“Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom”
I really wish I didn’t have to resort back to grumpy ranting for this, the next-to-last of my reviews of the stories in the Interfictions anthology. Unfortunately, I’m afraid “Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom” rubs me every way but the right one. Its protagonist, waiting helplessly in an apartment in what I think is Paris for the release of her hostage boyfriend, seems to think that being a fictional writer of fantasy grants her carte blanche to ramble on for four pages about writing before revealing the essential catalyst that allows her rambling to be termed a story. On page two, we see her actually trying (and failing) to begin a novel. In most situations, I would have stopped reading right there, this being a personal hangup of mine. Then we come to the talking animals. Two of them. Neither seems to have any impact on the character or plot; their purpose appears to be that of signpost: “Look! Look at the fantasy writer! See? She hallucinates talking animals. What else could she be, except a fantasy writer?”
I admit that it is possible to write an engaging, successful story about a novelist encountering difficulty. Stephen King does it all the time. I have seen Neil Gaiman not fall on his face attempting such. And Hemingway. But maybe there’s a rule to be gleaned from these examples: that it shouldn’t be attempted unless you are already a novelist? I have googled Ms. Phillips. According to her site, she has a first novel forthcoming. I just hope it isn’t about a writer trying to write a novel.
In her author’s comments, Ms. Phillips mentions that she wrote this story all in one sitting, and by hand no less. She discusses the difference between typing and handwriting in their effects on the resulting prose. I agree that a change of media can be a useful tool. But whenever I write by hand, I am always careful, when typing up the prose later on, to edit with a firmer hand than the one I used to write–since pen and page don’t have a delete key. My problems with the obviousness of the metafiction aside, this is a subtle, quietly emotional story. The ending is a little abrupt, but I think it more or less gets across what it needs to. I think I would have enjoyed it quite a bit more if its protagonist had been, say, a hairdresser vacationing in Paris, whose boyfriend has been taken hostage, and whose government handler makes a subtle attempt to pick her up while she’s vulnerable. Assuming, that is, that hairdressing as an occupation precludes the hallucination of talking animals. I guess you never know what hairspray fumes might do.
It would be interesting to try to compare this story with “Pallas at Noon”, which is also about love and frustrated creativity, but which I loved. I’m not sure what the difference is–except for something about the conventionality of the approach? I’ll have to think about it.