Writers Dismantle And Recombine Genre In Seek Of Fresh Modes Of Storytelling
"Interstitial fiction" lacks a satisfying definition--which is part of its definition. And that may be the most concrete observation you can make about this relatively new category of storytelling. Interstitial writing, however, is slowly growing a toehold in the minds of readers who are looking for something that doesn't fall into a neat genre.
Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, doesn't clear up the mystery of the label's meaning all that much. According to the back copy, interstitial art is "work that falls in the interstices--between the cracks--of recognized commercial genres...[it] wanders across borders without stopping at Customs to declare its intent." Think of it as the airport, an interstitial location that most readers know, of fiction. Only this airport is your intended destination.
The 19 stories contained within Interfictions serve as examples but not as points of an argument that could lead to a listing in a Funk and Wagnalls. The airport analogy only holds for so long, once you start to read these tales and realize that the one aspect that binds them together is their lack of convenient genre markers. Perhaps interstitiality is like porn. You know it when you see it.
Also like porn, the stories that work, which is most of them, are exciting. Unlike porn, the pieces in Interfictions all have strong narratives and gorgeous language. One of the standouts is Christopher Barzak's "What We Know About the Lost Families of -------- House." It is equally a standard haunted-house story, a postmodern mind game, and a puff of Neil Gaiman-esque whimsy. Despite those familiar tropes, it also feels wholly unique, as if it is rewriting our expectations about what kind of story it is even as we're reading it. "What We Know" is, above all else, a gripping tale with undeniable momentum.
This idea of playing with genre conventions is interstitiality's charm and what makes it a movement for the hypertext age. We want words to do more now and for our time not to have been spent with just one idea. Make a list of what the earmarks are of any genre. Can you have something you can call science fiction if it doesn't have any notion of technology? Can you have traditional fiction without a sense that the writer's world is recognizably real? Can you label a text fantasy if it doesn't involve magic?
Take, for example, Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which takes place in an Alaska that has never existed. What do you call it? In which section of the store should you shelve it? Now ask the same questions about Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver series or about Haruki Murakami.
The stories in Interfictions operate the same way--by existing in the spaces between what we want our genres to be. Most of these stories work, regardless of what you choose to call them. Like Mikal Trimm's "Climbing Redemption Mountain," which is about two brothers who are off on an adventure to put their dead father to rest. Like most great short stories, it is also about larger themes of what it means to be human. Or Csilla Kleinheincz's "A Drop of Raspberry," which is about a woman who is also a lake who is also in love with a man. Or Anna Tambour's "The Shoe in SHOES' Window," which is about retail window design and one-legged men. Your first reading of any of these stories is one of unsettled joy. As stories, they are delightful--but your subconscious is rattled because it doesn't know where to put them.
Like many anthologies, Interfictions can be uneven. Colin Greenland's "Timothy" may be a great story for anyone who has ever considered a sexual relationship with his or her cat, but it is hard to see what makes it interstitial and not just salacious. Léa Silhol's "Emblemata," translated from French by Sarah Smith, doesn't have enough of an urgent narrative to work as a story that shows rather than tells. Veronica Schanoes "Rats," which is a loose retelling of Nancy Spungen's (yes, of Sid and Nancy) biography, is a raw effort with some truly sardonic moments that never quite moves beyond cliché. Despite the misfires, what is also to be admired are Sherman and Goss' dedication to finding stories from outside America's borders. It's fitting, given how one of the main tenets of the interstitial movement is the idea of porous borders and the spaces in between them.
Leslie What's "Post Hoc" might be the story that provides the best handhold for interstitiality. It takes place mostly in a post office, as interstitial a place as there ever was. A post office is not a place to settle, yet that is what the female protagonist does after being rebuffed by a boyfriend. She finds comfort in this in-between space and it defaults to a place to arrive, rather than a space of transition. Much like, of course, the nongenre genre that it also serves to illustrate.