This is it – my 40th book review of the year! When I pledged to do 40 book reviews a year ago, I had no idea what I was setting myself up for. Now, with this final entry, we can all bask in the satisfaction of someone actually finishing what they start. But anyways, onwards to the review itself!
Author: Margo Lanagan
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Rating: 3 out of 5
Cracklescape is a collection of four short stories by Margo Lanagan. They are not interrelated – even the word “cracklescape” makes no appearance within the collection – but they do share similar themes. Here’s a short summary of each story in turn.
The Duchess Dresser: Tanner, a young man living in a flat with several other tenants, has a ghost haunting his dresser. One particular drawer, locked tight, twitches and jerks ominously in its drawer tracking, and he’s reluctant to open it or fix the darned thing by calling a locksmith. Eventually, the scale of the haunting grows and he experiences a truly unusual form of inhabitation/possession by a ghost while being sick with the flu. Ultimately, the ghostly presence departs his life as quickly as it entered it.
The Isles of the Sun: Elric is a carefree boy like so many children are – he runs along the beach and plays pretend with his friends. But deep down, he realizes he wants something more. He fears the way that people get old and let the heaviness of talking and eating and watching TV weigh them to the ground. Why can’t he be like the spirits he sees flitting about in the sunbeams, who can make people feel happy and – even better – fly? He ultimately realizes he can be like those spirits, and convinces all of the other children in his neighbourhood to join him. His mother Jenny, sensing something different about her son, attempts to stop him, but is too late – and who would believe her story anyway that the sun-cast shadows of the birds heading out to sea look strangely like children?
Bajazzle: Women frustrate Don – or at least, his long-time (and now annoyingly svelte) partner, Su, does. Not to mention the Sheelas – those bratty, loud-mouthed girls who board trains en masse in black clothing and sequins, moaning and twirling and flaunting their bodies. However, Don meets a new and delectable woman at a beach party, only to have his encounter with her become far more incredible and gruesome than he expected.
Significant Dust: Vanessa is running away. Her fellow coworkers and backpackers at the roadside restaurant she works at don’t know this – and she doesn’t want them to know, either. All she wants is to forget that sunlit day in Perth when she went to the beach with her sister – the beach that only one of them was able to walk away from. Now running (physically, figuratively, however you want to put it) is the only method that Vanessa has to cope with the guilt of seeing her sister falling, falling, against the sand, able to talk and call for help, but not able to move…
Of these four stories, “The Isles of the Sun” and “Significant Dust” were the ones I found most affecting. The people within all four stories feel real and well drawn-out, but the characters of those two in particular were the most sympathetic. In contrast, Tanner from “The Duchess Drawer” and Don from “Bajazzle” both seem entitled and aggravating, especially in the context of how they perceive women – my preferred interpretation of both stories is that this entitlement lies at the root of the haunting phenomena that both men encounter. Do they emerge from those encounters changed for the better, though? It’s hard to say.
This leads to both the best and the worst aspects of this collection. All four stories show exceptional skill and craft in characterization and tone. They also mesh well because they deal with events that are haunting (both literally and figuratively) and ineffable. A strain of melancholy runs throughout all of them – Vanessa’s guilt over inadvertently causing her sister to become a quadripeligic; Tanner’s shock upon experiencing a female body from the inside, aching all over from bobby pins and corsets; Jenny’s disbelief over the loss of her son; and Don’s revulsion over the ramshackle state of a beachside cabin.
However, this melancholy belies a larger problem: the endings of these stories often don’t have a point, and the background settings are sketched in so subtly that I have a hard time connecting them to the larger phenomena that Lanagan intends.
In particular, “Significant Dust” is supposed to (somehow) tie into an alleged alien abduction that happened in the late 80s in Australia – or at least it should, given the epigraph she includes that gives the story its name. The ghost that haunts Tanner’s dresser in “The Duchess Dresser” manifests suddenly when he’s outside of the house, interacts with another tenant, and then suddenly walks out the door. Why is this? The woman who seduces Don in “Bajazzle” turns into a hideous demon-thing, and when he escapes her clutches, she reappears in the distance, looks at him, and then disappears again. What exactly is this sort of ending supposed to prove?
Part of my dissatisfaction with these endings lies in the fact that I’ve been reading slush for Electric Velocipede for nearly two months now. Through working with EV, I’ve read my fair share of stories that employ vague, ambiguous, or poetic endings in a misguided attempt to sound profound or literary. Those kinds of endings don’t work – or if they do, they have to be handled with considerable skill. Margo Lanagan does have skill, but the endings of the stories in Cracklescape remind me of all of the other stories I’ve read in which the author uses ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake.