Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Joanna Russ: 1965 Stories (more or less): "Come Closer", ''Life in a Furniture Store", "Wilderness Year" and "I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket...But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!": Short Story Wednesday

These first three stories included in Russ's 1998 volume (and the last collection of her fiction to be offered during her lifetime) The Hidden Side of the Moon (St. Martin's Press). There was some critical consensus that this volume was "disappointing" after two, The Zanzibar Cat and (Extra)Ordinary People, which concentrated almost exclusively on her fantastic-fiction writing, but I'd disagree, given the general excellence of the work collected here (much of it more "challenging" than the earlier collections' contents); this volume does give a rather more wide-ranging account of her writing career, as well. 

A (slightly-off-center) photo of the US trade paperback edition (which is the version I own).

"I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket...But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!", The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1964, edited by Avram Davidson; in the French edition, Fiction, May 1965, edited by Alain Dorémieux, as "La jeune fille en noir" (hence, the latter first appearance a weak excuse for inclusion here thus). Can be read here.

"Come Closer", Magazine of Horror, August 1965, edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes. Can be read here.

"Life in a Furniture Store", Epoch, Fall 1965, edited by Baxter Hutchison, A. R. Ammons, et al.; Managing Editor Barbara Hutchison. Can be read here.

...and a somewhat jokey, notional vignette, published as "Wilderness Year" (as Russ is quoted in the headnote as not being able to settle on a title), F&SF, December 1964, edited by Edward Ferman (though credited to his father, publisher Joseph Ferman) and never reprinted (hence a slightly less weak excuse for inclusion). Can be read here.

Joanna Russ was still a relatively new professional writer as well as academic in 1964, having published her poetry for the first time with Epoch in 1955 (and, apparently, with Red Clay Reader, another notable "little" magazine, in 1954--though that could be a typo in the bibliography linked to at the foot of this post, as RCR at least began a new series in 1964), after some work in the campus publication The Cornell Writer, and her first general newsstand-circulation publication in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1962. But her stories in 1965 were already indicative of her moving in the directions that would make her later work so influential, as well as demonstrating her wit and willingness to examine old tropes already well-developed. 

"I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket...But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!" from the August 1964 issue of F&SF (an issue I have discussed on this blog before!), even by its title, a lift from H. P. Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model", puts it, in a way, in the tradition of those writers who liked to play in the Mythos created by Lovecraft and extended by many of his writer friends while he was alive, and by their heirs afterward, but in a more (but not completely) satirical mode than most of those stories by other hands, positing an awkward youngish office worker (and Lovecraft superfan) who falls under the thrall of a seemingly other-worldly woman, while earnestly and cluelessly trying to woo her, with requested advice from one of his friendlier office-mates, one of the few women he knows well enough to ask for advice. Thus does the narrator do her best to help her colleague figure out a game-plan that might not alienate the woman, while noting from the beginning something seemingly Different about his newfound crush. Things do not go so well for him. (Russ will touch on Lovecraftian flavors again with "My Boat", one of her best 1970s stories.)

"Come Closer" is, in a sense, an even more sinister variation, deftly and offhandedly retold by an adult woman protagonist, on the Grimm-collected "Hansel and Gretel" and similar stories...she is one of the neighborhood volunteers looking for a lost child one northern-climes winter's day, who finds an oddly blooming garden of fruit trees and the like around a somewhat isolated house in the forest, and an even odder set of occupants within. Both these stories stand up as effective horror fiction, neither too pastiche-laden nor walking away from the inherent strangeness of their inspirations, while Russ is working at taking new approaches (and feeling her way to some of her eventually central gender-related concerns) in how to tell an unnerving tale.

"Life in a Furniture Store" is more allusive, and considerably more stylized; it flirts with at least the metaphors of horror and supernatural fiction while being at heart a contemporary-mimetic story, from the point of view of extremely alienated woman, who has never found a comfortable role in the world, and this is demonstrated by her accounts of how she loses her long-term adult job (deftly drawn) and her marriage ends (less detailed, but convincing). Much of this is reflected in how Russ has her narrate the story, with suggestions that her protagonist will tell a fairly straightforward account of her continuing estrangement from society and happiness, but she doesn't, quite...the closest she comes is in recounting an evening while she's not quite sure she wishes to accept the small but earnest romantic advances of one of her friends, clearly a lesbian who desires her but also doesn't want to further alienate her. Or, at least, our protagonist seems to see her this way, while eventually describing herself as a sort of ghost in her world...somewhat akin to something like the film Compulsion, with far less melodrama. The "Contributors" editorial in the Epoch issue notes that Russ's "kind of experimental fiction deserves close scrutiny." As with most of Russ's work, it's graceful and witty...though perhaps even some of her adult-life coping with physical pain is reflected in a few passages, something which would literally and figurative cramp her ability to do her best work, particularly in her last years.

"Wilderness Year" is a nice, straightforward anecdote, in comparison, with an amusing if not fully convincing twist ending that works in its joking context, as well as provides a kind of mild conceptual expansion. 

(indices and photos below include my original work--the Epoch issue--and tweaking/poaching of pre-existing indices and images from the FictionMags Index and ISFDB--both of which I've contributed indices and image to).

Epoch:  A Magazine of Contemporary Literature Fall 1965, Vol. XV, No. 1; 96 pp plus covers, tall digest (approx. 1/2 inch taller than the "Dell Magazines" today)

edited by Baxter Hathaway, Walter Slatoff, James McConkey, Don W. Kleine, Steven Katz, A. R. Ammons, Edgar Rosenberg and Geoffrey Hartman; Managing Editor: Barbara Hutchison; Assistant Editors: Walter F. Alexander, Geof Hewitt, Edwin Howard, Mary N. Gonzales, M. Jay Pearce and Stuart Peterfreund. Published in October, January and April by Cornell University. One Dollar a Copy, Three Dollars a Volume. 

2 * Contributors * uncredited * ed/notes
3 * Lunch in the Cafeteria Room * David Ray* pm
8 * Euthanasia * Edward Hower * nv
36 * The Room * Wendell Berry * pm
37 * Stanzas to My Father * Harold Schimmel * pm
37 * New York City, 1939 * Harold Schimmel * pm
38 * Havdala * Harold Schimmel * pm
39 * Still Life I; Still Life II * Harold Schimmel * pm/gp
40 * Looking at the Morning Light * Harold Schimmel * pm
40 * Landscape * Gloria MacArthur * pm
41 * Friday Afternoon * Frazer MacLean * ss
59 * The Scaffoldings I Wear * George Hitchcock * pm
60 * Portrait While Sinking * George Hitchcock * pm
61 * Theft * Jack Anthem * ss
71 * Life in a Furniture Store * Joanna Russ * ss
83 * The Marvelous Dog * Peter Wild * pm
84 * Waiting for You in San Francisco * Peter Wild * pm
84 * The Tawny Fox * Peter Wild * pm
86 * A Question of Clouds * Theodore Holmes * pm
87 * Chichén Itzá * Robert Abell * pm
88 * Evening * Alfred Starr Hamilton * pm
89 * Notes, Reviews, Speculations: "To Hold Both History and Wilderness in Mind": The Poetry of Gary Snyder * Richard Howard * es

Joanna Russ on Sweet Freedom

Bibliography of Russ's work by Ethan Robinson

Demand My Writing, a study by Jeanne Cortiel

Gary Farber, a friend of Russ's in her later years, was moved to comment on Facebook about this post:

I was Joanna's houseboy for a week, after one of her many back surgeries left her unable to get out of bed for that week.
She also usually came to our monthly Vanguard parties, as well as some other gatherings in the Seattle sf community, back in the late Seventies/early Eighties.
I have fond memories of her conversations with various of us about slash fiction, which formed the basis of several of her later essays.
Among other fond memories.
I also got to read the manuscript of WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... when my friend was copyediting it.
She also had the most severe palate of anyone I've ever met, in refusing absolutely anything with salt or spice or many other ingredients to the faintest degree, even unto cake ingredients. 🙂
Brilliant writer and essayist and thinker.

for more of today's SSW reviews & more, please see Patti Abbott's blog


TracyK said...

Have you talked about Joanna Russ before? Her name isn't familiar to me, but then there are a lot of fantasy and science fiction authors I don't know much about. I love the cover of THE HIDDEN SIDE OF THE MOON.

George said...

I know some SF fans were hostile to Joanna Russ. I liked her early work and haven't read her later work.

Todd Mason said...

Tracy--thanks for pointing out that I've not put a link in for all the Joanna Russ content on the blog, an oversight; I've written a fair amount about her work, and some other posts include simply a citation or so in the course of describing other contents of a magazine issue or anthology. She came closest to making a lot of money from her work with the (fairly brilliant) novel THE FEMALE MAN, which was one of two 1970s Bantam sf paperback originals to really take off in sales as well as critical acclaim (the other being her friend Samuel Delaney's DHALGREN, if anything a more difficult text to parse, and a very long novel), from a line Frederik Pohl edited after leaving GALAXY and IF magazines and a brief term editing at the newly-purchased Ace Books around the turn of the '70s. She traded characters with her other friend Fritz Leiber for one story each, featuring her character Alyx and his Fafhrd, both a sort of stand-in for themselves in the series of sophisticated adventure-fantasies they wrote...and like Leiber, some of her earliest work in fantastica, as well as some or her best and her last, was horror fiction, though she wrote other sorts of fiction as well, including sf, fantasy and contemporary mimetic, among much else.

Todd Mason said...

George--some fans are hostile to just about anyone and anything, and Russ was no retiring character when it came to making her opinions known. Even relatively (for her) late fiction such as "My Boat" is charming fun, while other stories dig a bit harder into the human condition, including, rather obviously, her rejection of the Women Will Do Their Repopulation Duty fiction, all too common in sf at the time and if anything even more so in the previous decades, WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO...; parts of this and some of her other best fiction appeared in GALAXY as edited by James Baen in the '70s, who would go on to publish both Russ and no few of the Women's Duty writers in his editing at Ace Books and Baen Books in years to come...

Gary Farber said...

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... was written specifically as a reply to Marion Zimmer Bradley's DARKOVER LANDFALL which endorsed rape as necessary for the unintended colony stemming from a spaceship crash to generate a widespread enough gene-pool.

Todd Mason said...

And a strange postulate for even a Very Grumpy woman writer to put forward; such precedents as Randall Garrett's "Queen Bee" (where one hoped this was simply an expression of Garrett's questionable sense of humor) also Didn't Help.