Three-A-Week (1.2): Sarah Pinsker’s “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind”

Published June 2013 in Strange Horizons

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

Damn. This story is transcendent.

One of the most impressive things a speculative author can do is write a story where the speculative element is intriguing, a little alienating, and–above all–important. “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” seems to toy with its readers’ expectations for a speculative element; it’s never described explicitly, and references to it are oblique. It’s a promise that is only hinted at, and it’s all the sweeter for it. Because this story has such heart and such a compelling set of characters moving through the narrative, the speculative element can be an integral element without being the engine needed to drive the whole thing. And that’s really wonderful.

I was really struck by the sectioning choices Sarah Pinsker makes in the story. The individual sections seem sweet (a word that seems completely and all-encompassingly appropriate for this story), which is not necessarily a comment on their content (though many are, in fact, quite sweet) so much as it’s a comment on their form. Each section, short or long, is self-contained and perfect even as it disrupts, progresses, and expands the sections that have come before it. The story of George and Millie’s meeting is a cute little thing (with the unfairly perfect line “Out of such coincidences, lives were built” to finish it off), but it comes after the tragic start of George’s stroke. And even that perfect last line foreshadows a relationship that will struggle, that needed to be built instead of magically discovered. I felt myself pulled back and forth in these small sections, and that movement generated so much anxiety and excitement and affection for the characters.

I identified so completely with Millie in this story. The way in which she begins mourning George even before he’s died, the way in which she focuses on mundane, sometimes inane details in the face of her husband’s swift decline–all of that stuff is so true to my experience with the death of a loved one. Before my dad passed, in one of the hospital visits that featured doctors communicating chances for survival that no betting person would take, I was staring down at this fake cross section of a tree the size of a dinner plate. It had more in common with most frisbees than it did with trees, alive or dead, and it had a saccharine quote about belief or love or hope or something like that. I can still remember the plasticity of that fake slice of tree, the lime-green glaze of the letters across the shiny surface. It felt like the whole world, everything but the doctor’s voice and that phony bit of sentimentality, had disappeared, and what I was left with was a microscopic consideration of a bit of plastic beside me. “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” captures that feeling so perfectly that I struggled to continue reading for a little bit.

In terms of narrative structure, there’s something to be learned from the way Sarah uses the smaller narratives (What George is drawing in the hospital? What sort of work was he really doing in the shadowy organization he worked for? What’s up with the treehouse?) to complement the larger, more immediate narratives (George’s stroke(s), Millie and George’s marriage and family, Millie’s future plans). I am left feeling totally envious and impressed by how perfectly these different sized narratives come together. George’s last words, uttered at the beginning of the story, become threads that tie together narratives from the past and the future Millie is considering. The tree house, seemingly a cute detail that tells us something about George’s love for both his kids and architecture, serves an important function in the plot as well as countering the limiting, oppressive designs he was asked to create. The treehouse, strangely, is the fantastical bit of the story despite it’s grounded, material, realistic place, and the prison, the site of the speculative element of the story, seems to be a cold, hard thing, plain and cruel in its goals. It’s a lovely juxtaposition, and one I’m still crunching on.

I can see why “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” was nominated for a Nebula and won the Theodore Sturgeon award. It’s a story of leaving and staying, of being allowed to go and being free to remain, and it’s true, true, true all the way down to its warm, sweet heart.

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