Yet I feel entangled by them, tripped up, sometimes even implicated in some vague guilt. Of course, it's possible to straightforwardly trick the reader, but Soukup's stories avoid overt deception. They simply relate themselves, leaving me responsible for any self-identification or second-guessing moral judgment.
When I read her work, I sometimes feel as if I'm being led through a familiar landscape, but led inefficiently; I wonder about the awkward, somewhat arbitrary, path taken by the narrative -- and then I wake up in someone else's living room. I feel deceived, but I know there was no deceit. The hint of awkwardness was the clue to the final reading.
To take a simple example, "Dog's Life" (Amazing, Mar. 1991) seems to be a "talking animals" fable satirizing liberation movements. Conservative down to the gender code, it features a spoiled female cat who exploits an absurd revolution for personal profit, and a faithful male dog who attains a measure of success through uncomplaining hard work. Humans, such as the pets' former owners, are simply background characters, maybe a bit of a distraction from the Real Story.
But at the Real Story's end, one of those secondary characters proves to be principal. The concluding idyllic tableau of a woman illicitly cuddled alone with her landlord, the dog, is too familiar and, in this context, too bizarre to fit a simple political satire. In retrospect, the plot played itself out solely to produce this happy ending. If this fable can be said to have a moral, it rests in the notion that so much absurdity, with such ugly implications, is required to produce an approximation of love between equals.
"Fuzz" (Monochrome, Broken Mirrors Press, 1990) also plays with the reader's expectations, but this time the stylistic misdirection relies upon the assumptions we bring to a mainstream story. As usual with Soukup, the theme is forthrightly announced: on the first page, a young acting student is forced into the role of siren as treatment for her supposed repression.
Repression is a familiar topic in the narrative arts. Its victim is usually female. Its context is usually heterosexual. Its result is usually bad. Either the unhealthily repressed woman goes completely unhinged, destroying a man, or the sought-after innocent woman is destroyed by slavering male predators. Since the opening of "Fuzz" is insufficient to diagnose the point-of-view character as definitely pathologically withdrawn or definitely sympathetic-but-naive, the reader might expect the ensuing tale to supply decisive clues.
Instead, the very notion of such a dichotomy becomes increasingly untenable. The short piece is full of tightly coupled contradictions -- dissipation and focus, numbness and warmth, skill and carelessness, escape and capture -- and over all these, two stories are simultaneously played out. One, a collegiate date rape, is implied. The other, a fantasy of sorts, is the surface story as reported by the words and experienced by the protagonist.
As the narrative moves along, the well-trained reader will most likely struggle to maintain focus past the subjective vagueness (or "fuzz") to the naturalistic story beneath. But at the point the synthesis can no longer hold, the narrative continues to privilege fantasy. In a hyperbolic figure which is flatly reported, the protagonist literally vanishes within herself, leaving, appropriately, at most a bit of condensation. The surface story is thereby concluded, and the reader is left to sort out his or her own conclusion to the "real" plot. Our engagement at an level outside the story itself, our easy reading between the lines, leaves us high and dry as the lines elude us. Objective naturalism, with its objectified victims, may remain privileged, but it is not to be taken for granted.
In one of my favorite examples, "Frenchmen and Plumbers" (Aboriginal, Sept.-Oct. 1987), all-powerful aliens take the place of the genie. The plot is simple: An artist describes what's wrong with the world; the aliens "fix" it, disastrously. As is usual in these stories, the granted wish brings pain to the wisher, although the pain is not, strictly speaking, for herself. Indeed, for a less common-sensible protagonist (Alfred Jarry, say), the story's photogenic apocalypse might seem a triumph. Instead, Soukup's protagonist is a humanist in a homicidal age, not thoroughly selfish and not thoroughly mad, and suffers guilt for her complicity in the world's undoing.
"Frenchmen and Plumbers" attacks the confusion of ethics with aesthetics, and attacks the very mixing of fantasy with reality which powers most of Soukup's fiction, by using the protagonist's wish to literalize these concepts. The magically granted wish can be thought of as a device for transforming a thought into narrative, to see what stuff it's made of.
Almost always, it's found lacking. Traditionally, wish tales, whether humorous or horrifying, are pessimistic. Contrary to the wisher's expectations and desires, the unmodified world, even with its vain hopes, usually proves preferable to the improved model.
Wish tales thus make the unanticipated seem inevitable, which may be one reason Soukup is so strongly drawn to them. However, since even the granted wish, by definition the most efficient means to any desired end, is destructive, such stories may also argue against ambition and change. In the wish tale, passivity seems intolerable but to act is to increase pain.
Soukup's stories, whether wish-powered or not, often depict such carefully constructed dilemmas. Over time, she seems to chart the effects of variations in their premises, modifying the lab animal's maze and re-clocking its performance. In the revenge comedy, "The Arbitrary Placement of Walls" (Asimov's, Apr. 1992), she dampens the imperative against harming others. If pain can't be eliminated, perhaps it can at least be transferred.
Most of "The Arbitrary Placement of Walls" is preparation for a plea of self-defense. The protagonist is trapped by compulsive memories which manifest themselves as "ghosts" of her living ex-lovers. Her attempts to escape emotional isolation result in further constriction; the hauntings brick her into narrow corridors within her own house, a topographical manifestation of the traumas upon which she's forced to dwell.
Unable to trust love and unable to suppress need, the protagonist balances herself between hurt and hatred. The interference of others, whether well-meaning or not, only increases the difficulty of that balance, thus creating the enforced circuitousness which takes up most of the story. Having accustomed the reader to this crabbed movement between evils, the story leads to a conclusion which shocks, not only by its harshness, but by its directness.
It also shocks by the relief it brings. Soukup's use of the third-person-limited viewpoint predisposes us to empathize with the character's suffering and frustration, while avoiding any direct appeal for sympathy. Readers who rise to the bait are likely to find themselves pulled into a situation different than they reckoned for, but forced to admit that the trip was voluntarily taken.
Are the traps truly inescapable? In its odd way, a story like "Dog's Life" points out the flaw shared by such simple solutions as vengeance, or wish-fulfillment, or retreat: their very simplicity, the very efficiency which makes them attractive.
Soukup's fiction doesn't trust attempts to move directly from a static undesirable state ("ugliness" in "Frenchmen and Plumbers," or "betrayal" in "Arbitrary Placement...") to a static over-idealized state ("an aesthetic universe" or "emotional safety"). Our half-understood desires are hollow, or downright catastrophic, when materialized. But postponed gratification lets less immediate, less selfish, and more complex goals develop. There's no "escape," only an ongoing engagement.
The craving for static resolution plays a varied, often destructive, part in our emotional lives, and, to some extent, it's embedded in narrative itself. If a problem is presented in a story, we expect the problem to be solved by the time the story is resolved. A clear, cohesive narrative which attacks the very idea of static success may feel paradoxical, with no paradox to be found. This may be one reason these stories seem both integral and entangling.
"The Story So Far" (Full Spectrum 4, Bantam, 1993), perhaps Soukup's strongest work to date, directly confronts narrative expectations. There is a feminist critical technique which focuses attention on missing or falsified female voices in literature, the Others whose muteness enables the centrality of the male subject. This technique is reified into fiction in "The Story So Far," whose narrator, Emmy, is a secondary character from a 1950s-ish mainstream novel.
Inside that fiction, Emmy is allowed only brief moments of consciousness, during which she's controlled like a puppet, in an effect both amusingly true to the conceit and reminiscent of those eery lapses of control in which one speaks with one's parent's voice, or finds oneself irresistibly acting out some melodramatic cliche. It's as elegant a hopeless situation as can be imagined.
But instead of lurching into an instant of viciousness (as in a tale of revenge) or an instant of illusory fulfillment (as in a wish tale), Emmy shows the patience of a lifer communicating with the neighboring cell by coin clink. She reaches out to a fellow victim, despite the antagonism dictated by the "story" and despite her anticipated rejection. Over the course of a stolen life, she earns unexpected, ecstatic moments of community.
As its title indicates, "The Story So Far" is not concluded so much as worked out (or worked out of). The story's resolution is the resolution of background as foreground. As in the other work described here, the conclusion feels satisfying and fully earned, but in "The Story So Far" the protagonist herself earns the conclusion, and earns it by the process of the story.
"The Story So Far" is both an example of Martha Soukup's best fiction, and a guide to it. Emmy is both a character and an interpreter; like those of us engaged in the process of reading, she is not completely of the work, and yet finds herself through the work. At first lost with the reader in a familiar but skewed setting, Emmy threads the narrative maze with awkward care, and thereby "solves" it. Through the story, she fashions a room of her own, which we unexpectedly share.