Slipstream is a hard genre, or even style for those who would rather not claim it a genre, to define and pin down. The stories in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology are no different, and are hard to categorize. It's even difficult to find one major theme in all of these stories that connects them, but most of them do have a literary slant. There are fantastical elements present as well, so I decided to take a brief look at three of the stories in this anthology to glance at the use of both literary and fantastical elements.
"The Little Magic Shop" is a short about James, a man who uses youth potions he buys from a magic shop to stay young, only aging a year or two every decade. The cost every time he buys a potion, which lasts him ten years, is everything he owns. As James stays young, the shop changes and the shop owner, O'Berrone, grows older. The genre element in this story is obvious--the potion that sustains James' youth is the magic dash of the tale. This is the only fantastical thing, as the shop changes, and James' new attitudes are very realistic. James acts as a stereotypical person from each decade when he visits the shop. The literary implication doesn't really come until the end, in my opinion. On his deathbed, O'Berrone sells the last of his youth potion stock to James. Throughout the story, he insists rules must be followed, so he can't drink any of the potion himself nor leave the shop. James drags O'Berrone out unwillingly and has him drink the youth potion, thwarting the rules. And in essence, that's what the underlying message of this story is--tossing the rules out of the window. If James can drink the potion in moderation, to make sure he has an exceptionally long life, he avoids the rule of "with life there must come death". He ignores the rules of the universe, and if James can do that, why can't the shopkeeper ignore the rules of magic? In essence, it's also a comment on the fantasy genre itself, posing the question of why exactly certain rules have to be followed. "O'Berrone stared at it, licking his dry lips. 'But I can't...I'm simply not allowed to do this sort of thing. I own that magic shop, I tell you.' James shook his head and laughed" (26).
An alien creature similar to a panther follows Paul's brother, Light, around in "Light and the Sufferer". Light is a crack addict, and the Sufferer latches itself to him, following him around. Paul thinks and hopes that it's Light's guardian angel, to help him kick the addiction, to let him know he's meant for greater things. In the end, though, the Sufferer is off cavorting with one of its own kind when Light dies--the fatal gunshot from a gun that they had many chances to discard. Again, there's really one element of fantasy in this story, and that's the Sufferer. It's introduced as a commonplace thing, though, something integrated with this world. As far as the literary aspect goes, I think the Sufferer is a physical manifestation of hope that everything is going to be all right, even if things are dismal. The Sufferer turned out more to be an angel of death instead of a guardian angel. Also, Light had the "monkey on his back" with his addiction, and the Sufferer could also represent that. Partway through the story, Paul notices, "Now that I see it up close, it really didn't look so much like a cat. The face was really more human, like the sphinx with a toothless octopus mouth" (69). Or perhaps, not more human, but more simian? That literal monkey on the back.
"The God of Dark Laughter" starts out like a murder mystery. A clown is shot, and his face peeled off of him. Ed Satterlee is the district attorney for the county, so he's stuck investigating. His search uncovers information on the ancient worshipers of the god called Yrrh. Two factions, one who worships the God of Dark Laughter, and the other who worships the God Who Mourns, are bitter enemies. The clown is of the first faction, and his killer of the second. The believers of the God Who Mourns think the father-god Yrrh will only return when all of the followers of the God of Dark Laughter are dead. Satterlee is a man who denies most religions; reality and facts are his beliefs, after seeing what blind following did to his mother. The murder case is never actually solved, but the story ends with Satterlee resigning, since the case shook his core beliefs. He thought the cults fantasy, but then the coroner tells him, "He suffered from some kind of vitiligo. There are white patches on his nape and throat" (226). The clown that didn't actually need the white face paint to be a clown. It's hard to say there is any blatant fantastical element in this story, as it is really subtle. The dead clown, in essence, is the speculative touch, as well as the murderer who smells salty like the ocean and soaks his pillow with tears. They are non-human, a sub-culture that lends itself to a speculative nature. The literary device attempts to compare reality to religion. People blindly follow religion without proof. Satterlee blindly follows reality, believing it's the truth because of proof. At the end, he sees that reality is as tenuous as any religion, that what we see isn't necessarily proof of anything. "Each of us blind to or heedless of the readiest explanation: that the world is an ungettable joke, and our human need to explain its wonders and horrors, our appalling genius for devising such explanations, is nothing more than the rim shot that accompanies the punch line" (226).
These are only three of the fifteen stories in Feeling Very Strange, and every one can be studied and picked apart in its own right. Most times, the genre elements are subtle, the literary elements taking precedence. These stories are only some examples of slipstream, which I really do think is more of a style than a genre on its own. And its an acquired taste--not everyone will enjoy such stories.
Kelly, James Patrick and John Kessel, ed. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006.
NEXT UP: Slipstream.