'A Novel,' it says on the cover of Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing but it can just as easily be mistaken for a collection of short stories. The book is created from seemingly disparate chapters, told from different perspectives, until you notice that a character in the first story will be mentioned in the next, and another character from that world will be in the succeeding one. Employing a style reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Mr Barzak presents a richly-layered genre novel that delves into the alienating nature of human interaction set in modern-day Japan.
It took me a while to warm up to this. After reading the first two chapters, I was wondering why this was nominated for the 2009 Nebulas -- not because of any lack of literary value but because there was not enough in the first pages to convince me that this was a genre novel. By the third story, I had resolved to stop expecting a speculative fic to jump at me and simply tried to enjoy it. It was a good decision, because I found myself drawn to that story, "Sleeping Beauties," the most out of the ten included here. It unfolded with poetry that felt both heartbreaking and real. The disconnection that had seeped in while reading the early chapters -- somehow Said’s theories on Orientalism were hard to tune out then -- was finally gone. As "Sleeping Beauties" drew to a close it became apparent to me that I had to begin reconsidering the lyrical as literal, and what I first thought was 'non-genre' was actually deeply rooted in the fantastic.
That has to be one of the things I admire about Mr Barzak's writing. Chapter after chapter, he draws on very familiar emotions (loneliness, loss, isolation, indifference, even delusion) but situates them between the mundane and the otherworldly. Perhaps there is a certain quality inherent in the setting that allows these emotions to manifest themselves in strange ways, but I'd also like to think it is largely because of the author's skill. In the chapter "What They Don't Tell You," he moves further away on the speculative fic spectrum but loses none of the magical fluidity that has come to characterize the rest of the novel. The final chapters in particular are succinct and powerful. In fact, his style recalls three of my favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Elizabeth Hand, and Kelly Link), echoing their ingenious way of letting the slipstream into our world, often with lingering results.
Sometimes I thought his prose struggled with its own sentimentality and other times I thought it was perfectly restrained. There was a chapter that I thought was superfluous, but this still did not take away from the entire reading experience. I am a convert. This is exactly the way I want to enjoy my genre fiction (any fiction for that matter), and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be looking forward to more of Mr Barzak's deeply moving prose.