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Spotlight on: Text: UR — The New Book of Masks edited by Forrest Aguirre

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Text: UR — The New Book of Masks edited by Forrest Aguirre Forrest Aguirre (editor), Text: UR — The New Book of Masks

Forrest Aguirre is a World Fantasy Award–winning editor (shared with Jeff VanderMeer for co-editing Leviathan 3) and writer (his short fiction was recently collected in Fugue XXIX), so he must know what he is doing. But who is the target audience for Text: UR — The New Book of Masks? Is there a theme, other than inscrutability? Is there an intent, other than strangeness? An introduction from the editor would have been very welcome in this regard.

I've read surrealism, and I've read bizarro works, but I've never read anything like the stories in Text: UR — The New Book of Masks (the first in a projected series of Text: UR anthologies). But there must be a market for this level of articulate experimental fantasy fiction.

I have to give Carrie Ann Baade credit for setting the tone of Text: UR (which I assume is pronounced like texture) with her bewildering take on the "mother with child" portrait. Each story threw over my expectations, but not always positively: Nadia Gregor's "Faure, Envenomed, Dictates" stopped right when the title finally made sense and the story seemed about to truly start. And Rikki Ducornet's "The Scouring" is less a story than the setup for a story.

There are others either too confusing or unaffecting to mention by name, though most of the stories in Text: UR are difficult but worthwhile reads. There were only two I didn't even bother to finish. After several pages into one, I was not interested in what was happening. And I didn't get very far into the other because the writer's punctuation choice was so distracting I was unable to concentrate on the story.

A handful of the tales in this New Book of Masks are worthy of singling out, however. The first one to really impress me was "The Avatar of Background Noise" by Toiya Kristen Finley. On the surface, it appears to be about the search for Jasmine Waters, a famous writer whose favorite subject for discourse was the collected works of ... Toiya Kristen Finley! If that weren't confusing enough, Finley also sets this story in an alternate realm with different linguistic rules, and includes interesting (but only mildly helpful) selections from Waters's journal, ending up with a compelling piece of metafiction that, while overlong, remains thought-provoking throughout.

"The Fifth Tale: When the Devil Met Baldrick Beckenbauer" just goes to show that, no matter how many times the old "footnotes take over the story" gag is used (a much older tradition than it would seem), it can still provide dependable entertainment when executed with style, confidence, and imagination as Tom Miller does. The story runs ten pages, less than half of which are actual story (an original folktale, its own admirable feat), and the rest of which are layered footnotes (think House of Leaves as written by Frank Sullivan). In "The Theater Spectacular," Catherine Kasper contrasts a theater devoted to the recapturing of childhood fantasy with the nearby Diorama Alley, whose specialty is the depiction of past realities. This plotless description is nonetheless compelling, as Kasper makes each place exist fully in the reader's mind, and offers an insightful look at the nature of humanity.

It is a good thing I read The Epic of Gilgamesh the week before I picked up Text: UR — The New Book of Masks, or I would have had no clue what Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold were attempting with "Incipit." Their expansionist retelling is impressive but is unlikely to reach its potential with readers unfamiliar with the world's oldest known story. Lance Olsen's "Six Questions for an Alien" handles the question of is there life out there? in an allegorical and frightening manner. Though some of Olsen's more insightful points are blunted by their lack of subtlety, a decisive ending redeems the story.

But towering over them all is Brian Evenson's spiraling study of identity and memory, "Fugue-State." It is by far the most evocative, engrossing, and involving tale in The New Book of Masks. Evenson made me identify with a character I have nothing in common with, and wonderfully befuddled me with every layer he added. In an anthology containing a few really good stories, this is the great one.

Aguirre has done an admirable job of assembling authors and stories that have few fellows in the current marketplace. This will lead readers to love or hate the selections he has made, but this matters little, since Text: UR — The New Book of Masks is not for a general reading audience. To reiterate, then: who is it for? It is ostensibly for readers who feel that such famously off-the-wall writers as Mark Danielewski, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and Anthony Burgess are simply too mainstream. And maybe that's you.

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