will be categorized (too literary for genre publications, too genre for literary publications) but this was honestly an entertaining and pleasant read.

“Valentines” by Shira Lipkin is an engaging snippet if you will. Through repetition and atmosphere, the author builds each scene, layering it with multiple facets. Even the numbering has purpose. It’s an enjoyable slice of life, and the length feels just right for a flash fiction piece.

Unwarranted title aside, “(*_*?) ~~~~ (-_-) : The Warp and the Woof” By Alan DeNiro sets the stage for an apocalyptic setting, although this fact isn’t initially evident. Some interesting transition techniques that the author utilizes and this reader reveled in the initial bizarreness of it all. Eventually however, the story felt repetitive and didactic. There’s definitely some good scenes but it was overwhelmed by numerous dragging parts.

Not too thrilled with flash fiction but I’m perfectly content with “The Marriage” by Nin Andrews. It has a catchy tone and there’s a lot of ways this can be interpreted, whether literally or metaphorically. Suffice to say, it really needs to be read.

The writings of Theodora Goss is some of the best interstitial writing right now and “Child-Empress of Mars” is no exception. The author successfully subverts the tropes of sword-and-planet, or even that of a fairy tale story, and injected it with a post-modern perspective. Another enjoyable aspect is how she remains faithful to the tone of the piece and creates something complex out of a simple premise.

“L’Ile Close” by Lionel Davoust is an English translation from French by Edward Gauvin. Much like Goss’s story, this is also a post-modern story, this time dealing with the archetypes of the Arthurian myth. Despite the philosophical discourse inherent in the piece, there’s humor sprinkled in numerous places, making what would otherwise be a discourse-heavy story enjoyable. On one hand, I’m not really surprised by the ending (how else to end a post-modern story?) but the journey was nonetheless entertaining. The nuances of the various characters was delightful to read, especially with their new self-awareness.

“Afterbirth” by Stephanie Shaw is rhythmic and terse and compelling, an enjoyable coagulation of various elements that heighten the thesis–and impact–of the story. While the act of childbirth is an adventure in itself, Shaw exaggerates the metaphor and transcends it, all with a whimsical yet serious beat.

“The 121” by David J. Schwartz works on the premise of a living explosion introspecting his life–and it works. Schwartz’s serious tone feels genuine, even as he includes references to The Three Stooges and makes humorous quips. And yet the subject matter tackled is very relevant, a predicament heightened by the author’s choice of protagonist.

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