26 November 2006

"Quitting Dreams" by Matthew Cheney and Jeffrey Ford

I just received Electric Velocipede #11, and though I'm sure it contains many excellent stories, the only one I have read (well, skimmed) so far is the collaboration between Matthew Cheney and Jeffrey Ford, "Quitting Dreams".

What the reader will notice first is that the story's title and byline are printed on a label attached to the paper. While Mr. Ford's lawyers have requested that I not spread what they call "vile, malicious lies, untruths, and stuff", I would like to note that many a message-board is abuzz with the rumor that Mr. Ford has initiated a suit against the corporate fatcats at EV in what has so far proved to be a fruitless attempt to have his name removed from the story. Apparently, the lawyers for all sides came to a compromise solution, and now readers can tear the title and both names off the story for themselves.

Nonetheless, "Quitting Dreams" is a truly extraordinary piece of fiction, and not merely because it contains some very long paragraphs. Readers will be pleased to see that, despite Mr. Cheney's stated penchant for long sentences, "Quitting Dreams" actually contains more short sentences than long sentences (as measured by freelance statisticians of sentence length hired by The Mumpsimus). In fact, the story begins with two short sentences: "I met Paul Cleary because I was addicted to his dreams. I wanted to meet the man who had ruined my life."

This is an admirable beginning, because it introduces us to both the main character and the premise and conflict of the story. Such skill is displayed throughout the story -- notice, for instance, this sentence from later in the story: "I didn't go back to the house." Here the narrator not only states an action, but the action is a negative one, and yet indicates a concrete thing (the house). It takes a writer with truly basic knowledge of English to be able to write such a sentence.

The integration of dreams into the story is a particularly brilliant touch. So much fiction today is limited to the malaise of pedestrians, usually over-educated men walking down the street to have an encounter with someone who is not their wife. Unlike such stories, "Quitting Dreams" includes "stock market crashes, genetic mutation of crops and food, portable nuclear bombs set off in O'Hare Airport, oceans rising, martial law declared, personal ownership of firearms banned, evangelical Christianity proclaimed the national religion of the U.S. of A., famines and plagues" -- and all of this within one sentence.

Another strength of "Quitting Dreams" is its realism. Much science fiction today refers only to its own predecessors, creating a feedback loop of in-jokes and recursive fetishization of the nostalgicized tropes of Golden Age writers. "Quitting Dreams", instead, uses its addictive dreams to create a true relationship to consensus reality:
I dreamed I was a writer and had a reading gig and when I got to it, it turned out to be at the base of this pier. It was night and it was cold. The water lapped the sand behind me. Boards were nailed up across the stanchions of the pier so I really couldn't see too well underneath it. A couple of them were falling off. I stood there and read a story (I think it was called "The Beautiful Gelreesh", whatever that means). All I could hear was the ocean behind me.
This is hard science fiction with a hardboiled realism -- writing that refers not to other writing, but to the world at large.

Aesthetically, philosophically, politically -- really, in any way imaginable -- "Quitting Dreams" must stand among the most brilliant stories written in the hour it was written, a story for the ages, prose for the deathless, fiction for the fictional. Anybody who doesn't read it is not only missing out on sentences written in more-or-less grammatical English, but probably has something better to do.