Peter S. Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
(Tachyon Publications, scheduled March 2009)
Kathleen Bartholomew got an early look at nine of the eleven stories planned for Peter S. Beagle's next short fiction collection from San Francisco's Tachyon Publications. Herewith her thoughts and reactions:
These nine stories are a stained glass window. Each piece or panel is cast in its own palette of vivid colors, telling its own story; together, they comprise a portal into the worlds of Peter S. Beagleís incomparable imagination. I spent many a childhood Sunday dreaming my way into the polychrome fantasies in the windows of church — these stories have the same feeling of mystic completion, but dedicated not so much to God as to the many divinities of the human heart. Mr. Beagleís most enduring skill is his ability to describe the landscape and energies that make us human, and each of these — whether set in 20th Century New York or Faerie — is profoundly human, and beautiful.
Some of the stories in this collection have been previously reviewed in Green Man Review; others have never been seen before. They are all wonderful — no runts in this litter, no almost-rans or weak entries. Each one is as perfect as dew drop, holding a whole world in its miniature depths.
This is set in 16th Century England, the country of The Beggarís Opera, rich with handsome highwaymen and smiling, eager wenches. On the snowy night of this tale, however, a very tired and desperate rogue is being hunted by the local constabulary. His one pistol is empty. He has no horse, no food, no flask, no fire. And then he finds a fire on a hillside, and by it a dignified old gentleman whose curiously worked cloak poor Roger Darlington immediately covets. In the course of establishing that the old gentleman, one Elias Patterson, is not intimidated by Darlingtonís unloaded pistol, the two men make an uneasy truce. Reverend Patterson offers Darlington a place by the fire, a draft of otherworldly liquor from his flask, and the story of what he is doing out in the winter night: listening to foxes and hunting for the Borders of Faerie, striving to return to the side of Titania, whose mortal lover he was for seven years.
The costs of love and faith are clearly delineated here, as well as how they can sometimes end up paying for one another. The paired bliss and despair of love burn not only in Patterson, but in Titania — doomed by her Oberon to take mortal lovers but always lose them — and in Oberon himself, who lives for those times when a sorrowing Queen of Faerie mourns her lovers and can only be comforted by him. Darlington, listening, is drawn over the coals of his own lifeís losses and loves. Perhaps he learns something; perhaps not. In the end each man must take his own counsel. But there are certainly lessons here for the reader, delicate and piercing, as well as a story of classical loveliness. Well met by moonlight, indeed.
This is a story from the world of The Innkeeperís Song, lyrical, powerful, and clear as the sea. It concerns the redoubtable Lalkhamsin-khamsolal — Sailor Lal, Lal-after-dark, Lal Alone. An old woman now, she lives in a desrt hut far from the sea where she has always felt most at home, telling stories as they should be told and training up an apprentice to tell them properly when she is gone. Her story this time is not a traditional tale, but one of her own life and the enigmatic sea-creatures called chandail. They are monsters, many-legged and tentacled, who nonetheless possess an overwhelming beauty if a human looks at them too long. Their great gift and horror is their ability to fill a humanís mind with perfect images of the subject's own past — memories come to life, losses repaid, all the lost loves and beauties returned...for a while. When the chandail have done playing with the glittering furniture of a human mind, they leave their playthings bereft once again. Because of them Lal herself has suffered more than once from resurrected visions of her childhood before she was sold into slavery and taken far away from home and innocence.
One day, Lal finds a wounded and dying chandail on the shore; against her own better judgment, unwilling to see it die alone and lost on the land, she tows the creature back out to sea with a stolen boat. She even tries to heal it, despite the fact that it uses its peculiar mental gifts to ask her to kill it. Over the course of many days alone on the sea, Lal and the chandail talk and try to understand one another. While each of them comes to new knowledge, it is up to the reader to decide whether they understand one another or only themselves. But Lal is freed from some the acid of fear and hatred, and carries some wisdom away with her into the rest of her life. This is a tremendously wise story; or, as Lal herself puts it:
'Wisdom is uncertainty. Wisdom is confusion. Wisdom is a heartless trickster healing my heart, my worst enemy drawing pity up out of my lifetime of hating, like sweet water from a long-dry well. Wisdom is knowing nothing, and not even knowing how you feel about knowing nothing. Wisdom is finding joy in bewilderment, at the last. At the last. Lal says.'
King Pelles the Sure
A charming and deceptively simple fairy tale. Like all good fairy tales, it is told in a voice suitable for children but devastatingly moving for adults. It has the endearing characters and sly humor that characterize so much of Mr. Beagleís stories, a disarming touch of modernity in the classic story-telling mode, and a moral that creeps up quietly to surprise the reader.
King Pelles is the good king of a small and peaceful country. He longs for high adventure, and conceives of the very bad idea of having a war. He wants a war like in the old hero stories, with brightly colored uniforms, flashing swords and catchy tunes : 'Öa gracious war, if you possibly can. Something...something a little tidy. With songs in it, you know.' What he gets, alas, is the real thing, with a foe who has a bigger army and much less sense of the romantic. Poor Pelles ends up a fugitive in his own country, accompanied only by his faithful Vizier, an educated man who does his best to keep his unfortunate monarch alive. The reader may begin this story thinking it a light and amusing diversion, but the author understands the true price of kingship — and at the end, Pelles finds himself a a true king and hero at last.
This is a funny story. Not simply funny — it contains complexities and layers and tiger traps of funny. It features Joe Farrell (an old friend to fans of Mr. Beagle's work, having appeared as his fictional alter-ego in The Folk of the Air, 'Lila the Werewolf,' and 'Julie's Unicorn'). Joe is readying a new loft studio for his lady Julie Tanikawa while she is out of town. Unfortunately, the loft is haunted, and by a pretty malevolent ghost — malevolent to Joe, anyway. It doesnít mind Julie at all, and part of Joeís problem is finding himself in a bizarre rivalry with the unfriendly spirit. Joe and his friend Ben have only a few days to get rid of the thing before Julie returns; and to add to the fun, the only person they can think of to help them is the dreaded Andy Mac, a psychic medium who is certain he can get rid of Joe's unwanted tenant. ( We all know people like Andy Mac. They are usually experts in esoteric fields, arrogant and paranoid. They have absolutely no sense of humor. They arenít our friends, yet they never seem to go away...)
Unfortunately, Andy hates Joe with the sullen resentment only this kind of pedant can maintain, and he clearly plans to screw Joe over in the transaction with the Other World. It finally comes down to a duel between Joe and Walter the spook — a duel of bad poetry, with Julie and the loft going to the victor. Andy Mac is Walterís second, just as Joe's friend Ben is backing him. And this is where a pleasant little comedy becomes hilarious, because the poetry is Very Bad. And Very Funny. And Very Real, which may the true horror of this ghost story. I spent a good hour looking up the unbelievably wretched poets represented here, marveling that they actually existed, and laughing harder all the time as I read. The depths of Peter Beagleís mind are truly amazing.
The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French
What does it mean to truly be something? A nationality, a religion, a philosophy? 'Mr. Moscowitz' posits that a quality could be caught like a virus, and transform a mild enthusiast to a very icon of his particular passions. The eponymous Mr. Moscowitz is a mild-mannered American librarian who is slowly but inexorably being changed into a Frenchman.
What begins as a mild Francophilia becomes a complete transfiguration — not only in language, or preferences in cuisine and cinema, but in a fine and excoriating Gallic arrogance. Mr. Moscowitz loses his job, offends his countrymen, and is finally invited to take up a welcoming exile in La Belle France herself. The French are delighted with the idea that someone could naturally mutate into perfect Frenchness, and worship him. Once there, however, he gradually comes to the sorrowing realization that — whoever these people are who have lived in France all down the millennia — they are not and never have been truly French. Only he, Moscowitz, is French. Indeed, France is clamoring inside him to be born, and so he finally wanders off into legend and the countryside to seek the mythic children who will be French.
This is a bathic exploration of identity and devotion, as sweet and tart as a fine white wine. The absurdity of the premise is given a lovely polish by Mr. Beagle's customary skilled characterization and perfectly turned phrasing. It will leave readers pondering, with mixed pleasure and unease, just what makes them what they are, and why they stay that way.
The Stickball Witch
'The Stickball Witch' is a hymn to spring — to spring, and playing stickball in the streets of New York, and being an eleven year-old boy. That is a place and an age where wonder is ready to fall out of the trees into a boy's hands. Magic is wild; it is fireworks in the blood, but also cold eyes in the shadows, and this story epitomizes both aspects.
On the boy Peter's street there is a seasonal, perennial game of stickball which fades away every autumn and is resurrected every spring. There is also a witch, Mrs. Poliakov. (All really good streets when you are eleven years old have witches — you may never have seen them actually turn a playmate into a toad, but the fact that they could is manifest and as natural as sunlight.) Mrs. Poliakov makes Tryon Avenue magic, as much as the ritual of stickball does. And one day, the witch does emerge into the rites of spring, and actual magic ensues.
This story is a loving evocation of time and place. It is a perfect photograph — not only unfaded, but actually admitting the light of other days into this mundane older world. While Mr. Beagle is doubtless favored by having been an eleven-year old boy in these circumstances, he evokes that place and time with a clarity that makes it real even to this reader, who was an eleven-year old girl in the semi-desert fringes of Los Angeles.
The Tale of Junko and Sayuri
Two of the outstanding qualities of Peter Beagleís writing are the extraordinary delicacy of his prose, and the strength of his ideas: like etched steel, like a lattice of diamonds. 'Junko and Sayuri' is a perfect example of these two qualities, a classic of his special artistry.
The tale is set in medieval Japan. The hero, Junko, is a low-born servant and huntsman to Lord Koruda — whose eccentric egalitarianism is blamed on his 'peculiar horoscope'. One day Junko wounds an otter on a hunt. Moved by some impulse, he takes the otter home and heals it. It is strangely tame to his hand, and he grieves when it is healed and he knows he must set it free. But — as in all the Japanese tales of miraculous animals — the otter then reveals itself as a beautiful maiden: Sayuri. She is a shape-changer with no memories of her past, except as various animals, and she has grown to love Junko for his kindness and tenderness to her.
They are married, as in all proper fairy tales, and for many years are happy. What comes ultimately to spoil their happiness is not magical or miraculous; it is those commonest and most destructive of human sins, envy and greed and ambition. To reveal any more of the tale would be to ruin the lovely pace and detail of the plot. But, as always, it is a deeply human and compassionate story, as beautiful as a puzzle of carven ivory. When are we human? How do we know? And what do we know of anotherís heart?
Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel
Peter Beagle's own uncles were painters, and he spent much his childhood in their studios. Out of that past comes the setting and color of this story about obsession, possession, and the beauty of the self.
Young David's Uncle Chaim is a painter. He and David's Aunt Rifke often take care of the boy after school. One day, while David is watching his uncle at work in his studio, an angel appears and announces she has been sent by God to be Uncle Chaim's muse. What this entails is that from now on Uncle Chaim will paint the angel...and only the angel. Uncle Chaim is unimpressed and refuses, saying that he doesnít need a muse. But the angel wonít leave. And she is a marvelous model, despite the fact that her wings will not permit her to sit down. So ultimately Uncle Chaim does begin to paint her. As David and Aunt Rifke watch helplessly, the angel and Uncle Chaim enter into a gradually deepening mutual obsession; they are like a pair of circling stars, drawn closer into one anotherís gravity wells in an increasing burst of light.
The angel, it seems, is helpless — she has no free will, she is pure spirit. Meanwhile Uncle Chaim has the unique human ability to both seek and grant freedom...and young David understands more than he has any right or reason to know.
The ending is marvelous and miraculous and unexpected. It is one of Mr. Beagleís most intense examinations of the wonderful state of being human.
We Never Talk About My Brother
The title story of this collection is my favorite. It is told in a wonderful voice, as small-town Americana as a Norman Rockwell painting. What it deals with, though, are questions of enormous weight and power.
Jacob and Esau are brothers, and Esau has a gift: what he says is true. Itís not that he never lies, but that what he says...IS, and has always been the way he says it. Esau cannot abide a world that doesnít run the way he wants it to. A childhood bully, a scornful girl — Esau speaks them out of the world: they have never been, or else they died long ago. And no one but members of Esau's own family have even the faintest memory that it was ever any different. (Jacob's mother confesses to Jacob that she is persuaded that Esau's old girlfriend died in a plane crash, but she doesnít think itís true.)
As a small boy, Esau insists to Jacob 'I would be a nice God. I would!' But he isnít. Esau and Jacob grow up. They part ways, Jacob staying in their small home town and Esau going off to become a noted news anchor. Over the years, Jacob sees that Esau is using his gifts more and more on the air, where millions hear his words. He is changing the world, making it darker, more violent, more vengeful. Because what he says IS, and what he wants of the world is not kind.
Good and evil; two brothers that share a birthright only one can have; how truth becomes real: hard, huge, Biblical themes. In Mr. Beagleís hands, they are handled with delicacy and grace, but also with a ruthless honesty and the promise of hope in the end. Itís a strong story. You need to hold your breath while you slug it back, and it will bring tears to your eyes. But it will warm you as it goes down, and burn somewhere in the region of your heart.
I have said before in these pages that Peter S. Beagleís true calling may in the crafting of short stories. Each of these is a gem and a wonder. Take them one at a time and savour them.
illustration adapted from Ann Monn's cover rough for the upcoming 2009 release of We Never Talk About My Brother
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: