Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adrift in a Sea of Digested Souls: A Fantasy Review of Ekaterina Sedia'sHouse of Discarded Dreams

I read this book in the shadow of a pots-and-pans mountain surrounded by crumbling keeps, where propped-up skeletons kept an unmoving watch on the frequent clanging avalanches caused by a grogoch trying to make a little cave for himself in the clefts cleared out by the rivers of spoons that used to erupt from the top. Despite the ghostly farms to the "south" there is little cream to give them, for of course they have few cows and many horses, and the grogochs will dump the jug on your head if it is not delicious spirit-cream from the insubstantial udder of a dream-cow.

I read this book in two long afternoons, under an umbrella tree, just to be safe. The mountain has not erupted in some time but spoons hurt when propelled through the air. Unlike the farm animals they are quite real and there is now an economy of sorts surrounding them here in the valley. The bigfoots and cartoon characters make uneasy exchanges with them, and the faeries keep stealing them to give to the chrome-wheeled dragon that lives within The Cave, that flickering video mirage between the Green Mountain and the slowly eroding duplicate of Croagh Patrick, where the spirits of my dead Irish relatives slowly wear away at it as they walk endlessly up and down it in their bare feet. You wouldn't think that ghosts could do that, but I see the constant spits of dust and the gathering detritus at the base of the gradually-shrinking mount. For there is no rain here; when one looks over the edge of the world, you see the great turtle it rides upon, swimming on the surface of a sea much like the one in House of Discarded Dreams, full of mingled souls and supporting the capacity to see everything you have tried to keep hidden, or taken for granted, or hoped was an illusion. But there is no rain here, only sudden bursts of candy from the sky, some of it doped. The only source of water is a single well, guarded by all the frogs I saved from spearing as a child, drawn from that sea. It is bitter, not salty, and contains little crackles and memories that are sometimes sour, sometimes spicy, on the tongue.

Now, nestled in my hovel for the night, the thatched cottage that is my nest for now, I can talk about this book. Tapping away at my little steampunk typing computer, hoping to send this out to whatever world is on the other end of the Outernet, which seem to mostly be patronized by sentient cats posting pictures of fish and mice, and some shadowy commenters who say they "know where to find" me and that if I "talk" I'm dead. I am hopeful that someone else is reading. Thankfully, as best I can tell they are even less real than everything else here, although, as I learned from reading this book, there is a reality here, built on fears, wishes, and everything that I tried to discard from my "real life." Terrors unconfronted, stories left behind despite their lessons and solace, and even those things merely forgotten in the rush to embrace something else.

Vimbai's story disappointed me at first; I thought that she was too passive, to willing to just go along with things. My experience is different; I was dragged here, unwilling, made to confront and examine legends, missteps, enigmas. It was not until I realized that Vimbai is actively creating this new reality that I saw her as the protagonist, not only responsible for her direct actions, but for everything within her. The weaving of one's life is not just in the doors opened or paths taken, but in all of the locked doors, all of the dead ends and forks in the road. The neighboring provinces of the mind exist in a sort of detente, because they are not resolved, only abandoned, set aside, or shoved down into a blackness that always remains at the edge of vision.

As her world unfolds, as her journey unwinds, I see reflections that illuminate the corners of my own psyche: Irish folklore and stories, a deep rooting in an ancient place, disrupted and mutated by growing up amongst monsters clad in the hanging skin of humans. Taking refuge in the realms of pop culture and my own imagination, I never experienced the coming-of-age that Vimbai undergoes, not the clarity she is able to create. Awash in childhood traumas, social dysfunction, and too much intelligence for my own good, I struggled not to make sense of things, but to escape them, to fill that darkness with them, even though flashes of movement and the din of caged furies and griefs were clearly echoing in my mind.

And now here I am, finally trying to make a new direction, a new life, repairing body and mind, releasing my prisoners from their forced obscurity. Fleeing to the big city did not assuage them, a college education could only partly reveal and reintegrate them. More college education in a new place only made them retreat. I had to abandon many dreams, and find a few new ones, but you cannot turn your back on the ones left behind. Some sort of resolution is needed.

So now I sit in flickering candlelight, listening the wind, which is the sound of crying, and hearing sitcom theme songs in the drums far away. This is a unquiet place. Brownies and plastic toy soldiers brawl in the street outside at all hours, spilling out from every pub I have ever visited, but which in the daylight are closed and at night are dangerous to me. I have surrounded this flimsy cottage with sandbags full of books, thick encyclopedias as a base, limited-edition hardcovers on the ends, and cheap, tattered paperbacks atop, held together by the bindings of poetry chapbooks and infinite staples from fanzines and coffeehouse digests. That keeps the fights out, but also the sudden deluges of horse tack and dog collars, bursting forth from a gully between a mountain of rotting fast food and the Mountain of Stables, a terraced peak with more of those ghost-farms and shadow-ranches, where my rural pasts and futures all reside. The fortifications also keep out my dead American relatives, zombies who hunger for the only human in this confabulated world., who want to drag me back to the life I should have lived.

Like Vimbai's world, there are wonders here, and seemingly random elements too. But as time goes by, as the story unfolds, it all makes more sense. This is the truth that Vimbai taught me: that trying to ignore the pasts, all of them, is to fail to see life fully, and thus see where you can go in it. We should no more cling to the past than fear it, no more dismiss the stories and happenings than we should wear them around our necks and let me wear our throats raw and slowly bleed us out. In some way, everything matters, and we cannot proceed until we know how much. We each live in a fantasy world, often carefully chosen, but everything that we try to abandon or excise is still with us. The trick is to realize how it all fits together, why rockstar dreams and fairy-stories may distract, but also teach something about your mind. The trick is to see, accept, learn, and move forward. Even when adrift on a sea of souls.

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