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 AboutThis 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.
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.
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!