Filler content with magnificent insignificants

A feature on the work of Anna Tambour that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-


Anna Tambour is a writer who is not widely known, even in genre circles. She’s had critical acclaim, but not the audiences her standing would seem to merit, a situation with which Tambour herself seems rather bemused; the blurb on the cover of her novel Smoke Paper Mirrors reads “from the totally not bestselling author of Crandolin shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award”.

She is, in many ways, a “difficult” writer. Yes, her stories have recognisable plot trajectories, getting the reader from A to B with aplomb, but along the way she sometimes takes detours off to Y and Z, Alpha and Omega, and other letters that are not found in any of our earthly languages. Tambour seems to abhor the straight line; the more circuitous her route the happier she appears to be, with learned asides and educated guesses par for the course, the author’s wit and erudition and love of language shining through on every page, her personal obsessions and politics underlying each tale. And, to use a cliché that I’m fonder of than most reviewers, she is a writer whose work rewards a second, third, even a fourth reading. There are stories here that I’ve reviewed before and not entirely favourably, but coming to these stories in their natural context of the Tambourian universe rather than as part of a book about zombies or a Robert W. Chambers themed anthology is to see them with new eyes and to appreciate them more.

I think what impresses me most about Anna Tambour though is the exuberance to be found in her work, the warmth and compassion filtered through a use of prose pyrotechnics that takes your breath away.

And so we come to THE FINEST ASS IN THE UNIVERSE (Ticonderoga Publications hc/pb, 372pp, £23.99/£14.99), a collection containing twenty six stories, five of them previously unpublished, with the earliest dating from 2005. After an introduction from Jeffrey Ford, we get straight into things with ‘The Oyster and Alice O’, and from the off it’s obvious that Tambour is a writer who doesn’t conform to reader expectations, or more succinctly this is strange shit even by the standards of the weird fiction genre. In part it reminds me of the work of Lewis Carroll and the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear; there is the same playfulness in the language used, a subtle and assured lyricism that renders irrelevant such things as plausibility in the tale of a relationship between an oyster and a woman, along the way taking in matters to do with misogyny and the ways in which people use each other. It is the perfect introduction to what follows, setting a tone of the fantastic, but almost whimsical in its execution, even as serious matters are addressed.

The exuberant ‘Lab Dancer’ gives us a Swiftian account of the shits that in turn leads to a career in medical science, with the codicil that even a Nobel Prize can’t stop women being demeaned and belittled by men. There’s joy here though, a delight in discovery and ultimately the refusal to accept the judgements and negativity of others, an embracing of one’s shortcomings, a finger raised to the world. In ‘Strange Incidents in Foreign Parts’ we get even stranger, with two boys in different countries who are denied the pleasures of Halloween connected by reincarnation and an eggplant. There’s a whiff of the Bradbury of Something Wicked about this story, with a condemnation of the literal minded and joyless wrapped up in a sugar coating of words. Next story ‘Marks and Coconuts’ takes as its departure point a variation on the Python’s Dead Parrot sketch but then segues into a deal with the Devil formulation, and from there whizzes off in all directions, with the reader delighted, bemused, and baffled by Tambour’s ceaseless invention.

In ‘The Walking-stick Forest’ Farquar, an artist who supplies unique canes to collectors, offends a wealthy man who is intent on revenge. This synopsis makes the story sound almost mundane, but Tambour’s execution is anything but as she delivers an astonishing tale of greed and misogyny and depravity, with a villain worthy of de Sade and a unique setting. Central to ‘The Jeweller of Second-hand Roe’ is an account of eating disorder pica taken to extremes, but in setting and style it reads somewhat as if the Thenardiers had gone into business with Mrs Lovett, and overall is strangely moving, presenting us with the grotesque given a human face. In ‘High Life’ an elderly couple discover that you can never go back again, but you can go forward. It is a marvellous story of good intentions and calculating children, of charity misplaced and wonder found in the ordinary, told in a cosy, affable tone of voice but tinged with sadness, and I defy anyone to read it and not want to dine at Tang’s restaurant.

‘Baad-hin’jan and the Chickpea’ concerns a power struggle at the court of the Caliph, the story rich with accounts of exotic foodstuffs and unbridled gluttony, while underlying this there is a subtext on betrayal and the all-consuming nature of tyranny. In ‘The Eye of Nostradamus Summit’ we are witness to a “United Notions” of deities from the various pantheons, joining forces to prevent the proliferation of a tincture that will render them irrelevant. Again this is an exuberant story, full of wit and bursting at the seams with invention, mocking both the idea of deities and the ways in which humans can trivialise and commercialise the miraculous. A similar “irreverence” to the divine informs ‘The Old Testacles’ in which Moses’ conversation with God is hijacked by a female deity, and lurking behind the barbed humour serious matters are being discussed about the role of patriarchy and the ways in which Mother goddesses have been eclipsed.

The protagonist of ‘Rocket Fantazyor’, whose life is shaped by the influence of dead women and an addiction to SF pulps, must choose between designing bras and a career as a rocket scientist. There’s humour here and a hint of horror, but mostly the story is a glorious affirmation of the life force. ‘Sincerely, Petrified’ proposes a novel cure for the blight of tourists stealing wood from a petrified forest, the story rich in characterisation and turning conventions of the horror genre on their head. At the end though it poses the question of whether the ends really do justify the means, and Tambour adds a real life codicil that puts events in shameful perspective. One of the most inventive stories in a collection where invention is a distinguishing characteristic, ‘The Dog Who Wished He’d Never Heard of Lovecraft’ has sections written as a play and movie script, with end credits, and reveals a great truth, that even tentacled thingies don’t care much for people who are hung up on HPL and write dreadful poetry as a result. It’s a wonderful piece, brimming with ideas and attitude, written in a lush, take no prisoners prose style.

‘Bufo of Oahu: Ukulele Ululatress’ contains what must be the most bizarre film pitch in the history of Hollywood, with a first person narration that gleefully pokes fun at the underbelly of tinsel town by reducing it to absurdity. In ‘How Galligaskins Sloughed the Scourge’ a man who argues for a profession becomes a victim of fashion when he moves to a new town, the story deftly ridiculing our love of the new and shallowness in wishing to conform to the expectations of others. A wizard is reduced to human dimensions by a boy and a cat in ‘There is no Rice Pudding in the Sea’, the story couched in fantastic terms but at its heart a eulogy for things lost and a lament at the depredations of old age seguing into senility.

There’s a surreal quality to ‘Dreadnought Neptune’, as if David Lynch had made a film of Bradbury story ‘Rocket Summer’, with a father and son boarding a rocket ship to be taken to somewhere better, only to have their hopes quashed. Everything here is slightly out of kilter, an episode of the fantastic inserted into ordinary life and standing out like the proverbial sore thumb, with the proviso that life goes on and we can only regret the opportunities denied to us, the roads not taken, while at the same time forging our own path to that better place. ‘The Shoe in SHOES’ Window’ is most definitely not for sale, but a man with only one leg wishes to purchase it. Witty and irreverent, written in an admirably restrained, almost bureaucratise tone, this story disses the dirt on both consumerism and socialism taken to extremes, with an end twist that embraces human gullibility. In ‘The Emperor’s Backscratcher’ the Chief Philosopher announces that history has ended, much to the emperor’s delight, but ensuing events give his pronouncement a chillingly different meaning. This was a delightful tale, weaving bloodshed and philosophy together, and using human nature’s shortcomings to drive the plot forward to its “exalted” ending.

Children left abandoned in the desert when their parents’ car crashes turn feral in ‘King Wolf’, the story like an economy size version of Walkabout given a spin through 180 degrees, the text filled with scintillating dialogue and a sense of the strangeness of life as a child, the unnatural fears and concern with minutiae. ‘Gladiolus Exposed’ ends with a quote from Poe, and indeed there is very much the feel of EAP about this tale of a soured relationship and obsession. It also contains some of the most memorable lines in the entire collection – e.g. “Katie does not appreciate comments from people who don’t know anything, unless they are in a focus group”. It’s a clever and informative piece, but ‘Adventures of Discovering the Ellemehnopee’ about the process of learning how to read didn’t really appeal to me despite the erudition on display; it felt like a lesson disguised as a story, but not that well disguised.

‘Pococurante’ concerns the perils and pleasures of running a business with someone you idolise, taking in the bitterness of the press, the follies of a name, and a dozen other things besides, all of it wrapped up in delightful prose and with enough twists and turns to tie a snake in knots. The next story is set in a dystopian future where corps members fight against monstrous creatures that come in from the sea and endlessly obsess about plant cultivation. ‘The Age of Fish, Post-flowers’ is disturbingly matter of fact in its account of a world in crisis, one in which life is cheap and hope at a premium, like a botanical version of Pacific Rim produced on a budget. Rambling and episodic it is nonetheless perhaps one of the most “genre conventional” of these stories. We’re back in Poe territory for ‘Tap’, with a tale of obsession that leads to nightmares and then veers off into the realm of body horror, an impressive piece of work that wouldn’t look out of place in a Barker tribute anthology. And finally there is ‘Bowfin Island’ in which a tourist looking for somewhere off the beaten track gets far less than he bargained for, the story capturing perfectly the bleakness of a windswept, isolated island, but at the same time asking questions about the choices we make in our lives and how they are often not respected by others. I liked it, but at the same time it felt like a weak note on which to end an otherwise impressively strong collection.

But it’s not the end. Tambour closes the book with ‘Cover Notes’, discussing some of the photographs that adorn the wraparound dust jacket and the plant that appears on the front, and given the wealth of detail and learned asides it could easily pass muster as another story. In fact I suspect it was another story, one Tambour tried to sneak in under the radar. She’s clever like that.

The collection dates from 2015. Skip forward two years and we have Tambour’s third novel, SMOKE PAPER MIRRORS (infinity plus pb, 232pp, £9.99), which is subtitled “a short saga for our times”, and that’s a perfectly apt description. Looking back on the book I can’t help but think of the story of the Chinese philosopher who dreamed he was a butterfly and then woke to wonder if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The novel begins with two butterflies mating, a Painted Lady and a Cabbage White, and it ends with a trip into the future with references to “the coral reef that was once Sydney’s skyscrapers” and the existence of a giant caterpillar that just keeps growing, unable to make the final transformation into a butterfly, but capable of reading and communicating with its human carers.

In between these lepidopteran moments we get the saga component of the story, taking up over half the page count of the book and spanning more than a hundred years in time. We begin with the maternal great-grandfather of present day protagonist Mr Zhang, an official at the court of Dowager Empress Cixi, who has to flee China after having committed the cardinal sin of giving good advice at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, travelling the world with his daughter. We continue with his various descendants and their adventures, including a return to China at the time of the Cultural Revolution and all that entails. And finally we arrive in the present day with Arthur Zhang, who comes to Australia hoping to make a life for himself, and has to contend with the indifference of his new homeland to all his academic accomplishments, his burning desire to contribute. We are presented with a moving picture of Arthur’s existence, the friends and alliances he forms, his first tentative forays into business and romance, the successful life he makes for himself despite all the odds stacked against him. And then we get back to the butterfly.

This is a book about which I have very mixed feelings. There’s so much that Tambour does right here. The writing is beautiful, with evocative prose and sparkling dialogue on just about every page. As a lesson in Chinese history and thought it is compelling, but not textbook dry, Tambour illustrating her points with stories that humanise the greater historical events, letting the little people have a voice, as with veterans of the Long March who are given unlimited train travel and assigned nurses to care for them. She is similarly excellent at portraying the plight of refugees in Australia, Arthur’s attempts to earn a living, to put his talents to good use, and in contrast to the indifference of officialdom the friendliness and affability of ordinary people. And at every turn she intrudes passages of poetry and flights of fancy, her thoughts on books and music and art, lessons in how to pick the best vegetables, sections that delight with their subtle humour. The supernatural elements, such as they are – a visit from a goddess, thoughts on the nature of ghosts, an attempt to acquire the virtues of another through sympathetic magic – all take place below the radar, woven seamlessly into the texture of the novel and the everyday life it portrays. All of this is wonderful.

And then there is the stuff with the butterfly and the caterpillar, equally wonderful in its way, but a different kind of wonderful, one that gives you pause and makes you ponder exactly what the author is getting at with this framing device and climax to her story. Above I’ve praised Tambour for her asides and detours, but this is different in that it feels central to the story she has to tell (there are butterfly references throughout the text), but I’ve little sense of how or why, and so from my perspective the final passages of the novel, despite the gleeful and almost delirious prose in which they are expressed, seem like one long, extended WTF moment. Is the caterpillar perhaps a metaphor for China itself, constantly growing and demanding resources, but never quite realising its true potential, fated to perish in the attempt? I don’t know, and am not really sure that it adds anything substantial to the book, only questions that possibly don’t have answers. Brighter minds will have to work that out for themselves.

So finally, is this a book about a mutated caterpillar containing a family saga or is it a family saga with a mutated caterpillar? Perhaps it’s both or neither. To repeat myself, I don’t know. But I do know that I am glad to have had this rich and rewarding experience, to have spent time in the company of a writer who surprises and delights with her constant invention and understated erudition. Illusionists are said to work with smoke and mirrors, but like all the true magicians Anna Tambour knows you need paper to make the illusion real.

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