I snapped The Slightly Irregular Fire Engineup at a local used bookseller because I’m kind of obsessed with steampunk, and a weird-ass kid’s book from the 70s that seems to have a steampunk aesthetic is right up my alley. The idea of Victorian futurism imagined by contemporary writers makes me all hot and bothered, but I’m often disappointed and/or enraged by how stilted the writing is, how fawning the depictions of Victoriana, or just how dumb. The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson, one of the very first full-blown steampunk novels, is pretty emblematic of my problem. The ideas are straight-up OMFG brilliant, but wrapped up in some fish-paper of boring and going-nowhere. (It’s not a huge surprise I feel this way: I heart Gibson for all his failings, but pretty much everything Sterling does makes me cringe. This includes Burning Man, Bruce, you douche.)
One of the more fascinating things about steampunk, as a cultural movement thingee, is that there’s huge disconnect between the literary branch and the Maker movement. Maker types build things, raise chickens in Brooklyn, try to master archaic technologies, and generally keep RadioShack in business. The more cosplay end dresses up in top hats, corsets, and goggles. I still haven’t bridged the gap between the lit and the doings, partially because the lit hasn’t bridged the gap between the costume and the ideas. The worst of the genre fetishizes Victorian reserve (or our imaginings of that reserve), blathering about “a simpler time” while totally ignoring class/race/colonialism, blah blah, you know.
Anyhoo, now that I’ve gone off on a random digression, this book is arguably not steampunk at all – it’s too early – but it definitely clarified a lot of my somewhat useless ditherings about the genre. Barthelme takes a series of (often bizarre) Victorian etchings, mixes them up like Tarot cards, and divines an odd little tale out of the mix. It feels like one of those patched-up stories that gets written in that little game where one person writes a section, covers up everything but the last line, and then passes it to the next person, who writes a section, and so on. (Do you know the game I mean? That was great fun at summer camp.)
The art is cool, but it’s clunkily done, simply not altered enough, or done with enough visual style, to be interesting. They read like cut-outs, which is what they are, but they lay as still as a game of Solitaire. The language, however, whoo-boy, this is nice. More please. A girl, Mathilda, wakes up to find a pagoda growing in her yard. She enters, looking for a fire-engine. Djinns, pirates, and other wackiness ensues. It’s winking, post-modern (amusingly, almost archaically post-modern at this point, which is something of a trip), and clever without making you feel dumb. Like this:
“Would you like to have an escapade?” the djinn asked. “We can arrange that. Escapades come in two styles – fancy and more fancy.”
“What is an escapade” Mathilda asked.
“An escapade is something you didn’t expect,” the djinn said, “which surprises you, pleases you, and frightens you, all that once.”
“Like a good dream,” Mathilda said.
“Or you could be something,” the djinn suggested. “You could be a grown-up tennis-playing hat-wearing woman, or a one-man band–”
“The one-man band doesn’t look too happy,” Mathilda observed.
“He began as a piccolo player,” the djinn said.
Hahahaha! Phew. I had to google this Barthelme cat, and I was pretty much entraced by what I found. Writer of micro-fiction, inveterate post-modernist, regular contributor to this and that fancy (and extra fancy) periodical. The bastions of wiki said he wasn’t much for the whole narrative thing, but there is one here, even as it winks and smirks.
Maybe I find steampunk so fascinating because it’s a post-modern attempt to leapfrog back to before Modernism even questioned, well, anything: the Nation, the Psyche, the Individual, the Narrative, back before when you could capitalize those things and not look like you were a Jerk-Face who was making A Point. ZOMG. What origami! Instead of taking the mismatched deck and building a house, steampunk folds and cuts the cards into something that casts the shadow of the house, but looks like an absolute mess straight-on. The ones I dislike tend to be really perfunctory narratives dressed up in high boots and cleavage, or anti-(post)-modernist claptrap that totally doesn’t get where it’s coming from. Fascinating pedigree, this steampunk stuff has.
So, I would start my rating for this with three stars, because I liked it, take one off for the art, add one for the steampunk flavor, and then add another just because it blew my mind a little bit. Yes!