Third Bear Carnival: "The Surgeon's Tale" and "Three Days in a Border Town"

When deciding on whom to invite for the Third Bear Carnival, one person I knew I really hoped to convince to join us was Micaela Morrissette, because Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, and I had become aware of her short fiction at the same time -- when we read her story "Ave Maria" in Conjunctions 49 and immediately decided to reprint it for Best American Fantasy 2.  (We weren't alone in loving the story -- it won a Pushcart Prize, too!)  She has since gone on to all sorts of wonderful things, including publishing an acclaimed story in Weird Tales, "Wendigo".  My first encounter with Micaela, though, had been way back in 2005 when my story "The Art of Comedy" appeared on Web Conjunctions and Micaela helped with the layout and formatting.

And now, with Micaela writing about two of Jeff's stories, it feels like we've all come full circle!  But more importantly, here are some wonderful, and wonderfully-written, insights on Jeff's work.

(Be sure to check out the Carnival link collection, too, because folks from around the world and around the web have recently posted their contributions.  And we've still got a few more coming later...)

On "The Surgeon's Tale" and "Three Days in a Border Town"
by Micaela Morrissette

“The Surgeon’s Tale” and “Three Days in a Border Town” are both love stories, or erotic tragedies; and the universes in which the stories occur bump and rub each other in places. Each takes place in a Weird but decrepit dimension that postdates the collapse of a stronger, richer civilization. In “Three Days in a Border Town,” that past can be read as the readers’ own present, the here and now; and this creates a relevancy, a poignancy that is echoed in the despairing ache of the tone. Despair, enervated but grim, bitter, and ruthless, is everywhere in the stark, moistureless ecosystem of this reptilian narrative, in its dusty, mirage-ridden desert and crumbling border town.

 “The Surgeon’s Tale,” on the other hand, written in collaboration with Cat Rambo, author of Eyes Like Smoke and Coal and Moonlight (Paper Golem 2009) and managing editor of Fantasy Magazine, cannot easily be located in some postapocalyptic future of our own world. It occurs in a culture that has lost almost all of its magic and mages, that pieces its small powers and healings together out of scraps of pseudoscience and half-spells. Its fantastical removal from realism finds a parallel in a certain emotional remove, too. Seemingly the more sensual of the two stories, “The Surgeon’s Tale” is really the more academic piece. It unfolds in a fecund environment that is rich with spices and botanicals, textures and scents, briny sea water and gelatinous sea creatures, as well as with ironically ripe similes, playful conscientiousness of language, and metaplay with genres.

The narrator of “The Surgeon’s Tale,” it would seem, is an old man on a beach at the time of the telling of the story, though he was once a young medical student, estranged from his parents, professional preservationists of dead flesh. He was a young man to whom a horrible and absurd thing occurred, a thing that, having persisted, has become banal, even homely. It’s the stuff of pulp horror and B movies, and also of raunchy sitcoms and 80s comedies: our shy young doctor, having fallen besottedly in love with a young woman’s corpse, which he has attempted to reanimate and then to destroy, finds himself pursued, and pleasured, by her amputated arm, which he eventually has no choice but to attach to himself in place of one of his own arms.

This obsession with the lovely golem with the piercing blue eyes is related almost  but not quite in the tone of a nineteenth-century Tale of Horror, a slightly elevated, somewhat literary, vaguely stiff or antiquated diction that draws attention to the tropes as tropes and undermines—or at least disturbs— the exotic, visceral world of the piece, the neurotic sexual longings of the narrator, the beautiful language and imagery.

The self-mockery of the story, like the old man’s own self-recriminations and self-investigations, is pleasingly complex. Even the old man’s position as narrator is undermined when he reveals that the hand he has been using to write his story is the hand of his dead beloved, the hand that sews and sutures better than he does, that comforts him, that has its own intelligence, and possibly, it seems, its own voice. And then, it’s a delight to see VanderMeer and Rambo take their conceit one step farther and reveal that the story has been written on the sands of the beach, and that “each day’s work [is] washed away in time for the next, lost unless my counterpart has been reading it.” For the old man has a counterpart, a doppelgänger with one or two aliases of its own.

The gesture of the doppelgänger implicates the reader in the story, explicitly identifying her as the audience for this tale that preserves, by spells and science, a dead thing; and that is erased each day by tides. The fractured mirroring of doubles also sketches a slight nod (the merest jerk of the chin) toward the collaborative aspect of the composition. It’s all very deft and quick and clever, and, best of all, it’s wrapped up in a gooey sensationalistic pulp package of necrophilia, onanism, Repressed Homosexual Desires, jellyfish, sargassum, and the hair of a luscious young half-zombie floating dreamily on the waters of the emerald ocean.

In “Three Days in a Border Town,” there’s no water. The blue of the sky serves for a time as a metonymic substitute for moisture, but then even that comfort is denied: “You look up at the blue sky—that mockery of a sky that, cloudless, could never give anyone what they really needed.” Apart from that, and the red juiciness of some raw meat in a coffin, the world is arid, dusty, sandy: stone blown to bits by heat and wind and time and death. Although the story makes a kind of ending for itself by at the last moment resolving, through the filter of a text-within-a-text, a central mystery, there is no real resolution for the tragic heroine. “Three Days” reads like a single grain of sand in an empty, shifting desert; a moment in an infinitive narrative that spins on hopelessly far beyond the last words.

Those words are the last for a reason. At the close of this piece, the second-person protagonist has surrendered her consciousness, her identity, her voice, to a mutant familiar, a freakish and crippled albino with wings like a manta ray, that enters through the base of her neck and melds its mind with hers. (The choice of the second-person voice, the imperative tense, which commands and controls, is well made.) She has done this in order to find the mythical floating City that has taken her husband away from her, and she has done it despite the fact that, by accepting the familiar, she destroys the woman who was her husband’s wife: she joins unsunderably with another and loses herself. The story is craggy, sharp and hard and treacherous, with cruel or bewildering contradictions like these.

While the silent, brutal, seemingly infinite desert appears to have accumulated over the ruins of a perished civilization, the City that appears and disappears above its oases and border towns, both in actual form and as a translucent holographic ghost, seems utterly alien, inexplicable, incomprehensible. The City is feared by all, worshipped and fruitlessly sought by many, but only the narrator seeks, vengefully, to take back something from it. To this end, she travels from border town to border town, though the settlements appear to be on the border of nothing except themselves and the desert.

In her head a phallic or clitoral stone pulses and throbs painfully when the City and her lover come near to her. She writes her own Bible, The Book of the City, a collage of knowledge imparted or overheard; and she follows it unswervingly. She is passionately lonely. She is a sharpshooter and a corpse robber. She feels herself a wisp of hot smoke, and believes the City will give her back her body. She is relentless in her pursuit of her husband, yet, like the Surgeon of “The Surgeon’s Tale,” she is driven instead to a physical union with the unclean, the alien, the morbid, the taboo. The love in “The Surgeon’s Tale” is Romantic, idealized, literary: he adores a woman who died before he knew her—while the love in “Three Days” is visceral, humanized, emotional: VanderMeer makes a point of interrupting the bleak narrative with flashbacks to homey, agrarian, connubial bliss. But the erotics of both stories succumbs to the shameful lure of the forbidden; the golem and the familiar are both so full of secrets and mysteries: their flesh is clammy and unhealthy, their intercourses with our protagonists masturbatory.

VanderMeer is a very deliberate and conscious writer—his language is almost always accomplishing more than it seems to be, or to be doing something other than it seems to be doing, which is why it’s such fun to read him with an active and critical eye. But he also is deft at the sick shiver, the pang of queasy appetite, and that lingering itchy unease that marks the very, very best of the speculative spectrum. These stories will disturb and slightly dirty you, but everyone must pay a price for a union with the Strange.

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