Carol Emshwiller: An Appreciation

Souvenir-Book appreciations are typically written by friends and long-time associates of a con’s Guests of Honor and usually focus on the GoH’s personal and professional biography. Since I have had the pleasure of meeting Carol Emswhiller personally only once, I will focus instead on my many years’ relationship with a single aspect of the person who is Carol Emshwiller, viz., that mysterious presence readers sense lurking within or perhaps behind the texts of her stories and novels, a presence generally known as the "author." This relationship between a single reader and the particular presence of an author, although seemingly abstract and impersonal, is in practice a deeply intimate one. It is also an extremely privileged relationship, since only a relatively few authors’ texts create a sense of that mysterious, very particular presence with which readers so delight in engaging. I recognized and engaged with that presence the first time I read a Carol Emswhiller story, a presence that so intrigued and teased and dialogued with me that the author went at once onto what I call my "magic" list of must-buy authors whose work I’m always on the lookout for.

What is this presence that I find so alluring and distinctive, lurking behind/within the texts bearing Carol Emshwiller’s signature? Critics who speak of the "grain" of the voice typically locate such particularity in the habitual use of certain syntactical forms, vocabulary, and character and place names as well as tone and attitude. I recall seeing studies based on computer analyses of these variables, as well as gleeful promises of a future in which computer programs rather than human beings would effortlessly generate fiction in every style and genre the "consumer" could possibly desire. So now imagine a Carol Emshwiller fiction-writing program. Certain kinds of settings and characters would be input (domestic interiors, mountain villages and valleys, high Oregon desert, seaside beaches. . .), a variety of flying creatures, wounded men, insufferable husbands, and willful, sly, needy, nosy, and sexually inquisitive women, a consistently dog-eat-dog reality only the persistent can survive, a lot of first-person, present-tense narrative, and a maddeningly high incidence of ambiguity and irony. I can imagine a program doing that much or even virtually representing Carol Emswhiller a la Max Headroom, thus to grace every WisCon 27 panel with the author’s (simulated) televisual presence. But can one really imagine a computer writing a story like "Modillion"? In "Modillion" a sign--a symbol in a manuscript yet to be deciphered--launches us into an imaginary formation that could only have come from the organic, physical brain of Carol Emswhiller. This sign, that the narrator arbitrarily names a "modillion," is "like a slip of the tongue that makes a word that seems vaguely understandable." This sign carries us away to a palace by the sea (white against white cliffs), to the prow of a trireme, to a wide and powerful woman.

Gateways such as the "modillion" beckon to readers throughout Carol Emswhiller’s oeuvre. Sometimes the gateway is to be found within the eye(s) of the sometimes dangerous, sometimes wounded male loner to whom so many of her women are irresistibly drawn, whether it be within the vision of the sightless blue eye of the Prince of Mules, or in the "little pinpoint eyes" of suspected vampire Alculard Snow, whose "pupils show so black in all that lightness, she thinks he must live in a house made of nice thick slices of snow with clear ice windows. Even inside you’d see your breath and even if everything weren’t white, it would look white because of the light." And sometimes it is to be found in the pique and curiosity of a woman investigating the stories she’s been told all her life about people, places, and customs that are merely "common knowledge," unverified doxa shaping communal values.

Yes, I know the grain of that voice, I know well the playful games it plays and its teasing refusal to be pinned down. I’ve always answered its call as inevitably it draws me into the worlds it weaves, by now as familiar to me as they are, themselves, dangerous and strange. I "know" and love this author called Carol Emswhiller in one of the most private relationships possible, the relationship that unfolds between the words on the page on the one side and the beating of a heart and the firing of neurons in the brain on the other. Granted, this is only an "imaginary" relationship. But since without imagination there’d be no homo sapiens, there’s really no "only" about it.

Seattle
March, 2003
©2003 L.Timmel Duchamp


This essay first appeared in the WisCon 27 Souvenir Book.
Publication Date: 
2003