You Should Read: M. Rickert (various stories)

It’s worth repeating: I love having friends who read because they introduce me to wonderful new writers, all of the time. Today’s great author is M. Rickert, suggested to me by the same person who gave me J.G. Ballard and Kelly Link and Ted Chiang and others. I read four of her stories, and here’s what I thought:

“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2008: The pure and beautiful devotion of a young woman to an ideal that just happens to want her mother dead. The girl, the narrator, speaking to us as if revealing her thoughts to a journal she suspects will someday be read, tells us about just one aspect of her life: the executions of women who had abortions at some point in the past. By describing how this one part of society affects every part of her life, the story of a future America gone mad unfolds. Simply, easily, as if it is fact, as if it is true, and we can’t do anything now but watch it happen.

“The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece,” Fantasy & Science Fiction: Like most of her writing, Rickert begins this story with several paragraphs of exposition about the main character. Dialogue is sparse. It’s obvious that Rickert is telling a story, instead of showing you what happened, and the dialogue is only occasionally necessary. This isn’t the corpse painter’s story, or the sheriff’s, or the sheriff’s wife’s … it’s Rickert’s, and she tells in it such a way that you can’t avoid the knowledge that you’re being told. Of the four that I read, I liked this the least, because it feels so impersonal. Maybe because the story is so external – Rickert tells you what they do and what they say and a tiny bit about how they feel but she says very little about why the characters do what they do, or what madness must be inside of them that would allow the ending to be comforting, instead of disturbing.

“The President’s Book Tour,” Fantasy & Science Fiction: Instead of telling the story of a girl obsessed, victimized, deluded, Rickert gives up a narrator who tells their own story. The narrator takes responsibility for all of the parents in this small, post-war town, and tells the story as if the group has spoken through this one voice. They have been victimized by war, and by their exhaustion, and by the pain of birthing children made monstrous from the chemicals used in the fighting. They have grown so tired of caring for their children’s constant needs that they don’t listen to their children. They don’t hear wants or needs, they only see complications that must be dealt with. The President comes to town to promote his book, and to promote peace, and takes one of their children for his wife. It never occurs to them to ask her if that’s what she wants, and the consequences change the whole town.

The Girl Who Ate Butterflies,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1999: Again, Rickert introduces us to a young girl whose strange appetite makes her different, but whose relationship with her mother – who, like in “”Evidence of Love”, has abandoned her – defines who she is. Lantanna’s mother has run away completely, but by hiding herself in the garage, she’s cut herself out of her daughter’s life. Life is pain, love is a wound, according to this ghost of a parent, and so Lantanna is brainwashed just like Lisle. She is a victim of her upbringing just the same. Like “Book Tour”, Rickert puts into this story a disdain for the physical aspects of sex, which I could have done without, but understood for this character. Like the parents in “Book Tour”, Lantanna’s mother doesn’t want to be bothered to listen to her child’s needs, and overlays her own view of the world onto her child.

In fact, that’s what all four stories have in common. Someone has a view of the world and they’re forcing it onto everyone else. Lantanna’s mother and the narrator in “The President’s Book Tour” are the same as the society in “Evidence of Love”. Even the sheriff in “Corpse Painter” blithely assumes his wife would see the gift of her decorated dead son in the same way that he does (the fact that Rickert seems to be writing her into acceptance of this macabre “gift” makes no sense at all, the way the story is set up) and acts accordingly.

I love Rickert’s use of detail and the way she loves nature. There are life-changing butterflies in “Book Tour” and “Girl”; there is the scent of roses and the color of green trees in “Book Tour”, the crinkle of dead leaves in “Corpse Painter”, the meadow in “Girl”. I like her work better when she’s letting us hear the story, or watch it, instead of telling it to us, as she does unsuccessfully in “Corpse Painter”. She is so good at evoking emotion, at allowing us to see the runaway madness in others, and in presenting the madness in a way that makes it clear that we should see it as wrong, and should be warned by it. “Corpse Painter” isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t as good, and in that way it fails what we’ve grown to expect her work to be.

The solution: Read it first. And then “Girl”, and then “Evidence” and then “Book Tour” and you’ll see the writing get better and better and better, even if they weren’t written in that order.

Overall, I would recommend M. Rickert’s work to anyone. It has the ability to appear simple, to lull you into the story, and to allow you to have an emotional reaction to it – and isn’t that what we want from our writing? There are recurring themes in her work, to be sure, and I would not recommend reading a bunch of her stories in one sitting, as that might make the similarities too obvious, but spread out over time I think each story can be taken for what it is.

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