By Tim Powers
Tachyon Publications, 2005
Southern California, Santa Ana winds, lemon and avocado trees in the backyard; this is Tim Powers's milieu. It sounds glamorous but it smells like failure. I'd never even heard of Tim Powers until last fall when our carpenter friend Neil brought me Last Call. I was transfixed, not least because hubby and I drive around in a beat-up old Suburban, much like the motley crew that stars in Last Call and Earthquake Weather, the third in the Fault Lines series. We don't drink and drive as much as Archimedes and his pals but reading Powers make me wish we could, while at the same time ducking dark forces, mixing up batches of counter magic, working on the truck, eating almost exclusively in restaurants, drinking some more, quoting Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot, and hanging out with lesser gods and archetypes. Powers makes it all sound so much damn fun.
Trying to find out why Powers can write contemporary urban (and suburban, natch) fantasy that feels so real, I checked out some Google sources, including Lyda Morehouse's interview on Strange Horizons.
I learned a few things that helped provide an interesting background to his fiction, such as the fact that Powers is Catholic. This accounts for all the references to consecrated ground in his works. Also, partly because of this, he has never entirely abandoned his belief in the possible verisimilitude of Things that Go Bump in the Night. When he's writing—and this is something to which all aspiring Creep Meisters should pay close attention—he writes as if it could all be true.
I also learned that, in spite of Last Call's tarot plot, Powers is terrified of tarot cards and will not let anyone read his cards, ever.
My research also taught me that Powers reads mainstream, not genre, writers. This accounts for his highbrow style and countless Wasteland references, which are literary chocolate covered peanuts, if you ask me.
If I could have not one or three but a multitude of wishes granted by Hermes Trismegistus, I'd save a couple for Tim Powers.
First wish: that he write another book as good as WFA-winner Last Call. If he doesn't, that's okay too. In my mind, Last Call is up there in the "you only have to write one book this good to earn a ticket to heaven" category. Powers himself agrees with me, I'm glad to note. He has said this is the one where he was "firing on all cylinders."
The second wish would be that he change his mind and get a tarot reading, perhaps from fellow fantasy author and tarot expert Rachel Pollack, an author of both novels and tarot books, such as The Forest of Souls. It seems to me these two wonderful writers are tilling the same field, if from opposite ends—one in which tarot is scary, dangerous, and possibly evil, and the other in which it's a beautiful mystery of unknown provenance, an elegant multi-tiered game, a mirror that never shows the same image twice.
Powers's short story collection Strange Itineraries, published by Tachyon, opens with a story called "Itinerary." It's a good choice as it sets the tone: we meet a gentle failure named Gunther who lives in Southern California. He's got a twin sister, and a ceramic duck that belonged to their mother. Or he used to have the duck. Gunther receives a mysterious phone call from a man claiming to be Doug Olney. Apparently they knew each other in high school. The next day the family house in Santa Ana, where Gunther still lives, explodes from an alleged propane leak, injuring Gunther and destroying the duck.
Gunther's twin, who now lives in France, flies out to look after him. She takes him grocery shopping and he buys, among other things, an avocado. He also decides to change his name, in case the explosion wasn't entirely accidental, and chooses Doug Olney, because it's fresh in his mind. Gunther moves in with his uncle in San Bernardino, to a house where the family lived for a year after they first moved west from Buffalo. There are a lot of mirages in San Bernardino, and it's possible, at times, to see versions of oneself from the past or the future in this house. His uncle points out there is no point in trying to speak to them—they're just living their lives.
The ceramic duck the twins' mother bought at a yard sale was stolen in ‘59 and replaced six months later along with a photo album, in a game resembling the practical joke where garden gnomes are "borrowed," photographed enjoying many stops along a road trip, and then returned with photos documenting their "vacation."
The San Bernardino house is run down. Looking at its faded paint, Gunther's sister says,
"The photo of the duck by the avocado tree, remember? There's no tree here now, but the angle of the house, the windows, look, it's the very same view, we just didn't recognize it then because we remembered this house freshly painted, not all faded and peeled like it is now, and like it was in the picture, and because in the picture there was a big distracting avocado tree in the foreground!"
The relationship between the twins and the setting in motion of uncanny events by a mysterious phone call is distinctly reminiscent of the opening of Last Call. It's not a standalone: the majority of the events differ widely from that book. Yet the sibling relationship is powerfully drawn, just as in Last Call, in which the protagonist also has a twin sister with a strong personality to whom he is deeply connected, similar to the identical twins in sociological studies who, although separated at birth, marry men named Henry that work in sales and drive red Honda Civics. Powers writes the twins of myth.
"The person with the camera was standing right here," she said softly.
"Or will be standing," Gunther thought.
Taking cues from the duck, Gunther is not entirely surprised that when he calls the number of the Santa Ana house, there's someone there. A voice he recognizes. He explains that he's Doug Olney. He doesn't tell his doppelganger that the Santa Ana house is about to explode. What would be the point?
Instead, he goes outside and plants the avocado seed in the garden.
"Eventually it will be a tree, and maybe one day the duck will be there, leaning on the trunk, on his way back from Disneyland and Grauman's Chinese theatre to the house where my sister and I are still seven years old. I plan to tag along, if he'll have me."
Powers does the multiverse really well, like Rudy Rucker does in the wonderful stories collected in Gnarl, published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 2001. Powers approaches the idea of multiple dimensions and characters who live lives in more than one time or place concurrently from the POV of magic (read: fantasy) rather than string theory (read: science fiction). Perhaps these two seemingly conflicting world views will meet in the middle, on a day not too far off. Way back in 1978, I shared a nice little apartment above a store on Toronto's Yonge Street with a fascinating young woman. We spoke often of many things. She once told me this bridging between science and magic would occur in 2012, at the end of the Mayan calendar's current long cycle. She has, in the spanning decades, done several stints of hard time in mental institutions.
So it goes.
Rucker co-wrote many of the stories in his collection with slipstream avatar Marc Laidlaw, among others. Powers co-wrote many of the stories in Strange Itineraries with James Blaylock.
Rucker, in his introduction, is faintly apologetic about his work, but many of the stories in Gnarl are very fine, particularly the ones in which he takes pains to explain the theoretical physics behind the incontrovertible weirdness. Because of the stories in Gnarl, I actually understand collapsing probability waves. I think. However, unlike the learned and hugely entertaining Professor Rucker, Powers is a superior prose stylist. If it weren't for the abovementioned incontrovertible weirdness, we could be reading Alice Munro.
As if writing holographically, Powers is able to make the reader grasp the dynamic of a sibling relationship or a marriage in a few bright cut glass moments. "The Better Boy," written with James Blaylock, is about gardening, among other things, including pants.
As every gardener knows, the title is also the name of a hybrid tomato. Beset by hornworms, protagonist Bernard Wilkins devises a magical system to rid his prized plants of these terrifying pests. It’s one thing to pick broccoli butterfly larvae from a plant when they’re small, innocuous green worms, but a tomato hornworm can be thick as a finger, almost as long, and it has horns. I used to gingerly pick them up and hurl them out of the garden. It was difficult, even, to step on them with thick soled shoes. These are not pests which one squeezes between thumb and forefinger. Hence the need for Bernard to devise a magical pesticide, the strange and wonderful ether bunnies, home grown crystal rabbits twist-tied to nets that will first capture and then hurl the worms into outer space.
Bernard works on his device day and night, barely noticing his wife, who abides his quirks with an indulgent humor and a lot of kindness. While the magical device is believably described in much detail, it doesn’t succeed.
What succeeds is the hero’s marriage, again, as demonstrated by the fact that when he at last wakes up, cold, damp and hungry, from his life-threatening backyard adventure with hornworms and ether bunnies, he finds his favorite inventor pants on the hall table, washed, folded, and patched yet again.
He has lost his giant prize Better Boy to the hornworms, almost died, and yet it doesn’t turn out to matter after all, because Molly is still there as she has always been and probably always will be. Writing insanely well about marriage is usually a female area of expertise, so extra kudos to Powers on that count.
This might be one of my favorite short stories, ever. Period.
I wasn't even going to write this piece, since the original publication date has grown a little stale, but according to the publisher's web site, the book has gone into a well-deserved second printing, which will bring it new readers.
As well, a recent occurrence in my own life changed my mind.
I have old friends in Toronto whom I rarely see anymore, named Ann and Laurence. One day last month Laurence, a photographer, was at Queen and Jones, not the best east end Toronto neighborhood. He saw me across the street. I looked terrible, with a gash on my face. "Ursula!" he cried, and I crossed the street so we could speak.
"How are you?" Laurence asked, full of misgivings. "What are you doing here? Did you and Doug split up?"
"It was a long time coming," I apparently replied.
"You and Ann used to be so close," Laurence said. "Stop by for a glass of wine."
I allegedly karate chopped him in the chest. "You know I don't drink wine." And stormed off.
Puzzled and worried for me, Laurence called Jan, a mutual friend with whom we both remain in close contact, and told her the story. Jan called me.
"I guess she looked a lot like me," I said. "If she was crazy, she might have given a knee-jerk response to his use of my name and reference to Doug. Or else I'm living in a Tim Powers story and have a doppelganger," I laughed.
It gets better, or worse.
A week later I was in Toronto. I went out for lunch with my sister and her family. I took photographs. Photographs were taken of me. I e-mailed one of myself to Jan. She e-mailed it to Laurence. "That's the woman I saw," he insisted.
The morning Jan first called me with Laurence's story I had a mysterious sore on the right side of my face, exactly where Laurence had said my Toronto double had one.
We all had a good laugh.
A slightly nervous one.
When Gunther still lived in Buffalo, before the family moved to California, their house had an unused top floor, a vast room filled with antiques. The children would go up to play in a three-dimensional maze amongst overturned tables and canted sleigh beds. The characters not only in "Itinerary" but in many of Powers's stories are much like Gunther exploring that eerie room; things are mightily strange, and there isn't a great deal to be done about it, as the cause of the strangeness is forever unknowable. We've all been captured, like the ceramic duck, and taken on a long ride through inexplicable weirdness—unmoored in space and time, coerced to explore a maze of not just three but four or possibly more dimensions.
What's to be done? Might as well have fun with it.
Start a tree from seed, watch it grow. I have a lemon, an avocado, a grapefruit, a Brazilian pepper and an almond. California trees, they're in containers. I bring them in for the winters. I haven't photographed them yet. None of my avocados took. Possibly a good thing.