A Novel by Carol Emshwiller

Review by Ursula K. Le Guin

Looking over the New Fiction shelf at the library, I saw Ledoyt, by Carol Emshwiller. Emshwiller? I thought — my Emshwiller? She wrote a new book and I never heard about it?

I shouldn't have been surprised. Emshwiller's readers know her to be a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction. But her books, mostly published by a good small press in San Francisco, Mercury House, don't get wide attention. Part of the problem may well be her calm originality. Most reviewers prefer pigeons that fit in holes and rabbits that redux. Emshwiller's like a wild mixture of Italo Calvino (intellectual games) and Grace Paley (perfect honesty) and Fay Weldon (outrageous wit) and Jorge Luis Borges (pure luminosity), but no — her voice is perfectly her own. She isn't like anybody. She's different.

Before I get to Ledoyt (which is different) I want to talk a little about the other Emshwiller books (which are all different).

All but one of them came out within the last seven years, and her reputation may be just beginning to grow. Before 1990 I knew her work only from science-fiction publications. She isn't categorizable as a sf writer, but she knows how to play brilliant games with sf themes. Verging on the Pertinent (from Coffee House Press, 1989), the first of her books I read, is a collection of fables, witty, cool, scary. After reading it I thought of her as an impressive and sophisticated writer whom I admired without exactly liking — though I did love the first story in the collection, "Yukon," about a woman in the Far North who runs away from her husband and spends the winter comfortably with a bear and then meets her true love, who is an Engelmann Spruce tree, or a man very like a spruce tree, named Engelmann.... So often in Emshwiller stories you can have it the way you want it. She doesn't make you have it the way she wants it. For all her formidable wit, she is a kind writer. And a surprising number of her stories have happy endings. At least they do if you want the ending to be happy. I am not sure Mr Engelmann is really the heroine's true love, but it seemed that way to me, last time I read the story. It may seem quite different the next time.

In 1990 came Carmen Dog, a novel about women turning into animals and animals turning into women, perhaps the funniest and the cruellest of her books, a sort of feminist Candide. The kindness of the innocent heroine, Pooch, triumphs over cruelty in the end, which is happy; at least it is if you want it to be. Even Pooch's children turn out well, "setters, and all male." Why this book isn't a feminist classic I don't know. Maybe it is. Maybe that's why people haven't heard about it. It should be a required text on Gender in all high schools and colleges.*

Next came the stunning collection The Start of the End of It All, in which both her range and her voice have widened, deepened. The comparison to Borges becomes inevitable with such stories as "The Circular Library of Stones" or the haunting "Vilcabamba." And so does the contrast with Borges. In Emshwilller's fables, though the invention is as magistral, the element of human pain is less distanced. And her humor is wilder that Borges's. The title story of this collection is a magnificent example of what happens to science fiction when a real feminist gets hold of it. It's about aliens coming to earth, yes, but has nothing whatever in common with gooey-minded stuff like Close Encounters and ET. The heroine, like most Emshwiller heroines, is obliging and trusting and has very low self-esteem, being one of "the rejected, the divorced, the growing older, the left out..." An Alien, or several of them, named Klimp, trick(s) her into giving birth to his (its) (their) offspring, a lot of tiny little fishy Aliens; but her cats eat all of them but one. She keeps it and names it Charles, after her father, or possibly Henry, and indulges in no more illusions about the Aliens. It is a perfectly happy ending, if you want it to be, or not at all, if you don't; but either way it is extremely and profoundly funny.

All right, so this was the Carol Emshwiller I thought I knew, this kind, scary, funny, feminist fabulist. I picked Ledoyt off the New Fiction shelf and stared at the cover; not Queen Kong climbing the Empire State Building, not a bird-dog-woman, nothing wild and imaginary, but a hand-tinted photograph of a very young woman in old-fashioned Western riding gear, reading a letter, in a desert.

And the cover is a fair introduction to the book. Ledoyt is different, as I said — from its author's other books and from most contemporary novels. It does belong in a certain fragile and discontinuous tradition of novels by or about women in the Far West in the late 1800-early 1900's. But first of all I want to say that it is a love story.

I think we tend to consider love stories as common, a simple-minded genre stuffing the Romance shelves, rarely rising to art in the hands of a Bronte or Austen. But how many stories are, in fact, about love? I never asked the question till I gave "a love story" as an assignment to a writing workshop. From that group I got fourteen stories about lust. Next time I tried it, I got eleven lust stories, two hate stories, and one love story (about a woman who loved her niece.)

Given all the kinds of loving we do, it's odd that we use fiction so often only to explore love only as sexual desire or as an abusive, exploitive, or obsessional relationship employing sexuality as a means to power.

Ledoyt is a love story. It's about the passionately fulfilled but never secure love of a married couple for each other, and the passionately angry, rejecting love of a young girl, Lotti, for her stepfather, her mother, and her young halfbrother. Family love, that voyage across a shoreless, uncharted sea of shipwrecks and sunken treasures. What a story it makes! How infinitely more interesting it is than any position Madonna can be photographed in! And how close such a story comes to the love-life most of us actually live — the unromantic, endless adjustment and disappointment and readjustment, the blind cruelty and blind tenderness, the knots and complications and tangled nets, the rage and loyalty and rebellion, the ordinary passions of ordinary people trying to live with one another, trying to love one another.

At the center of the story are Ledoyt, the dirty, gentle cowboy who keeps trying to run away from his luck because he can't believe in it, and young Lotti, who sets herself afire and shoots a man and draws horses with mustaches that are portraits of Ledoyt... Ledoyt, who married her mother, Oriana. Oriana, raped by her respectable fiancé, ran away, came West, and had the daughter who's going to wreck the family and run away from her.... A lot of the history of our country consists of people running away. It doesn't mean they weren't good people. Some of them.

Then there's the setting. Those who live in the eastern half of the country tend to see cowboys on the range and ranches in the sagebrush as props for macho movies, not as the setting for a serious novel. You mean real people live out there?

Emshwiller's Sierra-slope California of 1905 is far, far from Louis Lamour and on another planet from Hollywood; but it's right up the road from Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain. This is one of the Americas where "success" has no meaning, a country of dryland farming and hardscrabble cattle-ranching, where each loner knows the next loner. These are people with low expectations, tough, peculiar, failures and runaways, desert people. In this impassively dangerous and beautiful landscape, human acts and relations take on the importance of any voice or gesture that breaks deep stillness. But Emshwiller doesn't rhapsodise desert life. She knows the country as a rancher knows it, as land, not scenery; she knows its people as individuals, not archetypes. She knows how to listen to its silences, and theirs.

My family on my mother's side, Far Westerners from the mountain and desert states, were people like these, and Emshwiller has them absolutely right. Young Lotti keeps a diary, which recurs through the novel. Reading it I kept thinking of my great-aunt Betsy, born in Wyoming about 1880. This sounds like Betsy, I thought. Betsy would have known this girl. Betsy was this girl.... It's still a rare experience for a Westerner to find her people in fiction, to hear them talk the way they talked. There were women writers early in the century who knew them; Mary Hallock Foote, whose work Wallace Stegner appropriated without credit in one of his novels, was one. H.L. Davis's Honey in the Horn and Molly Gloss's The Jump-Off Creek have an implacable honesty about Western place and character. Writers like Carolyn See, Judith Freeman, Deirdre McNamer, Alison Baker are bringing this tradition up to date. At last, and slowly, and mostly by women writers, the West is being won.

But Emshwiller, whose stories are so New Yorkish and sophisticated, who teaches writing at NYU, how does she know all about my great-aunt? By being a first-class novelist, I guess. Fiction writers do, after all, use the imagination, which is what makes them different from memoirists. Though she may not live there, ćEmshwiller knows the setting of her novel by heart, knows what life was like on a homestead ranch, knows what side you get onto a horse from. In a photograph at the back of the book, she's laughing as she hefts a businesslike saddle towards a handsome Appaloosa. But the background, trees or bushes, could be a creek-bottom near Barstow, could be Long Island, could be anywhere. All I'm sure of is, she knew what she wrote about in Ledoyt, and it was worth writing about, and nobody else has ever written anything quite like it. A fierce and tender portrait of a girl growing up fierce and tender; a sorrowful, loving portrait of a man whose talent is for love and sorrow; a Western, an unsentimental love story, an unidealised picture of the American past, a tough, sweet, painful, truthful novel.

* Note (Sept. 2000) I taught Carmen Dog in a literature class at San Jose State University last spring. That is, I got permission to xerox the first three chapters for the class, since Mercury House had let the book go out of print and didn't seem interested In the fact that we needed fifteen copies. The class loved it so much they demanded that I get permission to xerox the rest of the book for them. Teaching it made me see that it is better even than I had thought, and there is no cruelty in it. Truth, yes. And funny? Lord!

ćNote (Sept. 2000) Now I know that Carol lives in Bishop, CA, half the year, on horseback. Bishop is where the great Mule Festival is held. I hope to attend it some day.