This is an odd review to write. I was in on the birth of the new "journal of parthenogenetic fiction and late labelling" Nemonymous -- an online discussion of how an author's reputation and a reader's previous experience of that author's work can affect perception of anything else they write. The editor is a friend. Another friend has contributed a story to this first issue and I'm sure I know some of the other authors.
And yet, I don't really know much about Nemonymous at all...
I know my friend has a story here because he inadvertently broke the Second Rule of Nemonymous: 1) Authors are not credited in the issue which features their story (although they will be credited in the following issue); and consequently, 2) if you sell to Nemonymous you shouldn't tell anyone until officially credited in the subsequent issue.
So, faced with a bunch of stories, several of which are almost certainly by friends and acquaintances, I have two options: play safe, or in the spirit of the magazine concentrate on the merits of the text alone. I will, of course, attempt the latter. If this review upsets any friends they are, after all, contractually obliged to keep quiet about it until the next issue comes out. They even have to be nice to me, or I might guess the reason for the frosty silences!
So: sixteen anonymous stories, to stand or fail on the no-man's land where their various merits intersect with this reader's tastes.
Production values can have a big impact on a story's apparent quality. A fine story badly presented may still win through; an okay story badly presented will suffer unfairly.
Nemonymous, however, is a beautiful artefact -- it exudes a sheer love of words (although tighter proof-reading wouldn't have gone amiss; this journal isn't littered with typos, but those that are here really do jar against the otherwise excellent production values). The stories here, then, have almost everything in their favour: perhaps a poor story may not seem so poor in these surroundings (and there are a few), but a fine story (of which there are also several) presented with love and care and style is about as good a reading experience as you can get.
As soon as you open the wrapping, Nemonymous promises much.
As this review appears on a speculative fiction website, it should be pointed out that Nemonymous is not a genre publication as such, but given its editor's impressive publishing history and his likely story-submitters, it will clearly be of genre interest, if only by association. There is speculative -- and simply strange -- fiction within these covers, just as there is very probably non-genre fiction written by genre writers.
The stories themselves range through horror, fantasy, sf, surreal and mainstream and there is an almost uniformly high standard of writing. What they have in common is a gentle passion, a love of words, a preference for mood and contemplation over action, and a preponderance of shorter pieces where, well, not a lot really happens.
Apart from a couple of rather weak affairs that amount to very little, even the slightest of these stories has something of interest.
There's quirky horror in "With Arms Outstretched", a decidedly odd little tale with prose that clunks at times but compels, dragging you along with its extrapolative logic. "The Gravedigger" is a refreshingly interesting piece of work, with a lovely atmosphere of stealthy revelation. "The Idiot Whistled Dead" is a particularly odd story, juxtaposing contemporary detail with fairytale and B movie horror. Do the constituent pieces of this story add up? Probably not, but it's worth reading to find out. "The Unmiraculous World of Jackie Mendoza" is an intriguing, mysterious story, but so damned ponderously slow! And "The Mansions of the Moon" offers a striking parable of beauty and art. All of these are reason enough to buy a copy of Nemonymous.
But I haven't yet mentioned the real stars of this issue.
"A Smile in the Sky" is a beautiful, gentle life story; the story brief, the life long and full. This is a vignette loaded with implication, a story where the reader does much of the work and really doesn't mind. This is what I imagine I'd get out of poetry if I could ever learn how to appreciate the form properly.
"Gamlingay Churchyard" is a thought experiment that shows just how good fiction at shorter lengths can be: five pages of idle speculation, all spun on the names and dates on a headstone. It really shouldn't work, but it does!
"All for Nothing" is a wonderful exercise in quirky storytelling: a woman who loses first a husband and then a dog; two postmen who are no longer postmen but just may be able to help her, or fool her, or both.
Finally, "The Friends of Mike Santini" is a superb horror tale of showbiz power gone bad. This one really should get into a Year's Best and is, for me, the real highlight of Nemonymous.
Yes, I enjoyed the stories very much indeed.
The question hovers in the background throughout, though: is the author truly removed from the words, or does the inevitable guessing about a story's lineage intrude?
Context matters to me. I'd hate to go into a bookshop and not be able to use what I know of an author to guide me in my choice. For all the flaws of this approach -- we've all been unfairly put off an author's entire oeuvre by a solitary turkey (I should rephrase that: it conjures up a bizarre image, but you know what I mean) -- it's still a pretty good guide: we follow authors because we know we are likely to enjoy their work. Labelling helps. I have only so much reading time in this life, after all.
The principle behind Nemonymous is exciting and intriguing: a whole new way to encounter fiction. The Nemonymous way may not be the way to do it, but it is certainly a way and a highly successful experiment.
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© the reviewer 22 December 2001