Sunday, October 28, 2007

Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

Enthusiasm can be a dangerous thing; the bound galley of this book came with one of the most glowing quotes I've ever seen (credited to Locus) -- "Dazzlingly original, full of unsettling psychological insight...never simplistic, persistently wise...a formidably accomplished book."

Now, when I say that I found Red Spikes to be a good collection of short stories, by a writer who is quite talented, it may sound like damning with faint praise by comparison. (And, I do admit, my hopes were set very high by that quote, and ones like it, and those hopes were not entirely fulfilled.) Now, don't get me wrong -- Red Spikes is a swell collection, and Margo Lanagan, from the evidence here, is a fine writer. She's just not the second coming of Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, or Kelly Link, as some people seem to think. (Or maybe she is, but I can't see it. Or maybe she will yet be, someday.)

Red Spikes is a collection of Young Adult stories, which means, from a purely marketing point of view, that it will be shelved in a different area of the library/bookshop and the cover price will be notably lower than a similar "adult" book. Trying to define YA turns one into a Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it (or, at least, I know many telling details), but I don't have a quick test. The ten stories here are all short -- which is sometimes an indication that a work is for younger readers -- and all of them feature young protagonists -- which is even more often a YA giveaway.

Lanagan writes in sparse, lean prose, without extraneous details or fancy language. This strengthens the stories individually, but can make them run together -- I noticed, most of the way through, that all of the stories took place nowhere; there are no place names here, of any kind. There's little to place these stories in time, either -- a few are apparently in the modern day, but many of the others cold be set in a medieval European village, or a mud hut in prehistoric Africa, or some random secondary world. Again, that is generally a strength in any particular story, but, after ten stories in a row, it becomes something less, a lack where a background might be. (There is one story clearly set in Purgatory...without ever using that word.) The one thing that did place this collection in time and space to me is that many of the characters speak in a rough, grating dialect, with particular grammatical errors and word choices. It's not a speech pattern I'm familiar with, though I can guess with some confidence that it's Australian (and with less confidence that it's lower class), and it fell unpleasantly on my ears. I felt as if all of the people speaking that way were uncouth louts who I wanted to get as far away from as quickly as possible -- perhaps that was Lanagan's intention, but I'm not sure.

Another YA characteristic is that these are mostly stories of becoming -- not just stories about young people, but about young people transforming or transformed, learning something about the world and themselves, finding new places and new people to be. (On the other hand, these aren't precisely stories with happy endings, so you may need to adjust your ideas of what I just said.)

Each of the stories in Red Spikes is a fine, well-crafted thing, but they're all well-crafted in the same way, like knives in a drawer. I'd recommend anyone thinking of reading this to ration it to one story a day; that way, they'll each come individually and clearly. They're not as strong in a phalanx.

(I haven't yet read Lanagan's first two collections, Black Juice and White Time, so I can't compare Red Spikes to them. I have been wanting to read them for several years now, and they're still staring at me from the shelf. I still do want to read them, but not too quickly; reading a bunch of Lanagan quickly is obviously not an optimal strategy for me.)

No comments:

Post a Comment