Rosalie Morales Kearns

Review of This Time, While We're Awake by Heather Fowler
New Orleans: Aqueous Books, 2013. 326 pgs. $14.00

It may seem incongruous to apply the word "pleasurable" to the dystopian visions conjured by Heather Fowler in This Time, While We're Awake. The sixteen stories in the collection feature technology run amok, ecological devastation, a smattering of horrible deaths. There's no doubt that the subject matter is disturbing.

But after my initial read-through, one of the first notes I jotted down was "breath of fresh air." The stories, interwoven with subtle critiques of rampant consumerism, class inequality, and violence against women, do what good literature should do: make you step back and look at your world with a more critical eye. So let's call them "refreshingly disturbing."

A couple of stories do express guarded optimism. "Eugenically, Dear" portrays a society structured around a new form of eugenics, but a dissident doctor may actually succeed in subverting the practice of rating the "quality" of newborns. In "Please Be Careful with the Children," a school administrator takes a stand against the soul-crushing skills tests that derail students' futures. She genuinely sympathizes with children, including the small girl who punches a playground bully, and the boy who plays hooky every day by disappearing through a hole in the fence.

Men guilty of anti-women violence get their comeuppance in "A Big Girl Has a Good Time with Small Men." Hardened male criminals are sent to penal colonies, where specially bred giant women dispense rough justice. Of course the danger of a quick summary like the one I've just offered is that the tale will seem like a one-note song, a clever conceit, but the story is much more subtle. Despite the repulsiveness of the prisoners and their crimes, Fowler invites us to ponder the morality of capital punishment; unlike the title's "big girl" with her unshakeable certainty, we're left uneasy about the justifiability of her violence.

There are moments of whimsy to be found even in dystopias. In "The City of Grandmothers," food and comfort are plentiful in a city where men aren't allowed. "There was arguing, . . . but mainly about whose pie was better." In "Practice Baby," a woman's increasing frustration with a scarily lifelike imitation-infant is narrated with deadpan wit.

Motherhood and the mother-child bond come across as fraught and problematic in several other stories besides "Practice Baby." In "Three-Star Girl," an art teacher consistently awards her small daughter only three out of five stars for her art projects, a slight that rankles well into her daughter's adulthood and overshadows her subsequent achievements in science. In Fowler's skilled hands, that withholding of praise is as unnerving and memorable as the more egregious aggressions occurring in other stories.

The travails of motherhood are also front and center in "Child-Silencing Devices," one of the gems of the collection. The scene is rural California, the interaction between farmer's wife and traveling salesman—vulnerable woman on one side of a screen door, unsavory man on the other—reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. One of the story's many twists is that this particular salesman, Woodrow Wilson (yes, really), is a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual, who owes his sales successes to his androgynous erotic appeal. Interestingly, despite his ostensible desire to self-identify as female (though the omniscient narrator refers to Woodrow as "he"), Woodrow seems to feel no sense of solidarity with the women he encounters, exhausted and demoralized by squalling children, endless chores, and uncaring husbands. Their misery is good for sales.

Another standout is "The Muse Box," which traces a novelist's complicated relationships with two men. On the one hand is her husband, the handsome, cheerful Hal (evoking the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey?), whom Gilly loves but doesn't find terribly stimulating. On the other hand is her very stimulating but problematic ex-friend B, a fellow writer who was on her own intellectual level and creative wavelength, but was unpredictable and infuriating. "B was never comfortable—unless one meant the kind of comfort one had from morphine after surgery." When Gilly suffers a major case of writer's block, she decides, at Hal's suggestion, to re-create B holographically.

Even the story-within-a-story, the novel Gilly struggles with, is dystopian and dire, yet oddly beautiful: after an asteroid hit the earth and destroyed all life, "ash vapors expanded for miles and miles from the place where something particular and intimate had been, into the infinite, black, diffuse universe, which was itself a mystery of particles."

One of the pleasures of reading the stories is the challenge of teasing out the literary lineages—the authors who may have inspired Fowler or to whom she may be responding—and also thinking about the differences between dystopic fiction, realist fiction, science fiction, and the large amorphous category called, among other things, magic realism. (And Fowler is so prolific that she has the luxury of gathering her magic-realist works in separate collections, including her wonderful debut, Suspended Heart.)

I've already mentioned O'Connor and Oates, arguably in the realist camp. Certainly science fiction is an important influence: Ray Bradbury is quoted in the book's epigraph, and there are echoes of Ursula K. Le Guin, particularly Le Guin's famous cautionary fable about social injustice, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." But Fowler's stories in This Time are generally not so much futuristic as taking place in an alternate present—everything as it is now, with the addition of one ingredient (a procedure to erase traumatic memories; a drug to mimic the feeling of being in love; holographic consumer electronics) that sets the plot in motion and serves as a catalyst for her insights about human relationships and human nature, our frailties and our potential. People still have the ordinary capacities/limitations—no one levitates or sprouts wings (thus separating these stories from magic realism)—but there is an eeriness that evokes The Twilight Zone and perhaps horror fiction as well, at least in chilling stories like "The Cabin" with its valiant Last Girl confronting the bad guys.

The collection's multilayered literary lineage doesn't obscure the uniqueness of Fowler's wry wit and artistic vision. Her poetic gift is evident even in the midst of grim scenarios. At the end of "Please Be Careful with the Children," the middle-aged school administrator goes to the torn fence used by her truant student, and decides to crawl through it herself. She is "surprised to discover just how easy it was to get out of the schoolyard and into that open patch of blue sky and trees outside the grid, to slip away from these grounds whilst turning tail against the repetitive bureaucracy, to follow one illicit out into a through."

As implied in the collection's title, these inventive and politically aware stories seem to say to us, While we're awake, let's be awake. Let's head for that hole in the fence.

You can purchase This Time, While We're Awake here.

Rosalie Morales Kearns, author of the short story collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012), is the founder of Shade Mountain Press, a new small press whose focus is literary fiction by women

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