Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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Report to the Men's Club
by Carol Emshwiller

A book review by Steven Wu
July 31, 2009

Rating: 4 (of 10)

The short stories in Carol Emshwiller's Report to the Men's Club are long on atmosphere but short on structure. The first story, "Grandma," is a case in point. The narrator is a young girl whose elderly grandmother used to be (I guess, still is) a superhero. The opening is great: "Grandma used to be a woman of action. She wore tights. She had big boobs, but a tweeny-weeny bra. Her waist used to be twenty-four inches." And Emshwiller hits on some resonant images. At one point, the grandmother flies around looking for her granddaughter, but her powers arenít what they used to be:

She tried to fly as she used to do. She did fly. For my sake. She skimmed along just barely above the sage and bitterbrush, her feet snagging at the taller ones. That was all the lift she could get. I could see, by the way she leaned and flopped like a dolphin, that she was trying to get higher.

But the story is basically non-existent. Emshwiller could have gone in a number of interesting directions with this setup. Instead, she only hints at a few of them, then cuts the narrative off. What fills up the rest of the story is a rambling monologue that reflects the narrator's odd but uninteresting internal life. Itís a waste of good writing -- and of an excellent idea.

I could repeat this criticism for almost every story in Report to the Menís Club. "Acceptance Speech" is a speech delivered by a human captured by a race of alien poets; great idea, but gassy and rambling. "The Paganini of Jacob's Gully" is about a skillful violinist in some vague European setting who gets beat up a lot; the violinist fulminates about his lot in life while the story founders. Etc. The one exception is "Mrs. Jones," a disquieting little vignette about a pair of weird sisters and the curious creature they find in their backyard. Itís told in the third person, and perhaps as a result is refreshingly free of self-indulgent speechifying.

I can certainly appreciate what Emshwiller is doing here. In a genre where short stories are often full of action but bereft of soul, Emshwiller has reversed the formula. Sheís not, I think, really interested in science fiction as such, or even in exploring the details of the ideas that she introduces. What she enjoys playing with most is mood and language. On that front, her stories are a tremendous success. As an entertainment, much less so.

Copyright © 2009 Steven Wu

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