New Faculty Books Explore Inner Landscapes, Unfettered Possibilities & Past Future Gazing

By John McLain

None of This Is Real

The characters in Miranda Mellis's recent short fiction inhabit universes where the laws of time and space don't apply, but the psychological terrain they traverse is as vivid and honest as the world outside your window.

In the title story of her collection, None of This Is Real (Sidebrow Books 2012), the main character O has a dorsal fin growing out of his head, though the condition is one of his lesser troubles. More pressing is that O is at sea in a world where events and apprehensions crash over him and where he lacks any agency in his encounters with the inexplicable. He finds it supremely unjust that Homo sapiens may adapt to the climate change they have foisted on the planet, but other species will not be so lucky. Writing is a solace and an ambition, but he can’t shake the loss of a novel manuscript he burned after a trusted teacher questioned its worth and his stability. At the sight of an elephant dancing ritualistically at the zoo, O is captivated by this apparent sign of intelligent ritual beyond human grasp, a spot in creation not damaged by the greedy maws of men. The moment disintegrates when he learns that the movements are a sign of the creature’s mental illness after years of circus performances. “I’ll go on,” he says—heartsickness defying further comment.

Lucia, the narrator in Mellis’s one-volume short story, The Spokes (Solid Objects 2012), is alive and well in the afterworld, where she has gone to visit her mother Silver. In a place without time, where train stations embody live paintings by Lautrec, Picasso and Spero, Lucia follows Silver out of curiosity as much as poignancy. A high-wire walker in life and a possible suicide, Silver can’t even see Lucia at first. When she finally does, she doesn’t offer the searching daughter much. This is not new. “She never returned the calls I made to her in my sleep,” Lucia says. “She never responded to the letters I wrote her on desperate days. She had her own death to live.”

Mellis’s works offer no tidy endings. What makes her characters heroic is not whether they arrive somewhere (though in a way they do), or even whether they change (that’s not the point). It’s that they remain. They engage grief in all of its numbing ambivalence. They look unsparingly into the eyes of what is beyond understanding but not beyond knowing. They go on.

IF, Not Then

Leonard Schwartz's ImageIn a new book-length poem, IF (Talisman House 2012), Leonard Schwartz explores the question: How much uncertainty can one admit to?

These finely constructed couplets carry the reader along almost breezily. Throughout the book, beginning with the opening lines, Schwartz sows small celebrations of miraculous possibilities.

If we are ‘signs without interpretation’
In place of a prison I transplant a trillium.

“Uncertainty can be ecstatic,” Schwartz said in an interview, “because everything is possible and nothing is closed off.”

It can also bring torment, and Schwartz’s deft and supple buoyancy leaves the reader defenseless when it does. In this work, there are no finalities in any proposition—no promised effect to follow up a posited cause. And what sometimes remains is excruciating enigma.

If the unknown can only be created
Out of what is known
And the known is already created stuff
A cow fence electric with current
Please set me free from anguish as one might
A calf from a rope, a horse from a bit

IF is a companion to Schwartz’s At Element (Talisman House), a collection of poems released in 2011. His new electronic chapbook, The Production of Subjectivity: Conversations with Michael Hardt, came out in March.

Science Fiction Triple Feature

When Bill Ransom was a modestly successful (i.e., woefully underpaid) 32-year-old poet, he got an unusual offer from the science fiction giant Frank Herbert. “Can you write like me for 750 bucks?”

“I can write like anybody for 750 bucks,” Ransom said.

The resulting collaboration between these native sons of Puyallup became the celebrated Pandora Sequence, a trilogy of science fiction novels published between 1979 and 1988. The proposition carried risks for both writers. Would people see the elder Herbert, a publishing juggernaut and the creator of Dune (the mother of all science fiction universes), as running out of ideas? Would Ransom, who was just beginning to make a name for himself, get pegged for “riding on the coattails of the Great Frank Herbert”? Neither man let these speculations distract them. What mattered to both, Ransom said, was telling a good story and remaining friends. Herbert made sure that both names appeared on the cover, a practice almost unheard of in fiction at the time.

In December 2012, Wordfire Press released a new single-volume print edition of the three novels, The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect and The Ascension Factor. The book includes a serial introduction by Ransom, with the story behind each of the novels and previously unreleased details about the two men’s collaboration and friendship. In addition, the books are now available in electronic versions along with Ransom’s three solo science fiction novels: Jaguar, Viravax and Burn.