Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reading Journal: Fantastic Women: Eighteen Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, ed. Rob Spillman (2011)

"Sublimity is the echo of a noble mind," wrote Longinus, somewhere around the first century, C.E.; as my dusty old Norton crit anthology summarizes, to him, "writers and orators achieve greatness not just by rhetorical techniques but also by deep feelings, profound thoughts and natural genius. [...] Often the experience of reading a great author or listening to a greet speech leads us to a feeling of ecstasy or transport (ekstasis), which is distinct from the more rational effects of persuasion, the goal of rhetoric." Effectively, if a story connects with you - elicits enough pathos that it sweeps you away - you can call it sublime. It's a murky notion in a post-Romantic world.

And what of surrealism? Think of a Dali painting and you get the idea: such work seeks "a reality above or within the surface reality, usually through efforts to suspend the discipline of conscious or logical reason, aesthetics, or morality in order to allow for the expression of subconscious thought and feeling," as my Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia says.

Personally, few of these stories connected with me. The collection features two of the New Yorker 20 Under 40 - Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Karen Russell - as well as critical darlings Aimee Bender, Miranda July, Lydia Davis, and Lydia Millet. None of their stories were my favourite, though a second read of July's "Oranges" - on its face, little more than a collection of exchanges with survey people on the street - redeemed it a little, as the title may tell you which of the questions asked is most important. Bynum talked about dreams, but her story was hardly surreal... at least not compared to Samantha Hunt's "Beast," in which a woman is bitten by a tick and, in her dreams, begins becoming a deer, a welcome escape from a rather dreary life. It reminded me of the truly sublime story "La Femme Adultère," by Albert Camus. I also really enjoyed Julia Elliott's "The Wilds," about a girl growing up next to a family with several boy children who may literally be beasts. That was kind of it, though; they could have just as easily called the collection Women Writers You've Heard Are Good, in a Magazine You've Heard Is Good: collected over eight years, and mainly from three issues therein, this set seems more like a "We published them first!" boast than a well-grouped collection. On their own merits, more of these stories might work for other readers than did for me, and though it was preferable to get acquainted with these writers in shorter works, (as opposed to long debut novels), as a themed collection, I thought it was a dud.

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