Reading Helen Oyeyemi’s WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS

I have heard this book described as magical realist, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but I don’t agree, either. I think magical realism is kind of a catch-all term that get put on things that often don’t deserve them. It’s a category that separates things that aspire to tell the truth through the closest mental pathway away from things that try to tell the truth by constructing fictions that conform to the consensus reality of those in cultural power. The consensus of cultural power and authority is more magical than any field of flowers in Macondo. In fact, most stories, most of the time, do not conform to the consensus reality fiction of the moment in time in which we live. Shakespeare’s fair Verona is as alien to historical London as Garcia-Marquez’ city lost in the jungle for a hundred years. Surrealism is a more apt description, sometimes. Science Fiction or Literature of the Fantastic also works better, I think. There are other terms I’ve heard bandied about that all seem to work a little better than the overused catch-all. Anyway, much of what we say when we say “magical realism” is often saying that we don’t quite understand why we like it so much, why it speaks through our cynicism and reawakens our capacity to dream, so we say that it infuses our reality with a sense of wonder. Oyeyemi’s stories do that, certainly, even if the term critics often use to describe such work is disappointing to me, personally.

Also, I like Surrealism better, in the case of Helen Oyeyemi’s fiction, because despite the sense of mystery that pervades the best of her shorter work collected here, really the dreamlike quality of it seems to come from a place just past the edge of what we know exists, where avant garde puppetry schools exist, and the ancient goddess, Hecate, can curse those who are shamed on the internet for their bad actions. These places and ideas feel like they should exist, like they are probably true when we dream of them and then we wake up and forget what is true. The dreamlike quality that pervades the best of the short fiction, here, feels like it is hearkening to the great surrealist authors more than realist ones, ergo the magical reality that is being constructed is more of a dream logic vision of reality than a method of imbuing reality with magic, if that makes sense. There’s nothing distinctly real to anchor into. The very shape of the stories are clouded and uncertain. Narrators drift in and out. Images run together between competing narratives – keys, water, books. No place is real; all are just kingdoms or distant European countries too small to name. Characters and narrators are chimeric things, changing their shapes and forms in each scene until they all bend into a final bow that can be sudden, like waking from a dream. And, everything is a symbol of something deep and unspoken that few dare reveal. Another aspect that leads me to the surrealist description is how the narrator often drifts, scene-by-scene, like a lazy eye following whatever sidereal character or fragment or artifact might be at hand, and occasionally such a thing might become the main character of the story into the end. Like a dream, the narration, itself, twists around and drifts and follows whatever loose threads prove most interesting, until everything unravels.

Reading this collection in a day is probably too much, as I soon found out. The narrative voice blurred everything into a wall of playful and unreliable whimsy shifting about between places all so strange and familiar, as beautiful as it all was. I don’t advise settling in for a single sit, as I did. Had I the time, perhaps, a story a week would have been better. It’s such a pretty, lovely book, and lends to close and careful reading. I hope to have time again for it, another day. The narrator is always confessing, whether it’s a young man in an imaginary city drowned by a tyrant, or a puppet that has seen centuries, or just a woman who found a ring in a brief aside from the main thread of narrative. My confession is this: I read it too fast. I had no choice in the matter, really, as schedules are tight. A swift read is better than none.

Two stories do stand out with this, my far too gluttonous devouring: is your blood as red as this? is a tale of teen angst and teen love as young puppeteers come of age in the magic and mystery of a school of puppetry that carries with it so much beautiful magic and mystery. A ghostly roommate confides with a puppet that is centuries old and an ancient alchemist’s cemetery totem come to life and fall into the gossip of following a foursome of puppeteer students that each seem committed to loving and hurting each other with the reckless ignorance of the inexperienced. The difficulty of communication inherent to awkward teenage years is broken by the presence of puppets who are as real and sentient as anyone, but completely reliant – as one of them cannily observes – on the movement and voice of another to gain the appearance of life. The confused teenagers crash into each other recklessly, while the many drifting threads of many voices and many narratives build to a convincing climax of death and resurrection. I also found “sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea an insightful and dreadful take on the sort of celebrity culture and celebrity ruination that happens in internet culture. On the one hand, Ched, the great man of mystery, who is a star of music and fame and truly sees the future, lives alone in a house full of elaborate locking doors, allowing only a fish, a childhood friend, and eventually, a woman who is more voice than flesh, inside. On the other, Matyas Fuest is the worst kind of famous: posturing for posters and performing his role as an artistic and musical genius with a ballerina in the tabloids, is revealed to be an abuser of women. That the adoring public is manipulated into taking his side drives one young former fan over the edge such that a powerful curse is invoked. It’s like having a dream about celebrity culture, and how relentlessly awful such things can be. Ched knows better, and enlists in the army for a while while the storm of scandal passes.

I found her novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, very enjoyable once upon a time, and these stories also very enjoyable, but where the former is suitable for a long weekend’s swift devouring, this collection is very rich. Slow down if you can. Take your time. Hide it in the corner of a room you rarely visit, near a chair that is not so comfortable that you’d stay until the wee hours. Then, when you do find yourself there, pick it up, and read a story. Just one. Then, leave the book there, and get up from the not very comfortable chair. Stretch, go get some water, and wait again for another day. Read slow. I should have. Recommended strongly for fans of Kelly Link, Jorge Luis Borges, and mystery and long lost love.

Categories: Book Reviews

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