Collection Review: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees

I first encountered Kij Johnson’s stories as part of an anthology that, to put it bluntly, changed my life. When I first came upon Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel), I was blown away; I had never encountered such a wealth of stories that seemed so specifically catered to my own taste. Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” was one of those stories. Thus it’s a shame it took me so long to finally pick up At the Mouth of the River of Bees. But better late than never.

The collection starts with that old friend of mine, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” A bluntly told metaphor-made-real in which directionless, depressed Aimee essentially inherits a traveling show. This show features 26 monkeys who perform tricks before disappearing into a raised bathtub. Aimee does not know how they do it. The monkeys return when the show is over, often bearing souvenirs of the places they have disappeared to. Johnson excels at these types of metaphorical stories. Aimee’s relationship with the monkeys, and with the people she encounters as a result of her show, is beautiful, and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is filled with a lingering bittersweetness.

“Names for Water,” on the other hand, is a story I had not encountered before this reading, and it struck home. I relate to Johnson best when she’s in this world rather than the dreamy, folk tale world of many of her other stories, which are still great tales but do not resonate as much for me personally. In “Names for Water,” Hala is a college student who, late for class one day, receives a strange phone call. No one is on the other line. At least, no person; she becomes convinced, in a whimsical, half-hearted way, that it is a body of water calling her, and if she can name it, it will speak back to her. It’s a subtle, unassuming story about finding your life’s passion that grabs you by the throat with its conclusion.

Another of Johnson’s stories that addresses the theme of a calling is the title story, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” another highlight for me. Linna, recently stung by a bee, becomes restless; her dog is dying; she loads him into the car, and they take off on a road trip with no end destination. She is stalled, however, when she encounters a flood; the river of bees has flooded, blocking passage over the interstate on which she has been traveling. The river of bees, she discovers, is exactly what it sounds like: a river made of bees. Curious about where the river ends and begins, she decides to follow it, her dog in tow.

“Spar” is another of Johnson’s well-known metaphor stories. A woman and an alien, stranded together in a lifeboat after a spaceship wreck “fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” This is the kind of story that is difficult to describe; Johnson is playing with gender roles, with sexual roles, and with the politics of sex in general. It’s compelling as hell, and one of my personal favorites.

Also a favorite: “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” a more traditionally novella about an architect, Kit, hired to bridge the dangerous mist-river that separates the country and his outsider status within the community in which he is a temporary presence.

Buy At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. 

Highlights from Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath

News

My short story “The Damaged” is in issue 250 of Interzone. Visit the link Here to check out the other issue contents and, if you so desire, to subscribe.

Review

This week, I’m briefly highlighting two of my favorite stories from Karin Tidbeck’s collection Jagannath, an interesting collection and one that I recommend for lovers of weird short stories.

In “Aunts”, three enormous women who live in a decadent myth-y world spend their time gorging in an effort to become so large that they split down the middle; this is their sole goal in life. When the splitting occurs, the three nieces who tend to them, cooking and serving their food, scoop out their organs; inside the aunts’ bodies are always three little aunts, ready to begin the cycle anew. The nieces cook the old aunts, and feed their bodies to the new aunts, who begin their own growing cycles. Until the nieces are unable to find new aunts within the old aunts’ bodies. This story is strange, and speaks to the cycle of life in a disorienting, bizarre way.

The title story “Jagannath” is my absolutely favorite of the collection, and also deals with the cycle of birth and death. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, a many-legged creature named Jagannath shelters some of the remaining humans in exchange for their living inside of her body and manning the ship, so to speak. Presumably Jagannath is not the only creature who has offered this exchange, as other creatures exist in the world as well, but the world of the story, for the most part, takes place entirely inside Jagannath. The main character is a girl who wants to be one of the drivers of the creature but is told she cannot, for women’s bodies are too big to drive, and only men may do so. This story pulled me in from the beginning, and kept me hanging on until the bitter end.

I’d also like to recommend Tidbeck’s story “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You,” which appeared in Strange Horizons in March of 2013. I liked this story when I first read it but have to say that I have come to love it as I think about it more and more these days.

Collection Review: The Book of Apex Volume 4

Back in September, editor Lynne M. Thomas announced that after two years she will no longer be editing Apex Magazine. Thus it was a pleasure to accept a copy of The Book of Apex: Volume 4 of Apex Magazine for review, edited by Lynne M. Thomas, as it allowed me a chance to celebrate Thomas’ Apex reign by reviewing some of the best Apex had to offer in its 4th year. Most of these stories are well written and highly original. Still, some were of course more to my tastes than others. Here are the highlights:

In A.C. Wise’s “My Body, Her Canvas,” a young man gives himself, body and soul, to an artist who is determined to tattoo her nightmarish masterpiece onto him, and I mean that literally; she uses his skin to exorcise her nightmares. The man allows himself to be used, and the artist sees him as little more than a canvas and a scapegoat. A darkly beautiful story about artistic expression and obsession and, perhaps, the way we treat those who love and believe in us the most. I always appreciate stories about visual artists and art in general, so this story was especially resonant to me.
The final story in the collection, Lettie Prell’s “The Performance Artist,” also speaks of the limits and lengths of artist expression, though in a different manner than Wise’s. A well-known and controversial performance artist, Anna Pashkin Bearfoot, unveils her newest piece in stages over a month. First she simply sits while videos of interactions between people and machines are projected around her. The second day she sits beside a machine that is typically used to “transfer human consciousness into a computer.” On the fourth day, it is revealed that as part of the piece, she will use the machine to download herself, which will eliminate the need of a physical body and, to some members of the populace, is considered death. The exhibit gets progressively more controversial and interesting from there. Written in the style of an unbiased observation more similar to a report or a review than a traditional narrative, the main character in “The Performance Artist” could be said to be the art itself rather than the artist or the observers. This is a story that I don’t think will ever leave me, as I felt, reading it, as though I were observing the art installation firsthand.
I was particularly impressed by both of Mari Ness‘ stories here. I had not read her work before, but I will certainly be doing so in the future. In “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love,” a child of a raven and a murderess (the mother tries to kill her children “in the hopes of bringing the raven back,” and the youngest, our protagonist, is the only one who survives) grows up silent and gossiped about in the town where she resides. Word gets out of the mysterious, silent raven’s daughter, and men come to try and get her to speak, but this is not the whole story. The fairy tale twists and turns and digresses; the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the stories the townspeople and the people from neighboring towns tell, as well as the brief mentions of the way the townspeople interact with the remaining ravens, and the legends and customs that have grown up around them. Some excellent fairy tale world building.
Mari Ness’ second story in the collection,“Labyrinth,” is darker and stranger. People accused of crimes are sentenced to the labyrinth, where they must find their way to the center and then engage in a fight to the death with a “dancer” who plays the part of judge. If she or he is able to kill the offender, then it is agreed that the gods have found him or her guilty of their crime. Our protagonist is the dancers’ leader and one of the most talented dancers herself. She has seven sons and daughters, all of whom are expected to become dancers themselves. Finally it is time for one of her daughters to enter the arena, where they will dance together. Ness manages to reveal a lot about the world using very little space, but it is what she does not reveal that terrifies and makes the story pack a real punch.
In the surreal, fast-paced “The 24 Hour Brother” by Christopher Barzak, a young boy experiences the full life of his baby brother, who runs through his life cycle in the span of 24 hours. Although I feel I have read similar stories, this is still a devastating tale told with a bare-bones prose but worth checking out.
And then there’s the wonderful “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine, who is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. A small town is partly shaped by the silent presence of an armless maiden in their woods, who they largely ignore in the flesh but tell stories about as though she were a legend. The main character is one of the only people who has ever encountered her, when a researcher comes to town hoping to meet the maiden and interview her for a study on armless maidens. The armless maiden could call to mind for the reader any number of situations people speak around instead of directly addressing: victims of rape and mutilation, the mentally ill, or simply those who do not quite fit with the status quo. But this story also suggests that the most important thing, even more important than making metaphors of people who may not belong, is communication.