By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839 — Paperback — 172 pp.
Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.
The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.
Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.
“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.
Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.
“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.
“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.
Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.
I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.
Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.
The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.