Since I was critical of Lucius Shepard's recent "A Walk in the Garden", I thought it would only be fair to discuss a story of his which seems much more successful to me, "Only Partly Here", from the March 2003 issue of Asimov's.
What impresses me about "Only Partly Here" is how well it avoids various pitfalls which a less talented or experienced writer than Shepard would probably have fallen into. As with any story by Shepard (even the ones which don't thrill me), it's vividly written. It tells the story of Bobby, who works in the rubble of New York's Ground Zero, sifting the debris of September 11. Bobby and some of his colleagues relax each night after work at a bar where Bobby soon becomes intrigued by a woman who is also there each night. The story is of their effect on each other.
"Only Partly Here" works so well because it is not forced, not sentimental, not polemical -- not anything other than a description of two people trying to find their ways in a world without bearings, a world of wounds. Shepard has not tried to impose a conventional plot on the story, which would have been disastrous. His choice of setting and characters are interesting and resonant enough to sustain any story of this length, and while there is progression and change for the characters, there is no need for big events. The big events are in the background, smotheringly powerful. Against such a force, all we need from a piece of short fiction is to see some characters coping with the world around them.
I tend to be wary of anything which uses the events of September 11, 2001 as subject matter, because the dangers are immense: forced emotion, simplified meanings, the crass use of tragedy to sell a story. There have been a couple of good plays using September 11 as a setting (Where Do We Live by Christopher Shinn and The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute), a poem or two ("When the Towers Fell" by Galway Kinnell), but "Only Partly Here" is the first work of fiction I've read which uses the results of that horrible day to create a real work of art. What makes it work is its modesty, its willingness to be little more than a portrait. The element of the fantastic at the end is not tacked-on, it is handled with subtlety and grace -- here is a writer who has enough confidence in his work that he feels no need to stretch the story beyond what it can bear. That Asimov's accepted a story with so little fantastic content is somewhat surprising, and I expect (though it could be a false assumption) that the fact the story was written by a well-known SF writer helped -- what if an unknown writer had submitted this story? Would it have been rejected with a quick note reading, "Beautifully written -- try the New Yorker."
Would we read "Only Partly Here" differently if it had been published outside of the SF genre? For me, the fact that Shepard sent it to Asimov's makes me read the ending more literally than I would had the tale been published in a non-SF market. Actually, I like the less literal, more ambiguous reading better, one which leaves open the possibility of the supernatural, but also suggests Bobby may be jumping to conclusions.
The quiet elegance and careful, slow accretion of detail in "Only Partly Here" show Shepard's mastery -- few SF writers would, it seems to me, be willing to let a story like this go without mucking it up with plot developments or government conspiracies or alien interventions. Is it wrong of me to think this story owes less to the archives of Asimov's than to the work of writers such as John Cheever or Bernard Malamud, both of whom used fantastic elements to illuminate the inner griefs and struggles of their characters, though of course Shepard is very different writer from either. But it seems to me that when we look at a story which veers (or shuffles) away from the strict limitations of realism, we will see that it does so for one of two main reasons: either to indulge the fantastic elements themselves, or to reflect on the realistic elements. Neither is better or worse, but the choice can have a profound effect on the way a story is told, and Shepard made the right decision with "Only Partly Here" to let the implied supernaturalism of the ending grow directly from a painfully realistic situation, because to have worked backwards and imposed fantastic elements on a setting as fraught with meaning as Ground Zero would have been to compromise the meaning for the sake of a cheap effect (essentially what I thought Shepard did with "A Walk in the Garden"), something innumerable time travel and alternate history stories do.
What stories such as "Only Partly Here" do by avoiding tempting pitfalls of genre and cheap narrative effects is help us reflect on the painful contours of reality. Literature has hardly ever made anyone a better person, but the body of great literature has civilized readers a little bit by helping them cast their thoughts and emotions beyond themselves and what they know. It is to that body of literature which "Only Partly Here" belongs.