Seven Bites of Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels coverOne. Tender Morsels is not a short story. This is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating for any reader of Margo Lanagan who, like me, has had their expectations of her fiction shaped by the work collected in White Time (2000), Black Juice (2004), and Red Spikes (2006). There is a temptation, after a particularly striking encounter with a writer working in one form, to be disappointed that their work in the other form does not have the same zing of newness: to feel that, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl “merely” explores in greater depth a future already presented in stories collected in Pump Six; or, in the other direction, that Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days “merely” adds a spectrum of perspectives to the world of River of Gods. I do not claim to be immune; I feel the lure of both those opinions, though I try to resist them. And in that sense, Tender Morsels is “merely” another fairytale retold with an emphasis on the grit and grim of the real. But, you know, longer.

Two. Re-reading “Snow White and Rose Red” once done with Tender Morsels, it is a real joy to discover how clever, and how sly, Lanagan’s revisioning is. The spine of the Grimm tale – two girls, living with their mother in a cottage in the forest, have encounters with a friendly bear and a wicked, treasure-hungry dwarf – is retained in Tender Morsels. But in Lanagan’s novel, the realm in which this takes place is a secondary world, a personal heaven to which the mother, Liga, escapes from a horrific childhood in a “real” world: this is both a necessary escape, and the sort of sanitisation of reality performed by the Brothers Grimm on the later editions of the tales they collected. The bear (multiple bears, actually, in the novel) and the dwarf are intrusions from the “real” world, and eventually harbingers of heaven’s end; and, most importantly, the novel shows us the story before and after the fairytale.

Three. Lanagan remains an extraordinary writer of action, of things happening. Her language itself can create unease; it is only very carefully euphonious, far more often tending to beauty of a guttural, earthy sort, particularly in dialogue or first-person narration, suited to action and discussion. (Less suited to description and reflection, which occasionally seemed to me a weakness.) But this is not to say she is explicit. Much attention has been lavished on the first few chapters, which cover Liga’s upbringing. She is repeatedly raped by her father (leading to several forced abortions, and eventually to Branza, the novel’s Snow White); after her father’s death, she is raped by a gang from a nearby village (leading to Urdda, Rose Red). Reading about this is even more harrowing than it may sound, in part because it does not seem to be leading anywhere (perhaps because a direction would mean a hope of escape), but primarily because Lanagan writes around the terrible events so effectively. Miscarriages endured by Liga are covered (“She tried to stop the baby, but it had been poised to rush out, and so it rushed out, with a quantity of wet noise”, 15), as is the aftermath of rape (how Liga “washed and washed her cringing parts”, how “to walk was to hurt”, 47); but the rapes themselves are not. That’s left to us to imagine.

Four. The novel seems to me to be built around a series of stark contrasts, set up early in the book. Most obviously, there is the contrast between Liga’s two worlds: that defined by her father – “he had run the world for her” (37) – and that defined by her own desire. The former is a place of relentless brutality, the latter somewhere Liga can be utterly trusting of everyone and everything around her. The tranquillity of this world is equally relentless in its way, and bold Urdda, in particular, grows to chafe against it, and eventually leaves. Men and women are divided by perspective: every scene told from a man’s point of view is first-person, while every scene told from a woman’s point of view is third-person. The logic behind this division never quite became clear to me; it could be an effective way of underlining the privilege accorded the male gaze in the novel’s “real” world, but the first-person perspectives persist even when the men are in Liga’s heaven; and a mild criticism of the novel might be that we are never given access to the perspectives of the men who actually commit the worst acts. But perhaps the argument should be that the perspectives we are given access to confirm that not all men are beasts, because man and animal are also contrasted, as young men taking part in a local ritual intended to “civilise” them find themselves transported to Liga’s heaven and transformed into bears. One such is noble, the other rather less so. And so on.

Five. The final section of Tender Morsels – when both daughters and Liga are back in the “real” world – is, I think, the best, but not without its perplexing moments. There are two points in the novel at which Lanagan seems to give her characters a freebie. The first is Liga’s salvation, when she is given the means to access her heaven by a force that is never explained; if the characters were religious, it would be an act of God. The second comes in the latter stages of the book, after Liga tells Urdda how her daughter was conceived. Urdda becomes (not surprisingly) incandescently angry; it is revealed that she has magical talent; in her sleep, unconsciously, she causes five voodoo dolls to go out into the village and gang rape each man involved in her mother’s ordeal; and in the morning she wakes, unknowing, and “fresh of it all”; “Yesterday”, she says, “I thought I would burn with that rage for the rest of my life. Today – well, I have no particular feelings about it at all” (407). She acknowledges that this is “not natural”; but it still feels far too consoling. Life does not provide vengeance so clean, or so easily.

Six. Urdda’s vengeance stands out all the more because most of the second half of Tender Morsels is devoted to questioning and — partially — deconstructing its earlier dichotomies. When the family are first reunited in the “real” world, there is a sense of right finality, as though the story is ending; yet at the same time you can feel, between your thumb and forefinger, the thickness of pages still to go. And so you conclude, because you are back in the world where Liga was so abused – because that horror, as Urdda puts it, is sitting “lumped in the past … impossible to ignore” (389) – that something bad is going to happen. It never does. But the expectation leads to some scenes of almost unbearable tension, often revolving around Branza. Unlike her sister, Branza never chafed against Liga’s heaven. She is desperately unworldly; in Gwyneth Jones’ resonant phrase, a true veteran of utopia, confused by the tragic distance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. So when she goes for a walk on her own – having been warned against such excursions by her sister – we fear for her. And, sure enough, she is menaced; yet she stands her ground, and bites one of the boys, and the rest are cowed. She walks home safely. Liga is delighted by the sight of her daughter’s accomplishment — “In some way, she had bested them; they were afraid of her, look!” (337) — but another character, standing at Liga’s shoulder, remarks that there’s nothing like being raised in heaven to give someone false confidence. The moment is punctured: we have to agree with that. And yet, Branza walks.

Seven. As Gary K Wolfe puts it in his review, the central theme of Tender Morsels is “the balance between the brutal abuse Liga herself has suffered and the overprotectiveness of the world she has made”. For Abigail Nussbaum, this leads to the novel’s major flaw: that it tells two stories, and that the morals of those stories clash:

Tender Morsels starts out as a story about a character who endures terrible injustices because she lives in a world arrayed against her, and who escapes into another world. It ends as a story about that character learning that life in the real world, though fraught with dangers, is worth more than life in a dream. The problem is that the lesson learned from the second kind of story–acceptance of the inevitability of heartbreak and pain–is precisely the lesson one shouldn’t learn from the first kind of story, which strives to elicit rage and indignation. It’s one thing to say ‘unhappiness and misfortune are the risks you take if you choose to live in the world,’ but it’s quite another thing to say ‘being made into a sex slave by your father and then gang-raped by men who think that having been impregnated by him makes you fair game is the risk you take if you choose to live in the world.’

I don’t entirely disagree with this, as the discussion above of Urdda’s vengeance – which I think can be read as existing to address the rage and indignation produced by Liga’s story, and sweep it under the carpet – may suggest. But it does strike me as risky to draw such direct morals from a novel which is, at base, about revising one of the most moralistic forms of literature there is, and which seems to me to so carefully manage the possible meanings of its events, inviting interrogation. Still, the novel has a happy ending, or something very close to it, despite the well-established darkness of the world — Wolfe writes of “a note of almost astonishing sweetness”, while Meg Rosoff describes a book that “celebrates human resilience” with “audacity and grace” — and a reader does have to be able to accept this as honest. For my part, the security the women achieve, while limited by the nature of the society in which they live, seems convenient but not tenuous. As the novel closes, Urdda is (thanks to the revelation of her magical talent) well on her way to being a powerful witch, Branza is marrying the story’s most noble man (who she met, as a bear, in Liga’s heaven), for love, and Liga is sharing a good house with another witch, who (thanks to the dwarf’s trips to Liga’s heaven) is independently wealthy. As to lessons, if we must have one I think I’m closer to David Hebblethwaite: neither Liga’s childhood nor her heaven makes a good guide to living in the world; neither should be trivialised, but they must not be the whole of the story. Or as Rosoff asks: is it possible to return to life from unspeakable trauma? Answering that question without seeming patronising is a tricky needle to thread, but I’d say Lanagan manages it much more than not; and that if you’re looking for a guide to living in the world, you could do worse than look at Tender Morsels.

Story Notes 1

I’ve not been reading that much short fiction this year but, with an eye to being a half-way informed voted by the time Hugo nominations roll around, I’ve started to play catch-up. I’m going to try to post brief notes on what I’ve been reading every other week or so; and I’m going to dot around as the mood takes me, so don’t expect reviews of complete issues or anthologies.

Fellow Traveller” by Hari Kunzru
Collecting” by Zhu Wen
A Matter of Timing” by Bernadine Evaristo
(The Guardian, August-October)

The three entries so far in the Guardian’s “China Reflected” relay of stories, which alternates contributions by Western and Chinese writers, riffing off each others’ ideas and themes. Kunzru’s “Fellow Traveller”, probably the best of the three, is a gently comic piece in which a Western traveller finds himself a guest at a hotel on the summit of “Queer Stone Mountain” without quite remembering how or why he got there. By day he goes for aimless walks along misty paths, takes photographs of what he sees, and finds himself harassed by talking pandas who object to his choice of subjects:

“Many things to take pictures in China. Bridge over Yellow River. New Beijing Stadium. Development in autonomous regions. Three Gorges Damn.”

“It’s just a house.”

“House never just house, when photo taken by imperialist lackey.”

The hotel bartender is contemptuous: they’re throwbacks, she says, wishing it was the Cultural Revolution all over again. Gradually the narrator acclimates to his situation, without ever full understanding it. Zhu Wen’s short essay picks up on the idea of pandas as a Chinese national treasure (“Serve Chinese people by harness power of childlike feature, soft two-colour fur and pretending we about to have sex,” they say in Kunzru’s story. “We play major role in cold war”), and describes differing attitudes to collecting and cultural preservation in Britain and China, among other things reframing the tale of the communist party’s use of last emperor of China, Aisin Gioro Puyi, as a form of collecting.

Bernadine Evaristo’s story in turn picks up on the idea of individuals as cultural treasures, and satirically imagines a museum in a near-ish future China which presents, among other things, an “Exhibition of Britain”. Features include his former Royal Highness, King Charles III (“forced to wear, at all times, a heavy ermine cape and a rather tacky papier-mache-crown”), an ex-Beefeater held up as a “typical, everyday Englishman”, as well as more traditional treasures such as the Domesday Book, the statue of Eros from Piccadilly Circus, and a reconstructed Stonehenge. So the targets never really move beyond the obvious, but the story doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the pointed final image offers a welcome counterbalancing seriousness.

“[a ghost samba]” by Ian McDonald (Postscripts 15).
Not, so far as I noticed, directly connected to Brasyl, but set in the same country and making use of the same basic sfnal concept, this is as story narrated by a 40-something music obsessive who tracks down the only copy of a young prodigy’s second album (said prodigy having died in a fire) and then obsesses about completing it. At times it reminded me of both Stephen Baxter’s “The Twelfth Album” and Alastair Reynolds’ “Everlasting”. It’s probably a better story than either of them; arguably less sfnally ambitious, but as you’d expect, McDonald writes extremely well about the sound and sensation of music, and that’s what gives this tale its force.

Glass” by Daryl Gregory (Technology Review, November/December)
The problem with “Glass” is that it’s too short – not that much longer than one of Nature’s Futures – although whether that problem originates with constraints of the venue or with Gregory I couldn’t tell you. The story is constructed as another neurobiological thought experiment, a la “Second Person, Present Tense” or “Dead Horse Point”, except that this time there’s a literal experiment involved: a trial of a new drug that stimulates mirror neruons. Dr Alycia Liddell is administering the drug to a small group of convicted criminals — sociopaths — with the hypothesis that it will provoke empathy. That she finds herself having to talk one patient out of a violent confrontation turns out to be evidence of a not entirely anticipated kind of success; and although that confrontation is tense and focused, and the story has a vicious final turn, there’s an an inescapable sense that it ends just when it should be getting started.

“An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan (The Starry Rift)
I enjoyed this a lot; although there’s a serious story at its heart, I think this is one of Lanagan’s more playful stories (at least compared to the likes of “The Goosle”). It also happens to be the third story I’ve read this year – after Adam Roberts’ Swiftly and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Sense and Sensibility” – that riffs on the idea of humaniform life on a different scale. The narrator, a disabled boy, lives in a coastal village whose economy is built around capturing and carving up giant human-like creatures. The story deals with one such event and, even without the obvious resonance of the central image, provides plenty of opportunity for Lanagan to showcase her imaginative reach with characteristic vividness.

“Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF, September)
This is a story with a very interesting background – indeed, the story seems to exist in large part to allow the ecology and culture of the setting, a waterworld with the rather unconvincing name of Ben, which in the process of being terraformed, to be described. But the story itself is flat and predictable. After an accident, three characters – Okaji, one of the waterworld’s inhabitants, her mother, and an uber-obnocious Heinleinian go-getter with the unironic and stunningly hackneyed nickname of “Scrappin’ Jack” – are trapped together in one of the living vessels that contribute to the terraforming process. Okaji, and the culture from which she comes, are everything that Jack is not – in his terms, passive and introverted; though they seem actually to function perfectly well on their own terms, even if their habit of referring to each other in the third person grates after a while – and so, unsurprisingly, the two come into conflict. The simplistic nature of their interactions is intensely frustrating, as is the fact that one of the key events in their journey – they discover an undersea alien city, which admittedly is quite spectacular – apparently requires us to believe that the terraforming project was initiated before a thorough survey of the planet was carried out; and the conclusion is, as I said, is predictable. To nobody’s surprise, Okaji and Jack gradually iron out their differences and bond, their plight being resolved when Jack has a “Bennish” idea and Okaji admits her urge to explore for exploration’s sake. I’ve rather enjoyed other stories by Gilman, particularly her earlier novella “Candle in a Bottle”, so this was a real disappointment.

The Goosle

One of the reasons I wanted to get my hands on the Ellen Datlow-edited Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle” — not just because I usually admire Lanagan’s stories, but because the reactions to this story, as tracked on Lanagan’s blog, have been interesting. They have been generally enthusiastic (or enthusiastic but nervous about how Lanagan might react), and occasionally bizarre, but a number have had an undercurrent of uneasiness: Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, for instance, says that though he “appreciated the creativity and inventiveness on display,” he’s “not sure the viciousness created a disturbing experience rather than an off-putting one”; and in general the descriptions emphasize how dark the tale is.

And now Dave Truesdale has reviewed the anthology, as one of his “Off on a Tangent” columns, and attacked “The Goosle”. (It’s interesting that this column appears under the SF Site banner, rather than as an online column for F&SF, although it’s not the first of the columns to do so.) Before I go any further, in case you haven’t followed any of the links above, a brief review of the premise: the story is a sequel to a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in which Gretel (here Kirtle) didn’t escape, and Hansel was found wandering by a man called Grinnan. The two now travel together, with Grinnan regularly and sexually abusing Hansel (“goosle” is one of his names for the boy; in the original “silly goose” is what the witch says as she demonstrates her oven to Gretel), and as “The Goosle” opens they pay a return visit to the witch, here called the “mudwife” (one of Lanagan’s common linguistic tricks is to corrupt existing word; here we’re obviously meant to think “midwife”, and there is a suggestion that the mudwife may act in that capacity for some locals). Here’s a sample of Truesdale’s judgement:

Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call… and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere — and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?

To sum up, his charges are: that the story is inappropriate given what he judges to be the likely audience for the anthology; that the abuse is included for “shock value” and crosses the bounds of decency, specifically in a scene where “young Hansel thinks he might even like what is being done to him”; and that it adds nothing to the story specifically or to “the canon of Hansel and Gretel”.

To take these points in order: Truesdale’s perception of the anthology as being marketed, at least in part, at young adult readers seems to rest entirely on the fact that several protagonists, including that of Lanagan’s story, are young adults. This strikes me as almost so daft as to not be worth engaging with: you’d think that the presence of a story as confrontational as Lanagan’s would be a fairly clear marker that young adults aren’t the target audience. But apparently not. There is the grain of a sensible point here, in that if the anthology can be mistaken for a young adult anthology then a reader might be confronted with material they’re not fully equipped to handle; but having read several of the other stories in the book, and looking at the way the book is presented, I think it’s unlikely anyone would actually make that mistake.

On “shock value”: here’s the scene that (I presume) Truesdale was thinking of with reference to Hansel enjoying being abused. As context, it occurs after arriving at the mudwife’s house; Grinnan and the mudwife have in fact kicked Hansel outdoors so that they can get busy.

I try dozing, but it’s not comfortable among the roots there, and there is still noise from the cottage — now it is Grinnan working himself up, calling her all the things he calls me, all the insults. You love it, he says, with such deep disgust. You filth, you filthy cunt. And she oh‘s below, not at all like me, but as if she really does love it. I lie quiet, thinking: Is it true, that she loves it? That I do? And if it’s true, how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?

Earlier this week, Victoria Hoyle was debating where she draws the line in the sand with regard to the content of fiction. It’s a valid question, and it’s not unreasonable for Truesdale to note that this story crosses his line. The problem with his critique is that he never goes any deeper than assertion – his discussion of “The Goosle” is six paragraphs long and uses the phrase “shock value” six times, which leaves the residual impression that it is the simple fact of the subject matter, rather than how it is handled, that is giving Truesdale trouble.

But this sort of thing really happens, which makes it a valid subject for fiction, and for me the handling is good enough that the story does not cross my line. In the context of the rest of the story the depiction of abuse does not strike me as exploitative, or sensationalist, or cheap. To be honest, given the hollow pain evident in that last sentence — “how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?” — even in that single paragraph I think there’s enough evidence to conclude that Lanagan is approaching her topic with some care, which is to say that it strikes me — as Jeffrey Ford puts it in the comments to a post by Datlow linking to the review — as part of a portrait of how damaging, confusing, and frightening abuse can be for a child. The entire story is filled with unsettling images and situations, from the very first glimpse of the mudwife’s house — it’s clear that it’s the house of bread and cake from the fairytale, but what Hansel sees is “the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud … you are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating” – and it’s the accumulative weight of disorder that gives the story its power. Because of its subject matter, the story reminded me somewhat of M. Rickert’s “Holiday“; with reference to that story Jonathan Strahan says, in his year’s best, that “the best fiction challenges us in some way. The frankly disturbing dark tale that follows … was one of the most challenging published this year”, and in a year’s time it’s not hard to imagine someone saying the same of “The Goosle”. Both stories are asking us to try to understand psychologically damaged individuals. It’s true that Lanagan is (often, though not always) more direct than Rickert: where Rickert is suggestive, Lanagan tells us how Grinnan gets Hansel drunk to make him an easier mark, how Hansel was cut and bleeding after the first time Grinnan raped him, how “The price of the journey … is being spiked in the arse”. Of course it is unsettling to read, we might say. It’s meant to be. But this economically confrontational style suits Lanagan’s purpose: it makes it impossible to ignore what has been done to Hansel, and impossible to ignore the issues it raises.

Which leaves the question of what the story adds to our understanding of the Hansel and Gretel ur-story. In some ways, I think this is the wrong question to ask. As Abigail Nussbaum said elsewhere earlier this week, a reasonable way to evaluate a piece of fiction is to ask whether it does something new, or does something well; and if there have been dark extrapolations of Hansel and Gretel before (though I, at least, have not read so many as to be bored by them) then Lanagan’s is done seriously and well, and that is enough to justify its existence. For example: in the original, the background calamity is famine, which resonates in obvious ways with the gingerbread house and the witch’s proclivities; in Lanagan’s story, the land is ravaged by plague, which resonates equally obviously with the moral depravity of the adult characters. In the original, there is a neat, happy ending; in “The Goosle”, although Hansel does eventually find his way home, to do so he has to witness the most “obvious and ongoing” act of evil he has ever encountered, and when he gets home, his family has been killed by the plague. The moral order that structures the most commonly-read version of “Hansel and Gretel” is entirely absent in “The Goosle” — as Truesdale notes, it is ultimately the mudwife, not Hansel, who kills Grinnan — but that absence is surely part of the story’s point, and that it may have been done before does not diminish its impact here. Indeed, Hansel ultimately avenges Grinnan: an act which is both just (for what has been done to Grinnan is in itself horrific) and disturbing (for we can’t be completely sure that Hansel is not to some tiny degree saddened by his abuser’s death). Hansel is alternately at the mercy of the world, and ignored by it, and “The Goosle” is a tragedy.

There is also one significant way in which the story doesn’t differ from the original, which is that in both cases the witch is basically evil. In the flashbacks we get to Hansel’s original captivity, it becomes apparent that her interest in the boy, like Grinnan’s, is in part sexual — she is still hungry to eat him, but instead of feeling his finger to determine whether he is ripe, she feels his penis. And in the moments before Hansel ultimately kills her, she is described in ugly terms: “She has her back to me, her bare dirty white back, her baggy arse and thighs. If she weren’t doing what she’s doing, that would be horror enough, how everything is wet and withered and hung with hair, how everything shakes”. It’s also something that makes “The Goosle” interesting as a Margo Lanagan story, a way of evaluating the work that Truesdale doesn’t even consider. (There is nothing in his review about Lanagan’s skill with description or imagery, which is as evident here as in most of her other work.) The depiction of the mudwife put me strongly in mind of the last Lanagan story I read, “She-Creatures”, which appeared in Eclipse One. If that story has a folk antecedent I didn’t recognise it — the story is of three night-workmen being attacked by the titular creatures. But as in “The Goosle”, women are figured as terrifying and horrible — although in ways that have to do with their appearance as sexual beings than with their age – and as in “The Goosle”, sex and hunger are inextricably linked.

I originally read “She-Creatures” as an exercise in the blackest of black humour: for the narrator and his macho companions, the most terrible monsters imaginable are women who want to have sex with them. In “The Goosle”, there is no doubt that the mudwife really is both terrible and monstrous; but considering the two stories in conjunction, it’s a little scary to see how easily caricatures of women can be figured as, well, scary. I don’t think it’s an accident that in both stories, our perceptions of the women are entirely filtered through male characters who clearly do not see the targets of their gaze as full human beings, either through prejudice or inexperience. And in the case of “The Goosle” — given the familiarly misogynist positioning of women in many of Grimm’s fairytales – it adds another layer to what is already a fearsomely memorable tale.

UPDATE: See also these.