The cover of Avenging Cartography, Ken Poyner’s recently published volume of short fiction, shows a difficult-to-map-or-measure seascape (or is it a landscape?) under a small but surprisingly bright moon. Though the title of the collection isn’t drawn from any of the stories it contains, maybe the cartography in question refers to finding one’s way around the fictional landscape. The subtitle promises us “flash fictions roundly sounding your borders,” and we are given guidance to the terrain of fantastical storytelling that goes beyond noting “here be dragons,” though there be dragons here as well.
Throughout the nearly twenty years that we have been editing The Café Irreal, G.S. Evans and I have received a number of stories that confuse the undermining of reality required in the telling of an irreal story with the undermining of narrative convention. People send us stories that unfold using wordplay reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s work, that use Joycean stream-of-consciousness, or that are fractured and playful and artful in the manner of some surrealists. But when all is said and done, either there is no plot at all in these fictions or what is happening in the story is as stolidly realistic as the narrative is fanciful.
As I read Avenging Cartography, I was struck by the fact that Poyner frequently undermines narrative conventions, while at the same time he consistently maintains his non-realist story-telling. And so as I read, I was impressed with the variety in both form and content. Yes, some of these stories are science fiction and some are fantasies, but most of them explore the possibilities of story itself – that is, they tell irreal and fantastic stories while at the same time giving us narrations to puzzle over. And Poyner’s poetic language is an added incentive to read them all.
In an anthology called Points of View, whose editors group the stories according to narrative technique, “anonymous narration” is said to be used in stories that “… resemble fairy tales, legends, and myths, which frequently omit character point of view and the inner life. This itself tells us already something about the purpose of such stories and what they are about.” “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson are included as examples of this technique, and these are also the two stories in the anthology that seem to be most irreal. The black veil and the lottery, respectively, point to many undisclosed meanings, and the stories undermine our expectations of how a small-town congregation should relate to its minister or how a small town might conduct an important public event. Like Kafka, Poyner sometimes uses a kind of “anonymous narration,” even when the stories seem to be told from a first or second person point of view. But though he is often traveling near the landscape of irrealism, he is not always within it.
Some of the pieces in Avenging Cartography are more allegory or morality tale than irreal story, such as “Cocking the Fulcrum” in which punching down is viewed as a way to ease life’s tensions and increase sexual tension, or “The Children of Passivity” in which monsters in the closet seem to double as the odd phenomena that inhabit our ids, much like those monstrous beings that made life so complex in the film Forbidden Planet.
Many stories begin with an impossible or highly unlikely premise – like the existence of giant feral chickens in “Reasonable” – and then follow that unlikely premise to its likely conclusion. This piece becomes ironic commentary on factory-farming and the human ingenuity required to hunt worthy prey, though it is still not exactly what we mean by irreal.
And then there are science fiction stories like “A Change of Address,” which satirizes a very Earth-bound phenomenon, the creation of mortgage-backed securities in which the value of a mortgage is sliced and diced and then bought up by an unknown number of hedge funds so that it’s hard to say who owns the debt. In “A Change of Address” the same thing happens on a station in orbit around another planet, and the language of the banking industry is transported to another world resulting in a clever jargon-fest.
“The Lightning Gatherers” works more like a poem, focused on one notion – that a group of itinerant people gather to collect lightning when there’s a really big storm – and once the notion has been established the language is everything. The piece is full of fine-tuned, well-honed descriptions like “And then the first lightning strikes come distantly down, a peeling back of the far off next-of-kin dark. The lightning gatherers watch, but the atmospheric show would be too much racing up the road for harvest. They pick up their bags and stand facing the storm, the crowd of them clicking its claws and swinging its legs like a preening crustacean.” The language energizes and fascinates, but there are none of the pointers to an unknown meaning that an irreal story would contain. We know that this is what a lightning gatherer would do if there were lightning gatherers, and the whole piece springs from the notion that lightning can be harvested but not from an ongoing attempt to undermine reality itself. The story is full of beautiful language but not irreal.
Allegories and personifications can be found in this volume, along with extended metaphors. In “To Dwell in the Forest,” the beings – human beings? – who destroy the forest they depend on begin to grow leaves on their backs, the women’s hair becomes fern-like, and they produce the “thatch children, the bramble children, the stick children,” who did not even remember the forest.
But when we get to “Relative Economics,” we enter a more irreal realm. Each paragraph in the story begins with the sentence, “It is to be the execution of someone,” and we are told about the economic and implied sociological benefits of this execution but not why it will happen or what kind of society would do such a thing. Our expectations are undermined and our sense of the real is challenged. If we return to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” we remember that the person who is selected seems to be a kind of scapegoat or sacrificial victim to propitiate unknown forces, but in this case the narrator implies that he gets a sexual thrill from the impending event and absolutely everyone will be there. That’s about all we know for sure.
“Suspicion,” which begins with the simple notion of losing a favorite pen, leads not to the search for the pen or the happiness of finding it or the sadness of acknowledging its loss but to the octopus-like thief who deserves to be punished for his deed. The narrator tells us it was his housekeeper’s carnal needs that led to the theft in the first place, and of her the narrator says, “I understand her appetites, her need for those eight arms to wrap seductively, seditiously about her; to feel the scrawl of his ink on the paper edge of her neck; to listen to his erotic clicks and fathoms; to feel the bare mercury of his suction cups on her periwinkle skin.” When we add the fact that this octopus villain may have taken the pen to scavenge its ink, we return full circle to the missing pen, but our expectations of a tale of revenge have definitely been undermined.
“Joy in the Sense of Place” is about a man who carries his testicles in a bag, and yet it is told with such dedicated detachment (until the end) that it seems as though it’s something that Kafka himself could have written or perhaps is what the fragment “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor” with its errant bouncing balls actually implies. (I often say that “Kafka is a guy thing,” meaning that as a woman I don’t completely understand his fixation on his father nor the ambivalence toward bachelorhood/fatherhood that informs so much of his work.) Despite the fact that he is comfortably familiar with the concepts of wife and home, Poyner gives us a sort of Kafkan ambivalence about the male role from time to time as well.
Poyner’s personal symbology ranges from a focus on the hardscrabble nature of capitalist economics to a use of animals, most notably chickens and roosters, as characters or plot devices. But unlike what we find in the work of a writer like Donald Barthelme, there’s most often either a straight-faced stoicism to these pieces or even a touch of sadness and poignancy. Yes, stories like “Relative Economics” are amusing (and there is such a thing as irreal humor – see the stand-up comedy of Steven Wright for starters), but Poyner has a way of telling us highly imaginative tales that contain comic moments but which also encourage us to see the nature of our plight and that of every creature around us.