06 April 2004

"The Redundant Order of the Night" by Jay Lake

I've wanted an excuse to write about Jay Lake for some time now, but all I could think to say was, "Read him," or "He's, like, totally prolific," or, "His name is fairly easy to pronounce, I think."

Now, though, I want to spend a few moments on two items by Mr. Lake. First, let me just point you toward his Handy Guide to Genre Distinctions, which, for those of you determined to discriminate genres, could be printed out and laminated and put into your wallet for confusing moments at a bookstore or library. Purists and impurists will quibble, of course, but notice that this is not labeled a "definitive guide" or an "all-points-of-view-democratically-represented guide", but rather a "handy guide", which could mean a number of different things, all of which I will leave to your imagination.

What I really want to write about, though, as you can tell from the title of this post, is "The Redundant Order of the Night", a very short piece of writing that could be called a short-short story, or flash fiction, or a prose poem, or just a confabulation of a small amount of words. I prefer the latter term, because "short-short story" sounds like a stutter and looks like a typo, "flash fiction" makes me think of porn, and "prose poem" is an oxymoron, though I wouldn't say I dislike that term to the same extent I dislike the other two.

Categorization is pointless, however, because there are really only two kinds of writing in the world: writing that is worth spending time to read, and writing that is not.

Being very short, this writing doesn't have to do much to be worth the time spent on it. It is, however, more interesting than many stories ten times its length, and more deserving of repeated reading than the majority of stories published in the major SF magazines recently. It's the kind of story you'd get from the love child of Gertrude Stein and Frank Zappa.

Consider the first sentence:
Smell the pretty flowers, how they confuse the redundant order of the night. Our palace here is most commoditized, do you not Legree? We have gone to great links to make it more hornlike for such as you.
Before you file this under "nonsense", read it through a few more times. Read the whole piece (it won't take you long, so what've you got to lose?). After a few readings, you should begin to feel the words push against their meanings, evoking and suggesting alternate versions of themselves. Hold onto what you imagine. Let your mind roam through the sentences and between the paragraphs. For this story to work, it seems to me the reader must hold multiple copies in mind at once: there's the literal meaning of the words, which renders up only a bit of sense at best, and then there's the meanings which result from slippage, from displacement and resonance, from misreading. Imagine a text translated into German, the German into Russian, the Russian into Japanese, the Japanese into Swahili, and the Swahili back to English and it will all begin to make sense.

(Actually, forget Stein and Zappa. The story/poem/thing reads more like the better writings of Charles Bernstein.)

"What is the value of this?!" I hear you cry. "No matter which direction you cut the bread, this potato is nonsense! I just wasted five minutes reading it over and over again! Are you mocking me?!"

If after three readings you don't find "The Redundant Order of the Night" amusing, there's little hope you ever will, and you should move on to other things without feeling any guilt.

However, it seems to me that this is a piece of writing which deserves attention because of what it manages to do with language. Here is prose which, through the author's great care with diction and syntax, blossoms in the mind, so long as the mind is open to suggestion. This is not literature of ideas, but rather literature of hypnosis: as with the best surrealist writing, it sends reconnaissance teams into the reader's subconscious and plants some bombs. The words activate imagery we have stored from other stories, movies, advertisements, comic books; shadow-characters float in the periphery of our mind's vision, suggesting people we have met in life and literature; entire galactic empires and future histories construct and deconstruct just beyond our reach.

Welcome to the story as Rorschach test, shadow box, and alien artifact. The minimalism of overdetermination. Memory as funhouse mirror. Language which exists for itself, in itself, of itself -- and yet at the same time communicates. The suggestions the words and sentences send are slightly different each time, variations on a theme contained within itself. The brain baffles itself.

This is writing that doesn't merely "represent" reality, but which constructs its own reality and lets us glimpse it, be affected by it, see/feel/touch it.

Science fiction and fantasy are not the only styles of writing capable of accomplishing such feats, but they may be the only styles of writing capable of making such feats expansive ones, because the best speculative fiction aims to create its own world with each new story. Unfortunately, too much SF has tried to do this within the narrow form of Victorian fiction, and until more writers like Jay Lake start showing us other possibilities, we will keep repeating the same stories over and over, changing nothing other than the technology. It's not the technology in the stories that needs changing, but rather the technology of the storytelling.

Update: Jayme Lynn Blaschke, who accepted this story and published it at Revolution SF, makes a good point: Editors deserve credit for buying works such as this one and helping to make them available to readers. It's always nice to find editors who are willing to take a chance on something which might not appeal to a broad audience. If you want to know how rare such editors are, read Jeff VanderMeer's "City of Saints and Madmen: The Untold Story, Part 1", which gives us a valuable blow-by-blow account of the obstacles that acclaimed book faced on the way to publication. (Thanks to Rick Kleffel for publishing the article.)