Online Edition: Summer 2006

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In the Forest of Forgetting

In the Forest of Forgetting

Theodora Goss

Prime Books ($24.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

With any non-realist fiction, there’s an interpretive temptation to read fantasy elements as masks which simultaneously represent and disguise some psychological or political apparatus, masks behind which the story’s “real meaning” hides. The best of the newer fantasists, like Kelly Link or Jeff VanderMeer, are adept at creating rich literary fictions whose fantastic elements resonate with and reflect aspects of the real world without being locked into a strict this-stands-for-that allegorical algebra. Whatever correspondences we find for Link’s zombies and magic handbags or VanderMeer’s imaginary cities and genetically engineered meerkats, these creations are not exhausted by such equivalences—there’s always a considerable surfeit, an extravagance of imagination, that keeps the fiction from being reducible to a scheme of coded meanings.

In her first short story collection, Theodora Goss shows that she shares this ability. Writing in a voice that’s assured, finely modulated, and frequently beautiful, Goss has no trouble evoking wonder, but the stories that make up In the Forest of Forgetting don’t simply revel in the magical—they enmesh the fantastic in the real, and the relationship between the two is often at the heart of her fiction. When fantastic and realistic are juxtaposed, one easy approach would be to present the fantastic as escape, or further valorize it into transcendence. And, although several of the stories do turn on moments of transcendence, the situations Goss creates, and the emotions that they call up, are seldom simple.

Several of the most impressive stories, such as “Lily, with Clouds,” “Pip and the Fairies,” and “Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold,” build toward endings in which characters encounter the possibility of passing beyond the confines of the lives they’ve been leading. None of these, however, gives the impression that the characters are being offered an easy way out, or that life on either side of the choice will be uncomplicated. Some stories, like the quietly tense “Conrad,” the comic “Sleeping with Bears,” or the allegory-shaded “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” intermix real and fantastic with less clear divisions and carry the reader on more subdued trajectories. In others, the relationship between the two is thrown into particularly sharp relief by overt reference to the most openly fantastic of genres, the fairy tale. While the opening story in the collection, “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” directly re-presents a specific fairy tale, it’s also the most adventurous in structure. Offering a dozen vignettes from the point of view of different characters in and around the story, from The Witch and The Princess to minor characters like The Hound and even inanimate objects like The Spinning Wheel, it moves simultaneously in expected and unexpected directions. “The Belt” opens with the line “My story has the contours of a fairy tale,” but it goes on simultaneously to fulfill and frustrate expectations of what a fairy tale should do and be.

Calibrating the language of fantasy is tricky—gild everything with a lyrical voice, the wondrous quickly seems commonplace. When in full flight, Goss’s prose can be as numinous as anyone’s, but she also has a fine sense of how to build up a convincing texture of normalcy against which the fantastic can be seen to best advantage. Her stories may lead up to ringing lines like, “I am waiting, like you, for the canary to lift its head from under its wing, for the Empress Josephine to open in the garden, for a sound that will tell us someone, somewhere, is awake,” but they travel through much plainer territory en route, such as “She would make mashed potatoes and peas, and she would ask Jane about school, and Jane would look superior, and maybe afterward they would all play monopoly.” Whether the story’s setting is a castle in an imagined kingdom, a small town in North Carolina, or a café in communist-era Budapest, the storyteller’s voice bridges the gap between the familiar world of reality and the unexpected world of the imagined.

Throughout the collection, Goss shows a variety of ways that the border between magical and mundane can be contoured. Within any particular story, the fantastic can be freeing, confining, or neutral; it can exalt, but it can also devastate. Although Goss is, in these ways, complex, hers isn’t a cynical complexity. Where her stories lead to moments of transcendence, that transcendence might come at a terrible price, it might be long delayed, it might be refused, it might turn out to be just an earthbound glimpse of someone else’s transcendence, or it might lead to worse rather than to better. Even as her narrators acknowledge that the bleaker outcomes may be more likely than the upbeat ones, however, they reaffirm that the happier endings are those we truly desire.

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