Sunday 24 February 2013

The Inner City by Karen Heuler

Heuler’s stories dart out at what the world is doing and centre on how the individual copes with it. Anything is possible: people breed dogs with humans to create a servant class; beneath one great city lies another city, running it surreptitiously; an employee finds that her hair has been stolen by someone intent on getting her job; strange fish fall from trees and birds talk too much; a boy tries to figure out what he can get when the Rapture leaves good stuff behind. Everything is familiar; everything is different. Behind it all, is there some strange kind of design or merely just the chance to adapt? In Heuler’s stories, characters cope with the strange without thinking it’s strange, sometimes invested in what’s going on, sometimes trapped by it, but always finding their own way in.
Goodreads Description 
One of the joys of writing this blog is that I read books I would not normally have considered. The Inner City is just such a book. I had not come across Karen Heuler's work before reading this collection of short stories, and having read it I intend to read more. Although some of the stories in the collection are not magic realism, many are and even those that aren't show a magic realism influence. Heuler clearly identifies herself as writing magic realism on her website: it was Marquez’s freedom that influenced me the most. In his world, people levitated. Literature was moving out of Minimalism and into Magic Realism, and that’s where I was moving too, whether at the front of the crowd or in the rear didn’t matter. 

Although Heuler speaks of the influence of Marquez, her stories put me in mind of the tradition of the European magic realists - Gogol, Ayme, and most definitely Kafka. There is a sense of alienation from modern society, or rather a sense that there is something out of kilter in the modern world. In the book's title story the inner city is revealed to be a place hidden within/beneath our own from where malignant puppetmasters manipulate our lives just for the fun of it. The Hair had me laughing out loud at the satire on business report presentations: Mindy wore an iridescent pearl-coloured body stocking with a long pearl-coloured skirt with tremendous slits.... "Fine fractals advanced to 78 by knocking out the middle," she said and did a split, her arms thrown upwards. But as in Kafka's work, the humour is tempered with a personal tragedy.  

After Images starts amusingly, satirising the use of opinion polls and sociological studies, but follows a logical path to a bizarre study photographing of the eyes of the dead in an attempt to reveal what people see when they die. This focus on the afterlife is most noticeable in The Great Spin, which centres on a young man whose family believe in the imminent arrival of the Rapture. 

There are several stories that deal with environmental themes. In Down on the Farm the subject is the sinister use of genetic manipulation and in Creating Cow a vegetarian creates a Frankenstein's monster. The Large People is a less disturbing environmental story with the message that Nature always takes the long view and the long view had no sorrow.  

Throughout the book there is the theme of change in identity. Whether it is the man who finds he can float in How Lightly He Stepped In Air, the transformation or, should I say, metamorphosis of children into other animals in The Difficulties of Evolution, or the loss of identity through the theft of physical attributes in The Hair, Heuler is excellent at portraying the sense of bewilderment at change. 

I enjoyed this book tremendously, and whilst I liked some stories more than others, there was not one that I thought weak. The book, as you can see from this review, was full of metaphors and the unexpected - magic realism at its best.

Note: this book was given to me by the publisher in return for an unbiased review.

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