Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison

Black Juice

In the Guardian earlier this week, Dina Rabinovich argued that we are living through a golden age for children's literature; that the form is dominant at an artistic level, if perhaps (Harry Potter excepted from this) not at a commercial level. Barry Cunningham, the man who signed JK Rowling to Bloomsbury, points out that:
There is a catch though, for all those would-be children's authors. "Children's books," says Cunningham, "are being invaded by pseudo-children's books - books being produced with an eye to this burgeoning market." Writing children's fiction has to be done by those who've retained their childhood. "Otherwise," says Cunningham, "you're writing 'about' childhood."
Margo Lanagan, author of the extraordinary short fiction collection Black Juice, has retained her childhood.

I didn't understand that when I started reading the book. After I read the opening story, 'Singing My Sister Down'--a lyrically black telling of a slow, particularly creepy execution--I simply could not wrap my head around the concept that this was a story (marketed, if maybe not written) for children (or if you must, 'young adults'). I agreed with Gary K Wolfe's review in the February 2005 Locus, in which he says that he
would never have thought of any of these dark, elliptical, stylistically wondrous pieces as YA--you might as well market Angela Carter or Haruki Murakami or the early Peter Carey or Shirley Jackson as YA--but that's exactly what HarperCollins is doing, and it's exactly what Allen & Unwin did in Australia last year, when the volume ended up winning the Prize for Young Adult Fiction in the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards [ ... but] Black Juice is far too rich and compelling and hypnotic to leave to the young adult audience.
The more of the collection I read, however, the more my opinions changed. The stories in Black Juice are, in fact, the epitome of children's literature. More than being science fiction or fantasy or horror (although they are, mostly, those things, to varying degrees), they show the world as children see it, and as children live it. Children are, in these stories, the ones with the power. The ones that see the angels, and turn the seasons.

How do these stories work?

Firstly must be Lanagan's incredible facility with language. Language, in Lanagan's stories, is malleable and changeable, and deployed with an exuberant, poetic excess. Sometimes words are simply altered (Munkees); sometimes they are repurposed (bouffons); sometimes they are invented (scumbly). Vivid metaphors and similes leap from practically every page. Try this: 'a dying collection of buildings like eye sockets and mumbling jaws, grey under a grey sky' (p152).

The net result of this cunning wordsmithing is a sense of deep strangeness; the worlds of these stories are not necessarily so very different from our own, but we are forced to look at them from a new perspective, with a mental flexibility that recalls childhood. The power of words runs through the stories, from a bishop who has no need of his vestments because 'the words vest him, vest all three of us as beautifully as the robes would' (p119) to a boy enacting a mountaintop rite who thinks that 'words seem like nothing, but they're tiny, fancy, people's things [...] What else can we put up against the wind except our tininess and our fanciness?' (p193)

But although some of Lanagan's worlds recall the one we know, not all of them do, and none of them map to ours exactly. There are differences; most commonly, the fundamental cultural axioms of the stories may vary. Hence the bouffons in 'Red Nose Day', familiar yet sinister; hence the ceremony in 'Wooden Bride', in which the power of tradition is used not only to constrain but to liberate, in at least some circumstances. In an interview, Lanagan has said:
US and UK readers are really not very interested in a real-life story that's set in Australia. Britons are deeply patronising towards us, and Americans, well, you're a bit mystified--and while you'll be more than welcoming to an Australian in person, generally speaking you find it hard to make sense of a lot of things that appear in Australian books, like fauna, upside down seasons and turns of phrase!

The main reason I started considering fantasy was because the Australian market is so small that a person is very unlikely to make enough money to live on from writing unless she writes in an international genre. And as crime and romance don't appeal, that left SF, fantasy and horror! Then there's the added benefit that you can bung in any old weird Australian animal and mess about with the seasons and the language all you like, and if you call it fantasy, the xenophobia falls away.
I find it interesting to compare this apparently pragmatic approach to exporting culture, sort of sneaking it in by the back door, to the reservations about portraying other cultures expressed by Geoff Ryman and Ian McDonald last weekend. Both writers were at pains to stress that the use of the fantastic doesn't give you a free pass when you're storytelling in a foreign culture; in fact, they argued that for stories to overcome the cultural assumptions of different populations of readers, they probably had to draw on fundamental, recognisable forms of human experience. I suspect Lanagan would agree with those sentiments--certainly the stories in Black Juice are full of the recognisable experiences of growing up--but the differences in her route to that position are perhaps telling. It's a truism that children are the only constituency of readers who do not write their own literature, but in this book Lanagan comes as close as I've ever seen anyone come to capturing the cultures of childhood: portraying countries in which there as much magic in the mind as in the world; in which, though there is darkness and violence and death, there is light too, and in which it is the children who bring it.

If I'm quoting a lot here, it's only because Black Juice is such a marvellously fertile book; it has been sparking connections in my brain between other things I've been thinking about or watching or reading all week. The last of them is something Geneva wrote in the second issue of her fanzine, Thought Experiments, as part of an article about classifying stories not by their content, but by how they make you feel. One of the feelings covered is estrangement, defined as
the sense you get when you read about something outlandish and strange. It's that feeling of being transported somewhere else by what you're reading, and that somewhere else turns out to be a really weird place. It's not a sense of wonder but just a sense that there's something mighty peculiar at work here, that this is all a bit new and uncommon

I first felt this feeling of estrangement as a child reader. I felt it about practically everything I read when I was a child, partly because at that point pretty much everything was new and strange to me, and partly because some children's literature just is mighty weird.
Typically, when I read science fiction I'm looking for conceptual breakthrough: the moment when something in the story, or your understanding of it, crystallises and changes. Ted Chiang is expert at offering this in a context of estrangement; the discovery of the underlying cosmology of the world in 'Tower of Babylon' is practically a textbook example.

The combination of Lanagan's particular use of language and her particular drawing of culture doesn't offer conceptual breakthrough; instead, the feeling is one of suspended estrangement. Sometimes the characters in her stories learn the world, but more often they learn themselves. It's the assertion of identity in 'House of the Many' or 'Wooden Bride'; it's the understanding of human interaction in 'My Lord's Man' or 'Yowlinin'. To put it plainly, her characters begin to grow up. That's what makes these stories children's literature; the writing is all the things Gary Wolfe says it is, but never overwhelming, always in service to the stories. And that, in the end, is what matters the most.

A lot of people have been talking about this book. It achieved the notable distinction of having four (of ten) stories cited in the most recent Locus Recommended Reading list. And yet, it's frustratingly hard to get hold of. First published in Australia, it has only recently come out in the States, and it doesn't reach UK shores until the autumn.

Make a note in your diary. It's going to be worth the wait.
Tags: black juice, book review, margo lanagan, sf
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