Book Review: Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak
Note: I received a advance review copy of this book from the author.
Before and Afterlives is my first exposure to Christopher Barzak’s writing, but this collection of 17 stories returns to a few themes so noticeably that I imagine they appear throughout his body of work: the despair of living in a declining community, gay relationships, and coming to turns with loss. Not every story deals with these motifs, but they are present enough to make me wonder. However, in this case, I think it’s best to deal with each story on its own terms. Here’s a breakdown of all 17:
What We Know About the Lost Families of – House: Part Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, part Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, “What We Know” involves an unnamed collective narrator recalling the history of a local house haunted by malevolent spirits. This story informed my impressions of Barzak’s writing style throughout this collection, as it employs a sort of Southern Gothic sensibility that I noticed in subsequent stories.
The Drowned Mermaid: This was one of my least favourite stories in the collection. On the surface, it’s about a woman who finds an injured mermaid and nurses it back to health in her bathtub. Underneath, it’s about her attempts to deal with the disappearance of her drug-addict daughter. The subtext is painfully obvious, however, and the woman is so self-indulgent in her mourning that I ended up losing whatever sympathy I had for her at the start. I happened to read Ted Chiang’s novellette “Story of Your Life” this month, and Chiang’s take on a mother mourning a lost daughter is so distinctive that this one suffers badly in comparison.
Dead Boy Found: A young man deals with the ripples of shock that spread throughout his community after one of his schoolmates is found murdered. Although I fully understood the protagonist’s anger and disconnectedness, I thought the climax of the story – where he, completely nude, climbs into the hole where the other boy’s corpse was found – was the kind of overwrought, Laden With Meaning occurrence that I typically associate with literary fiction, and thus try to avoid.
A Mad Tea Party: Here’s another story about a woman dealing with loss in an unhealthy manner. In this case, the protagonist is railing against the death of her controlling mother, and still has her domineering sister to deal with. My interpretation is that she has some sort of mental illness which is exacerbated by her family’s lack of compassion, but despite this, I didn’t feel any sympathy for the main character. Instead, I got irritated by her self-indulgent anger and lack of foresight.
Born on the Edge of an Adjective: In comparison to the previous few stories, “Born” was a welcome change of pace. At first, it starts out as a story of a man not being able to get over a breakup, and then it turns into something different. The ambiguous ending works surprisingly well, but what really anchors everything is the depth and reality of the spurned protagonist’s emotions.
The Other Angelas: This story centres on a gimmick – a drab woman solves a mid-life crisis by inadvertently creating more audacious clones of herself – but it’s handled with a light touch, so it works. This story is short and ends on a happy note, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
A Resurrection Artist: When a young man discovers that he has the ability to resurrect himself after committing suicide, his pragmatic older sister turns his knack into a form of income. However, this story left several questions unanswered at the end. Is he the only known person who can do this? If so, then why does the title reference “A” resurrection artist instead of “The” resurrection artist? Whenever the main character resurrects himself, he finds a new belonging – a notebook, a gold ring – on his person. What is the significance of this? I really wish this story ran longer.
The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire: Yes, the protagonist really does have barbed wire growing from his body. All his life, the boy has been isolated from others on account of his strange affliction, but the arrival of a new preacher in town – along with his comely daughter – changes things. Predictably, teenage hormones get involved, and just as predictably, the protagonist displays absolutely no foresight about how he’ll be outcast again if he has a (never explicitly stated but pretty obviously sexual) liaison with the preacher’s daughter. This one seems like another example of People Doing Stupid Things Because This Is A Beautiful And Literary Story, Dammit.
Map of Seventeen: Meg is a girl with a fierce will and penetrating insight. She doesn’t like it at all when her opportunistic brother Tommy moves back to the family home after college, new boyfriend in tow. But what can she do? Ultimately, when she learns the truth about Tommy’s new boyfriend, she also learns that sometimes leaving harsh judgement aside is best. I loved learning about Meg’s inner life in this story, as she’s a remarkably intelligent, canny girl. However, while I applaud her new maturity about learning to let things be, part of me hoped she would tell her brother off. Meg has valid reasons for resenting her brother, and I really wanted him to be taken down a peg. Despite this, I think that the relationship between Tommy and his boyfriend was well-realized.
Dead Letters: Alice has just learned that Sarah, her best friend from childhood, is dead – but she doesn’t believe it. She was dead once too, after all, but she came back, so Sarah must be back as well. She takes it upon herself to write a series of increasingly disturbed letters to her best friend. However, over time, the lack of response forces Alice (and the reader) to question her existence. This story works better in theory for me than in practice. After a while, I found Alice’s continued insistence that Sarah was alive to be annoying rather than creepy. The implication that Alice was Sarah’s imaginary friend didn’t work for me either, especially since the fact that other people can see her appears to contradict this.
Plenty: Here, the main character looks back on his time in Youngstown as a grubby university student and on the rifts that developed between him and his housemate when their goals for the future diverged. In particular, he thinks about the sweet old lady who left bags of groceries on everyone’s doorstep, and the secret power she had that allowed her to be so generous. This story displays a similar generosity of spirit, and is probably the most fairy-tale-like of the lot.
The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter: Sylvie can see ghosts and talk to them. When her father discovers this, he decides to take advantage of her unique skills and sets himself up as a ghost-hunter. Eventually, as Sylvie grows up and her father takes all of the credit for her supernatural abilities, she realizes that his efforts cause more harm than good. This story works on a lot of levels, but in particular I liked how creepy Sylvie’s father sounded under his veneer of oblivious benevolence.
Caryatids: Lucius is a male prostitute who’s been paid to do something new by a repeat client. In this case, the client is a scientist, and he’s created a new type of nanomite that, when injected, induces a sex change in the injectee. I wanted to like this story for its boldness, but the section where Lucius acclimates to his new female body is positively dripping with the Male Gaze. It left an awful taste in my mouth, especially since his depiction of gay relationships in some of the other stories here are fairly positive and/or nuanced.
A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse: This is the only previously unpublished work in B&A, but it’s a stunner. I’m a sucker for fiction told in the second person, and this story is a good example, as we trace the unnamed protagonist into back alleys, underground meetings and caves while the society around them becomes more totalitarian and quickly breaks down.
Smoke City: Along with “A Beginner’s Guide”, this is my favourite story of the collection. There’s an overtone of the myth of Persephone and Hades in the proceedings (a woman goes down into some sort of underworld to periodically reunite with her husband), but the underworld itself is a hell of smoke and industry and giant furnaces. Some of the details of the setting are made even more macabre by their steadfast normalcy, like the fact that the giant factories are given women’s names like “Eliza” and “Carrie”. This story filled my head with images of grit and smoke and damp yellow kitchens – a much stronger visual imprint than many of the other stories here.
Vanishing Point: Nathan disappeared from his family’s lives last year, and his mother still hasn’t recovered. Of course, that’s hard to do, especially since Nathan didn’t disappear all at once. First his skin became transparent. And then, slowly, over the months, the rest of his body did too. Now, Nathan’s mother is telling the story of his disappearance all over again to a researcher trying to get to the bottom of his strange malady – though it turns out that Nathan still has a few things to say about the subject. This story was fairly neutral to me – I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other.
The Language of Moths: This final story is the longest one in the book. It, like “Born on the Edge” and “Map of Seventeen”, has a young gay character, Eliot, as its central focus. His family – made up of his entomologist father, academic mother, and autistic sister – go off on a camping trip in the hopes that his father will be able to capture a specimen of a previously unidentified species of moth that he saw once as a child. Eliot is resentful of his family’s unspoken expectation that he will always look after his sister, and when he’s given an opportunity to be on his own, he takes it. This part of the story is well-told.
However, the depiction of Dawn, Eliot’s sister, is hugely problematic. She’s barely verbal, and often wanders off by herself if no one is watching. This is typical for some people on the autistic spectrum. But, unbeknownst to her family, she can communicate with insects. When she sees how much her father wants to discover that species of moth, she asks her new friends for help, because she wants him to be happy. Likewise, when Eliot starts up a relationship with a young man in a nearby town, Dawn notices this and decides to leave him alone because he’s so happy. Looking at the math here (special powers + interested solely in helping others + no discernable wants of her own), Dawn looks like a textbook Magical Autistic Person. This saddens me, because otherwise this story is full of great beauty and depth.
Overall, my opinion of Before and Afterlives is mixed. Some stories, like “The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter” and “Smoke City”, were near-perfect. Others, like “The Language of Moths” and “Map of Seventeen” were interesting but flawed. I found that what turned me off most consistently from his writing was when his characters displayed extremes of obstinance or emotion that I didn’t fully understand, especially when the consequences of those characters’ actions seemed obvious to me (as the reader) but not to the characters themselves. In the end, this collection has left me puzzled more than anything else.