From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand, Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages

GENERATION LOSS by Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer Press, 296 pages, $24

Like Elizabeth Hand’s last novel, Mortal Love, Generation Loss explores the scary shadowland where artistic inspiration becomes indistinguishable from clinical madness. But unlike that novel, which featured a bona fide muse who assumed different incarnations over the centuries, this one largely avoids the supernatural, presenting instead an artistic vision so terrifyingly outré that it asks readers to reconsider where they draw the boundary between fantasy and reality.

Its narrator is Cass “Scary” Neary, a self-taught photographer who enjoyed brief notoriety during the punk era for pictures she took of casualties common to the blank generation. Twenty years later, Cass is a has-been whose life on the fringe is nudging her ever closer to the edge of an inescapable abyss of self-destruction. When a friend throws her a lifeline in the form of a chance to interview photographer Aphrodite Kamestos, Cass grabs it. How could she not: The allusively named Aphrodite inspired Cass to become a photographer through her book Deceptio Visus, a collection of photographs that endowed ordinary images with an otherworldly aura.

In remote Maine, Cass finds Aphrodite a surly and suspicious host who recognizes in Cass the same morbid curiosity that courses through her own art. As Cass probes deeper into Aprhodite’s art and life, she discovers something even more disquieting: just as Cass’s work is one step removed (a “generation loss”) from Aphrodite’s eerie and irreproducible vision, so is Aphrodite’s art a pale shadow of the work of another artist with an even darker vision. The last representative of a commune that flourished briefly on the far margins of the counterculture, he embraces a quasi-mystical esthetic completely open to the amorality and depraved indifference that defines the art of Cass, Aphrodite, and others working in his shadow.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this novel is that it distills its multi-layered meditations on art and imagination into a story that functions as both a solid character study and a gripping psychological thriller. Hand’s writing is as sharp and direct as a knife thrust, and her dark and disturbing story is the perfect artistic embodiment of the discomfiting themes that drive it. (ISBN: 978-1-931520-218) —Rich Horton

Tachyon Publications, 210 pages, $14.95

Portable ChildhoodsIn keeping with the title, many of the pieces in Ellen Klages’s first collection focus on children or childhood: “Flying Over Water,” in which an awkward girl at war with the approaching changes of puberty discovers freedom, and transformation, in the ocean; “Travel Agency,” in which an understanding aunt opens a doorway into fairy tale for a favorite niece; “Taste of Summer,” in which a bored child encounters the blurred line between science and magic; the overextended title novella, in which the joys and trials of motherhood are explored through a series of interconnected vignettes; the graceful “The Green Glass Sea,” in which real-life magic is produced by the deadliest of scientific experiments; “Basement Magic,” in which a conjure woman’s attempt to work spells for the benefit of the unhappy daughter of her employer has dire results. This novella is the collection’s standout–as in many of the stories, the late-1950’s setting is portrayed in convincing detail, and the unexpected ending has the impact of a slamming door. Though uniformly well-written, too many of the other stories tend to sentiment–as in “Guys Day Out,” in which a father experiences the life and death of his Down Syndrome son–or predictability–“Time Gypsies,” a time travel tale with great setting and atmosphere, but an ending you can see coming a mile away, and “In the House of the Seven Librarians,” an account of a foundling girl and a magical library that despite a unique premise and characters feels as if it might have been borrowed from any one of a dozen well-known children’s fantasy writers. Of the several humorous pieces, some work–“Clip Art,” an amusing faux-documentary-style “biography” of a famous paper clip collector; “Ringing Up Baby,” in which one from Column A and two from Column B turns out to be a poor approach to procreation–and some don’t–“Intelligent Design,” a smugly whimsical fable about creation, and “Be Prepared,” a silly food joke. An uneven collection that showcases the author’s strengths, but also her limitations. (ISBN 978-1-892391-45-2) —Victoria Strauss

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