Next Stop, Wonderland
Oregon authors detail complex worlds
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
THE KEYHOLE OPERA, stories by Bruce Holland Rogers. Wheatland Press, 2005. Paperback, $19.95. 2006 WORLD FANTASY AWARD FOR BEST COLLECTION.
The title of Bruce Holland Rogers’ recent story collection takes its name from a comment by Kate Wilhelm, who has said that Rogers’ writing “offers a glimpse through a keyhole.” It’s a lovely description for Rogers’ work, particularly his brief “short-shorts.” Some of the stories in Opera were first available via Rogers’ short-short subscription service (www.shortshortshort.com),but not every story in the book is a short-short; not all of them fit the “fantasy” tag either, though the collection beat out much-admired Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners to win the 2006 World Fantasy Award for best collection.
The book is broken into sections, miniature collections of tales grouped together under the headings stories, metamorphoses, insurrections, tales and symmatrinas. Symmetrinas are Rogers’ own invention, stories of an odd number of sections. A middle segment stands at the center, while mirrored (to the word) sections climb up to it and then back down again. Rogers’ symmetrinas are like precisely detailed collections of figurines, grouped togther on a theme. “Something Like the Sound of the Wind in the Trees” collects people hung up on sounds, while “The Main Design That Shines Through Sky and Earth” wraps teachers and learners around a tale of stranded seamen clinging to connection through a poem in a language only one of them might understand.
In other sections, some stories, like “Sea Anenomes,” have the ring of fables, while others, like “Vocabulary Items,” revel in playing with words. What links the tales, from the most everyday to the most fantastic, is a calmly dreamy tone that infuses Rogers’ carefully used language. Rogers’ stories are so intimately detailed, so kind in their observations, so inventive in their transformations, that they seem to seep in; it’s through the skin and the ears that tales like this are absorbed. Reading The Keyhole Opera is like being read to with your eyes closed; these are stories to fill your senses.
THE BEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, fiction by Justin Tussing. HarperCollins, 2006. Hardcover, $24.95. 2006 OREGON BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION.
Justin Tussing’s first novel suffers from a remarkably unremarkable cover, so it’s handy that it comes out as a somewhat prettier paperback later this month. The Best People in the World is a strange, snug, dark slice of Americana, the kind that comes with scrappy pasts, cans of beans, cold winters and forced inventiveness. But for the book’s three central characters, the hardships are chosen ones; they aren’t living on the frontier or through the Depression but squatting in an abandoned house in Vermont in the early 1970s. Thomas Mahey is a 17-year-old who falls in love with his teacher, 25-year-old Alice Lowe. There is nothing particularly edgy about this, in Tussing’s story: Thomas likes Alice, and she likes him, and she says things like, “Thomas, I’m here to rebuild my heart.” Teachers are supposed to know things, but 25-year-olds don’t know that much. Emotional and sometimes trying, Alice is a little of both.
Separately, Alice and Thomas befriend Shiloh Tanager, the strangest figure in their Kentucky town. It’s nothing in particular and everything at once that sends this trio on the road, stopping for an odd moment in New York before venturing on to Vermont, where they’re invited to join a sort of commune but wind up in a big, old house on their own. Predictable troubles — food, heat, freezing pipes — are part of their distinct, timeless landscape, but it’s the push and pull among the three and the dreaminess of lives largely unhindered by outside forces that set the tone of Tussing’s novel. Thomas narrates from a clouded future, interrupting from time to time to comment on what he did later and giving his chapters names like “The Place I Will Later Refer to as the Place I Can’t Return to,” a sentiment which just about sums up the book, capturing as it does the feeling of a time of life, however brief, that colors everything that follows.