Saturday, March 03, 2007

Another Good (Mostly) Review

Claude Lalumiere just published a review of FoM in the Montreal Gazette. Because this site is subscription only, I'm posting the entire article below.
Animals Give People Something to Think About

In The Fate of Mice, Susan Palwick mostly focuses on two themes: one, that agency and intelligence might not be as limited to human beings as the dominant world view holds; two, that stories are alive, and their repeated telling can have an effect not only on how reality is experienced, but how it unfolds.

These two ideas unite most effectively in the collection's striking title story, in which a lab mouse given the ability to speak learns about the roles mice play in various human stories, from Cinderella to Flowers for Algernon, and beyond.

The poignant Gestella, another story that presents a non-human perspective, puts a werewolf into a disturbing domestic drama and explores unflinchingly the implications of living on the margins between two species. Ever After adds perceptive new twists to fairy-tale tropes and vampire lore, illuminating the sexual and social dynamics at work behind such popular legends.

There's a powerful and complex utopian streak that motivates Palwick's protagonists -- a mouse who refuses to conform to human narratives, a conspiracy theorist who cannot believe a better world has actually come to pass (The Old World), mutants desperately seeking a safe haven in an intolerant society (Sorel's Heart). Their intense yearnings make their struggles vividly immediate.

Except for the false note of the collection's closing piece -- GI Jesus, a clunky melodrama about a miraculous recovery, peppered with unconvincing comedy and peopled with bland characters -- every story displays a keen intelligence and a fierce imagination.
This is a smart, thoughtful review; Lalumiere's identified some themes other people haven't talked about yet, and obviously gave the book a careful reading.

I'm intrigued, though, by his antipathy towards "GI Jesus." That's a story that most reviewers so far have singled out either for special praise (Booklist called it one of the standouts of the collection) or particular opprobrium. Its initial reception in the field wasn't much different; Gardner Dozois, for instance, who likes most of my stuff, hated that story, but other people must have really liked it, since it wound up on the World Fantasy Award ballot.

This is very similar to reader response to The Necessary Beggar, which people seem to love or loathe with equal vehemence. People who detest the book are especially enraged by its happy ending, and I suspect it's not a coincidence that "GI Jesus" is the only story in The Fate of Mice with an unqualified happy ending. It's also the only story that deals explicitly with faith, a strong theme in TNB as well.

My theory -- which may well be completely wrong, since of course I'm far too close to the issue to be objective -- is that Rickety Contrivances of Doing Good are particularly offensive to non-believers when they involve faith; or, perhaps, that Doing Good seems most Rickety when motivated or enabled by faith. The simplest way to put this, maybe, is that nonbelievers don't accept the posibility of miracles, and feel furiously cheated by stories that use them as plot elements.

Most of my evidence for this is purely anecdotal. A friend of mine who's distressed by my Christian conversion once glared at me and said, "Oh, come on: the resurrection? How can you believe that?" A friend at church, on the other hand, when I told her about the anti-happy-ending sentiment of folks who hate TNB, shook her head and said, "Well, for non-Christians, there aren't happy endings: everything gets worse until you die, and then nothing good can happen." I think that's far too simplistic a formula: plenty of non-Christians, including my husband and my mother, both believe in happy endings and liked TNB, and faiths other than Christianity embrace happy endings of various sorts.

But I also think my friend may be on to something, because one of the deepest divides I've seen in the world is the gulf between people who believe in happy endings and work for them, motivated by whatever beliefs, and people who embrace despair as a worldview. And this means that stories with happy endings may be anathema to certain readers not just because those endings seem contrived or are badly written or whatever -- it's certainly possible for happy stories to be unskillful ones, and I cheerfully accept the possibility that mine may fall into that category -- but because those endings contradict these readers' view of reality.

Every few years, I teach a Tolkien course at UNR. One of the things we always look at, and ponder, is the chasm between people who adore Lord of the Rings and people who are almost hysterically, even violently, contemptuous of it (think Edmund Wilson, China Mieville, etc.). That chasm usually runs through my classroom, too, since some students come in having never read LotR and find that they despise it.

Tolkien writes consciously and explicitly about a providential universe, a worldview articulated most eloquently by Gandalf. ("Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.") There are no accidents in LoTR; there are, instead, many seeming coincidences, some of them so rickety that they stretch even my credulity. Granted, there are other reasons for people to dislike LotR, which can be daunting indeed for sensibilities acclimated to the modern psychological novel. But one of the things I always tell my students is, "If you accept Tolkien's view of reality, if you believe in a providential universe, then his plot will make sense to you, because you'll believe that things like that can really happen. But if you don't accept Tolkien's view of reality, the book merely seems outlandish and contrived, and may actually make you angry, because you can't understand how any rational adult could think this way." Most of my students seem to think this makes sense.

Please note, by the way, that I'm not for a second comparing my writing to Tolkien's -- if only! -- but simply comparing reader responses.

(Gary just wandered into my office, having read the Lalumiere review, and shook his head. "Wow, 'GI Jesus' sure pushes people's buttons." Yep. True fact.)

On a related note, I've had some conversations with my fiction-workshop students about why stories often aren't considered serious and literary unless they're bleak and despairing. Happy endings are relegated to popular culture, the stuff not-smart people like; despair often seems to be viewed as a sign of superior intelligence. There are exceptions, of course, but -- as I think I've said here before -- one of my students last semester explained that children tell themselves stories with happy endings, which means that happy endings come to seem childish.

I'd be very curious to hear other people's views on all of this. And if you dislike TNB and "GI Jesus," that's okay; you're certainly in excellent company!

My fourth novel, Driving to November (currently sitting in very messy first draft on top of one of my filing cabinets), is a retelling and expansion of "GI Jesus," moving the story to central Nevada and picking up where the novelette leaves off. I predict very mixed reviews for this book if and when it's published!


  1. Susan,
    It's true that I'm a die-hard atheist, and no doubt our diverging worldviews in that respect play into our divergence, re: "GI Jesus", but I don't think the happy ending was the problem for me. I can think of several stories, novels, and films with happy endings that I adore.
    For me, the problem was the tone (which failed to convince me), the (for you) unusually bland characters, and the fact that the story didn't display the intellectual rigour of your other stories. Where the other stories impressed me by how deeply thoughtful they were in dissecting their premises, this one, despite its length, did no such thing -- it kinda just sat there. And I must admit that expectations also played a part. After an entire book of brilliant, incisive stories, I was all set up for the closing novella to take it up another notch.
    I don't mean to harp on any of this, but you seemed to be inviting some dialogue, so I'm dialoguing.
    I really loved the book, overall.
    I also mentioned it here:

  2. I think your take on LotR is dead-on... it's one of the things I thought didn't quite come across in the movie. I don't know if that was conscious choice on PJ's part (figuring that benevolent Providence would be a tough sell to an American audience), or an unconscious reflection of his attitudes towards same. But I remember getting in a lot of discussions around that issue as friends of mine went to the movies.

    Also stopped in to ask you if I could use something from your blog for the Ringing of the Bards next weekend... maybe you could post some more ER sonnets? (hint hint) :) Lemme know at or at Thanks!

  3. This is a theme I've seen a lot of Christian writers and critics ponder - the way in which despairing, unhappy endings are seen as just automatically more literary, sophisticated, and intelligent. I've heard it called a hold-over from Freud. There's a famous female novelist (I forget her name) who said "Whatever consoles, is false." I think it's a reflexive, not-very-well-thought out prejudice, but it is a common one.

    And I think Christians *can* sometimes be accused of falsely cheery views, but that's condemned from *within* the tradition as cheap grace, trying to get to heaven without going through the cross. And look at how dark some Christian visions can be, particularly the tragic-Catholics like Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, etc, etc. Or Dostoyevsky.
    There's a good essay somewhere online, which Tom Simon wrote about the difference between the nihilistic and subversive, and the eucatastrophic "superversive," using LOTR as his example.

  4. Hey, Claude! Thanks for your comment!

    You're absolutely entitled not to like the story. The point of my post, though, was that this story, like TNB, creates unusually polarized opinions. Since GIJ was first published, some readers have specifically praised the characterization and others, like you, have found it completely uninteresting. I'm fascinated by how the same element of one story can elicit such divergent reactions. It's not as if people who love the story are focusing on different things than people who dislike it; they're both zeroing in on the same aspects. Anyway, I'm really glad you liked the rest of the book, and thanks for the kind words! And I'm delighted that you mentioned storytelling as a theme: no one else has said that yet, although it does seem obvious, doesn't it?

    Tiel: You're right that PJ downplayed Providence, although that hadn't occurred to me before. With each successive film, I became happier with them as movies and less happy with them as Tolkien adaptations, although I never reached the pitch of raging hatred for Jackson maintained by some diehard Tolkienists.

    And you've given me new motivation for getting back to the sonnets; thank you!

    Elliot: Thanks for referring me to that essay. I love the term "superversive."

  5. Yes, despairing or completely unresolved "literary" endings leave me deeply unsatisfied -- I already get those ending IRL, so why would I want to read them in my leisure? Of course, that brings up the issue of reading for entertainment/escape (me!) and reading for ... I was going to type "self-improvement" but I can't see how a constant diet of bleakness is improving.
    Regarding a literary schism (I love that word) between believers and athiests, perhaps the whole issue is non-believers' lack of willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to reach the heart of the matter, whether literary or spiritual.

  6. I've long been silent about that Tom Simon article, which I must admit I've always found, to be extremely kind, misguided, but, to be more truthful, rather idiotic. Usually such rants are best left ignored. But since it's come up here and that I've posted here, I feel uncomfortable not taking a clear stance about it.
    Beyond the fact that he takes personal and unfounded swipes (for example, calling me one of "the cronies" of someone I've neither met nor read nor ever had any contact with whatsoever) it is typical of the authoritian/conservative/religious view of art that mistrusts anything that can potentially disturb the power relations that benefit those whom the status quo favours.
    Basically, since I feel that that piece comes close to slandering me, I would like to be clear about my position: yes, it is the artist's job to be subversive; i.e., to ask questions, to never take anything for granted, to challenge any and all assumptions regardless of what they are or their presumed worth, to be iconoclasts in the truest sense of the word: to shatter all icons. Regardless of your worldview, such questioning can only lead to becoming stronger, rather than fall into the trap of complacency and the injustices, cruelties, and inequities that often follow. You can question something and then conclude that it is worthy, but to reach that conclusion in all honesty, you must first examine it unflinchingly. Failure to do so is bad art, and it's not courageous living. It's cowardly, close-minded, self-involved, and self-satisfied. Art can lead you to be stronger and more truthful in your convictions, but only if both artist and audience bring both courage and honesty to the table.
    To bring this back to Susan, the whole collection is iconoclastic and subversive -- except for "GI Jesus", which takes too much for granted and fails to question its own premises (sorry to harp on this again, but it perfectly illustrates this argument).

  7. Hurrah for blog comments! LOL!

    Oats: Since SF in particular requires a suspension of disbelief, and since many, many people in the field aren't "believers" in any conventional sense, I'm not sure your thesis holds up.

    Claude: I haven't had time to look for the Simon essay yet, but when I do, I'll read it with your comments in mind. However, "the authoritian/conservative/religious view of art that mistrusts anything that can potentially disturb the power relations that benefit those whom the status quo favours" is rather too broad a characterization of religion. Jesus was crucified for threatening the status quo and questioning authority, and a goodly percentage of us who try to follow him believe that it's still our job to do the same thing. (Not all religious people are conservative; I identify as a proud member of the Christian Left. For other examples, see Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero.)

    Re "GI Jesus," can you give me an example of a story in the collection that questions its premises, and describe how it does that, and then describe how "GI Jesus" doesn't? Cece, it seems to me, questions things constantly; the story begins and ends with her questioning what's happened and being skeptical about it. Furthermore, neither she nor Cindy accept Father Anselm's authority. I'm also curious about how you define "bland" characters; those two, I think, are far more sharply drawn than the characters in "Stormdusk," and a good deal less stereotypical than several of the characters in "Beautiful Stuff."

  8. Susan said, "since many, many people in the field aren't "believers" in any conventional sense, I'm not sure your thesis holds up."

    Sure it does (although, of course, it only addresses generalities). When I said, "perhaps the whole issue is non-believers' lack of willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to reach the heart of the matter, whether literary or spiritual,"
    I was referring to some non-believers, such as those you cited in your blog entry, who are also skeptical of sf/f. I think the writers/fans you refer to have shown themselves willing to suspend disbelief and have likely reached their non/belief position as a result of open questing/questioning.

  9. Susan,
    I don't have the time for the kind of detailed analysis you ask for, but if we ever meet up at a convention or something I'd be happy to have a real discussion about all this. I will say that I disagree with your assessment of the various levels of characterizations in the different stories. Maybe, in addition to the other points I raised, it comes down to voice: I was jarred out of any involvement in the story by the voice; it simply didn't convince me.
    On to the conservative/art thing; yes, you're right, I meant "religious authorities" and also, perhaps, "religious fundamentalists".
    My view of Jesus is rather different from yours, but let's keep that for another time.
    As for the Christian Left thing, although most of my close friends are atheists, I do have several Christian friends of several denominations, and all of them are unquestionably leftists, including a Lutheran minister (who's also an excellent writer whose fiction deals with issues of faith in a very affecting way) and a lawyer who does great work in the realm of animal rights. I'm baffled by the very fact that they believe, but I respect them and their work tremendously.

  10. Whoah, small world. I didn't know there was any connection between Mr. Lalumiere and Mr. Simon's essay, which I remember only vaguely. I just remember liking the way he contrasted the idea of 'superversion' with that of 'subversion,' in a rather iconoclastic way!

  11. PS:
    I've ordered The Fate of Mice, BTW, and am looking forward to it.

    I didn't mind the happy ending of TNB, though I did find it a bit... sudden! A little deus-ex-machina, in the way things turn around suddenly. But as I said in the review on my blog, I chose to read it as a comedy of reconciliation, a time-honoured and noble genre.

  12. Claude: Yes, I can certainly see how if you don't like the voice in that story, it would be difficult to like the story as a whole!

    Are you going to WisCon, by any chance? My husband and I will be there, and it would be fun to go out to lunch or something.

    Elliot: Thanks for ordering FoM! And yes, many people have found the ending of TNB a bit too quick of a wrap-up; I probably should have drawn it out more. I like your reading of the book as a "comedy of reconciliation," though!

  13. Susan,
    No Wiscon for me. But this year I'm quite likely going to WFC.


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