05 June 2004

"The Battle of York" by James Stoddard

The July issue of F&SF is a "Special All-American Issue", given to United States authors and themes. So far this year, F&SF has seemed to me to be the best of the print magazines devoted to speculative fiction, publishing a wide range of stories, a few of them excellent. The July issue may be the best issue of the year so far (I haven't finished reading it), and the first story, James Stoddard's "The Battle of York", had me laughing out loud. Consider:
A man approached, a tall, inhumanly broad figure carrying a lantern that glowed with an unearthly luminance. Washington felt his mouth go dry; his heart pounded against his chest, for he thought he recognized the intruder. He wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go if the Pilgrim sought him. He drew Valleyforge and held it close.

The figure paused a few feet from Washington. The lantern light spread at General's feet, turning the ground emerald and olive.

"General Washington," the figure said, his voice a deep drawl, "I am Waynejon. Some call me the Pilgrim."
The story opens with two paragraphs framing it as the surviving legends of America, most of which disappeared in the "worldwide magnet field disaster of the twenty-second century". In the editorial note before the story, Stoddard is said to have found inspiration in the poems of Ossian, a literary hoax perpetrated by James MacPherson, who claimed to have translated the poems from ancient texts (though some of them were based on Scottish legends, MacPherson created the poems himself. When they were first published, many people were taken in by the fraud, but the most prominent skeptic was Samuel Johnson, who, when asked "whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems" said, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children.")

What Stoddard has done is give us various myths, cliches, and cultural detritus from the most standard and conservative history of the U.S. -- everything from George Washington's wooden teeth to the Lone Ranger -- in the form they might take were it all pureed in a blender, swallowed quickly by a credulous child with a weak stomach, and vomitted up for our pleasure.

Stoddard is quoted in the editorial note as saying, "I think the new patriotic climate made it easier for me to think that someone would want to read this kind of story," implying that he has written a story for all the people who think their flag decals will get them into heaven, but it seems to me that this is a story that would fit well alongside Ward Churchill's book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, which exposes the bloody underside of the legends "The Battle of York" so amusingly confuses.

Though he utilizes the hoariest patriotic myths, Stoddard's story demonstrates how truly absurd they are. It's a hilarious and subversive read, because it elevates the garble of patriotic fervor to the level of Greek myth, showing how silly, bombastic, and fanciful such rhetoric can be.

No comments:

Post a Comment