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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Close Reading/Review of "Smoke City" by Christopher Barzak from the collection Before and Afterlives

This originally in Asimov's in 2011.  It is included in his new collection.  For interviews and commentary/reviews of other stories in that collection, click the Christopher Barzak tag at the end of this post.

Lightspeed just reprinted Christopher Barzak's "Smoke City," including an audio version.

They also have an interview with him.

Warning: I may or may not "spoil" events in discussing, but this doesn't read as a spoil-able story.

One-paragraph review:  This story has a great deal of intellectual appeal.  I had to read it three times to plumb it fully.  If you prefer traditionally told stories, where the chief pleasure is in one reading, you will probably want to look elsewhere.  (No slander is intended toward either type of story--nor readers who prefer one over another.)

Analysis: "Smoke City" is a surreal retelling of the traditional fantasy "portal" story, where the protagonist slips from the current reality into what's generally a stranger more vivid world of imagination.  Take L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy exits the gray landscape of Kansas for the technicolor Oz.  Barzak reverses that here, where vivid landscape is the narrator's present time and she falls into a bleaker landscape of the industrial past.

Smoke City lies underground, which women descend to in sleep (?), although they stay for a year (despite returning in the morning).  After the sleep self, a poignant moment occurs as one is just descending (into a kind of hell of poverty where no plants grow) while another woman rises out of Smoke City to return to her "real" home..

Recalling her mother's words, the narrator quotes Emily Dickinson but without lineation:  "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me."  Barzak has the characters appropriate and repurpose Dickinson's words:
"They were Dickinson's words, of course, not my mother's, but she said them as if they were hers, and because of that, they are now mine, passed down with every other object my mother gave me."
This serves as a clever way of re-interpreting famous lines of poetry.  Dickinson means to say that death is coming, no matter our readiness or intentions.  For Barzak, the lines become more menacing if in an ostensibly pleasant manner.  Here, death, in the guise of society, "comes back for us" to fill its designs.

My favorite exchange:
"It is good to see you again, wife...." 
"It is good to smell you again, husband."
First, they do not identify each except as their marital roles.  Second, they experience things differently.  Third, possibly most importantly, her pleasure in this world is not as great as his.  He states the common greeting for pleasure at seeing someone long gone.  She doesn't exactly return it, slighting him ever so slightly, even if he does provide her some pleasure.  But it isn't him or her, she states later, but the society or world they live in.

The subject of death returns in this dialogue exchange where different kinds of deaths are discussed:
[Her Smoke City husband] said, "I die a little more each time you are away...."
I said "We all die," and closed my eyes to the night.
The only pleasure for the men are the women, yet for the women, all is labor, even love.  The narrator does not want children due to the City, for it burns up their children.  Then she loses her husband, who is "a slab of meat on the floor of the mill, dragged away to be replaced by another body, another man, so that Eliza [the factory] can continue her labors."  So men are cogs in the factory, to be replaced when broken.

She rejects new suitors, lined up around the corner, since they only want her to cook, clean, and make love to them.  However, the factory owners arrive and make her have new children for their factories.

Finally, her year in industrial hell is over.

Response: Thought provoking and probably largely true for those who must live through such conditions.  As a part-time employee as devil's advocate, I might suggest that for the first workers, changing from agronomy to industrial, it must have been a step up the economic ladder or they would have returned.  This does not negate Barzak's commentary on industrialization and class (and gender within that context), but merely adds another perspective.

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