25 February 2004

"Free Time" by James Sallis

Just a few pages in Album Zutique #1, "Free Time" demonstrates how much can be accomplished by the careful juxtaposition of words, images, and situations. James Sallis is a tremendously experienced writer, a writer who has worked within and outside various genres and styles, and the forceful effect he creates through suggestion rather than statement shows a writer who trusts the intelligence and attention of his readers.

I've been puzzled by a few of the reactions to Album Zutique from certain reviewers who have suggested (and sometimes stated) that the book is a minor one, its writers drunk on language or imagery at the expense of plot and story. This says more about the readers than the writers, it seems to me, because all of the stories I have read so far in the book reward careful reading. Yes, many of them are short, many of them are devoted to surreal effects, and many of them use stylistic effects to suggest meaning beyond the literal, but none of those qualities make the book in any way minor -- the accomplishments here are major ones.

"Free Time" is, mostly, a series of self-contained paragraphs, fragments of a character's experience and thoughts, a mosaic where each piece has meaning, but where the ultimate meaning comes from how the pieces work together as a whole. There is a "story" here in the traditional sense -- as I read it: a man whose yearning for connection with his lost, alcoholic (perhaps suicidal) father leads him to sexual obsession, which he regrets, desiring connection and love -- but that plot only becomes truly apparent after "Free Time" has been read at least once. The first reading produces some confusion: How do these pieces connect? What matters here? Who are these people? Who is speaking, and what are they referring to? The questions are easy enough to answer after the story has been read, and part of the thrill of the first reading comes from the initial feeling of there being some sort of connection, and then, about half-way through, beginning to realize the connections. The first pieces are important, though, and unless a reader has a considerably better ability to keep everything in her or his head simultaneously while reading than I do, multiple readings will be necessary. It's a very short story, so multiple readings are not much of an imposition. Indeed, they are a delight.

At the sentence level, "Free Time" is a masterpiece, a short story where each word is as important as any word in a lyric poem. The story itself feels at times like a poem -- images appear without explanation, but with purpose; formal or gnomic phrases mix with the vernacular; certain words gain meaning through repetition. For instance, look at all that is going on in these few sentences from one section:
All my friends are killing themselves.

You said: A boy I used to go with read about territorial imperatives. I came home late one night and there he was on my porch pissing on the front door.

Really I said. They are.
This could be dialogue from a play by Harold Pinter -- it is all about the silences carved around the words, and yet the words themselves also convey meaning. Modern playwrights are generally good at having characters talk around each other, but it's an effect seldom used (or used well) in fiction, at least that I've noticed. Here we have an example of what such dialogue can accomplish, indicating more about these characters in four sentences than many writers would be able to show in whole pages.

Album Zutique has mostly been reviewed within the SF press, because the surrealism (and decadence -- can't forget that) of many of the stories makes them seem to fit under a loose definition of the fantasy genre, and many of the authors included have published within the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Sallis has done so himself, many times. How, then, is this story SF? I don't know. I don't care. Labels are useful up to a certain point, but when it comes to good writing, all we need to say is: This is worth reading. This is writing at its best. Pay attention and your attention will be rewarded.