26 March 2004

"Many Voices" by M. Rickert

A couple months ago I said that Lucius Shepard's story "Only Partly Here" is likely to be read differently because it was published in a genre magazine (Asimov's) than it would have been were it published in a non-genre magazine. The story's fantastic elements are ambiguous, but since it appeared in Asimov's, most readers are probably more likely than they would be otherwise to assume that the "proper" reading of the story is to give full weight to the supernatural suggestions.

M. Rickert's "Many Voices", from the March issue of F&SF, poses similar problems of interpretation, although to a lesser extent. Part of the story is narrated by a woman who has murdered someone because angels told her to. She claims to be able to read people's "auras", to predict the future, and to heal the sick through a sort of psychokinesis. Standard New Age woo-woo. The one thing we know is that the character fully believes herself to possess such powers, and acts accordingly.

Naturally, most people think she's schizophrenic, though the courts don't judge her to be insane. The story ends with what seems to be proof of her powers, so long as we trust her as a narrator.

To me, this is not an interesting story if we assume the narrator is reliable and all of her experiences were meant to be taken literally. If that is so, then the story is about as original as a UFO sighting, and about as interesting as someone drooling to death in their sleep.

No, there's more here than what is immediately presented to us. If there were not, then why would Rickert employ the fragmented structure that she does? The story starts with the first-person narrator, Rose, then moves to a short excerpt from a newspaper article, followed by a letter from Rose's mother, a third-person account of an incident in Rose's childhood, dialogue from a session with a psychiatrist, another letter, a dialogue between Rose and her lawyer, another newspaper excerpt, and then the story ends with a return to the first-person narrative.

If Rickert merely wanted to tell the story of someone with angelically-inspired powers, she would not need to bounce from one type of representation to another. So many discourses are mixed within quite a short story that the effect is to displace the reader, to make us wonder what is going on, to force us to construct a story from the contradictory fragments we have been given by the writer.

Unfortunately, because it was published in a genre magazine, we might be tempted to give too much credence to the narrator. After all, is a magazine called Fantasy and Science Fiction going to publish a story without any fantasy or science fiction in it? Were this published in, say, Witness, we might be more inclined to read it as a story of a crazy person.

Neither interpretation is entirely satisfying. If we read "Many Voices" as a fantasy in which a person with magic powers is misunderstood by society and locked away, then it's a tremendously familiar, not particularly compelling piece of work, one which flatters the reader who sided with the narrator early on, providing the inevitable and tiresome ending so common within the science fiction and fantasy genres of the misunderstood nerd/rebel/witch at the very least being validated as having been Right All Along.

If, however, we read "Many Voices" as a realistic story told partially from within a schizophrenic's mind, it becomes somewhat more interesting, but is still not particularly compelling, because, once again, it gives us a balanced equation, a story where everything adds up and the world returns to its regularly scheduled program.

The solution to the problem is to choose both answers (or neither). Keep the story ambiguous, stay ambivalent about what Rickert is up to, allow every voice among the many to be true within this fictional reality. It turns the story into a paradox, and while paradoxes aren't much fun in life, they give good energy to art. Personally, I would have liked more paradoxes, more elisions and lacunae, within "Many Voices", but the structure is interesting enough to make me admire the story nonetheless.

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