Reality by Other Means: The Best Short Fiction of James Morrow
by James Morrow
Cover Artist: Old & New York by Sharkartstudios (Michael Shores & Angela Mark)
Review by Benjamin Wald
Wesleyan Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780819575944
Date: 03 November 2015 List Price $30.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
As a satirist who uses SF and fantasy as his tools, James Morrow immediately calls to mind Kurt Vonnegut. This parallel can, of course, be overstated. Morrow tends to adopt a sophisticated, urbane authorial voice that differs dramatically form Vonnegut's intentionally childlike writing style. Still, they do share some important similarities. Satire runs the risk of becoming cynical, allowing cleverness and bitterness to replace genuine emotional engagement. Neither Morrow nor Vonnegut fall into that trap; both put satire to use in the service of a burning anger against injustice and misery, and a deep compassion, that shines through the satirical humor. Reality by Other Means collects some of Morrow's best short fiction, allowing the reader to see his biting humor deployed against a variety of targets.
Several of the stories take on religion, one of Morrow's perennial targets. I found "Auspicious Eggs" a rare miss, taking on a straw man by imagining a future in which a cartoonishly evil catholic church protects the rights of the "unconceived" by such expedients as drowning infertile infants at baptism to save resources for fertile infants. However, the stories titled 'bible stories for adults'--"The Deluge" and "The Covenant" are both excellent. "The Deluge" takes as its subject the flood, from the point of view of a doomed sinner who manages to find her way on to the ark. Subversive, feminist, and witty, it hits many of the same notes as Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, but manages to pack into 10 pages what takes Findley a whole novel to suggest. "The Covenant" is similarly rich, questioning the role of divine laws in human history by creating an alternate history in which Moses never recovered the ten commandments after shattering the tablets in his rage at the Israelite worship of the golden calf.
"The Raft of the Titanic", "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole", and "Arms and the Woman" all take aim at war. "The Raft of the Titanic" is particularly powerful, where the survivors of the Titanic sinking survive on a giant raft and decide to make their own society upon hearing of the horrors of the first world war. "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole", on the other hand, mixes Hollywood history with the atomic arms race, a strange mix that casts new light on both. "Arms and the Woman" tells us of the Trojan war through the eyes of a surprisingly modern Helen of Troy, and is one of the funniest stories in the collection, full of sly references and jokes, while still hitting home in its satire of war and male ego.
"Lady Witherspoon's Solution" takes on patriarchy through the unlikely lens of a Victorian croquet society with a sinister secret. This story shows off Morrow's facility as a writer, told through a series of journal entries of a Victorian explorer interspersed with the diary of a young gentlewoman, the two stories converging with an unexpected twist.
James Morrow is a fascinating author, mixing gorgeous prose with subtle humor, passionate heart with self-aware irony. This collection is an impressive tribute to the breadth of his talent, and a great place to either discover his work for the first time, or else catch up on the work of a fascinating and unique author.