I've been catching up on 2005's short stories recently, because until the last week or two I hadn't read any stories published this year. I haven't yet found very much that excites me -- most of the stories I've read so far are skillful, but few rise above the tyranny of their plotting to offer more than a series of connected events, and only one so far offers the thrill of being unique: "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin Grant.
Of course, nobody expects fiction from the co-editor of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet to be ordinary, but I've read a few of Gavin's other stories, and while they were good, none prepared me for just how good "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is. Saying why and how it is good, though, is a bit of challenge.
I won't pretend to understand "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" in the way that I could say I understand a more straightforward story, a story that seeks to be transparent. This story is befuddling, and it frustrates any one interpretation. That's part of its point. The world of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is actually multiple worlds: borders shift like weather, and countries cross into each other. Our guide is a child, which adds to the confusion, because a child's perspective of a realistic world is strange enough; when the perception is of a world that is already quite different from the one we know -- not only different, but unstable -- then figuring out the references and landmarks becomes like trying to navigate with a kaleidoscope.
Nonetheless, there is sense to be had here. Some excellent discussion of the story already happened at ShortForm, although one of the wonders of the story for me is that that discussion feels like it only began to hint at some of what's going on in "Heads Down, Thumbs Up". Perhaps such hints reveal the most essential meaning of the story: that in the right circumstances, interpretation can be infinite. A corollary creates a paradox: infinite interpretation isn't required. On a first reading, only fragments of sense present themselves, and yet the story is still compelling -- unlike many more transparent stories, never mind more oblique ones. "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" achieves an extraordinary balance, moving along as if it were just an ordinary tale, while flouting the suspense-creating unities that fuel everything from fairy tales to spy stories.
Borders shift, and not just the borders between one country and another. "Borders" is, in some ways, the wrong word -- what's really going on in "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" are shifts between definitions. Yes, things like the borders between countries change, as well as the colors of the lines on the roads, but in some ways those are the most superficial changes. Names change, words change, relationships change. Power drifts from one person or type of person to another. How children are raised changes, how they relate to adults and adults relate to them changes. The perceptions of genders change: men are stronger and more respected between one set of borders and weaker, more suspect and maligned when the borders shift. Stories change: some borders create stories where witches win in the end, other borders produce stories where the witches end up in ovens, not the children. No control of any one interpretation lasts for long -- witness the fate of Edward Doubleaxe, who tried to control his portrait, and succeeded until his death, after which the story of his giant nose survived along with the flattering portrait so that children would laugh at the fantasy in paint, holding one view of the man in their minds while they stared at the quite different view that Doubleaxe thought would be the only way of looking at him. Which is real, which is false? Both and neither, one and all.
We're back to the paradox of meaning: the meaning of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" comes from the difficulty of pinning down any one meaning. The witch wins and the witch ends up in the oven. Men are strong and weak, adults are children, forests are enchanted and mundane. Et cetera and vice versa. Everything is potential, everything is in flux: the teacher may be wonderful or horrible, but when she goes to the blackboard and erases her name, she contains the possibility of either and both, just as when the children put their heads down and their thumbs up, there is the potential for any one of them to be picked for the game.
It is a rare story that is as rich and astonishing as this one.