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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An Uprising of Fables

Recently I have read a number of reviews of books of modern fables, including Jesse Ball's The Village on Horseback and one by a writer with a really ordinary name but really extraordinary writing (not that that description helps you--darn! what was his name?). Anyway, it seems that fables as a genre are coming into their own. Now why is that, in this time of moral vicissitude, I wonder? Or is that why? And how obliquely the modern fable addresses its subject, its audience.

Now I'm reading Helen Phillips' And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Books) and I for one couldn't be happier. This book of 2-page fables comes grouped by title: "flood #1,"flood #2,"flood #3," all the way up to "flood #6." Other series include: the far-flung families, the weddings, the monsters, the regimes, the failures...everything you need to describe this world so painful to describe. (I love repetition. Have I ever told you how much I love repetition? If there's anything I cannot get enough of, it's repetition.)

Consider the beginning of "mother #4": "In this version, I like my mother and my mother likes me." Could you stop reading at this point? I submit that you could not. Especially if you've already read "mother #1" through "mother #3."

And here's the amazing thing.  The fables in the book somehow suggest a whole while standing utterly apart from one another. The characters from one fable may or may not be the characters in other fables, archetypical as they are. (Phillips' own website indicates that this book is the unfolding tale of a couple). But the sensibility remains true throughout, so that the effect is of telling the story of a couple weathering not only the problems of life as we know it, but also wading hip-deep through the unfamiliar (and yet familiar) circumstances of apocalyptic life.The stories seem to be a throwback to a time when natural disasters threatened constantly and there was no relief. But wait, that's not a throwback anymore, now is it? And it never really was; that has always been a particularly human illusion we have carefully cultivated, though it is getting increasingly harder and harder to remain oblivious. And yet in this book is found relief, and it is in each other.

These stories are wry yet sweet, terrifying yet comforting. According to Kirkus as quoted on the back cover, "The story of the world unfolds in bursts of imagination...."  And that's exactly what these linked fables are, small pulses of brilliance that make up a pointillistic view of an disturbingly familiar apocalyptic world.

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