Benjamin Rosenbaum, The Ant King and Other Stories, Small Beer Press, 2008

Reviewed by Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

I first read Benjamin Rosenbaum's stories in his dizzyingly wonderful chapbook Other Cities. That book laid out the topology of fourteen mythical places, each built on some metaphysical truth. So, while "The City of Peace" conjured Jerusalem, it was not the Jerusalem of our world. Instead, it was some Jerusalem of the afterlife, where people of all creeds could live together. Another city and another story, "Ponge" is populated by people sure their lives could be better lived somewhere else, but they can't bring themselves to leave—how well I understand that story from talking to my high school friend John, trying still to sell me on the charms of our native Worcester, MA. The story-cities are collected together without even the hint of a narrative frame, all the better to slide the chapbook, without interruption, into your copy of Calvino's Invisible Cities.
     Thirteen of those fourteen cities are relocated to The Ant King and Other Stories, Rosenbaum's first full-length story collection (the excised story, Maxis, concerned a city that you controlled in a video game like Doom, never realizing it was a city with real inhabitants because all you saw were pixels). In the new book, the city stories jostle alongside other fictional environments, the best of which offer surprises and readerly pleasures on a par with Other Cities, and some of which I remained lost in.
     Let's start with one of Rosenbaum's better speculative fictions, "Start the Clock." It takes place in a world different from ours, and where understanding how the civilization arranges itself is as much part of the story as is determining character arcs or linguistic gambits—in this story, biological age has become something voluntary, something people choose to stop, so that the narrator Suze is stalled biologically at age nine. She's got a lifetime of experience of the world but has no experience of puberty, age, or other merely corporeal concerns. Suze and her pack of fellow ‘Nines' are looking for a new clubhouse like any pack of fourth grade friends when one of them decides she'd like to start aging. How Suze deals with this betrayal—what she understands or doesn't—sells this story to a reader who is, after all, getting older and fighting to gain something in exchange for his or her youth. In spite of the otherworldly trappings Rosenbaum gives to this world, we can all appreciate the challenge of following a friend who has gone someplace you literally can't follow, and that gives this story a pathos that anchors it, makes it real.
    Another story, like "Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" illuminates how what succeeds in one story can shut us out of another. The political intrigues presented in "Biographical Notes…"crossed with the cultural shifts required to present travel by dirigible (and the seeming Islamic orientation of the story's culture) screens us from really ever engaging with the narrator—the setting is so foreign that I found it hard to determine what the narrator's actions meant. I was never sure what was at stake for the characters or the culture, and this confusion kept me at a distance from appreciating the spy story that Rosenbaum was trying to tell. In another story, "Embracing-the-New," a similarly overdetermined sense of estrangement limited my ability to engage with the internal struggles faced by Vru, a god-sculptor in a barbaric polytheistic culture. But because the plotting of the story sees Vru defeated so soundly, the story retains the sense of shock and failure that made this story more successful than the one mentioned above.
     There's long been a divide between what people think of as genre fiction and what people think of as literary writing, and for probably just as long, there've been people who've tried to breach that divide, to write for both audiences. Calvino comes to mind as one who tried, as did Nabokov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and others. It requires a peculiar kind of imagination to read books that challenge you on multiple levels, that ask readers to keep in mind the cultural peculiarities of a counter-earth and recognize the effect it has on the stakes of the narrative, all while building and releasing the linguistic tension of made-up language. I think sometimes Rosenbaum succeeds in doing the first two things, telling us stories about recognizable characters in carefully worked out but apparently chaotic environments. But too often for my taste, he guided my eye to watch backgrounds that seemed an unlikely assemblage of genre elements (sky pirates or underground ant kingdoms)  without giving me as guide a local who had enough going on that I wished to take the tour with him or her again. And perhaps most disappointingly, the book lacks that detail those writers mentioned above seemed to prize above all; a pressure on vocabulary and syntax, that diversity of voices and tones that enliven actual travel, if you've got the ear for it. I'm not sure Rosenbaum does, and after visiting the fifteen or so other worlds he develops here, I don't feel all that inclined to revisit the world contained within The Ant King and Other Stories.