The Fourth River

Book Review: Before and Afterlives, by Christopher Barzak

By on March 19, 2014

Barzak

Lethe Press, March 2013, 225 pages, $15

Review by Kelly Lynn Thomas

After reading Christopher Barzak’s short story collection, Before and Afterlives, you might find yourself looking for mermaids among the bikini-clad women swimming at the beach, or for a ghost lingering around your kitchen at night. You might even start wondering if the suspiciously friendly newcomer to town isn’t an alien. Barzak’s tales of fantastic happenings set among the mundane trappings of everyday life are that believable.

Out in March 2013 from Lethe Press, the seventeen short stories in this collection range in length from a few pages to two that are just over twenty for a total of 225 pages. But even though this is a relatively short book, it’s not a quick read. These stories demand attention. They aren’t dense or impenetrable, but they are rich and complex, and you’ll want to spend some time with each one. I rarely read more than one story at a time, so that I had time to digest it, to fully appreciate the way Barzak weaves fantastic elements into post-industrial cities and rural towns whose school boards fire teachers for not teaching creationism alongside evolution and think it’s legal.

“Place” in fantasy is often something that can be manipulated, controlled, or escaped. In this collection, though, it is solid, unchanging, and for many characters, inescapable. It plays a starring role in almost every story in the collection, and that focus on setting helps ground the collection and make some of the more fantastic elements seem natural—or, when Barzak wants, unnatural and bizarre in contrast. This ability to both ground me in a place and then completely unnerve me kept me delighted and turning pages.

One of the best examples of how Barzak uses place comes in the Nebula Award finalist story, “Map of Seventeen,” wherein a teen girl discovers her older brother’s boyfriend is a merman. That’s not what the story is really about, though. It’s about family, and how place defines us, and how growing up is hard whether you’re human or something else. Toward the end of the story, the main character, Meg, muses,

If I had a map of seventeen, of the years I’ve lived so far, it would be small and plain, outlining the contours of my town with a few landmarks on it like Marrow’s Ravine and the town square, the schools, the pond, our fields and the barn and the home we live in. It would be on crisp, fresh paper, because I haven’t traveled very far, and stuck to the routes I know best. … What else is out there, beyond this edge of the world I live on? Who else is out there? Are there real reasons to be as afraid of the world as I’ve been? (115).

This passage not only tells us a lot about the town and Meg’s home, but a lot about Meg herself and how she relates to those things. She rails against the town for not liking gay people, but she herself sticks to the paths she knows. The map metaphor is not a new one, but using it to describe an age adds a fresh twist.
Meanwhile, the merman boyfriend serves as a stand-in for the parts of us other people can’t or won’t accept, and the parts of us we don’t want others to see. Barzak further links those hidden parts of us to place, as the merman can only show his true form in the same rural Ohio town that frustrates and angers Meg because of its narrow mindedness—although he can’t show it to any of the townspeople, only in private. Meg and the merman are both trapped, for different reasons.

“What We Know About the Lost Families of — House” treats place differently. The townspeople tell the story collectively in the first-person plural, the “we” voice. It brings to mind William Faulkner’s 1930 short story “A Rose for Emily” with its similar point of view and house-of-secrets as focal point. The main character’s name is even Rose, perhaps in homage.

The ghosts of all the people who’ve died within its walls and on its grounds haunt the house, whose original family name has been forgotten. Vivid, characterizing details bring the house to life and make the story stand out as an example of how a place can become a character. Rose hears the house speaking to her, and constantly has to clean up buttons that appear out of nowhere. After a visit to her daughter, her mother describes an encounter to the townspeople: “I said to Rose, ‘Rose! What’s the matter with you? Why are all these buttons lying about?’ and she says to me, ‘Mother, I try, but they just keep coming’” (12).

This specificity of place appears again and again throughout the book. Without the button quirk, the house threatens to become a simple evil villain, swallowing the maiden. But we know the house is trying, too.

Place and our connections to it aren’t the only things that keep the collection moving. Ambiguity and dark twists abound, as in “Dead Letters,” a story that can be read multiple ways. On the surface, it’s about the imaginary friend of a murdered artist sending letters to the artist’s home. But who is this person, really? Is she a crazy homeless woman who read the young artist’s obituary and made up a story in her head? Was she ever imaginary? Or was she somehow put into the body of a homeless woman, an imaginary friend made real by the friend’s murder?

The first letter Alice Likely writes to her friend Sarah says, “For a long time I thought I was dead too. Then one day someone called my name … and I opened my eyes in a dark place, like a fairy tale princess trapped in a coffin. Light appeared suddenly, a flash so sharp and blinding, it pricked my eyes and made them water” (119). This passage could be read as a birth, or a rebirth. In a collection like this, with so many fantastic tales, it would almost be impossible to believe anything but the most fantastic explanation. But Barzak doesn’t let us off that easy. The woman wakes up with Sarah’s obituary in the newspaper spread across her chest—it’s awfully convenient for her to just happen to wake up and be draped in her former best friend’s obituary. It’s up to the reader to decide what to believe—something I love in a story.

Overall, this is a strong collection. No stories stood out as weak or not up to snuff. But then, Before and Afterlives is Barzak’s fourth book and second collection of short fiction, so he’s had plenty of practice. He’s also won numerous awards, including a Crawford Award for his first novel and a James Triptee Jr. Award for his second. His second novel and several of his stories have also been finalists for Nebula Awards, a series of awards given annually by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for the previous year’s best science fiction and fantasy. What I find hard to believe is that he’s never won one.

Anyone who likes dark fantasy with a bit of a bite to it will enjoy this book. And although this isn’t marketed as a young adult title, I believe teens would enjoy it as well—many of the stories have teen main characters, and deal with struggles like dating (hard to do when you’ve got barbs sticking out of your skin, like the titular character from “The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire”) and figuring out what to do with your life after high school.

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Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews. Her creative work has appeared in metazen, Punchnel’s, Psychopomp, and others, and she received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. She is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press. Read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com.

Christopher Barzak
graduated from Chatham University with his MFA in Summer of 2010. He is an assistant professor of fiction writing at Youngstown State University, and teaches in the Northeast Ohio MFA program. He is the author of a novel, One for Sorrow (Bantam Books) and a novel-in-stories, The Love We Share Without Knowing (Bantam Books). Chris has also co-edited the second volume of an anthology of fiction called Interfictions (Interstitial Arts Foundation), and has served as translator on Kant: For Eternal Peace (Sogosha Books), a book about Immanuel Kant’s peace theories for Japanese teens. He is author of two collections of short stories—Birds and Birthdays, and Before and Afterlives—and his first novel has been made into a feature film under the title, Jamie Marks is Dead, starring the actress Liv Tyler. More can be found at: http://christopherbarzak.com/