'Jailwise', which first appeared at SCIFICTION last year, and was one of Jonathan Strahan's picks for his Best Short Novels collection, is another story with a criminal protagonist. However, it deals more directly than either 'Eternity and Afterward' or 'Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?' with what it means to be a criminal. It takes the relationship between prisoner and warden as its model, and asks how similar that is to the relationship between the individual and government. Exactly what does it mean to be free?

Tommy Penhaligon isn't free, and hasn't been free for more than a year or two at a time since he was fifteen. For all that, he has one of those romantic souls with which Shepard is wont to gift his protagonists; he tries to live up to his personal myth of criminals as a group with 'a working class vitality and poetry of soul' (p277). And he studied art for a couple of years, which is the reason he ends up in Frank Ristelli's weekly class. Ristelli, perhaps seeing his new pupil as a kindred spirit, quickly becomes something of a mentor figure to Tommy, given to offering vague pronouncements about the nature of the carceral system. 'The criminal stands at the absolute heart of the law' (p281) he states, or, 'each man must find his own freedom.' (p287).

After Tommy--in self-defence--incapacitates an art-class rival, he's put up for transfer to Diamond Bar, possibly thanks to the intervention of Ristelli. This prison, located somewhere in northern California, is not the maximum-security facility that Tommy expects. When he arrives, he is not formally admitted or processed. Instead he is left to find his own way into the sprawling granite structure; to make his own way down the long central corridor. The other inmates are a subdued lot, given to quiet contemplation in place of normal prison rowdiness, and offer no guidance. When the strangeness overwhelms him, Tommy finds an empty cell and makes himself a bed.

It becomes clear that, like Eternity, Diamond Bar is one of Shepard's metaphysical playgrounds, reflecting an aspect of the world. This one embodies Foucault's ideas on penal reform. As Ristelli explains it to Tommy (before his transfer, when he doesn't understand), 'the decisions made by [the prison board] for the benefit of the population enter the consciousness of the general culture and come to govern the decisions made by kings and presidents and despots. By influencing the rule of law, they manipulate the shape of history and redefine cultural possibility.' (p288) In other words, this is a prison that, per Foucault, really does define society. More than that, it's also a prison that turns other accepted principles of incarceration on their head. Tommy's freedom extends to more than just choosing his own cell; there are literally no regulations at all. Food and clothes--and even drugs--are provided when he needs them, at no cost. There are no guards to oversee the inmates. The only authority is exercised by the Board, composed of four of the oldest inmates. They meet on a daily basis to, as Ristelli said, make decisions for the benefit of the prison population.

The purpose of Diamond Bar, it seems, is to offer its inmates the opportunity for self-examination. Certainly that's the effect it has on Tommy, in his case manifesting through art. He takes on the job of painting the walls and ceilings of the anteroom of the new wing of the prison, eventually becoming obsessed by it (the rest of the new wing has been under construction for some time, and it is understood by the prisoners that when it is completed, their lives will be improved. Any remaining impediments to their freedom will be removed in the new wing, they say). The work has its effect on him, though he doesn't recognise this at first. Eventually, even though he could leave, he doesn't want to. He has come to know himself, and found his place; in 'Jailwise', this is as good an approximation of redemption as any.

My major reservation about the story concerns the plumes. These are changelings that inhabit the lower levels of the prison, and it is Tommy's relationship with one particular plume, Bianca, that starts his journey of self-examination in earnest. As she tells him, 'Whatever the man wants, that's how I am. It's like that with all the plumes ... until you find the right person. The one you can be who you really are with.' (p323)

The suggestion, then, is that as inmates can find themselves through incarceration in Diamond Bar, plumes can find themselves through their relationship with others. The reservation arises because, although their precise gender is ambiguous, it is strongly suggested that the plumes are primarily female, or evolving towards a female ideal that will be reached when--you've guessed it--the new wing is completed. By contrast, the prisoners are almost exclusively male. The implication is therefore that women are defined by their relationships with men.

To be fair, I think Shepard fully intends for this to be viewed negatively. If Diamond Bar is a model for society, the inmates and the plumes represent dominant and dominated social groups. The fact that the groups are split largely along gender lines is meant as a social comment, but the fact that there is some crossover underlines that the split is social, not biological. And when the new wing is created, the imbalance will be undone. Until then, the plumes are journeying towards their own self-knowledge, but by a somewhat different route to that of the inmates. In addition, Bianca is--unlike, say, Larissa--clearly her own woman; she eventually, and justifiably, judges Tommy unworthy.

Still, this type of role for female characters--mysterious, symbolic--keeps cropping up in Shepard's stories. Not all of them; GRob in 'A Walk In The Garden' is certainly tough and straightforward as nails, as to a large extent is Leeli in 'Hands Up!'. Alicia in 'Only Partly Here' is at least Bobby's equal, in all respects save coporeality. What seems to be the case is that Shepard's focus is elsewhere. His protagonists are male, and his stories examine a masculine view of the world. Given this, in some ways it's not surprising that the women in his stories are as they are; and given that his criticism of masculinity is so often so astute, I'm not sure whether or not it qualifies as a limitation of his work. One thing I do know: I'd love to read a Shepard story with a female protagonist.

'Jailwise' may not be one of Lucius Shepard's very best stories--quite apart from my slight uncertainty about the plumes, it's a little too obviously moralistic to be that--but I think that it's one of my favourites. It also neatly marks the half-way point in Trujillo, and much as I'm enjoying it, the intensity of the writing is beginning to tell on me. Since the last five stories seem to be all set in and aroud Trujillo itself, thus forming a somewhat separate group, this seems as good a point as any to take a short break from the book and read something completely different (probably some Stross). Then I'll come back and look at those final stories with a fresher eye.

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