The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant: An Appreciation by Jeff VanderMeer

A story can reward on a first or second reading and then either expand in the mind or become an inert object. Or, a story can be difficult on a first reading and only reveal its true nature upon multiple readings. And sometimes the deceptively simple can have hidden depth. Such is the case with Gavin J. Grant's "Heads Down, Thumbs Up," a story that uses simple syntax to express a vastly complex idea: the shifting of metaphysical, cultural, and social boundaries, anchored by the metaphor of the physical shifting of countries. At least, that's how the general populace in the world inhabited by the child narrator has come to see the changes that occur. The brilliance of the story lies in taking what would usually be an underlying theme and making it a literal, concrete fact: gender identities, cultural norms, and much else literally change as the physical country borders change. And by doing this, the concrete fact itself takes on further metaphorical resonance, so that the setting could be our own world seen symbolically.

Grant uses hints of folktale, very specific detail, and the clear-eyed but limited viewpoint of a child to ground his story. Without the specific detail in particular, the story would fly away like a badly moored tent in torrential winds. The magic of the story for me lies in these simple moments. For example, "And then I knew what she meant, the other language coming over me like the dirty water spreading across the painting table when I knocked over my paint cup." Or when Grant describes the aftermath of violence: "She had tied a khaki shirt around her calf, and as we walked it slowly turned red, brown, black."

I've read "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" three or four times and I don't feel fully comfortable parsing its meaning. In a sense, it's the kind of story where the meaning exists in the reading of each sentence. We're not really traveling toward a destination—instead, we are leaving and arriving within each paragraph or set of paragraphs. This gives the story its power and adds a sense of reader confusion at the same time. We pass over the shifting boundaries with the narrator. We lose our confidence in our own telling of the story because of this shifting, then regain it, then lose it. We want the story to be a rigid beast, something that sits still and lets us parse it. But the genius of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is that it rejects this kind of reading.

Link to story.


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