If you’re unfamiliar with Margo Lanagan’s work, rush forth and grab the nearest title of her work and seclude yourself and read. I read “Black Juice,” a collection of short stories, last week and I’m still walking in the haze of her storytelling. Lanagan’s stories are to be savored, yet I wanted to gorge myself on them. Easy to do – they are like a fruit ripened in winter: sensuous in the mouth, sweet but filling, satisfying without being cloying, and uncanny. Mysterious and comforting. These stories are an exemplar of das Unheimliche. They are not so strange as to be alien, but they are by no means commonplace; these stories feel familiar enough that the reader lets her guard down and gets close enough to feel a sense of both dis-ease and wonder. Because these stories are not quite of this world. Delicious paradox.
Lanagan’s writing gives me hope, gives my writer self hope, because these are not pretty little nothings all wrapped up in a bow – tight, pat, and ultimately empty of calories (to switch back to using this food metaphor). As a writer, I like to tell stories that take place somewhere maybe not here but maybe it could have been or could be, without weighing down the tale with rationalization and excuses for time and place and culture. I do not necessarily spoon-feed stories to the reader, and therefore, I feared my stories not very marketable, not very palatable to a culture inundated with over-explanation and pat story lines you could delineate before you even looked at them. Ms. Lanagan’s stories you have to chew, you have to salivate, you have to digest. You might have to break out the knife and fork. But they are so delicious you’ll want to do all the “work,” it’s part of the treat, part of why they are so tasty. The meal handed to you before you are hungry never tastes as good as the one you worked to create, the one you ate when hunger gnawed your stomach.
Lanagan’s stories begin in medias res, both in action and culturally. By applying the term in this way I mean to say that the lack of cultural explanation felt organic and natural. Someone explaining his daily habits, or the culture that he’s internalized is not normal behavior, it would feel unnatural and clunky to read about such things; the rules and mores of the society in which one grows up are as self-evident as the sun crossing the sky. You don’t comment on the sun except to tell the time of day. I’m not sure reverse-marketing, or reverse-propaganda, or reverse-advertising are good ways to describe the effects of how Lanagan writes her stories, but it could be along those lines.
The short stories in Black Juice drip with exquisite storytelling, they tantalize with their combination of the commonplace and the strange – you’ll be curious which fruit the black juice you’re drinking comes from.