I Read David Marusek’s “Getting To Know You”

I’d never heard of David Marusek when I was handed this collection*. Just told that I would like it, and I should read it. It sat on my bookshelf for a few months while I caught up with other reading material, but lately I’ve been trying to get through my back catalog, finish tasks, let go of things I don’t need anymore, and move on. Clear out my inboxes. Turn in what I owe people.

Read books that aren’t mine so I can give them back.

The collection of ten short stories was put together after his 2005 novel, COUNTING HEADS, got great reviews. Half of the stories are set in the same future, and one (“The Wedding Album”) won the Sturgeon Award.

“The Wedding Album” is a novella, the longest piece in the book, and switches perspective between a couple of different characters, though mostly it’s told from the view of a simulated Anne, captured on her wedding day. A couple of hundred years pass as civilization rises and falls through the evolution of their technology, but wedding-Anne has no say in what happens around her. It’s sad with brief bits of loving, though it’s mostly a look at how selfish one man can be.

“The Earth Is On The Mend” is a flash piece, well done, a slightly rambling account of one survivor’s day in the frozen wasteland that was the Earth. It tells you enough to suspect this story will end badly. That’s what flash is about – setting a scene, giving you one moment, and enough other bits to hint at a great deal more.

“Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz” was written as a letter to editor Gardner Dozios, who published it and gave Marusek his start as a published writer. The epistolary style isn’t one of my favorites, but this version is light-hearted. It’s got dying husbands and cryogenics and Alaska small-town culture – it qualifies as a science fiction story, certainly. In the end it’s just cheeky, daring you to enjoy it and daring Mr. Dozois to publish it. Worth a read.

“A Boy In Cathyland” was originally a chunk of “The Wedding Album” but was cut from the final version. Marusek revised it into a stand-alone short. It explains a minor detail from the novella, but that’s not what’s important about it. The best part of “A Boy” is that Marusek blends Russian into the dialogue without explaining the meaning. He places description and action around the non-English parts to give the reader enough context to suss out the meaning on their own. The story is weak without the knowledge of what happens in “Wedding Album” but I like his use of language a lot.

“We Were Out Of Our Minds With Joy” is another novella, Marusek’s second published piece and the first of this length. It’s set in the same universe as “Wedding Album” and makes up the beginning of his novel. Like several of his other stories, Marusek introduces an idea, then ignores it while he goes through all of the history and scene-setting, then gets back to his opening toward the end.

The introduction to “VTV” warns that it was an exercise in writing a miserable story, and the reader should feel free to skip it. I didn’t, and I’m glad, because while it contains many of Marusek’s most-used elements, it stands out from the others because of its subject matter. It’s more concerned with making a point which, while still negative, has the potential to affect our lives now instead of centuries in the future. One of the more interesting pieces.

“Cabbages and Kale or: How We Downsized North America” is another one about the same old things. So is “Getting To Know You”. Not bad, but dull after reading all of the rest.

“Listen to Me” is written in second-person perspective, which immediately makes it stand out. It’s about boredom and, again, about isolation and selfishness. But it’s also set aboard a starship, which is different. It’s very short, and I liked it.

“My Morning Glory” is another flash piece, forcefully exuberant, a quick-step shuffle off the edge of the cliff that is the end of the book.

There isn’t much to connect with, emotionally, in this collection, except the overriding feeling of sadness. It’s sad that these people can’t be happy for long. It’s sad that technology outpaces humanity. It’s sad that the only other feeling to come across is one of isolation. I don’t know if Marusek is disconnected from the world or if it’s the one emotion he knows how to write well, but it’s there, with the sadness, in every story. They’re two sides of the same coin – the characters are sad because they’re distanced from the things that make us happy, like love and companionship and hope.

In a way, that’s what makes the book kind of boring. Marusek has a few ideas which he clearly loves, so much that he recycles them through several stories. His “original” ideas, the ones not part of his “Wedding Album” universe, appear in the shortest stories of the book, as if he didn’t want to  – or couldn’t – write about them in the same way he writes about his holos, simulacrum, and clones. He even recycles characters (not just Cathy from “Cathyland” but Yurek Rutz, who’s mentioned in “VTV”) and locations – Alaska comes up a lot. I don’t mind any of that as much as I mind him recycling plot points. After all, so many of the stories are about the exact same thing: how do you handle living in a future where artificial people are common and naturally-born humans are not? 

Apparently Marusek only has one answer to that question. I would like his work much more if he had more to say.

Overall I’d suggest reading this collection for the technique. The structures are crisp, the writing is clean, there’s rarely anything unnecessary going on. Parts which appear to be side stories get mentioned or dealt with again before the tale is finished. Marusek is a skillful writer and is able to keep control of stories with circular natures. This tight hold on where his writing is going takes some of the surprise out of the ending but I look at this collection like the start of something good. If he has this much skill when he’s starting out, all he needs to do is maintain that level of writing while adding in whatever he’s fascinated by next.

Read GETTING TO KNOW YOU one story at a time and take a break in between. You’ll appreciate it better that way.

* Another book loaned to me by Don, who has the best taste in reading, and has shaped the course of my literary education the last few years. He gave me copies of Craig Strete’s THE BLEEDING MAN, Maureen F. McHugh’s AFTER THE APOCALYPSE, Brian Wood’s DMZ, M. Rickert’s various stories, Fran Lebowitz’s METROPOLITAN LIFE and The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. He convinced me to buy INTERFICTIONS, Ray Vukcevich’s BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS, Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT, Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES, Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, Stephen Elliott’S MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP and Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS.

He also loaned me Etger Keret’s THE NIMROD FLIPOUT, though, sadly, I had to give that one back. (Click on the links to read my reviews of these titles.)

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