Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review of At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

Encountering Kij Johnson’s short fiction as it pops up in a year’s best or in the random anthology, here in a magazine and there on Clarkesworld, one never knows which face will appear.  One sharply literary, the associated works have abstract poetic dimensions that dissolve into images and ideas connecting in the mind even if they seem to defy comprehension on paper.  The other face is one more traditional and charming; a classic storyteller cognizant of tone resides within Johnson.  Poetic and charming a vibrant pair of ideas in themselves, her 2012 collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012) exemplifies these qualities, and as I was to discover, additional faces.

Johnson’s poetic face is best captured in the story opening the collection, “26 Monkeys, and the Abyss.”  Lurking behind an obtuse little tale of a woman who buys into a traveling monkey show are the personal issues she is dealing with in real life, just visible off-screen.  Showcasing the fact genre authors can indeed produce quality, literary material, spec fic at short length hasn’t come much better.  “Story Kit” adheres more literally to the title than one might expect.  Opening with Damon Knight’s six story types, Johnson examines, in prosaic fashion, the elements that go into writing via references to Greek tragedy and contemporary, though unnamed, fiction.  Seeming to evolve into a narrative more personal than universal, the (meta-) story can also be read as a feminist text for Johnson’s goals and struggles with pen in hand.  A post-modern, abstract gem, it will not be enjoyed by all precisely for those reasons. 

The usage of the present tense propelling the story to its conclusion, “Names for Water” is one of the lightest pieces in Bees.  A brief, innocent, fragmented bit of coming of age, it tells of a teenage girl who wants more from life.  But it is perhaps “Spar” which finds Johnson at her most poetic.  A relevant take on gender and sex, an alien analog is used symbolically to great effect by referencing the animality of intercourse and relationships.  A harsh, seemingly unforgiving piece, peering through the forest to find the trees is rewarding.

The resonant storyteller in Johnson is perhaps best represented by the longest piece in the collection.  “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” proves itself to be a layered, developed romance in an interesting setting.  The symbolism of the bridge a touch pretentious, Johnson nevertheless endows it with detail and atmosphere to the point it emerges as a critical touchpoint spanning the characters’ stories.  (Longer review here.) Perhaps more traditional than charming, “Fox Magic” brings to the foreground Johnson’s obvious love of Oriental culture.  The story of a Japanese home and the lord who is lured by one of the foxes living under his storehouse disguised as a woman, it takes full advantage of the Japanese fable, and is as elegant as can be.

The strongest additional face in Johnson I discovered was purposeful and touching stories involving animals.  In “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” Johnson tells the amiable story of a cat who makes the most amazing overland trek.  Highly reminiscent of yesteryear storytelling, Johnson nevertheless makes it stick with a modern sentimentality.  A tale that is more thought-provoking than would seem at the outset, “The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change” is on the surface about dog sentience.  Interspersing trickster stories dogs tell one another in the aftermath of dogdom’s fate post-Change, you don’t need to own a dog or be a dog lover to appreciate this tale of something that all animals want, including us.

Another face discovered is of empathy within broken homes.  “26 Monkeys, also the Abyss” dealing with a woman whose family situation is less than stable, so too does the short, poignant story “The Bitey Cat.”   About little Sarah, her cat who is not a cat, and witnessing her parents get a divorce, domestic problems are the root of her troubled young life, and Johnson portrays this in poignant yet relevant terms.  “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” has the strong feel of being inspired by real events.  About a woman taking a cross-country drive with her near-death German Shepherd, she has the most extraordinary experience encountering a river of bees in the middle of Montana.   “Ponies” got a lot of attention from awards for its view to young girls’ focus on beauty and social acceptance, but it’s a story that has a lot of issues.  Playing off the classic traditional cool vs. uncool kids on the playground, the characters are stereotypes and the symbolism overt almost to the point of being maudlin.  My Little Pony and little princesses the targets in the cross-hairs, it alienates one while comforting the non-princess—plenty of whom in the real world turn out normal without getting caught up in the melodrama Johnson describes.  A touch manipulative, there are better ways to pass along the importance of independence. 

There is likewise a quality face of Orientalism to Johnson’s short fiction.  Along with the aforementioned “Fox Magic,” “The Horse Raiders” thankfully has more depth than the average mini-epic fantasy it would seem to be on the surface.  About a tribe of horsemen on the grasslands, they are met one day by a group of raiders claiming to be sent from the emperor.  Having a very Mongolian/Chinese feel, Johnson produces an engaging story that likewise deals with issues surrounding power and choice between the sexes.   Literally only four-pages, “Chenting, in the Land of the Dead” nevertheless has some punch.  About a Chinese scholar faced with a major career choice, it gives him what he wants but has an undesired effect on those he loves.  “The Empress Jingu Fishes”—and she also sees the future.  Part samurai and prescient, she remains a salient character in how Johnson portrays her crouching by a stream, with hook and bait… 

The final ‘face’ is perhaps less a face and more an undercurrent to nearly all the stories: women’s issues and gender in general.  Though dedicated to fellow sf writer Chris McKitterick, “Dia Chjerman's Tale” has a much stronger James Tiptree Jr. feel.  About the harsh trials of generations of women stranded on a planet, the only difference to Tiptree Jr. is the ending.  Important to know “solitaire” is a type of bird, “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire—Exposition on the Flaws in my Spouse's Character—The Nature of the Bird—The Possible Causes—Her Final Disposition” describes a Kafkian metamorphosis.  Written in a style of yesteryear English, the title (like a Victorian chapter title) captures the transition, whereas the story captures the emotion and pain of a house-bound woman.  Having a little fun with physics, “Schrödinger's Cathouse” transfers the uncertainty of a particle inside the famous box to the uncertainty of gender.  A whorehouse whose employees’ gender is continually in flux, its latest client is Bob, and he’s not sure if he’ll sleep with her, him, or it.  An extremely tense story, “Wolf Trapping” tells of a zoologist studying wolves in a winter region.  Encountering a woman who has just freed a she-wolf from a trap, things only get stranger as he agrees to give shelter to the provision-less woman.

In the end, At the Mouth of the River of Bees is a very good, sometimes great, collection of short stories.  Wonderfully arranged, one element of a story passes the baton to the next, the range of ideas continually expanding in the transfer.   Though symbolism/metaphor, classicism, animals, qualities of east Asian culture, and feminism/women’s issues weave in and out of the collection, none are presented in the same way twice, adding to the variety.  Highly, highly recommended.

Published between 1989 and 2011, the following are the eighteen stories collected in At the Mouth of the River of Bees:

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss
Fox Magic
Names for Water
The Bitey Cat
The Horse Raiders
Dia Chjerman's Tale
My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire—Exposition on the Flaws in my Spouse's Character—The Nature of the Bird—The Possible Causes—Her Final Disposition
Schrödinger's Cathouse
Chenting, in the Land of the Dead
The Empress Jingu Fishes
At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Story Kit
Wolf Trapping
The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles
The Man Who Bridged the Mist
The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change

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