16 April 2005

In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips

Though a couple months ago I did an interview with Holly Phillips, I haven't had a chance to write elsewhere about In the Palace of Repose, her first short story collection.

A few things make this book marvelous and rare. First off, it is a collection of stories that are mostly original to it -- only two appeared in magazines before the book was released. Second, it is a varied collection and yet a cohesive one, with stories that explore a variety of subjects in different modes and tones, but with enough overlap that the book seems to come from a single sensibiliity, a single vision of the multiple possibilities of life and imagination. There are stories that are fairly traditional fantasy in the way the background world is imagined (the title story, for instance); stories that are traditional horror tales in the props they use and the sense of impending doom that leaks between the lines ("One of the Hungry Ones"); stories that mix elements of fantasy, horror, and science fiction ("The New Ecology"); and essentially mainstream stories that could only be written by a writer steeped in the imaginative habits of the fantastic genres ("The Other Grace").

Yet the collection holds together remarkably well as a collection because certain themes, images, and ideas weave between the tales, with a statement in one story becoming an echo in another. Again and again, characters are alienated from their surroundings, again and again artists seek ways to unite disparate experiences and people, again and again something mysterious and ethereal lies beyond reach. The stories, then, are collected not because they represent a single way of writing, but, instead, because each demonstrates a different way of reaching out to the world, a different way of trying to make sense of things that are essentially beyond the grasp of a single human mind.

The two stories I find most remarkable are the two that are least obviously fantastic: "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice". The first is a story of a young amnesiac and her family, a sort of inverted "Metamorphosis" in which the changed person tries to figure out the family. When I first read "The Other Grace" I was filled with terror, because each sentence seemed just right, and yet I was sure Phillips would take an easy, sentimental, unambiguous route to the ending and ruin it all. She does not. It is a perfect story because it is an uncompromising story, a story that accepts its own premises and doesn't give in to our desire for resolution. "Summer Ice" is a near-future science fiction story that at moments reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Down and Out in the Year 2000" (or, rather, reminded me of my memory of that story, since I haven't read it in a while). It's easy enough not to recognize this as an SF story, because it's set in Canada, and those of us who don't live there might suffer a certain Impulse To Stereotype that makes Canada into a place that feels like the oddly placid world of the story, but the little details suggest a future world where energy is running out. There is a pleasant sentimentality to the story, a sentimentality that undercuts the dark currents beneath the words and seems to me entirely appropriate. The ending is open enough to feel not like a Hallmark card, but rather a cherished moment of life that most people might not think deserves all the emotion it produces, but that, within the sensibility of a particular personality, makes perfect sense, and so the sweetness possesses a melancholy entirely its own.

Both "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice" could have appeared in a literary journal like Threepenny Review or TriQuarterly or any of innumerable others. But context is important here, and having these two stories collected alongside overtly fantastical tales opens the reader's imagination and allows us to approach these two stories with a sensibility trained to expect surprise and the possibility of the impossible. That makes for a different reading experience than would be had if these stories were collected with other stories similar to them in technique and background. "In the Palace of Repose" is the first story in the book, a story of such imagination that I expected it must be part of a series and not a one-shot use of the setting it describes (but as Holly says in the interview, she didn't think of it this way, and it is just itself in its richly suggestive imagined world), and the second story is "The Other Grace", so if you read the stories in order, you will move from one lyrical tale of expectation and loss and new beginnings to a second, but the first story is set in a vividly fantastic world while the second is set in the world we call real. The progression continues, with stories slipping back and forth across territory that is real, irreal, and surreal. This is a subtly subversive way of reading, the sort of thing that might happen if a mischievous publisher listed the complete works of Steinbeck as "science fiction". The quality of the stories individually varies, and I have yet to hear from any two people who agree on what is the strongest story in the book and what the weakest, but the whole is what impresses me more than any one part -- and some of the parts are pretty darn impressive.