Writers use dysfunctional childhoods as material; the more angst we have to work with, the better. In the new preface for this reissued edition of the story collection Black Glass, Karen Joy Fowler speaks of the turmoil of being a writer without a damaged past. Life has treated her gently; she recalls how much freedom her parents allowed her as a child. Perhaps it is this freedom that shaped her remarkable imagination, which makes the suspension of disbelief come naturally to a reader of her stories.
Fowler weaves in and out of genres gracefully, creating a colorful quilt of suspense and fantasy. Her admitted focus on peripheral characters shows in every short story of Black Glass, a keen study of human nature that enthralls and leaves the reader wanting more. In “The View From Venus: A Case Study,” a simple yet entertaining story is viewed from the perspective of a class studying the evolution of romance, giving an added layer of insight into the mating rituals of humans.
Barbara Kingsolver called Fowler’s writing “surreptitiously smart,” and it shows in this collection. Each piece presents a clear mission or objective, but there’s something lurking beneath the pretty prose. All 15 stories covertly tell another tale altogether, something that usually comes as a genuine surprise to the reader. In “Game Night At The Fox And Goose,” she explores an alternative version of women’s history with an odd mix of irony and inspiration. The result is alluring in an uncomfortable way.
Fowler’s firm grasp of history, particularly women’s history, is seen in “The Elizabeth Complex,” which combines the stories of Lizzy Borden, Elizabeth Taylor, and Queen Elizabeth to create a brief glimpse of what might have been. This rewrite of history paints a vivid picture of a different future, while serving as takedown of every kind of father figure. A reader with his or her own daddy issues might find some catharsis in the sharply written tale. Fowler even pokes a little fun at herself for the consist reappearance of fathers in her work, something that became glaringly obvious to her as she compiled this collection.
The haunting “Go Back,” with its undercurrent of sadness, captures her preoccupation with the idea of Eden lost. Childhood ends; happiness often does, too. Once we realize life isn’t the stuff of fairy tales, we often fear its ordinariness. The beauty of Fowler’s work is how she illustrates the possibility of an ordinary life with extraordinary events.
What’s most captivating about Black Glass is the journey it takes you down the road of what might have been. “Letters From Home” is a poignant look at a tense time in our history, when young people cared more about the political temperature than pop culture. A college girl writes to her boyfriend who went to serve in the Vietnam war, while she and her girlfriends gather to do everything in their power to stop it. Years later, she looks back and reflects how differently her life turned out from what she expected. She’s looking for something, anything, to explain herself to herself.
Black Glass gives the reader brief glimpses into another world, intense snippets that somehow feel narratively complete—Fowler is uniquely capable of packing a lot of information into a story without bogging down its narrative. And for readers who are also writers, Fowler teaches us that our character’s flaws can be their biggest assets.