Ah, one thinks, upon first glimpsing the cover of Best American Fantasy with its pictures of otherworldly beasts and strange creatures. Dungeons, dragons, and vampires will be the stuff of this collection. As for many visitors to this website, the prospect of reading stories set in the future or in other dimensions, stories with dungeons and dragons and vampires and witches and angels, is enough to convince me to skim through a book, if not buy it.
So imagine my initial disappointment when the man at the literary conference where I picked up a copy assured me that it was more than that, more than just "dungeons and dragons"; there was real Literature here; stories come from the pages of such esteemed journals as The Georgia Review and Zoetrope and even The New Yorker itself, and an endorsement from Michael Chabon attests to the collection's literary merit.
I decided to read it anyway.
I appreciate Literature, but sometimes I think Literature is that guy who refuses to watch television, studies obscure foreign films, only reads The New York Times, and well, little old you cannot possibly understand everything that is going on in his head. That guy often has worthwhile things to say, but you wouldn't want to be his roommate.
I was at a conference in New York City, capital of the literary world, surrounded by literary journals, and I was restless to get back to my friend's tiny apartment and curl up with the new collection of fantasy which, surely, despite its alleged literary-ness, must have a dragon story in it somewhere.
And (it is as good a place as any to begin) there is a dragon story: Sarah Monette's "Draco Campestris," a segmented narrative set in the dusty corridors of a labyrinthine museum that human and animal alike travel from infinite "arcs" to visit. In the foreground, the restoration of the dragon display after a century of neglect; in the background, a public figure's looming trial and probable execution. Populated with supporting figures such as a ghost-dragon, an eccentric and non-human Museum director, and Dickensian-urchin-like "tithe-children," it's one of the most fantastical stories in the collection. The story is simultaneously rich and utilitarian; it demands to be read again.
Another excellent tale is "Origin Story" (Kelly Link); as it opens, a young couple is drinking beer in the ruins of a Wizard-of-Oz theme park. They are the alliteratively named Bunnatine and Biscuit; Biscuit is a superhero whose power comes from the ability to bounce great heights. Bunnatine can float about two feet above ground, but her talent is no more exciting than anything the average denizen of her town can do (some toxic event, perhaps, has turned several townspeople into mutants and a few others into superheroes). She uses her power to keep from getting varicose veins in her legs when she waits tables. Underneath the supernatural exterior, "Origin Story" is about what you might call the two different kinds of people in this world: those who stay home and those who only come back for visits. Biscuit is in town for a parade in his honor, and Bunnatine is torn between anger at him for staying away for so long and joy that he's briefly hers again.
Kevin Brockmeier's "A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets" is the tale of "a man who happened to buy God's overcoat" in a thrift shop. Every time he passes within a few feet of someone, his or her dearest prayers are transcribed onto a cookie-fortune-sized slip of paper in one of the coat's many pockets. The story has perhaps the most linear narrative in the collection, and almost qualifies as "feel-good" considering what the man does with his gift; but it ranks with the most experimental and clever stories in the collection.
Having never reviewed an anthology before, I asked a friend of mine for advice. He said that you could praise a few stories, then pick out a few to pan. I am not averse to writing negative reviews, but I can't think of any stories from this collection that really need to be criticized. I will, however, warn that Nicole Derr's "Village of Ardakmoktan" is the least enjoyable to read when you interpret it as a parable of the disparity between the developed and developing worlds, and the rarity of instances when people from the former try to help their impoverished fellow human beings; narrated by a complacent, fattened Westerner, the story can bring a twinge of shame to those readers who realize we have more in common with this guilty bystander than his heroic friend Graham.
Not all of the collection is overtly fantastical: Ann Stapleton's "The Chinese Boy" is the story of a depressed bank teller and the elderly stroke victim who loves him like a long-lost son; utterly dense with metaphor, it does not become clear until several pages in that the story is set entirely in the known world. Likewise, "The End of Narrative (1-29; or 29-1)," Peter LaSalle's tale of a failed love affair between an artist and a blogger, takes place in real-life New York but encourages the reader to contemplate the inherent absurdity of the internet (and, perhaps, narrative itself).
Why are these, and a few other realistic fiction pieces, included? Because, as the editors explain in their introduction, "Every setting of every piece of fiction ever written is fantastical in some way because it is impossible to truly replicate reality. If we are truthful, then we must acknowledge that even realistic fiction is not all that realistic." I like this; after all, who can say that realistic fiction is inherently better than any other kind of fiction? If you are going to read made-up stories, why not occasionally read a good made-up story that is set in another universe?
If Literature is know-it-all guy, I'm not sure who to compare Good Fantasy to. The friendly neighborhood oddball genius, maybe. A man whose company you enjoy, and one you don't easily forget.