Occasionally, we get the opportunity to share our thoughts on the outside work of our past contributors, as well as other projects that we think would interest readers of A cappella Zoo. To send something for possible review, especially new work relevant to magic realism and slipstream, email us at editorATacappellazoo.com.
Stories by Adam McOmber. BOA Editions, 2011.
This New & Poisonous Air is a collection of ten short stories promising a blend of “historical fiction with fantasy and the macabre.” McOmber’s approach to the fantastic can be compared to Karen Joy Fowler’s short work, though McOmber’s stories are more narrative-heavy and historically anchored. The back-cover blurb rightfully credits the influences of Poe and Angela Carter. Readers of both A cappella Zoo and classic literature will be moved and haunted by the magic realism of these stories. Their realism is in the believable, familiar settings and characters; their magic is in the subtle presence of other realms, piquing an eerie sixth sense in the reader.
The collection opens with “The Automatic Garden,” which was originally published in the innovative and fairly prestigious journal Conjunctions. This story’s water-powered automatons brought Philip Pullman’s Clockwork to mind, but the layered characterization and the surreal vividness of the garden’s mechanical creatures took on a unique life of their own. This story, like many in the collection, seems to divert the protagonist from an emotional resolution, but the end is gut-wrenchingly honest and thus paradoxically fulfilling.
My current favorite from the collection is “Fall, Orpheum.” The story’s structure is tight, balancing a devastating event experienced by a group of contemporary youth with the half-secret life history of their favorite theater’s old ticket seller. McOmber has a delightful ability to entertain while delaying what a story is really about until its end. In this case, the way even the title came together had a surprising effect and still gives a satisfying chill.
The story “A Memory of His Rising” is especially representative of the author’s skill at integrating multiple significant elements into a full, developed work of fabulism. To call this simply “a tale of a young academic whose gay lover learns to fly” would neuter the story of its deepest intrigue and its broad appeal to both mainstream and slipstream audiences. In each story, the characters’ relationships are complex and human, and the elements of the unreal—though subtle—are organic and thoroughly realized.
Salman Rushdie, in a conversation on magic realism with Charlie Rose, said, “This kind of highly fantasticated, fabulated storytelling can actually end up telling you as much truth as a photograph or a news report.” Such is true in McOmber’s storytelling: his characters’ emotions and relationships are most deeply explored as they are interwoven with the mysterious realms that disturb and tempt them. Here is a preview (from “A Man of History”) of one of the many rich images which carry the reader seamlessly through these explorations:
My mother used to wear such a face when kneading bread dough . . . working her fingers and eventually allowing her body to sway, all the while looking off as if she were watching something invisible and far off. (79)The narrator persistently asked what his mother saw, and the eventual answer opened a quiet surreality that connected them to one another— and me to them — in a tender, magical way that I won’t soon forget.
A journey through this collection feels like an afternoon peering over the dustiest shelves of a museum of curiosities. I felt studious, peculiar, and intrigued. But this is not light reading. At first, I missed a beat here or there when I wasn’t careful enough. Once I had acclimated myself to the dense language though, it read as poetic and smart and I became engrossed. This collection is certainly an achievement.
— Colin Meldrum, editor, A CAPPELLA ZOO
© 2011 A CAPPELLA ZOO and respective reviewers