Yes, I do sometimes review books before they’re released.
Review: Velocities: Stories, Kathe Koja, 2020.
The stories in Kathe Koja’s second collection move from “At Home” to “Downtown” to “On the Way” to “Over There”, and, finally, “Inside”. Where many of them don’t end up at is in the land of complete and satisfying endings. Instead, they get stranded in the “Is that it?” place.
By no means are all the stories fantastic, but “Velocity” is, or, at least, it’s origin in Ellen Datlow’s The Dark: New Ghost Stories would hint it is. But it’s unclear if the “artist” is really haunted by the ghost of his dead father, a famous architect, or just memories of his father. Likewise, it’s not clear if the father’s Red House, where the artist lives, is really haunted. Koja’s stories are full of artists and would-be artists, sometimes producing “art” of very questionable value. Here the art is all the bicycles crashed into trees by the artist, a recreation of the fatal accident (or suicide) of his father. There is frequently an ambiguity, intended or not, about artists in Koja’s work. Is the obsessive, even self-destructive, pursuit of artistic creation (here the stupidity of riding bikes into trees) to be applauded, mitigated by moderation, or foolish – especially when it involves crashing into trees?
The collection’s sole foray into science fiction is “Urb Civ”, a rather standard issue future dystopia of rich and isolated elites and artistic dissidents. Here the latter work on disabling government surveillance drones. The only thing of interest here is how a government agent’s attempt to infiltrate such a group works out. It has, at least, a conclusive ending.
The same cannot be said of the vignette “Fireflies” which, despite its initial appearance in Asimov’s Science Fiction, is neither science fiction nor fantastic despite its protagonist being a cosmologist dying of cancer and discussing her last paper on “vacuum energy” with her former lover, a botanist. Vacuum energy will ensure the universe keeps expanding. The two are ex-lovers, and there is some vague and trite metaphor of how, in her dying, she is becoming more diffuse like the fireflies, her presence expanding outward like the universe.
The other two stories in the “On the Way” section are also weak.
The heroine of “Coyote Pass” has stayed in the small town her mother died in to take care of the estate, and she decides to treat herself to the dog she always wanted and forbidden by her father. But the pup she gets, under rather confused circumstances from a breeder, disappears after the first night. She may or may not find the puppy again and, if she does, we don’t know the why of it symbolically or literally.
“Road Trip” has a woman resentfully taking a therapeutic journey at the request of her lover. We gradually learn about her addictions and their consequences as she heads to BLI. It may a church. It may be a counseling service. What it definitely has is a charismatic woman who seems to really help people heal. But we don’t find out if our heroine wants to be healed. We generally like writers to answer “yay” or “nay” when they pose such questions, but Koja abstains.
While those are incomplete stories, other works are whole in structure if sometimes banal in theme and plot.
“At Eventide”, the first story in the collection, also made me sigh and mutter “Is that it?” on finishing it. But, in thinking about it, this one works. It has another of Koja’s artists, Alison. While her art seems rather trite – boxes composed of totems, “mosaics” of people’s souls and fate, they actually provide the people they are made for with help – either healing or the prodding of a metaphorical knife. The story starts out with an infirm yet still threatening man seeking Alison out for such a box. Their past together and his sociopathic views of their relationship are memorable as is the ending.
If, as Alison suggests, we have things that are totems for are lives, the “doll” in “Baby” seems an extreme example. This is a peculiar vampire story in that there is really no predation by the strange doll the protagonist finds in her grandmother’s attic. It becomes sort of protector and companion for the fatherless girl. How the woman she becomes severs her relationship with Baby is clear. It’s the why that’s the mystery. Still, it’s the kind and degree of ambiguity a weird horror story profits from.
A common feature of Koja’s early novels was failed relationships and obsessive interest in other potential or ex-lovers. Triangles are the social geometry that abounds. In “Clubs” our narrator lives with a woman he doesn’t have a lot of sex with, but he accompanies her out clubbing where she picks up men for one-night stands. She is especially interested in Martin. Interested enough that, to get his attention, she steps into the ring at Punch’N’Julies where helmeted women fight each other with padded baseball bats. I suppose we could see the narrator’s actions as mirroring his girlfriend’s at the end. Apart from the lurid appeal of the bouts, this story doesn’t have much of interest. Like we need another story about dysfunctional relationships without even a fantastic element.
Surprisingly all the stories in the exotic locales of the “Over There” section work to one degree or another even if, sometimes, their themes and plots don’t have a lot of intrinsic interest or novelty
“Toujours” first appeared in Ellen Datlow’s Blood and Other Cravings anthology, and it’s about one of those “other cravings”. Gianfranco is our narrator and assistant to the younger Carlos, a world famous fashion designer. Gianfranco discovered Carlos’ talent when he was just an artist waiting on tables and helped him financially and with contacts. That all seems threatened now when Carlos has found true love in Gitte, a woman different than the many others he bedded a few times. Will she replace Gianfranco. But is she really, as Gianfranco says, a lamia or succubus? And what about the cravings of Gianfranco? This is one of those stories that seems better upon reflection than after just reading.
“Far and Wee” is a satisfying shapeshifter story. Our narrator is a young rustic rube from the uncivilized countryside who has come to a squalid European city of the pre-industrial past. He falls in with a theatrical troupe who perform titillating stage plays. He develops fond feelings for the actress Annelise who he wants to protect from the goatish (in more ways than one) Pyotr, a musician who shows up one day. It ends with rueful irony on what constitutes the civilized behavior the young man aspires to.
“La Reine D’Enfer” is another young man living hard times in a city, a lot harder times in this case. The city is 19th century London, and the man who enthralls him, Davey, makes Fagin seem downright cuddly. Davey uses his boys in thefts, assaults, and prostitution. But the narrator has a talent that makes him a prized possession: he has the gift to recite dialogue and poetry back word for word after hearing it once. It’s a useful gift for fleecing the swells. But Edmund, a homosexual teacher who has moved to the city to become a playwright, becomes entranced by him and finds a muse and actor for his play. This being Koja, his play references Christopher Marlowe and brings dark magic with it, magic that may help him escape Davey for good.
We’re kind of in Edgar Allan Poe territory with “The Marble Lily”, and I quite liked it. Catholic imagery often shows up in Koja’s fiction, but this is the only story in the collection that has it. Specifically, we have an incorruptible body in the beautiful, young, and anonymous girl, the “Marble Lily”, in the Paris morgue. Does she represent a miracle, an inhabitant of “the borderland, always dead, yet somehow still alive”? That’s the theory of our narrator, a janitor who works at the morgue and whose keen observations are sought by the doctors there. Or so he says.
I’m rather annoyed with the final story in the collection, “Pas de Deux”. It’s one of Koja’s best stories, another rumination on the dangers – or, perhaps, valor – of obsessively pursing one’s art.
The art here is dance, and our protagonist (as is so often the case in Koja’s short stories, she’s un named) pursues diminishing, and increasingly humiliating, returns for her art. And, of course, it gets harder as she ages. The story centers around her relationship with Edward, an older lover of hers who was also a lover of two other dancers – mother and daughter, in fact. The mother, Adele, was a world-famous ballerina. She becomes an inspiration to our heroine. And maybe that’s not for the best, and maybe unrealistic ideas about marrying a “young prince” or pursuing an artistic goal increasingly out of reach isn’t either. But, however much the body decays and burns under the fury and discipline of obsession, maybe art is its own reward.
I’m annoyed this story is even in this slender anthology of only 200 pages since it was also in Koja’s only other collection, Extremities. Surely, given her number of short stories, some other story of quality could have been substituted.
Is this a good sampler of Koja?
No, I’d say. I would refer a would-be reader of hers to Koja’s early novels or even Extremities. On the other hand, despite the high ratio of stories I didn’t care for, I was glad to have another collection from her, so, if you are already an admirer of Koja, it’s worth picking up.