Thursday, May 25, 2017

Red, by Ramsey Shehadeh

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(Contemporary Fantasy) Ansel feels guilty about his little sister’s disappearance six months ago, and his search for her leads him into the world of a board game their family played. (4,345 words; Time: 14m)

Rating: ★★★★☆ Heartbreaking and Mysterious

"," by (edited by Ann VanderMeer), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: This story is moving and sucks you in all the way to the end. It’s hard to be sure whether his visits to the world of the board game are something he imagines, or something he dreams, or even something that really happens, but they’re very powerful regardless. The way the characters come to life and yet still have most of the limitations imposed by the game makes them seem real somehow.

We learn a lot about Ansel and Louise just from the handful of interactions they had. He was at most 17 and she was no more than 14 when she disappeared, but she was quite mature for her age (and at least one grade ahead of normal). They were both good kids, and they cleared cared for one another. This is why her disappearance weighs so heavily on Ansel: he knows he was supposed to take care of her. The last thing she did (giving him advice about girls) was a form of her taking care of him, and he knows it. No wonder he feels that he failed her utterly.

His exploration of the game, despite knowing how finite it is, represents how little he has to work with, how futile his attempts have been, and how absolutely determined he is. The alternation between real-world scenes and game-world scenes introduces information at exactly the right pace. When he goes down that alley, we’re on the edge of our seats.

So it’s a very strong story. The challenge is to make sense of the abrupt ending.

Ansel last saw Louise heading down an empty road into the darkness with rain impending. We last see Ansel heading down an empty road into opaque mist, lit from within, following the only path that leads out of the game world. Louise said it was “where you go when you get tired of looking,” so we’re pretty sure it represents Ansel giving up.

But is he giving up on looking for Louise, or is he giving up on life itself? The book, “May 15: A Deconstruction,” offers a clue, especially when we contrast it with the notes that Ansel makes about the disappearance. It implies that there’s nothing to find; all the notes he’s made so far (and all the things he tells himself about it being his fault) are no better than this nonsense book. There are no answers, and there never will be any. That’s what he “gets” in that last scene. The POLICEMAN nods, signaling that the police have no ideas either.

One other clue is the tassels on Louise's bike. "Outgrowing stuff is depressing," she said, and yet it's not optional if we're going to grow up. Likewise, Ansel has been trapped in a game. Like it or not, it's time for him to leave it.

From that perspective, the ending represents him putting his sister's disappearance behind him and getting on with his life—walking into the unknown future where anything is possible. She went off into darkness, but he's walking down LIGHT street, and it may be murky, but it's lit from within.

However, the story clearly admits alternate interpretations. You could conclude that the ending is him giving up on life, and the silence that encloses him is the silence of the grave. Nothing in the story to that point has suggested he was suicidal at all, though. He wants to find his sister, not join her.

Likewise, the fact that he got a dowsing rod from the PHARMACY, that the GROCER told him “this is not the way,” and that the POLICEMAN followed him could be interpreted as meaning that he found solace in drugs. Again, though, nothing else in the story suggested Ansel was even tempted by drugs at all.

Con: We’re just guessing here. Nothing changes the fact that the story ends abruptly just when it was starting to get interesting.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 05/24/17)
Ramsey Shehadeh Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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5 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. When a story stops at an unexpected place, the challenge is to find what structure the author intended to end there. This story is structured as a circuit of the game board, and ends with an exit from the board. As you said, it involves Ansel both stopping his futile search and growing up, but even more, I think this story is concerned with depicting the real-life neighborhood, society, and family as a trap.

    The story is set in 1987, legendary as an era of conformity, and also the time of the childhood of many people who are thought of as "the current generation of writers." We are reminded not to take refuge in nostalgia by the anachronistic nature of the game world -- its trappings of the past are both ridiculous and completely useless. The quiet neighborhood of Bethesda, MD, where the story is set has a superficial air of white-picket-fence security. It is revealed as being both completely false, and not really secure.

    Everyone is acting in this story. Ansel's parents are faking, sure, but even before Louise's disappearance Ansel found it easiest to talk to Allison by way of lines from a play (and Allison and her friends were trying to pretend they weren't talking about him). And the game is a caricature of a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and looks out for each other-- but in reality no one knows.

    The game characters know that their external appearance and programmed dialogue are fake, and they get scared when they are forced to diverge from their usual performance. And that is not too different from Ansel and his family hiding their anxieties under a facade. In Ansel's case this takes the benign form of his difficulty in talking to Allison. But his parents have more urgent anxieties. Why did Ansel's father order him not to leave Louise alone? Why was Louise terrified when thinking of making a 5-minute bike ride alone in the dark? What wolves wait for Red Riding Hood in the dark wood that everyone pretends is a cozy home? What is the danger in crossing the boundary from childhood to teenagerhood (the "red" of menarche?) which no one speaks of, and which is the silent subtext to the policeman's conversation with Ansel's parents? And would acknowledging dangers have helped in dealing with them?

    Even more than giving up on Louise, Ansel's exit from the board signals him giving up on any pretense that this sheltered closed world is either physically or emotionally safe. This story then belongs among stories of suburban angst where people pay a price in conformity and pretense for a security which inevitably fails.

    1. Great to see you again, Vasha! So do you think the story implies he gave up on life too?

  2. I like your hopeful interpretation. Vasha has some great points too. I don't think he's giving up, but accepting that real (grown-up) life doesn't always have neat, pat answers like the game. That his quaint hometown and idyllic community are not as perfect as they pretend to be.

  3. I wanted to read it again & I wondered if the brother were actually a character in the game. Maybe I just read too much Kurt Vonnegut when I was younger. Then again the alley is the only way out of the downtown.

    1. Now that's an angle I never thought about. That would make it rather sad that he's leaving the game, though. (Heading back to the box maybe.) :-)