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Logorrhea, by John Klima (ed.)

I'm putting this review, perhaps the longest book review I've ever written, under a cut for both length and content. A warning: I now hold a decidedly low opinion of Leslie What.

Logorrhea: A Spellbinding Collection of Tales from Twenty-one of Today's Most Imaginative Storytellers
by John Klima (ed.)
~448 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/SF/Literary

I picked up this anthology collection solely on the basis of one story: Theodora Goss's "Singing of Mount Abora," which met and exceeded my expectations. For that alone, it was worth reading. And although I loved relatively few stories, I also hated relatively few. For some reason, perhaps judging from the list of authors, I assumed that Logorrhea was an F/SF anthology; thus I was let down by the mainstream stories. "The Last Elegy" by Matthew Cheney held not even a hint of speculative elements, and Paolo Bacigalupi's contribution "Softer" was also strangely devoid.

Let us begin at the beginning: Klima chooses to open with a story by Hal Duncan, he of the incomprehensible cult novels Vellum and Ink, "The Chiaroscurist." I am not a fan of Duncan's novels, as I find his prose too dense and overwrought, especially coupled with distinct lack of plot finesse. However, I did enjoy this story. Set entirely in the Evenfall fold of the Vellum, it neatly sidesteps the multiple-worlds confusion and even has a classical plot structure. The tale centers around a chiaoroscurist, an artist who is part mosaicist (a la Kay's Crispin from the Sarantine Mosaic), part painter, and part photographer. Art is integral and beautifully illustrated; Duncan's prose becomes much more manageable in the short form and I was able to appreciate its imagery without being overwhelmed. Anyhow, the chiaoroscurist is commissioned to create a work of his art in a chapel. Allusions abound to various mythologies and famous works, of course, this being Duncan. The conclusion is satisfying, and overall the story would reward deeper reading; it is also less dauntingly labyrinthe than his novels.

The pleasing start is continued with a pleasant if rather unsubstantial tale by Liz Williams, around the word "Lyceum." Sao is Vice Chancellor of a renowned research university on the planet Karquom, once home to a race called the Uniqt who practiced culturally sanctioned genocide. The Duality, a higher order of benign aliens with two faces that look into the past and future, come to the university's Lyceum for a poetry conference. Obviously, complications ensue. What distinguished this story from all the other SF stories out there, I feel, was the Duality and their poetry/philosophy culture. Although I must admit that the ending didn't work at all for me; I left with a confused interpretation of a nilistic theme.

Third comes the first failure, about an average record; "Vivisepulture" by David Prill completely bounced off me. The plot involves Big Jim, a classic high school jock permanently sidelined with a spinal injury, who hears a strange music at night and is drawn to a mystical place called the Hillmont Leichenhaus. Internal conflict that I didn't sympathize with, an irritating narrative voice, and personal bias (against jocks) combined to create a story that I could hardly not dislike. The flate ending didn't help, either.

"Eczema" by Clare Dudman starts out like horror before shifting to heartbreaking regret. Although I'm uncomfortable with the exaggeration of a common skin disorder (more on that later regarding "Tsuris" by Leslie What), the plot was an interesting interpretation of crows and family. Ultimately a strong story but not something I would reread. Compare and contrast with Alex Irvine's "Semaphore", which involves wordplay that made me smile--especially the dramatic irony of the spelling bee. In the end, though, the device was not enough to save a too-sweet and too-simple tale. Essentially, the protagonist's brother (a spelling star) dies and his passion passes down--in the form of a subtly magical prowess--to the narrator. Set in an American Jewish family during World War II, nonetheless the saccharine-sentimental theme and trick ending taste unpleasant.

The next two stories also did not succeed for me; "The Smaragdine Knot" by Marly Youmans involves a boy named Simon talking to his great-uncle Sam about a family heirloom, a book of meditations by a Puritan ancestor that lends its name to the title. I found the flashback meditation-scene interesting, but the present-day frame story felt contrived and utterly boring. I also remain equally unfazed and befuddled by the pointless ending. Michael Moorcock's "A Portrait in Ivory" is bad as well, but very differently so. It makes perfect sense, so much sense that it becomes merely a collection of clichés. Elric is an angsty elven albino mercenary known as "Kinslayer," and one day he encounters a woman (I don't recall her race or anything remarkable about her) who wishes to sculpt his figure in ivory. I will concede the pretty prose but it is overshadowed by overdescription, "lumpy" worldbuilding, and the classic failure to observe "show, not tell." And to top it all off, we have apostrophe-filled names. I restrain myself from shuddering.

Thankfully Daniel Abraham's beautiful story, "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale," soothed my ravaged soul. Fairy tale styles rely heavily on clever plotting; Abraham does not disappoint. I didn't figure out much in advance and the climax was perfect--a hint of magic, but also irony. An ordinary cambist--exchanger of currency--falls under the bullying shadow of Lord Iron and manages to twist the unfortunate chance to his advantage. To say more would spoil a wonderful surprise.

Look, here's the title story! "Logorrhea" by Michelle Richmond was, unfortunately, unremarkable. Richmond leaves too many plot questions unanswered--why is the protagonist's logorrhea suddenly cured? Why is it so repulsive in the first place, even to "trained professionals"?--and broke my suspension of disbelief. I never felt attached to the characters, although the ending was strong. Perhaps grotesque is a good adjective, a la "Eczema," but without the requisite character development. "Pococurante" by Anna Tambour also suffered from Unremarkable Syndrome; the ending made no sense and the story itself--about a man obsessed with Pococurante (what that is exactly, I never figured out) and inexplicably starts up a dry cleaner shop--drove me to page-flipping of the undesirable kind, desperate skimming. I can't tell if there are any speculative elements because I don't understand the story at all.

"From Around Here" by Tim Pratt is subtly but clearly speculative with a nice worldbuilding twist and an inevitable, bittersweet ending. A strange man called Reva comes to investigate a neighborhood, and he's on a mission of a very particular sort. Elizabeth Hand's "Vignette" is told in second-person, which I'm usually okay with but didn't work here because I kept getting confused as to the identity of the audience/narrator. The plot involves people on an weird-timestream island and hints of apocalypse in the outside world--incomprehensible, although not as bad as Richmond's tale. The prose is beautiful, at least. Then, Alan DeNiro's "Plight of the Sycophant" employs a weirdly original world--angels and winged guns guarding a waterfall--with simple character conflict that works because the characters are for once well-developed. I will note, however, that the vocabulary word could easily have been omitted and felt unnecessary.

I mentioned Cheney's "The Last Elegy" earlier as mainstream; it didn't satisfy me due to conflicting expectations, but as a literary story it does succeed. Edward, an elegiac poet, interacts with two people named Anders and Andrea (who are more than siblings). Another woman, Grete, complicates the picture. At its heart, Cheney's tale centers around love and painfully altered relationships. I will say that it is open and accepting as well, which was an unexpected bonus. Poignant and emotionally splendid. "Eudaemonic" by Jay Caselberg starts slowly but persistence is rewarded. An ordinarily troubled Michael meets a woman named Claire on the beach one day, kneeling next to a dead man. The ending satisfied while simultaneously fulfilling suspicions, and the length is perfect--shorter would necessitate cutting character development, longer would make the foreshadowing garishly obvious.

Now, Paolo Bacigalupi--a well-known name in the SF short genre--has pleased me in the past; "The Fluted Girl" was gorgeous. So perhaps I read "Softer" with unnecessary baggage. To be succinct, it left me cold. I kept waiting for something significant to happen, but nothing did. Jonathan, a perfectly normal man in a perfectly normal life, albeit argumentative marriage, decides one sunny Sunday morning to strangle his wife Pia. He doesn't get caught and escapes to Mexico to begin anew. --That's it. There is no emotional variance, no distinguishable climax; perhaps an exemplary instance of why I dislike mainstream fiction.

In terms of purely viceral feeling, "Crossing the Seven" by Jay Lake seemed like the longest story of the collection. It wasn't boring, per se--in fact I quite liked it--but the protagonist visits seven cities and each encounter is a mini-story in itself. The worldbuilding is extensive, if not particularly original; each of the Seven Cities is different to the point that it almost feels painstakingly contrived. Nevertheless I enjoyed following the journey of Andrade, a simple slave from the city of Cermalus who is struck by lightning, as he traverses the Transept in search of his own peace. And the matriarchal element, though superficial, was a nice touch.

Leslie What's story, "Tsuris," evoked perhaps the strongest reaction from me--an indescribable mixture of disgust, revulsion, and resignation. This is not, however, an indictment of the tale itself; but simply a case of the reviewer not being able to view a work objectively. I suffer myself from psoriasis, a chronic skin disease, but thankfully a mild case. What's story deliberately ostracizes the illness in a contemporary or pseudo-contemporary setting; a farm wife cuckolds her psoriasis-afflicted husband. The husband is portrayed as pathetic and pitiful, passively ignorant (or in denial) of his wife's inner disgust. Let us take that as an unfortunate character trait, since obviously the reader is meant to sympathize with the wife. My main problem is that What depicts psoriasis as akin to leprosy, albeit without the fear of contagion. Why didn't the cream medication work? It certainly did for me. And furthermore, since the setting appears to be modern-day, why were more potent treatments not pursued, especially if the husband's case was as severe as it seemed? New treatments are innovative and effective--skin-eating fish in Turkey, for instance. Psoriasis, in a developed first-world country, need not be a dehabilitating disease; and certainly not the spelling of doom that this story implies. I don't understand the ending of the story, why the wife is so weak-willed--but then, I find it impossible to ignore the author's egregious offense. So let this scathing critique be upon Leslie What, not her story; personally I leave with a tainted impression of an insensitive author who is probably a perfectly kind (if ignorant of research) woman in real life.

Returning to our regularly scheduled programming, Neil Williamson's "The Euonymist" did not invent anything new in the SF realm but managed to keep my attention nonetheless--chiefly in his light and entertaining interjections of linguistics. The spelling bee word--euonym--is nicely integrated and the humorous undertones made this story a refreshing breather from an anthology that includes many dark and emotional tales.

Ah, here is the second-last and my obvious favorite story: "Singing of Mount Abora" by Theodora Goss. The title is a direct quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous Romantic Age poem "Kubla Khan," which I happen to adore. Goss writes lyrically as well; her tone (and ingenious plotting) in the folktale sections is similar to Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron." It is difficult to pull off alternating folktale and modern-day, but Goss manages it and elegantly blends the two narratives in the ending.

Appropriately, Klima concludes Logorrhea with a nonsensical piece by Jeff VanderMeer, called "Appoggiatura," that attempts to combine all of the previous words into one tale. It's an admirable but insurmountable task, and VanderMeer's failure can hardly be faulted. Character reoccur throughout the various vignettes, but no coherent plot thread shines through the mess. As far as I can tell, the only unifying factor is an ancient city called Smaragdine. The story reminds me of Hal Duncan's novels, except without Duncan's strengths (allusions to add depth and poetic prose). A disappointing end to the anthology.

While I was initially attracted to the concept of Logorrhea--I love spelling bees and vocabulary words--I chose to read it for Theodora Goss's Kubla Khan story. That, and other surprises such as Daniel Abraham (whose novels have now moved up my TBR list significantly) and Duncan's unexpected success in short form made this collection satisfying. Other stories fell in the mediocre hit-or-miss range, with the notable exceptions of Michael Moorcock's trite "A Portrait in Ivory" and certainly Leslie What's tale "Tsuris." Overall, an average book for me as far as anthologies go, with stories at both extremes. I tentatively issue a broad recommendation because the range of genre and style here is so wide; you will probably find at least one story to like.

ETA: Minor edits to correct grammar.

Comments

(Anonymous)

Tsuris

Hi,

Your response is your response and I do not mean to argue with how you read the piece, but I would like to say the writer is not the character, and the character is not the writer. Maybe it's more the writer is all the characters. The immediate family members and physicians I interviewed, observed, and imagined for "Tsuris" expressed symptoms and reactions and feelings and provided information I tried to capture in my story. I was certainly influenced by Dennis Potter's portrayal of psoriasis in "The Singing Detective" and by the stories of Miriam being cast from her community because of her tsaras.

I'd like to say more but not to argue, just to say what I meant to do and how I saw the story working. I don't want to force my interpretation onto anyone and you may still believe my intentions did not show through.

Leslie

Re: Tsuris

Hi Leslie,

Thank you for your response and clarification. One of my major issues with your portrayal--as it stands to me as a reader--was the assumed-contemporary setting. If you had made the setting clearly historical or fantastical, I could have suspended disbelief, since treatments in that world might be very different. It is, of course, entirely your prerogative as the writer and I respect that even if I disagree with it.

I feel that my personal response precludes a fair critique of the story itself, so I critiqued my impression of the author through the story. It is the first story of yours that I've read and perhaps not the best first impression. After your comment, though, I am impressed and would now consider reading more of your work in the future.
Linking is no problem at all; the entry is public and part of my booklog. Thank you for the consideration though!
gumboeditor wrote:

While I obviously don't agree with your opinion

Dunno. I liked the part where she thought The Cambist was good stuff. ;) And I read all Leslie's work with the opposite prejudice, seein' as how I like the author.

daniel

(Anonymous)

Interesting discussion and I also really liked The Cambist.

I don't think the reader needs to be fair just like I don't think the writer needs to be fair. It's not part of the agreement we make.

Though I'm glad you'll give my work another try. I am interested in exploring transgressive characters, so much of my work is an empathetic look at the bad guys. (A close relative recently read a story and said, "Why can't you ever write about the nice things?" I'm pretty sure she won't like my new collection, which has at least one nice story about nice people, but both of them are dead.)

I see what you're saying about the disconnect regarding current treatment. I might have looked harder to find a place to explain why Denny wasn't on Embril, or why that hadn't worked, but I didn't think about that and the images all came from other places, some imagined, some observed. The story is finished now but if I'd heard the comment during workshop I might have tried to address it in some way.

Leslie
Hehe, I definitely thought The Cambist was good stuff. You earned a favorable comparison to Dora Goss, which holds more weight than is perhaps evident in the review. I do love clever protagonists.
panda

January 2011

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