Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lackington's Magazine: Prose and Plot


Lackington’s is a new online speculative fiction magazine with a focus on beautiful prose—what the editors refer to as stylized prose. I’m a sucker for beautiful prose, so the concept of this journal appealed to me from the start. Then the introductory forward to the first issue drew me in and whispered star-lit promises.


The world isn’t built on hook-plot-epiphany, and it isn’t experienced in digestible, everyday language. One might argue that literature doesn’t operate the same way the world does, but nor should it operate as if it came out of a box, complete with instruction manual. An epiphany isn’t half as valuable when it’s as dependable as the tide, after all.”

Editor Ranyl Richildis argues that the conventions of genre fiction—the story-telling “musts” that are taught as basics to beginning writers--constrain the literature produced and read. Does a character really need to change over the course of story? Does every story need its epiphany? Can a slice-of-life depiction ever be enough? (i.e. does something always have to “happen?”)

I’m enormously sympathetic to these concerns. I know that some of my own stories don’t fit neatly into the standard frameworks of plot and character, and these stories have been difficult to place as a result.

So what did I think of the first issue of Lackington’s and the editors’ grand experiment to break free of convention?

First, the prose is all gorgeous. They got that right—nearly every story is made up of incredible, textured, frequently startling words and images. As a collection of prose-poems, this issue was a success.

But what happens when you dispense with conventional plot? Interestingly, despite my love for beautiful words and my sympathy for the editors’ goals, the three stories that most held me were the ones with the clearest plot lines. One of my favorites, “Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta” by Helen Marshall, differs from the others in that it doesn’t have particularly stylized prose at all. The prose is fine, but it isn’t poetic or flashy or especially memorable; it doesn’t draw attention to itself in any way. It serves the story, rather than being the point of the story. And it’s an utterly charming, wry, clever story.

On the other end of the prose spectrum is one of my other favorites, “Balloons” by Christine Miscione. This is an example of writing that is riveting at the sentence-by-sentence level. Here is the first sentence:

“At twenty-two years, Callie’s cysts ate her ovaries, and twisted tubes into malignant spiral staircases.”

See? Can you stop yourself from reading after that?

What happens in this story unfolds in a seemingly clear, linear manner. Callie has surgery to remove her cancerous ovaries and uterus; she is devastated by the loss of her fertility, but eventually recovers with the help of her new dog, Virgil. The piece is narrated by Callie’s spouse(?) lover? The plot seems straightforward, but even in the first paragraph there’s a sense of mystery; the vivid, heightened prose imparts an air of magic to the nominally mundane. The ending is truly enigmatic.

The last story I want to highlight is "A City on Its Tentacles" by Rose Lemberg.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

The writing in this piece is all that was promised in the magazine’s foreword: lush and gorgeous and filled with beautiful images.

There is an octopus in the heart of the Undersea; its every tentacle carries a street, a city, and at night when its people light their reading lamps the octopus shimmers. Sated with shining and the sound of the waves it floats in the centre of the sea, and one day a ship will come to it, tugged to shore by the struggling music of my heart. This ship will carry a hope…

Luba is both a mother and storyteller. She dreams wonderful tales and grows within herself a magic pearl. But her daughter suffers from a mysterious illness, and the only way for Luba to save her is to periodically enter the Undersea and give up her pearl and all the storytelling/dreaming power which is tied to that pearl. She doesn’t give it up completely; the pearl will grow back, and while Luba’s storytelling powers return her daughter again declines, until Luba has to return to the Undersea and give up the new pearl for her daughter’s health, again and again.

Charlotte Ashley in her positive review read this story as a narrative about addiction. My interpretation is more literal: I take at face-value the sacrifice that Luba has to make. She’s not giving up cocaine, or alcohol, or some other addiction in metaphorical form. No, she’s actually, literally, giving up her story-telling powers; she’s giving up her art. For me, this story was a meditation on the conflict between art and life that a mother-artist faces. The artist/writer might want to spend all her days dreaming and creating, but she has a daughter to care for. In Lemberg’s story, Luba has to literally suppress her artistic self to save her daughter. But she cannot suppress it wholly; it always comes back, and she has to give it up again and again in an unceasing tug between familial duty and artistic joy.

I don’t think that the author of this piece is saying that a mother-artist actually does have to suppress her art to be a good parent. I think this piece is, rather, a focused illustration of one character’s struggle between art and life. There are hints that Luba and her daughter might not always have to live this way. There are hints that they may one day be able to break their terrible cycle. At one point Luba meets a cellist (a fellow artist!) in the Undersea who urges her not to give away her magic pearl, her stories.

Are you a parent? she asks the cellist bitterly.

He admits that he is not, and she turns away from him.

But before she turns away, he has time to tell her that there must be another way for her.

And at the conclusion of A City on Its Tentacles, after Luba has returned, drained, from the Undersea, the daughter asks Luba for a story. At first Luba resists, but the daughter prods her and even adds her own ideas about the magical octopus story her mother had been writing. Luba is able to reach inside for the remnants of her gift, and share it—a story—with her daughter.

All in all, this was a gorgeous read that became even complex and powerful for me on reflection.

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Can you have a great story without plot? Every reader will have her own answer to that. For me, I’m not sure that a plotless prose piece can be properly called a “story.” I do enjoy poetry, and lovely descriptions. But for me, lyricism without “something happening” works best in smaller doses—flash pieces, if you will. “Balloons” is utterly gorgeous, and also quite brief. Although enigmatic, it also has—compared to most of the other stories in this issue of Lackington’s—a relatively clear plotline. The stories I didn’t review here were all beautifully written, but in the end were just a bit too opaque for my taste.

But I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this market.