Friday, January 05, 2007

Bruce Holland Rogers: The Keyhole Opera

Let me summarise, if you're short of time. The Keyhole Opera is a book of short stories by Bruce Holland Rogers, and it won the 2006 World Fantasy Award for best collection. As such, it is warmly recommended to anyone who is interested in the fantasy genre, and, for that matter, to anyone who is interested in the short-story form per se.

The process by which awards are made in the World Fantasy Convention is somewhat complicated, but, to the outside observer (in this case, me) it seems to owe less to the mutual backscratching and Buggins's turn syndrome which I have sometimes suspected in other awards.

In other words, there is a reasonable assumption that a book which wins an award from this outfit is likely to be rewarding. But that is not the same thing as saying that it is going to be to everyone's taste. I was not all that thrilled, for example, by Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, which won the best novel category. (Since then, Viktor Janis kindly sent me a copy of a Murakami short story, Honey Pie, as a result of which I now understand better what generates readers' enthusiasm about this man.)

Bruce Holland Rogers has been mentioned on this blog a few times before, principally on 21 November 2005. He runs an unusual web site where, for $5 a year, you can subscribe to a scheme under which he sends you three original short stories a month, throughout the year. This, you have to admit, is pretty good value. There are 700 subscribers.

Bruce is also the winner of some previous prizes. For example, his story The Dead Boy at Your Window won the Pushcart Prize in 1999 (you can read it online); and in 2004 Don Ysidro won the World Fantasy Award for best short story (also available online). Both of these stories are included in The Keyhole Opera.

The latest collection contains forty stories. These are divided into five categories with the following titles: stories; metamorphoses; insurrections; tales; and symmetrinas.

Some of these stories, it's worth pointing out, are very short indeed: they are contained comfortably on one page. These ultra-short ones remind me of some of Stephen Gyllenhaal's poems, in that they are fragments, descriptions of scenes glimpsed or people met; the difference is that the Gyllenhaal poems are laid out on the page, and punctuated (i.e. not much), as poems normally are, while the Rogers stories are treated as prose.

It's also important to state, I think, that quite a number of these stories are not strictly fantasy at all: they could equally well be regarded as literary fiction. This is particularly true of the first section.

I am, on the whole, an admirer of brevity, and the interesting thing about some of these short stories is that even the longer ones feel short; which is a good sign. And it's all very clever stuff (which is intended to be a compliment, by the way, rather than a criticism). Some of it is seriously weird.

The book contains an introduction by Michael Bishop. In it, he not only pays due tribute to the author's skills, but also explains what a symmetrina is. In brief, it's an invention of Bruce Holland Rogers. It is a fixed (but flexible) framework for a short story, which requires it to have an odd number of sections, each of which tells its own story but with a common theme. The longest part comes in the middle, shorter ones at the ends, and mirroring sections must have exactly the same number of words. The writer (if I've got it right) decides the number of words, but, beginning at the beginning, the part lengths double and redouble until you get to the middle, after which they diminish again.

I haven't tried using this format myself, and I'm not sure that I will, but I can certainly see that it has its attractions. It's a bit like writing a sonnet: the precise rules somehow make it easier to concentrate on what you're about.

In short, The Keyhole Opera is an intriguing collection, containing some very fine stories of their kind, and providing a good deal for a short-story writer to think about too.


Andrew O'Hara said...

"Dead Boy at Your Window" was highly intriguing and beautifully written. Nice to see truly good writing meet with some deserved success!

Rogers' ideas are innovative and I like his subscription site idea. He'll hardly grow wealthy with it, but it's one more creative idea in a quickly changing field. I'm a rather undisciplined cuss who can't sit still to structure a haiku, though, so doubt I'd be able to build a symmetrina.

Anonymous said...

The short story Don Ysidro is available in audio form on-line for free.

Martin R

Blogaulaire said...
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Iain said...

I just thought I'd mention that a construction very like Bruce Holland Rogers's symmetrina is to be found in one full-length novel I can think of, namely Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

And if you want to know what the GOB thinks of this author (or at least of his agent), look here.

Now I don't suppose that David Mitchell (whose work, pace the GOB, deserves all the homage it has received) sticks to the symmetrina word-count, but the construction is essentially the same.

So is Bruce Holland Rogers really to be credited with the invention? It may be that he came up with it first, and that Mitchell decided to use it. Or it may be that Holland Rogers decided to adapt Mitchell's technique for the short story. Either way, I'd be intrigued to know.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

A friend sent me to your blog and as I was scrolling I saw this on Bruce Holland Rogers. I reviewed his Word Works a few years ago and have kept in touch off and one. WW is one of my favorite books on writing--one that I return to frequently. Just thought I'd put a good word in for it!