M. Rickert's "Cold Fires", published last year, was a story that astounded me with its complex structure, its imagery, and its enigmas. It's dangerous, though, to hope for a writer to repeat their previous success, because repetition usually leads to dilution; and yet it's difficult not to compare other work to the touchstone and find it lacking.
Thus, when I read the two Rickert stories Fantasy & Science Fiction published this year, "The Harrowing" and "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way" (in the April and August issues, respectively), I knew they were well written, intelligent, strange, and even lovely ... but no matter how I thought about them, no matter how much I tried to appreciate them for what they were on their own, with their own purposes and pleasures, they just weren't "Cold Fires".
Now comes the third Rickert story of the year, this one published at SciFiction, "Anyway", and I'm beginning to be able to appreciate Rickert stories on their own again, without letting them shrivel in the shadow of their predecessor. I still don't think any of these stories are as impressive as "Cold Fires", but I also don't think they have to be. In fact, taken together as a trilogy, they have many elements that are as remarkable as any in the earlier tale.
Reading "Anyway" was, for me, a lesson in trusting a talented and individual writer. Two thirds of the way through, I thought, Oh no. It seemed the story was going to be about redemption and peace and love, all good things, I suppose, but they're the sorts of ideas that tend to turn even very good writers into the literary equivalent of maudlin old hippies after one too many trips to the Land of Bong. This is, after all, a tale that begins with the question, "What if you could save the world?" and goes on to be about a woman who thinks that she might have inherited that very power. To do so, she thinks, as her mother seemed to think before her, that she must allow her son to be killed in a war.
The first Rickert story I wrote about was "Many Voices", and a few things I said then apply just as well to both "Anyway" and "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way": assuming the main character is entirely reliable leads to a simplistic interpretation of the story that seems entirely unjustified by the gaps and odd moments -- but to do the opposite and assume that the strange events of the story are simply a metaphor for madness is not particularly satisfying either, because it makes the story into nothing more than a metaphorical mirror for a state of mind, which undermines all the events and plays a trick on the reader, turning the narrative into a glorified it-was-all-a-dream story. The beauty of these stories reveals itself in the way they show the emotional lives of the characters and render it impossible for the reader to settle on any one construction of reality, whether ordinary or fantastic.
The emotional core of "Anyway" lies in the narrator's feelings of dread, her anxiety about not being able to ensure the safety and sanity of the people she loves. It is irrelevant whether she truly can save the world by sacrificing her son: she grasps this idea because it might be enough to let her believe that whatever fate he encounters will have meaning. Her mother, whose memory is lost to Alzheimers, still cherishes the thought that she could have given her own son's death meaning if she had not been selfish; instead, "he went and got killed anyway".
For me, "Anyway" reads better as a non-fantastic story than "Many Voices" did, but there's still something I like about leaving the possibility open that the narrator does, indeed, possess the power she thinks she does. It gives her a kind of nobility she wouldn't have otherwise, even if it makes the story itself somewhat corny (which the non-fantastic interpretation avoids). Ultimately, "Anyway" is not so much a fantasy as a story about fantasy, a story that only gains resonance and mystery by being published by a genre publisher, because the effect of the story is more powerful if you go into it thinking that what you are reading is a work of fantasy or science fiction: you begin by believing the narrator instead of doubting her, and that seems like the right way to begin.
Before abandoning the tale to whatever fate each reader brings to it, I thought it might be worth noting how well Rickert's three stories published this year (so far) work together. Writers can't help but repeat themes, images, and types of characters -- personal interests are what help a writer animate their material -- and I have no idea if the connections between these stories are coincidental; it doesn't, actually, seem to be an important question, because the fact is that they echo each other beautifully.
For instance, "The Harrowing" involves a boy "traveling across the country for some time, trying to find [himself] in America", and he mentions Allen Ginsberg and Herman Hesse as inspirations and guides. The dead son in "Anyway", the narrator's brother, went on a "Kerouac-inspired road trip from which he never returned". "The Harrowing" is about spirituality, demons, and the presence of evil -- of evil being versus evil action; "A Very Little Madness" is about angels and demons, about rising above pure evil after it wipes out the (or a) world. All three stories include dead children: the boy who burns with the priest in "The Harrowing", the lost daughter in "A Very Little Madness", the lost son/brother in "Anyway". "The Harrowing" shows us two narrators telling the tales of their younger, more innocent days; "Anyway" gives us a narrator trapped between the dementia of her aged mother and the innocence of her own son. "A Very Little Madness" and "Anyway" can be read as the stories of how emotional stress bends realities and alters perceptions.
These are stories of trauma and loss, and of people trying to gain some control over a world of unfathomable chaos, to find comfort however they can. And yet these are not depressing stories -- there is a kind of redemption hiding between their lines, a kind of hope, a faith in the power of time to mend the past, even if the mending is that of what any reliable observer would call madness. Reliable observers aren't always the ones you should seek comfort from in times of pain or terror, anyway.