The Nine Muses

The Nine Muses is a new anthology edited by Forrest Aguirre and Deborah Layne, published by Wheatland Press, that collects thirteen stories by writers who are women, plus an essay by Elizabeth Hand. One of the nice things about the book is that it presents work from writers associated with various sorts of writing, writers who have published in places such as Strange Horizons and Asimov's as well as writers who have published in Agni, Black Warrior Review, Ms., and Best Women's Erotica 2001. The quality of the stories varies as widely as the content, but I found four of the pieces to be notable and compelling.

Ruth Nestvold's "Scraps of Eutopia" is a bit of a literary in-joke, a vehemently recursive alternate history, but it involves Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, so it pleased me tremendously, because it is a fiercely smart story, and it sent me back to various biographies, literary histories, and encyclopedias to track down every reference I could find. The story is its own explanation, and trying to describe it makes me feel a bit like a Borges character, because to truly describe it I'd need to type the whole story here. But I can say that it builds off the idea of Virginia Woolf's Chloe and Olivia being real people, and their trip to Paris together. I simply love this paragraph:
Now imagine if they hadn't gone. Chloe Ramsay never would have written her famed "Eutopia"; T.S. Eliot never would have been compelled to attack her; Virginia Woolf would have lacked much of her inspiration for A Room of One's Own; and Ernest Hemingway never would have written his celebrated story "Women Without Men".
"Scraps of Eutopia" may only appeal to the lit geeks, but we've got to have something of our own now and then, and I am grateful for it.

Sarah Totton's "The Teasewater Fire" is a story for everyone, a moving tale of a woman an earlier age who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and suffers a miscarriage, then begins constructing remarkably realistic animals that her brother is able to bring to life through some mix of magic and clockwork, until one day she makes a doll that looks, she thinks, like her son would have, had he lived to childhood. It is a story redolent of other tales and folk tales, of fairy tales and parables and myths and legends, but it is also a story of yearning, of grief, of the danger of loving when loss is inevitable, of the resolve to love and love again. The prose is careful, the pace slow, the echoes quiet. When I first read the story, I knew I liked it, but it wasn't for another few days, when its characters and situations kept returning to me, that I realized how much I admired what Totten has accomplished here -- how much depth she found in the situation, and how much grace she brought to the evocation of it.

Ursula Pflug's "The Eyes of Horus" is, as can be expected with most of Pflug's work, utterly unique. It's the sort of thing I tend to call a batshit story, and though this term has not caught on as the latest literary, uh, movement, it's the only label that seems to fit so much of the sort of writing I love. I didn't find "The Eyes of Horus" as satisfying as the last batshit story I read from Pflug, "The Warden of Wyclyffe" in Leviathan 4, because it's a bit more unmoored and less disciplined, but the plethora of oddities and imageries is almost intoxicating at times.

Strangely enough, the story that I most cherish in the book is the one that is not at all batshit; is, in fact, quite mundane: "The Day After Tomorrow" by Tamar Yellin. It's an extraordinarily skillful story, a story with barely a wasted word, and its disarming simplicity of statement provoked a feeling I rarely have: I wanted to have written it myself. It's a story about two people in the midst of their lives, and about a death that lies on the other side of the night, and about the moments we don't cherish enough while alive. It's the sort of thing so many aspiring literary writers aim for, the sort of thing that seems so easy -- the Chekhovian moments, the gestures that imply lifetimes, the details that conjure entire landscapes -- the sort of thing that, in seeking in, hundreds and thousands of writers have produced hundreds of thousands of dull, leaden, vapid stories. "The Day After Tomorrow" is not dull, not leaden, not vapid. It is gripping, terrifying, beautiful, and I can't resist quoting one nearly-random paragraph:
Vistas of forgotten happiness, of lost love, open up for her out of the darkness, as though she had woken to find herself in the dream, as though the kiss were at last to be reclaimed, not snatched away at the moment of consummation. They stand in the alcove; they wear the faces of children. Years of longing are sated in their embrace. She has dreamed it many times, but this one is so real, she will hardly believe, when she wakes, that it didn't happen. She will ask of the morning air: Were you really here? It is an epiphany; a night-gift. Joy blossoms in the silence of the dark bedroom.
(The best paragraph is the last, but it works best in the context of the story itself.)

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