Sunday, September 30, 2007

Zencore!: a Review

In this post I'll give a very lengthy review of Zencore! edited by Des Lewis, in my next post I shall make a fool of myself by trying to analyse which writer wrote which story.

A few disclaimers:

  1. Normally as a fiction editor I don't review short fiction, especially not of other magazines. Simply because it can (and subsequently will) always be interpreted wrong: if I review a magazine negatively, then I'm trashing the competition; if I review a magazine positively I'm part of the clique that always support each other. I'm making an exception for Zencore! because Des specifically asked me, and also asked me to be absolutely frank.
  2. I have been published in Nemonymous 4. Actually, I sent Des four stories during the Nemo 4 reading period (not simultaneously, but a new one after the previous one was rejected as Des responded fast), of which he finally took one. I sent him four more during the Nemo 5 period, which all bounced. I sent him nothing for Zencore!
  3. I have seen none of the stories in Zencore! in the Interzone email slushpile. If I had, that would make connecting a story to an author too easy (although I've read other stories in the IZ slush of a few of them).
  4. I came up with the byline Scriptus Innominatus (I believe Gary McMahon — correction: it was Scott Kelly. Scott Kelly, if you read this, please contact Des [ ], because he wants to give you a free Zencore! issue came up with Zencore, which also refers to I found out when I was googling for Zencore reviews a male enhancement product. Coincidence? ;-).

So, to Zencore! Scriptus Innominatus: the book itself has changed to a ‘normal’ book size, away from the landscape format of the first 5 (which, I think, added to its distinctness). Although I haven’t asked Andy (Cox), I think he wasn’t involved with the design and typesetting of this seventh issue of Nemonymous. Undoubtedly this has to do with finances: a print run of I think 500 on silk paper is quite a bit more expensive than I suspect a POD book on normal paper with a lower print run (of which more can be printed easily).

While I understand that, I still think the ‘landscape’ Nemos look much better. There’s also something slightly off with the typesetting or printing: sometimes (for example look at the first paragraph on page 9) two paragraphs are printed so close they almost clash into each other. I suppose almost nobody notices such things, but after working on Interzone with Andy Cox for over four years now such details just stand out to me.

That is not to say Zencore! is ugly (or even Fugly): it’s still a very nice book to behold, and looks fine. It’s just not the special artefact it was.

As to the most important thing, that is, the stories themselves:

Torsion: this, I think, is the obligatory Nemonymous transformation c.q. mixed identity story (think “The Rest of Larry” by Monica O’Rourke in Nemonymous 3, “Nocturne for Doghands” by Joe Murphy [and another one that shall not be named…;-)] in Nemonymous 4, “The Robot and the Octopus” in Nemonymous 5). It’s an OK story, nicely executed, and at only 3 (full) pages
say, 1100 words it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Horror with a nemo sensibility, but ultimately forgettable, as the story doesn’t reveal any deeper layers on a second reading (at least, not to me).

MMM – Delicious: the nemonymous element in this one is the blank personality, actor Tony White whose presence in TV commercials makes the sales of the advertised product go through the roof. Cue to other ‘blank/white’ themes in previous nemos like “White Dream” (Neil Bristow, Nemonymous 2) and “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds” (Anonymous, ibid), “The Painter” (Dominy Clements, Nemonymous 4).

Unfortunately, while competently written, this story was full of clich├ęs, such as the advertsiment agency (and the TV/film world) being both utterly superficial, and ruthless; and the way that Tony White not quite being what he is (with a ‘shocking’ revealing at the end of the story). It’s also rather too long: at 26 pages it’s the longest piece in Zencore!, and I felt it could have been cut considerably.

Undergrowth: this is an intriguing piece where an obsessed book collector searches second hand bookshops in the quest for his holy grail (in this case Francis Brett Young’s novel Undergrowth, which is indeed not on ABE Books). It puts the idea of a ‘literal’ undergrowth of books forward quite nicely, with a touch of Machen. Very enjoyable.

Fugly: a strong, slightly shocking/provocative and thought-provoking story that one expects to show up in Nemonymous, like its predecessors: “Insanity of Creamer’s Field” (Joe Murphy, Nemonymous 3), “Sexy Beast” (Tony Milman, Nemonymous 4), “Huntin’ Season
(Monica O’Rourke, Nemonymous 5). Pete and Lenore, a couple in a dead end relationship experience a break-in in their appartment in the middle of the night. The creature Lenore finds in the bathroom is not exactly a sight for sore eyes, but seems to need help, and she tries to take care of it, through the night. Her partner Pete isn't amused at all, but kicks the creature out of Lenore's embrace and shatters it to pieces which attack him before they reconfigure.
There's more, but you'll have to find out by getting a copy of the antho. Suffice it to say that this is a very effective use of a metaphor-come-to-flesh in a speculative manner. The first gem of Nemo 7.

The Nightmare Reader: some people are obsessed by insects. Here the obsession is not with spiders, ants, or locusts but with boll weevils. A slow descent into madness
slow, but not compelling strange things happen, and, totally unexpected, they are true!
This one didn't work for me. There might be smart things in it
I remember a writer at FantasyCon complaining that nobody saw the smart things he did with his prose but my take is that if the story doesn't work for the reader, she/he is not going to look for them.

The Secret Life of the Panda: melancholic hypochondria and the futility of life. Pandas need to be nudged into procreation, and so does modern man. Because even when one thinks impregnation is achieved, it might be a false alarm. It can only happen when the species is mentally ready for it. Oh well.
I'm not really one for stories full of angst: I already read the existentialists back in high school, and don't need a rehash. Still, such stories are a nemonymous mainstay (from Nike O'Driscoll's "Double Zero for Emptiness" in Nemonymous 1 through to Gary McMahon's "New Science" in Nemonymous 5, with plenty in between), so one has to suffer through them, or wallow in them. Take your pick.

Upset Stomach: hypochondria becomes flesh and the futility of life. A guy works in a dreadful office and during a toilet break his hate for his job literally comes alive through his bowels. Of course, it's not done so he has to discard of it.
At least, that's what I made of it, and I didn't feel in the least compelled to try harder. See above.

The Awful Truth About the Circus: superficially this reminded me somewhat of Paul Meloy’s “Running Away to Join the Town” (Nemonymous 5), although this one focussed more on American small-town emptiness. Carly wants to escape the dull, smothering life in her home town, but no matter how hard she laments living there she just isn’t capable of leaving. Until she sees a flyer of ‘Professor Musto’s Amazing Three/Ring Circus’, and decides to check it out.

Initially, the circus itself seems a disappointment: a small van packed with small, freakish paraphernalia, and professor Musto a small, middle-aged man trying to live a dream, without much success. But gradually Carly sees that there can be magic in small things, and that great dreams may need small miracles to power them. Although suffused with a Bradburian flavour, I thought it missed the master’s concisseness. I suspect that at half its length it would be more than twice as powerful. Now it’s just OK.

Red Velvet Dust: after twenty years Chelsea still hasn't come to grips with the death of her mother, and as she stages another play she uses her mother's ghost as one of the actors. This is the start of Chelsea reviving her childhood with her mum, a gradual healing towards a final acceptance. There's plenty of symbolism throughout the story (purple asters, red velvet dust), and while the story tries hard, I felt it didn't fully succeed, although this is mostly a matter of taste.

The Coughing Coffin: this is a joke within a joke, and certainly Nemonymous is not without humour, think, for example "Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds" in Nemonymous 2, "Digging for Adults (D. Harlan Wilson, Nemonymous 3), "Determining the Extent" (Adrian Fry, Nemonymous 4) and "The Robot and the Octopus" (Tony Ballantyne, Nemonymous 5). Humour is a highly subjective matter, and I found the 'curious business' told by a Major Guthrie in a gentleman's club more one of the shaggy dog kind.

Terminus: the setting here is certainly intriguing: a city that constantly changes, so one gets from A to B more by chance and feel than by using something so mundane (and in this case quite useless) as a map. Then the nameless protagonist gets a letter from somebody who may know more about it, someone who might even have a map that works.
Typically, the cause of all this strangeness is from almost the same source as that of the 'curious business' of the previous story: namely some black magic from the dark continent. As far as I understand, at the end of the story the curse is still there, and understanding is available for someone willing to pay the price, which is a pact with a demon. It reads like a story right out of the old Weird Tales, with its mix of myth, philosophy and the supernatural. While not really to my taste, I was still fascinated.

Mary's Gift, the Stars, and Frank's Pisser: Mary, Frank, Ruth and Alf are homeless street people, literally living in the gutter. The harshness of their life and ailments is described like the way they live: in your face. But between the filth, madness and despair Mary has a gift, one she is both reluctant to use, and when she uses it, people mostly do not believe her.
As such, it is more a curse, and one she passes on to her
let's put this euphemistically less-than-considerate partner. There were quotes in Nemonymous 1 (no less than eleven), and Nemonymous 2 (six), none in Nemonymous 3, two in Nemonymous 4 (one at the beginning, and one incorporated in the story by some pretentious writer...;-), and two in Nemonymous 5. Zencore! has no quotes, but I suspect that "We are all of us lying in the gutter, but some of us are staring at the stars" from Oscar Wilde would have been perfect for this story. And well deserved.

Blue Raspberries: this is a subtle one. What I suspect most reviewers didn’t get was that this is an alternate history: the story is set in a different world (Stockholm is called both a ‘non-existent’ and a ‘mythical’ city) where the nazis won (subtle hints like his wife switching TV channels to one about yodelling, the protagonist calling his internet the ‘infobahn’). It tells about supposedly untrue stories from Fascisti paperbacks (note the ironic reversal: if the nazis won, the others are fascists), one of such called ‘Blue Raspberries’. Echoes of ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ from PKD’s “The Man in the High Castle”: another imagined book that tells about a supposed imaginary world where the nazis didn’t win.

In an almost Chris Priestian ‘trap-within-a-trap-within-a-trap’ the narrator tells that the story of ‘Blue Raspeberries’ is about nudists being infiltrated by a red-haired, German-named man who infiltrates them, becomes their leader, and then turns them into uniform-toting authoritarians who, in the book’s final scene, parade in the garden at night. Slight echoes of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, strong echoes of the Kristallnacht. The conceit within a conceit here is that the (unreliable?) narrator thinks it’s a fantasy, while the story itself especially near the end hints that this is a metaphor for what actually happened.

Hence, unlike ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ in “The Man in the High Castle” which tells of a world different (although not necessarily ours) from that of the alternate world of the novel ‘Blue Raspberries’ (the imaginary paperback) in “Blue Raspberries” (the Zencore short story) tells of a world that is basically the same (as the similar titles already suggest).

Furthermore, I strongly suspect that Stockholm wasn’t chosen as the ‘non-existent’, ‘mythical’ city from which the viral stories from ‘Blue Raspberries’ were published for nothing: like the Stockholm syndrome where the hostage is brainwashed into following the hostage-taker’s logic, ‘Blue Raspberries’ tells of how “unwilling participants are locked in a water tank until their will is broken”. “Blue Raspberries” suggests that this has taken place on a country-wide scale since the nazis have won, as the (reliable?) narrator doesn’t seem to see that he has been brainwashed. More subtle hints of his brainwashing appear near the end: he gets a hard-on just thinking about a hard-boiled egg, while the original nudists of ‘Blue Raspberries’ were forced to eat raw eggs; the advert in ‘True Nude’ magazine is from a red-headed man: the red-haired infiltrator in ‘Blue Raspberries’, who likes singing – the nudists were forced to sing humiliating songs in falsetto voices – and linguistics – nudists who refused to speak the ‘forgotten’ language were beaten.

So the circle is round, and the protagonist, who almost begins to realise he was one of the free nudists himself, replies to the advert. It’s unclear whether this will get him back to his fellow nudists (who are now possibly the underground), or straight into a trap set up by the nazi spies.

There is more very clever stuff in there that I didn’t get, like the spiel with his father’s pipes (did Philip K. Dick smoke pipes?), the lop-sided infinity sign of the nudist cult, and more. Multi-layered, extremely clever (some would call it too clever by half), it also reminds me very strongly of Lavie Tidhar’s “304, Adolph Hitler Strasse” (from the first Clarkesworld Magazine issue). While the Tidhar is more direct and heartfelt, both are highly recommended.

Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller: the story of a storytelling program
disguised as a Santa Claus that interacts with its audience, and so learns to both improve its storytelling, and adapt the story to its audience's needs. It becomes so good at it too good and totally entrances groups of children with its stories, and worried parents form a mob against it. They're literally chasing a ghost one that disappears without even a whiff when no-one looks but the ghost in this machine has come alive, that is, self-conscious.
An interesting take on how a self-improving storytelling program might become self-aware, although I suspect cause and effect might be jumbled up here. Nevertheless, quite interesting.

The Plunge: a bizarro piece of horror reminiscent of “Digging for Adults” (D. Harlan Wilson, Nemonymous 3), or “Creek Man” (Jamie Rosen, Nemonymous 4). In a non-descript factory Frank snaps children’s necks before he pushes them into a pit, where they burn. His routine is disturbed by a kid who talks, and tries to escape before he kills her. Near the end, the children in line take their fate (or at least the very last part of it) in their own hands and jump into the execution pit without having their necks ('humanely') snapped.

As such, the story evokes bio-industry slaughterhouses, concentration camps, and a sly hint of anti-abortion (especially through the parting note of Frank's partner Esperanza). It reminded me most of the routine on a slaughterhouse’s kill floor, where employees think about mundane things while they bring cows (or pigs, or chicken) to their deaths.

England and Nowhere: this is a truly superb story, with some very fine writing. Superficially it seems a slice-of-life piece about a middle-aged alcoholic watching the people
especially the young couple in the appartment below around him on a beach resort somewhere along the English coast. But every appearance in this fantastic story is deceiving, and things are not quite what they seem. There is a very subtle, yet palpable sense of menace growing throughout, and there is a reason for every thing (both little and big) that happens.

Now, unlike my analysis of "Blue Raspberries", I'm not going to tell you: you'll have to find out by yourselves, and buy Zencore! "England and Nowhere" is easily worth the price of the book alone: read it, reread it to see what you all missed the first time around (and wonder at the intricacy and masterful attention to detail), and then reread it again. I've only read it twice, and still haven't picked up all the subtle hints and layers of meaning, although a greater picture is starting to form. Classy, evocative, powerful: I think this is in the same class as “The Assistant to Dr. Jacob” (Eric Schaller, Nemonymous 2).

Word Doctor:
this might be the obligatory Nemonymous metafictional story (think "The Place Where Lost Things Go" by Jorge Candeias in Nemonymous 3 or “The Scariest Story I Know”
which mixes and/or reverses dream and reality by Scott Edelman in Nemonymous 5). Arkimp is the word doctor of the title, and he fixes broken words. It's a reminiscence of how we change words, and how words change us, and as such it's a nice coda to Nemonymous 7. Of course, "England and Nowhere" is an extremely tough act to follow, and while "Word Doctor" is not in the same class, it feels right as the ending to Zencore!

Finally, how would I rate Zencore! in the Nemonymous pantheon? Honestly, I don't really have a favourite, just a weakness for Nemonymous 4 because I was published in it, and a fondness for Nemonymous 5. To me, they're quite consistent in their quality and sensibility. Because my personal preferences only partly overlap with Nemo's sensibility, there are always stories I dislike, but those are more than made up for the ones that I do like.

Zencore! is not different from that (a couple of stories that just didn't work for me, more than compensated by the superb ones), and in that respect is a worthy addition to the nemonymic oeuvre.

The only difference is that Des opened Nemo 7 up to longer stories: until Nemo 5 the maximum length was 5000 words, now 8000 words. Assuming approx. 350 words per page, then a 5K+ story would take up some 15 pages or more. Thus the longer stories in Zencore! are "MMM delicious" (25 pages), "The Awful Truth About the Circus" (19 pages), "Red Velvet Dust" (17 pages), "Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller" (18 pages), and "England and Nowhere" (18 pages). While I did think the first three were too long for what they were trying to say, I enjoyed the fourth, but most importantly: if allowing stories of up to 8K brings in a diamond like "England and Nowhere", then it was well worth it.