19 August 2003

"The Only Known Jump Across Time" by Eugene Mirabelli

This story is from the latest (September 2003) issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it is a story which every lover of short stories should read.

I don't tend to like "sweet" stories, stories which cleverly put two kind-but-awkward characters together in an inevitable love story, stories which play on the reader's sense of nostalgia for a simpler era, etc. "The Only Known Jump Across Time" does all of this, but it is done with such skill and such control of tone that it achieves the hat trick of putting a bunch of less-than-exciting elements together into a magical, masterful whole.

It is the story of two shy, but kind, people, living in America in the 1920s: a tailor and the daughter of a Harvard horticulturalist who discover a similar desire to travel back in time and say some of the things they meant to say before, do some of the things they regret having not done. The premise becomes clear in the first few pages, and I feared as I read that Mirabelli would give in to the sentimentality which could so easily overpower the story's strengths. Miraculously, he doesn't.

The tailor has read Einstein and knows that the past cannot be changed, but he thinks if he can create some lightning (yes, lightning), he will be able to step at least a few moments into the future. He and Lydia (the other main character) attempt this, and the results, while not entirely surprising, are remarkably beautiful and touching because of their ambiguity: Can a shared experience be truly meaningful, Mirabelli seems to be asking, even if it might not be completely based in reality?

What makes the story work is its structure and tone, a tone which is dry, objective, and almost clinical, much like the best stories of Anton Chekhov. The structure aids the tone: the tale is broken into fourteen sections, and the entire story is just under fourteen pages long. This structure allows Mirabelli to create narrative gaps which the reader must fill in with imagination, and these gaps undermine any possibility of too much sentiment or a slip into purple prose. The narration tells us the facts of the story, it sticks to what happened, and there isn't a lot of interpreting of characters' emotions. Instead, we discover their emotions and thoughts through their actions and dialogue, and the ultimate effect is to create two people we sympathize with, care about, are interested in. The final section of the story is a work of genius, strengthening all that is great about the story by creating a perspective which reaches out beyond the narrative itself, while at the same time upholding the central power of the tale.

This is one of those stories that drives labellers crazy -- is it science fiction? Is it even fantasy? Or is it just a mundane story attempting to be imaginative through the addition of ambiguity?

Folks, it doesn't matter. This is one of the best stories published this year, in or out of the genre confines of speculative fiction. It is written with extraordinary skill, and should serve as a model for what the short story form can accomplish when handled by a master.