Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
The Universe of Things collects fifteen short stories published between 1985 and 2009, and one of the most remarkable qualities of the collection is the consistency of Gwyneth Jones's style over that time. With only a few exceptions, the stories, regardless of their point of view, are narrated in an objective, almost affectless tone, the sort of tone that attracts such adjectives as cold, hard, clear, emotionless.
The stories are not emotionless, though; readers' connections to them will depend very much on how well they respond to Jones's style, but the characters often face emotionally wrought situations. In "Grandmother's Footsteps", a woman perceives the house she is renovating to be haunted and a threat to herself and her family. It is a tale of ghosts and madness and maybe something in between, a cousin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Your Faces O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light" -- but different from those masterpieces because the narrator's perception of the madness-haunting is restrained, almost reasonable, more like a scientist weighing observations than a person in the midst of deeply disturbing phenomena.
Which may, of course, be part of the point: Life is shell shocking. One of the stories that is most stylistically different from the others in the book, "The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle," presents a woman who is a bit more thoroughly mad than the narrator of "Grandmother's Footsteps," and who escapes (or does she?) the realities of her life by imagining herself to be a princess. Jones deftly shifts between the diction of a fairy tale and a tale of contemporary realism, and when the tones shadow each other, what had previously been amusing in the story becomes unsettling:
Jennifer would walk away from this meeting alone and Ralph suspected what his life would be like, after today. He couldn't think of it. He wasn't brave enough. He wanted to stay forever in this steamy café, with this crazy woman; neither of them anywhere else to go.
The magician's staff described a circle in the air. Where it had passed, a white line stayed. The circle enclosed nothing.
Many of the tales in The Universe of Things depict family relationships, the sometimes-fraught power negotiations of husbands and wives, or the complexities of parenthood. "La Cenerentola" explores the landscape of motherhood and desire, hopes and dreams, in a near-future world of cloning and gene therapy where two women and their daughter encounter a widow with perfect twins and one other, less perfect, daughter (La Cenerentola is an opera by Rossini; the title translates as Cinderella). The story is nearly ruined by an over-explicit final paragraph, but until that point it is a model of how evocative Jones's restrained style can be.
"Blue Clay Blues" is among the most vivid and complete stories in the collection, and it, too, fuses the commonalities of parenthood to more extraordinary experiences. The setting is a future world ravaged by plague, where rich elites have holed up in self-contained environments and left the less fortunate masses to suffer. A reporter has gone out to investigate a source of almost magic energy known as "blue clay," and he's had to bring his young daughter with him, because it's his day to look after her. "Blue Clay Blues" is admirable for the fullness of its vision; Jones is aware of the ways technological change overlaps with social change, and even in a story under thirty pages long, she is able to suggest particularities of place and trends of race, class, and gender, giving the tale a stronger sense of verisimilitude than is available in many much longer works.
Quite a few of the stories in The Universe of Things are set in the worlds of some of Jones's novels, and readers' pleasure with most of these tales will likely be determined by their knowledge of the novels, mainly the Aleutian Trilogy (White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Cafe), as some of the stories' depths are inaccessible without knowing how they fit into the larger context. The title story, though an Aleutian story, is one that stands well on its own, because at heart it is about a simple encounter between a mechanic and an alien's automobile. The implications are anything but simple, though, for Jones offers readers much to think about craft and value and self-respect, about alienness and empathy.
The narrator of The Universe of Things tells us that the mechanic "had been touched by the world of the other, and he simply had to bring away something: some kind of proof." Jones's best stories are that kind of proof for readers -- we glimpse a world of otherness, and when our eyes turn back to look at the ordinary, the invisibly everyday, it no longer looks the same.
Books mentioned in this post