Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories — Sandra McDonald

Fantasy gets a bad rap. While science-fiction has enjoyed something of a restoration of sanctified hipness in recent years, thanks in part to the genre-bending efforts of authors like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, as well as a reappraisal of the works of authors like Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, novels that find themselves classified in the fantasy genre can often be outright dismissed as having no artistic or literary merit. Amazingly, even the work of king daddy J.R.R. Tolkien still finds itself in need of critical defense from time to time. And while fantasy certainly has more than its fair share of rote genre exercises, including countless copycat cash-ins, it’s also an imaginative space buzzing with invention and the capacity for social commentary. Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories exemplifies the best kind of invention and social commentary that we might expect from post-modern fantasy.

Diana Comet collects fifteen stories connected via shared motifs, characters, and settings. McDonald crafts a world that inverts or displaces our own. This world, with its lands like New Dalli and Massasoit, is slightly decentered from our own: we find familiar iterations of our history here—there’s war and imperialism, colonialism and poverty, homophobia and racism—but the idioms are all slightly off, displaced enough be paradoxically familiar and alienating at the same time. “Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy,” for instance, seems set in a 19th-century American milieu amidst a civil war (there’s even a poet named Whit Waltman), yet the transposition, articulate as it is, is also nebulous, disturbing even. McDonald’s spare distortion forces the reader to reconsider his own notions of cultural history, and she does this to great effect, whether taking on gender ideologies (“Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover”), homophobia (“The Fireman’s Fairy”), or racism (“Fay and the Goddesses”). None of these issues are presented glibly, didactically, or clumsily; indeed, it’s through the slightest distortions of fantastic imagination that the reader must re-examine his own society through McDonald’s reflective lens. Most of the stories end with enumerated discussion questions, often silly or whimsical, that serve to puncture the seriousness of the tales; they sometimes force details from our “real” world into the texts of Diana Comet in a way that’s doubly disconcerting. It’s a meta-textual gambit that pays off, however, both in belying any self-seriousness to the narrative proper as well as establishing a thin membrane between fantasy and reality—a membrane of questions that allows the reader to “play,” to disrupt that boundary through his or her own imagination.

McDonald’s world-building in Diana Comet never comes at the expense of good storytelling. With a few exceptions, most of the stories here piece together the frame of a world, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in most of the gaps. Most of the stories seem to take place in an iteration of the nineteenth century, but some to be set earlier, later, and even in a displaced future, like “Kingdom Coming,” a playful apocalypse tale. McDonald’s expositive restraint does wonders; too many writers of inventive fiction feel the need to tell the reader every single detail and nuance of their worlds. I think here of Ursula K. LeGuin’s marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book toward which I believe Diana Comet bears considerable comparison, particularly with respect to the exploration of how gender and sexuality functions in a society. While LeGuin’s book is terrific and fully-realized, she spends a bit too much narrative energy transmitting every detail of that realization to her audience. Diana Comet is rewarding in its gaps and mysteries, as well as its ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in its reader. Oh, I should probably add that McDonald can write; her prose is elegant, lively, wry, and spare.

Diana Comet is a smart, thoughtful post-modern fantasy that may appeal to the kids out there who have outgrown the narrative simplicity of Harry Potter and are looking for a challenge; it will undoubtedly appeal to fans of writers like LeGuin and Atwood, writers who know how to channel narrative traditional tropes of imaginative fiction through distortion and ambiguity and force their readers to think, even as they entertain. Recommended.

6 comments

  1. P.T. Smith · April 17, 2011

    Do you see this as more towards “genre-bending” or straight-up genre? As much as I love the stuff that gets called genre-bending, I get bothered by the possible implication (which I think you veered away from here) that the bending is needed in order to validate the genre. Once you start meeting people who only read/watch things that bend or rise above the genre, it gets a little frustrating.

    Either way, this sounds interesting, so thanks for the recommendation.

    Are you familiar with Guy Gavriel Kay? Your comment the other day about linking writers through your interests, such as world-building, made me remember again that one of the reasons I’m loving reading Kay is his investigation of memory, individual, familial, and cultural, which is something that I count as one of my main interests.

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    • Biblioklept · April 17, 2011

      Backwards—I’ve seen Kay’s books in the bookstore but that’s about it. I’ll try to pick one up next time I’m out (recommendations?).

      I wasn’t trying to suggest, in my review, that books have to “bend” or otherwise subvert narrative expectations in order to be a good read (or “literary” or “art” or whatever) — indeed, it can often lead to the failure of a book. (I think of Shteyngart’s “dystopian sci-fi” book Super Sad True Love Story (http://biblioklept.org/2011/01/25/i-super-hated-gary-shteyngarts-super-sad-true-love-story/), which tried to dress up a bad book in “hip” inversions of genre tropes … messy stuff.

      Diana Comet isn’t exactly straight up genre (the word “straight” here could also be a pun, considering the book’s homosexual themes); it also isn’t necessarily “genre-bending” — in fact it’s more “genre-inventing,” although there are likely precedents, but I’m not immediately aware of them. McDonald is certainly aware and inclusive of many major fantasy tropes — it’s just that she uses them so refreshingly here.

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      • P.T. Smith · April 17, 2011

        I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear; I didn’t think you suggested at all, in fact I think your first paragraph steered neatly clear of it, that books have to bend or subvert genre to be a good read (“literary” or “art” or whatever, indeed). I only brought that up because it’s a thing that has been bothering me of late, and I have a tendency to get tangential. Also, I think a while back I found myself accidentally reading only the “literary” versions of genre and had to reassess what I was doing with my life, wanting to better know the foundation level of genre.

        As for Kay, I’ve only read Tigana and Song for Arbonne (I’ve been more of a sf guy and am trying to catch up on my fantasy), but I loved both, hard. I’d start with Tigana, it’s both better and more fun (its got magic). I read a piece Kay wrote about it when I finished, and he was consciously drawing from Kundera, and thinking back, he was doing it well. It’s not like he has wildly new things to say, but he does a good job of being interesting, drawing intelligent and wide ideas into the genre, and, thankfully, he knows his skill level — when he gets meditative and has characters or the narrator pondering on higher concepts, it fits them and it doesn’t try so hard that it is dull or overdone or collapsing under its own attempted weight. I think I want him to read some Sebald and work with his concepts of memory and the past into awesome swordfighting and heroes/heroins triumphing — Kay does already love exile and melancholy.

        Kay’s take on homosexuality is also amusing. He’s sure not doing something intellectually interesting there, but he seems to have a fondness for characters who aren’t a pathetic cliche being gay, and surprising some other character with that turn of events.

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        • Biblioklept · April 17, 2011

          Do you like any of China Mieville’s stuff?

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          • P.T. Smith · April 17, 2011

            I unfortunately haven’t gotten to him yet. He is way up high on my list though, even if I am trying to read the books I actually already own. It doesn’t help that I’m in the maybe odd position of being a total nerd who actually hasn’t read tons of genre stuff and has only recently begun to rectify that.

            You recommend Mieville?

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            • Biblioklept · April 17, 2011

              I really liked his novel The City and the City. Perdido Street Station is good nerdy fun, but it didn’t make me want to read the rest of his novels set in that world.

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