My first Christopher Barzak story was "The Guardian of the Egg", an environmental coming-of-age story that took a bit of Dr. Suess's Daisy Head Maisy and turned it into something serious and soulful. I read "Guardian" in Salon Fantastique but it was recently posted online in the summer issue of the Journal of Mythic Arts. Here's a bit on the story from my Bookslut review:
Barzak must know that he is playing with a bit of a classic here and yet he remains serious with his story of environmental courage and dedication. It might be all about a girl with a flower in her head (at least at first) but in the end you won't be laughing at Hester. Rather, you will thinking more about how Barzak could have found such a compelling character from a premise that seems to insist on silliness above all else.
I enjoyed "Guardian" alot - I was impressed by how well Chris was able to make the characters serious in an almost absurd set of circumstances. It was while reading his story "What We Know About the Lost Families of ___ House" in the Interfictions collection that I was really deeply impressed however. I came upon "Lost Families" when I was in a bit of a writing funk - not a block or even a slump but a point where the idea of writing was not exciting, let alone the actual work of it. As I wrote at the time, Chris' story knocked me right back into loving the notion of creating good stories:
Chris has managed to reinvent - or reinvigorate - the haunted house story with this one. He makes me realize all over again what you can do with a story when you're a truly good writer. This one just might have thrown me back onto the writing track.
"Lost Families" is a classic haunted house story in a lot of ways; everyone knows weird crap is going on in that house, everyone knows people have died there, and everyone is freaked out about it. But rather than ratchet up the tension in a conventional chronological manner, Chris bounces back and forth in time making the house creepier and creepier as the reader sees what it has done over decades. He also shows why anyone would want to live there - what they would hope to gain from a place so dreadfully possessive:
Suddenly a rumbling came from inside ----House. Mrs. Blank looked at the dark backside of the house, at its gingerbread eaves and its square roof, at its dark windows tinseled with starlight and shuddered at the thought of going back in without anyone waiting for her, without her son beside her. The house rumbled again, though, louder this time and she went without further hesitation. Some women marry a house, and this bond neither man nor God can break.
Williams' body was never found, poor child. Like his brother, he vanished into nothing.
But we say the orchard got him.
My review of Interfictions was garbled a bit when it ran at Bookslut - so my mention of "Lost Families" makes it sound like a harmless story. What I meant - what I think - is that it is a deeply sad and scary piece of work but Chris lulls you into thinking (more than once) that it maybe isn't so bad. And then he shows you, yes it is, which you suspected all along anyway.
Just wonderful writing and the story that really hooked me on waiting and watching for what Chris does next.
In the brand new collection, Coyote Road, Chris contributes a tale set in Japan, "Realer Than You". Told from the perspective of teenage Elijah, who is not happy to have been yanked from America to a Tokyo suburb, it is about finding yourself while in the midst of running away. There's a lot of interesting bits to this story; Elijah's younger sister is both a brainy and spiritual character for one and the way he writes about bustling Tokyo and the surrounding quieter countryside perfectly shows Elijah's own inner confusion over what he wants, and where he wants to be. The heart of the tale though is his meeting and friendship with Midori, who teaches him about the importance of going home. The fantasy elements are here, as always, but they are a quiet presence in the face of a sterling coming-of-age story. Consider this:
"I was in love in one fast moment. Well, sort of. It was something like love, but conflicted. How do you fall in love with someone wearing a fox costume and not be worried for your sanity? Whatever the feeling was, it spun me."
Each of these stories has built on the one I read before it, leading up to the release today of Chris' new novel, One For Sorrow. As it happens, my copy only arrived a few days ago and thus I am right now on page 70 and can't speak for the novel as a whole. I can tell you it will be reviewed in my October column as it is a ghost story but that I will also be recommending it as a coming-of-story; albeit the coming-of-age of two boys, one dead and one alive. (That should give you an idea of just how unique this book is.)
As usual, it is the spot on way that Chris channels universal experiences and puts them in the voices of his characters that is really impressing me. Here is fifteen-year-old Adam on his parents:
When I look back on it now, I can see the holes they were making. I can see how, with each nasty thing they said, they were attracting misfortune, making doorways for darkness to come into our lives.
And then there is his missed opportunity with Gracie:
She looked kind of punk, but I could never tell what her style was. She didn't dress like other girls. Not like the cheerleaders with long hair and made-up faces, and not like the smart girls in sweaters and pleated pants. She once shaved her head in junior high and everyone said she was a witch. I sort of liked her head like that, the skin shining, but couldn't make myself tell her. And after awhile it was like with Jamie. The moment passed, her hair grew in, and I was late as usual.
I don't know how the story ends, although I'm already worried about both boys, the living Adam and the dead Jamie. In reading One For Sorrow, and recalling these short stories, I feel tempted to say something like "Chris Barzak is a writer to watch." That seems like one of the most worn-out literary cliches out there, but in this case it really is true. I watch out for everything he does and put my cold hard cash on the table when it comes to reading his work and passing it along to others. He's good - very good; and if the past is any indication, he will only get better.
Now the hard work of getting other readers to discover him must begin in earnest because trust me all you YA librarians, this is a writer your teen patrons need to be reading; give his book a shot and see how much you agree with me.
For more on Christopher Barzak's work, see The Mumpsimus where you can find a round-up of all posts on Barzak Day
[Post title from One For Sorrow.]