Apr 4, 2013

Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak

Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak’s Before and Afterlives collects seventeen short stories, most previously published in anthologies or literary magazines over the past ten years. As customary in Barzak’s work, these stories combine elements from different genres in interesting and effective ways: there are ghost stories; stories about small town life with surprising science fiction or fairy tale twists; stories about the zombie apocalypse; stories where people slowly disappear; stories about family dynamics; stories with lgb teen protagonists discovering or coming to terms with their sexuality; stories about grief and loss and loneliness and disaffection.

Indeed, loneliness is a common thread linking many of the protagonists in Before and Afterlives. What appeals to me the most about Barzak’s stories is not so much the speculative elements as the emotional realities behind them. I don’t want to say, “these are stories about real people” as if this weren’t something SFF usually does (in fact, emotional realism is something pretty much all my favourite genre works have in common); it’s just that the use of supernatural elements to cast light on human experiences is particularly accomplished in these stories. To quote from the review at Chasing Ray, which puts it better than I possibly could,
[E]ven though these lives might include mermaids or ghostly parents or talking fireflies, the extraordinary aspects are not what make his tales so magical. It’s the way [Barzak] sees plain ordinary people that gives his stories such power; the way he sees us and yet loves us anyway.
There’s a certain uniformity of setting to Before and Afterlives, but instead of making the stories samey, this only adds to the book’s thematic consistency. Many of the stories seem to be in dialogue with one another, and the collection is all the stronger for it. There’s also a very strong sense of place and history here: many stories are set in small communities; in post-industrial towns in clear economic decline, and the protagonists’ socioeconomic backgrounds are far from privileged. I was particularly interested in the fact that these are stories we don’t normally get to hear because they’re set when ‘everybody’ – by which I mean those who are traditionally given voices – has already left to seek a future elsewhere. But instead of following those who leave, these stories are often concerned with the people who stay behind.

Because of this, Before and Afterlives largely deals with how people cope with their community’s decline, with how they overcome hopelessness, with how they carve a future for themselves in circumstances where many wouldn’t think this was possible. They’re about people from these communities taking on roles that go beyond what’s usually seen as permissible for someone of their background. They’re about feeling lost and sometimes trapped; but they’re not always bleak and they don’t envision escaping to the big enlightened city where all the accepting people supposedly live as the only solution – instead, they focus on the more complicated process of finding or making a real home in unexpected places.

As is generally the case with short story collections, I liked some of them better than others. Stories like “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House”, “Dead Boy Found” or “Map of Seventeen” were very nearly perfect; others, like “The Language of Moths”, “Dead Letters”, “Plenty”, or “A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse”, were a pleasure to read; and there was one I just couldn’t get along with but would still love to discuss with others. (That was “Caryatids”, in case you’re wondering – a science fiction story that made me uncomfortable because of the way the protagonist’s female body is described, even though I usually love stories about gender-bending and analyses of the power dynamics behind sexual relationships. We could chat for hours about why Kij Johnson’s “Spar” works for me but this doesn’t, especially because I don’t have an answer myself.)

One of the best examples of what I was describing above is “Map of Seventeen”, a story in which the protagonist’s older brother, a successful artist, returns from New York to Ohio to live beside his parents’ house with his male partner. The story is told from his younger sister’s perspective, and it deals with Meg’s adjustment to her brother’s return to her life, with her own impending journey beyond the boundaries of the known world, and with the challenging process of becoming someone else without losing touch with who you once were.

A few years ago, when I read Barzak’s amazing The Love We Share Without Knowing, I was particularly drawn to the kindness and generosity of his storytelling. In that novel, he writes about a mother coming to terms with the fact that her son was gay with extreme compassion and insight. Obviously the fact that lgbtq people should have their families’ full support is beyond any question for me, but I’m interested in the process by which people arrive to that place of acceptance and support, especially if they’re dealing with something that was once beyond their mental categories and their understand of the world. There are many people for whom this is not an easy journey emotionally, and while I think being willing to make it is a matter of basic human decency, I still like to see fiction that acknowledges, humanises, and sheds light on this process. Barzak does something similar with his portrayal of Meg in “Map of Seventeen”. Possibly because she’s younger, she doesn’t seem to struggle with the concept of same-sex relationships herself, but she’s concerned with the effect her brother’s presence will have on her community and especially on her parents’ standing in it. Throughout the story, we see her move beyond these fears towards a place where she can put her brother’s happiness first – and this only scratches the surface of everything “Map of Seventeen” manages to pack in.

Besides, how could I fail to love a story that includes passages such as this?
If I had a map of seventeen, of the years I’d lived so far, it would be small and plain, outlining the contours of my town with a few landmarks on it like Marrow’s Ravine and town square, the schools, the pond, our fields and the barn and the home we live in. It would be on crisp, fresh paper, because I haven’t travelled very far, and stuck to the routes I know best. There would be nothing but waves and waves of ocean surrounding my map of my hometown. In the ocean I’d draw those sea beasts you find on old maps of the world, and above them I’d write the words “There Be Dragons”.
What else is out there, beyond this edge of the world I live on? Who else is out there? Are there real reasons to be as afraid of the world as I’ve been?”
Before and Afterlives has a very strong opener in “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House”, a Southern Gothic/haunted house story that uses voice and perspective in really interesting ways. This story actually reminded me of The Little Stranger, particularly when it comes to the class dynamics between the watchers and the watched. It achieves similar things, which yes, is very high praise indeed. “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House” deals with class mobility and loss and the tension between different identities, which, again, is a theme I find really interesting.

Lastly, I’d like to highlight “The Language of Moths”, a gorgeous story with one big problem I unfortunately had trouble getting past. Much like “Map of Seventeen”, “The Language of Moths” is about family dynamics, sexual orientation and acceptance, and it blends magical elements and psychological realism in ways that allow the former to highlight the latter. The protagonist, Eliot, is spending the summer at a cabin with his family, so his father can attempt to find a previously undocumented moth species he thinks he may have spotted in the distant past. The language, sense of place and themes the story deals with are all beautiful, and I found myself really moved by the ending.

Yet there is one big “but”.

Eliot’s sister, Dawn, is autistic, and her role in the story had me considering the frequent fictional links between magical powers and disabilities/developmental disorders, in much the same way Toph from Avatar did. Only the problem here is exacerbated because this is a short story, so Dawn doesn’t get anywhere near as much character development as Toph. Toph gets a lot of screen time, so the potential problems in her representation are at least counterbalanced by the fact that she’s portrayed as a real person.

In “The Language of Moths” there are sections from Dawn’s perspective, which I appreciated, but when all is said and done she still doesn’t come across as her own person to me. Instead, she falls into a pattern of magical helpers who aid the protagonist in achieving growth or insight. As I said, the ending of the story is gorgeous and really moved me, but this pattern took away from its power to a considerable extent. “The Language of Moths” would be a much stronger story, I think, if we had learned something about what that summer’s experiences meant to Dawn herself. I wanted access to her subjectivity, and even the passages from her point of view didn’t give me that.

After reading the story I came across an old essay where Barzak addresses some of these issues. Anyone who reads this blog will probably know that I don’t see authorial intent as authoritative, but rather as a reading among many; one that stands on equal footing with any others for which there is textual support. So I’m linking to this post not in the spirit of going, “oh look, good intentions make it all okay”, but because I found the essay and the subsequent discussion in the comments genuinely interesting, and so I thought you might too.

Before and Afterlives is now out from Lethe Press. I found it a pleasure to read, and once again I was reminded of why I should read short fiction more often.

Reviewed at: Chasing Ray, Rising Shadow

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add your link.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received a digital copy of this book for review from the author.


  1. I'm still waiting for this to arrive at my store! I'm really looking forward to it, especially since our distributors can't bring in Birds and Birthdays. Your review makes me want to read it even more.

  2. Killer post. Love it, and I have to have this book now.

  3. ^^^and that anonymous was me. Too quick on the ol' enter key.

  4. Urge, I haven't read any of the other books you recommended by Barzak. But they're on my shelf so that's progress right?

  5. I really like the sound of this collection, and it's impact on you really makes me sit up and take notice. I so rarely read story collections, and when I do pick them up, they have to be special, and it sounds like this one is. In fact, both of the books by this author that you mention sound really good, so I will be doing a little shopping, very soon! Terrific post as always, Ana!

  6. Why is this collection not in our bookstore yet?! The suspense is killing me :(

  7. I need to get my hands on this SO BAD!!! I've been trying to buy all of my books this year at brick and mortar stores to try to support them since so many are closing these days in the US, but I haven't been able to find it anywhere here :( May just have to order this one :( OR I could always get the ebook! You've just convinced me that somehow I really have to find this one right away :p

  8. For folks asking why it's not in their brick and mortar store, it's most likely because the publisher is an independent press, and most chain bookstores only order books in from large corporate presses. You CAN ask your bookstore to order it in for you, though, and they can do that easily. Otherwise, it's available online in print or as ebook at Amazon, BN.com, Weightless Books (for ebook from an indie ebook seller), Smashwords, and from the publisher's site.

    I hope you all like it!

  9. I can't be positive at this point, but I *think* The Love We Share Without Knowing is the first book I ever put on my wish list due to your recommendation - and, er, it's STILL sitting on my wish list, but every time I see it I think of you! Maybe that's why I haven't bought it yet :-)

  10. I honestly cannot put into words just how badly you have made me want this book! Pathetically, I still have not read two other of his books that are actually on my shelves thanks to you though.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.