Karen Joy Fowler is lately better known for her Man Booker shortlisted novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves than for her short stories. In fact, many readers are unaware of her status as a Best Short Story Nebula winner twice over. This is a shame that must be rectified, and thankfully, Putnam is reissuing her excellent collection Black Glass.
Originally published in 1998, the book explores themes familiar to readers of Fowler’s novels–social alienation, feminism, and American history (among others). Fans will also recognize her wry humor, clever set-ups, and flashes of insight from unexpected quarters. If you only know Fowler from The Jane Austen Book Club, however, you’re in for a surprise and a treat. Many of these stories are difficult to categorize. Call them literary sci-fi, slipstream, or magical realism if you like, or decide that they defy genre and run to them with open arms and an open mind. They tend to leave me wanting more, full of questions that Fowler left unanswered and wondering about the people, places, and events of the story to the point of preoccupation. Seldom do writers build such complete, detailed worlds for the sake of their short stories, but when you finish “The View From Venus: A Case Study,” you’ll know that apartment building better than your own, and by the time you’re halfway through “Duplicity,” you’ll feel the damp fabric of the tent threatening to smother you from beyond the page.
Her characters, too, are deep and nuanced enough to carry novels. Many are real people from history brought to life (or something like it), and Fowler’s refusal to play by genre rules only improves them. Temperance fanatic Carry Nation meets 1990’s bar culture (I won’t spoil the delightful surprise of how), and one of the most moving moments in the book centers on Albert Einstein’s “lost daughter.” When myth, fairy tale, and historical fact blend together in stories like “Shimabara” and “The Elizabeth Complex,” the effect is incomparable. History was never this entertaining; fiction was never this educational. The characters Fowler invents from whole cloth are equally layered, and fascinating. Even the ones who aren’t of our world, of our species, or of our universe are people (beings?) I’d like to meet for a drink sometime.
So then: if you want to read one of the greatest living short story writers, discover an author of immense wit, find a true visionary, and witness the radicalization of once-dormant women into sheet-covered flash mobs, read Black Glass. Then come back and complain in the comments section of this post about how I didn’t really tell you how truly excellent these stories are.
Black Glass: short fictions by Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood Books/Putnam | 9780399175794 | June 23, 2015)