Best American Fantasy
Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Matthew Cheney, Series Editor
Prime Books, 2007, 461 pp., US$14.95
You could be forgiven for confusing Best American Fantasy with the other, more literarily-inclined, Best American series of anthologies (Short Stories, Essays, Comics, Nonrequired Reading, Travel Writing, etc.) published by Houghton Mifflin. BAF does, after all, have a series editor (Matthew Cheney) in addition to this year's (and next year's) editors (Ann & Jeff VanderMeer); and there is that pesky "Best American" in the title itself. But rest assured, this is an entirely different animal, published by an entirely different publisher: Prime Books. The focus is on short fiction, but of a particular attitude.
BAF, as the title suggests, is a compilation of what the VanderMeers and Mr. Cheney have concluded are the best examples of the literary fantastic in short story form published in the previous calendar year. And while there seem to be a glut of Year's Best titles within speculative fiction right now (The Year's Best Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois; The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant; Year's Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Kramer; Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, ed. Rich Horton, etc.), Best American Fantasy approaches the process a bit differently, by deliberately seeking out content from literary journals and zines in addition to material from genre publications. This ethic has resulted in a strong yet eclectic anthology.
More importantly, it does what good genre blending should do: bring together both groups whose tropes are being utilized. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Matthew Cheney all have roots and connections within the speculative fiction field, and so readers familiar with their work are more likely to pick up the anthology than if it were edited by someone else, and will be exposed to many authors that they may not have heard of, since a good majority of the stories were printed in traditionally "non-genre" venues; conversely, readers familiar with the reprinted authors and the venues in which their fiction was originally published are more likely to pick up the anthology than if the stories were written by writers more closely associated with speculative fiction, and will be exposed to the wild variety of ways that the fantastic can be applied in a fictional milieu. Both groups get a surprise, led through a threshold they might not normally have crossed.
This commingling of readers can only lead to greater appreciation of literature of the fantastic, and its validation within the more traditional literary establishment. And as a further result, cross-genre work is given an increased breath of life. As they do every few years, the cries have arisen once again that both short fiction in general, and literature of the imagination in particular, are either dead or dying. But Best American Fantasy proves both of these claims false. Short fantastic stories, such as those included in the anthology, have permeated the literary world, whether or not the authors consider themselves fantasy authors. Whatever the label, the genre is incredibly healthy, thanks in no small part to the editors themselves.
As mentioned in the book's introduction, specific attention was paid to define "fantasy" as broadly as possible, and with the exception of two selections that can be solidly placed within genre (Sarah Monette's secondary-world archaeological fantasy Draco Campestris, and Geoffrey A. Landis' charming science-fictional fairy tale Lazy Taekos), the anthology as a whole tends toward the cross-genre variety, the blending of the fantastic with the mimetic. This makes a certain amount of sense, as this is the type of fiction that Jeff VanderMeer and Matthew Cheney have written, and Ann VanderMeer has published both at The Silver Web and through Buzzcity Press. Surrealism, magic realism, slipstream, whatever name is fashionable these days. It is unclear whether the plethora of cross-genre stories in BAF is a result of editor preference or because so many writers both in and out of genre are employing cross-genre tropes in their fiction, though I suspect it is a bit of both.
The stories are gathered from nineteen "mainstream" sources (Alaska Quarterly Review, A Public Space, Gargoyle, The Georgia Review, Green Mountains Review, Hobart, Identity Theory, McSweeney's, The Mississippi Review, The New Yorker, Ninth Letter, One Story, Oxford American, Pindeldyboz, Redivider, The Southern Review, Tin House, Zahir, Zoetrope: All-Story), three "genre" sources (Analog, Paraspheres, Strange Horizons), and one story collection (Elizabeth Hand's Saffron and Brimstone).
The anthology begins with Sumanth Prabhaker's A Hard Truth About Waste Management, a light little tale about the joys of flushing garbage down the toilet. A free alternative to high waste management taxes (although one imagines the water bill to be atrocious), trash-flushing becomes a wonderful form of entertainment to this family of three (father, mother, son). Prabhaker's spare prose style infuses the tale with minimalist magical realist normality that feels charming and quaint, until something climbs back up from the toilet and things turn sinister. A short piece, but packed with incredible details and told in a dry detached prose that catches one off guard with the unexpected and truly strange; a strong opening story, and one that bodes well for the tone of the rest of the book.
Other highlights include:
Elizabeth Hand's The Saffron Gatherer, a visit between intelligent and cultured friends, full of conversations on art and literature, with one of the most lyrical and frightening endings I've read in some time;
Chris Adrian's A Better Angel, about a flawed and failed doctor visiting his dying father in the hospital, accompanied by his own personal angel who won't stop reminding him about his unfulfilled potential;
Meghan McCarron's The Flying Woman, a sweet and elegiac love story between a wheelchair-bound woman who can fly and the narrator who loves her. Very similar in style and structure to Kelly Link's Flying Lessons, but with McCarron's trademark gentle touches, establishing once again that she is a writer worth watching;
Kelly Link's Origin Story, a tale of above-average superheroes trapped in a mundane petit bourgeois existence, whiling away the days with beer and pop-cultural conversations. Not Link's best story, and even more detached than her regular characteristically flat prose, but at the same time displaying moments of genuine emotion and insight;
Tony D'Souza's The Man Who Married a Tree, which is told in the style of a folktale from 20 points of view, from the people in the town, from the inanimate forces of nature, from the author himself, all trying to relay the story of this solitary man who fell in love with a tree and married it, an encomium to a stranger that everybody feels they knew and want to mythologize;
Catherine Zeidler's Pregnant, a heightened and high-intensity encounter between two unlikely lovers, written in the elevated language of literalized metaphors, to the point that reality and the fantastic become inextricably intertwined;
Brian Evenson's An Accounting, a humorous and painful detailed account of one man's accidental elevation to messiah status amid the desolate landscape of a post-apocalyptic Midwest;
and my favorite of the anthology, Daniel Alarcón's Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot, a story wonderfully untethered in both narratological temporality and historical causality. The narrator, who gets fired from his job in a delivery company along with his lover Hank, can't get over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (also a former lover), with the narrative swinging back and forth between the two relationships. Fantastically confusing and full of beautiful passages like the following:
I was a Southern boy, and of course it was something Lincoln and I talked about. Hank didn't care where I was from. Geography is an accident, he said. The place you are born is simply the first place you flee. And then: the people you meet, the ones you fall for, and the paths you make together, the entirety of one's life, a series of mere accidents. And these too are accidents: the creeks you stumble upon in a dense wood, the stones you pick up, the number of times each skips across the bright surface of the water, and everything you feel in that moment—the graceless passage of time, the possibility of stillness. Lincoln and I had lived this—skipped rocks and felt our hearts swelling—just before he left for Illinois and Washington. We were an hour outside Chicago, in a forest encroached upon by subdivisions. Everywhere we walked that day there were trees adorned with bright orange flags, trees with death warrants, land marked for clearing, to be crisscrossed by roads and driveways, dotted with the homes of upright American yeomen.
Lincoln told me he loved me.
"I'll come with you, I said. I was hopeful. This was years ago. (381-2)
But really, other than The Chinese Boy by Ann Stapleton (unfathomably linguistically opaque and impossible to get into) and First Kisses from Beyond the Grave by Nik Houser (as turgid, stilted, plodding, and pedestrian as the undead the author attempts to write about), every story is strong, exciting, unique, and worthy of attention. 27 successful stories out of 29 is a phenomenal record, especially for a brand-new anthology series.
Author Nathan Ballingrud recently commented in a blog entry that Best American Fantasy and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror make perfect companion volumes, and should be packaged together. This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. In recent years, thanks to the addition of Grant and Link, YBF&H has widened the net considerably in the venues to be considered for inclusion, yet the core of each volume is still heavily based on works firmly within the field of speculative fiction. And there's nothing wrong with this, as the stories reprinted every year are of extremely high quality, and represent the very best that the genre has to offer. However, Best American Fantasy is an invitation to readers and writers who might never normally consider reading a book with fantastic elements, let alone one with the word "fantasy" in the title.
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are often referred to as "ghetto" genres, where only those within the ghetto can truly appreciate what the genre can do, and outsiders just can't grok it. Hip hop also started its life in the ghetto, specifically among disenfranchised black youth railing against a profoundly unbalanced system designed to keep them down, but their music has spread like a wildfire all over the planet; it's currently the most popular type of music among young people from Mexico to Malaysia.
Imaginative fiction is more of a slow burn, smoldering within the wider field of capital-L Literature, steadily being accepted in more and more journals and magazines, ones that might previously have explicitly stated in their submission guidelines: no genre fiction. Best American Fantasy brings this realization out into the open, like the most flammable of accelerants. Imaginative fiction is alive, healthy, and here to stay, blazing through the literary spectrum. One hopes that this important new Year's Best anthology series will continue to spark within it.