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[GUEST POST] L.S. Bassen Reviews At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson doesn’t so much write science fiction/fantasy as metafiction, but whatever she’s doing, At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees is a treasury of story-telling by an award-winning author. Now that she’s also accepted the position of Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at the University of Kansas English Department, there will be ample opportunity to define her “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality…Metafiction explore[s] a theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction.” Honey-dripping reviews should swarm to this book as in its title story, though I think Story Kit is the key to the hive, echoed in The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change and The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles: “Everyone had their own stories, and the stories of their families and ancestors. There were adventures and love stories, or tricks and jokes and funny things that had happened, or disasters. Everyone wanted to tell their stories, and to know where they fit in their own fudokis.” [medieval Japanese = diaries/records] “She was not that different.” (195) Story Kit helpfully begins with a guide to identify Johnson’s tales among the list of “Six story types, from Damon Knight”:

  • The story of resolution. The protagonist has a problem and solves it or doesn’t.
  • The story of explanation.
  • The trick ending.
  • A decision is made. Whether it is acted upon is irrelevant.
  • The protagonist solves a puzzle.
  • The story of revelation. Something hidden is revealed to the protagonist, or to the reader. (131)

Fans of like-minded analysis, sci-fi/fantasy or not, will find this approach instantly appealing; Kij Johnson speaks their language fluently, but simultaneously in translation at a necessary remove from the natives. She’s like the protagonist in her novella-length, 2012 Nebula award-winning The Man Who Bridged the Mist (evocative of Wallace Stegner’s 1972 Pulitzer novel Angle of Repose, which focused on an engineer in the 19th century American West). On a distant planet (with two moons) in the future (at least 1000 years), an engineer named Kit directs the building of a bridge over caustic mist, an endeavor most reminiscent of the building of America’s transcontinental railroad, “the first real link between the east and west sides of Empire.” (217) The engineer’s University tutor had warned him, “On long projects, you’ll forget you’re not one of them  (241)…It was his job to make a thing and then leave to make the next one, but it was also his preference, not to remain and see what he had made.” (264) I think the author was describing herself as the object of one of Kit’s casual University relationships: “Her mind was abrupt and fish-quick and made connections he didn’t understand. To her, everything was a metaphor, a symbol of something else. People, she said, could be better understood by comparing their lives to animals, to the seasons, to the structure of certain lyrical songs, to a gambling game.” (245-246) If Kenneth Burke’s Language As Symbolic Action and Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism come to some minds, they will also greatly enjoy Kij Johnson’s fiction, though be forewarned (or reassured) that Kafka’s Metamorphosis was darker and more visceral.

Among her startling stories, (an earlier Nebula winner) Spar stands out and comes with a  different warning: “Mature, sexual content to follow.”  “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” (202) What’s really startling about this claustrophobic irony is how it forever alters the reader’s processing of the prepositions In and Out – less so, is how it ends with a fairytale JOB-like coda.  The title of another one of the eighteen stories, Schrodinger’s Cathouse is likely to attract sci fi fans and invoke the apparition of the Cheshire cat’s grin when the main character, Bob, asks, “Where am I?” when he finds himself suddenly in a whorehouse as he is driving his car, and is answered by red-headed Jacky (indistinctly a woman/cat), “The Boite…It’s French. One of the Boss’s little jokes…Mr. Schrodinger…You know about the cat, don’t you? ” When her glass of gin is both full and empty, Jacky adds, “It partook of both states at once.” (92-95) The author sustains this soap bubble surface tension with comic timing. Kij Johnson literalizes the metaphor just enough for readers to feel the impossible become real – and then return them to a semi-state of possibility. Physics students/professionals will love the Bob-Jacky dialog:

“I just wish I knew you were a woman, that’s all.”
“She laughs once, a low bark. ‘Except you never do know. You only think you do.’” (97)

Names for Water is another story that waves a scientific wand. A third year engineering student “is drowning in schoolwork and uncertainty about her future…Complex variables. She’ll never understand today’s lesson after coming in ten minutes late…The bus she just misses drives through a puddle and the splash is an elegant complex shape, a high-order Bezier curve.” (38) The author amazes with a trick of presenting past, present, and future as a unity, point and sphere simultaneously – through her magic of shaping events and points of view into a unified narrative.

As anyone familiar with Kij Johnson’s work knows, shape-shifting is not only mysteriously kinky but also possibly the best way to explore/express a 21st century experience of reality. The 1994 Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning story Fox Magic expanded into her 1999 novel of the same name, part of the Love/War/Death trilogy that includes another novel, Fudoki. In Johnson’s debut/retrospective collection, there are bird-women, cat/fox-women, and point of views mostly from pre-industrial/technological societies in which definitions blur: of place, identity, language, and magic. The first story, 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss, begins, “Aimee’s big trick is that she makes 26 monkeys vanish onstage.” (1) In Wolf Trapping, shape-shifting reaches psychosis and suicide, though not for the escaping narrator.

Kij Johnson is a writer of cross-genres fictions whose defiance of absolute definition mirrors her underlying philosophical aesthetic. She reminds me of Renaissance artists who found the method of depicting dimensions:

In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), provided the first theory of…linear    perspective in his book, On Painting…The act of painting would no longer be to glorify God, as it had been in Medieval Europe… [but] relate instead to those people looking at the painting.

But how is one to do that with words, in 21st century stories that are neither modern, nor post-modern, nor magic realism? Hopefully, Kij Johnson will conjure a neologism for asserting the reality of not just multiple identity, but also the conscious perception of simultaneity superimposed, like the double-exposed transparencies of early 20th c. German photographer Lyonel Feininger, though without his black & white darkness. She reminds me Georgia O’Keeffe saying of her 1922 The Shanty, “I can paint one of those dismal-colored paintings like the men…The men seemed to approve of it…That was my only low-toned dismal-colored painting.” (Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, The Viking Press, 1976, 33) The subsequent O’Keeffe oeuvre? Colorful flower genitalia and flying cow skulls. Kij Johnson is her kindred spirit.

My only pensive reaction to At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees concerns her Japanese and non-technological contexts. While her 21st century perspective includes a post-misogynism so complete that current day prejudice rises in bas relief, she often sets stories on distant worlds in distant futures where these same liberated characters function in primitive situations lacking even late 19th c and 20th century inventions. It strained my disbelief to see  mythological or exotic (Asian) landscapes presented as paths to an ultra-modern sensibility/ consciousness. Looking backward to look forward echoes the admonition against putting new wine into old wineskins. I also wondered if a Japanese audience would find her Western translation of their fudoki exotic. But as a literary magus (maga?), Kij Johnson had my disbelief so well-suspended (over that dangerous mist, over the river of bees,) that I hope she will perform many more future feats in the present.

L.S. Bassen is a finalist for 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award; Fiction Editor for Prick of the Spindle. Reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize & a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship; book reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, Press1, bigwonderful, Sobriquet Magazine/The Literary Life blog; poetry in print & online, some awards.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] L.S. Bassen Reviews At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees by Kij Johnson

  1. Chris Douglass // September 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm //

    In her review of At the Mouth of the River of Bees, Lois Bassen not only highlights why she recommends this set of short stories but also uses scholarly allusions to place her critique within a broader framework of literary criticism.

    Such an engaging and thorough critique inspires this reader to search out this book; it also leaves this reader awestruck by the reviewer’s command of both language and the art of literary criticism.

    Kudos to both the author and the critic.

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