Dangerous Space is a revelation. I had no idea these gorgeous short stories were out there. Put me on the list of people who will now read absolutely everything Kelley Eskridge writes, because if these are characteristic of her work, I want it all.
Eskridge often makes creativity her subject, writing movingly about various forms of art, especially music. The opening story, “Strings,” posits a world in which the classical composers are revered so completely that any deviation from their scores, note by note, tempo by tempo, is punishable by loss of employment, and apparently by loss of the right to make music at all. Master musicians are named for their instruments, so that the world’s best violinist is known only as “Stradivarius,” the best pianist as “Steinway.” Being an instrument carries with it great prestige and wealth, but the musician who is cursed with an imagination is condemned to a world in which she can hear her music only in her own head. Improvisation is a crime, and new composition is absolutely unheard of. What will such a person sacrifice in order to be true to herself, to her music? This story gives me goosebumps; Eskridge can explain the process of creating better than anyone I’ve ever read. Try it:
The music in her exulted and laughed and wept and reached out, farther, farther, until she wondered why everyone in the room did not stop, look, point, dance, run. It poured out sweet and strong through her heart and head and hands into the wood and gut of the violin that was her second voice, and her song was yes and yes and yes in a shout and a whisper and a pure, high cry.
“Eye of the Storm” is about art and creativity, too, but the art is a very different one: the art of war, of defense, of fighting. The way Eskridge writes about it, though, it might as well be dancing — or, more to the point, sex. The narrator, aptly named Mars, begins his tale by stating, “I am a child of war. It’s a poor way to start.” But he must take the world as he finds it, and his world is violent. “No one can escape what they’re born to,” his mother tells him. And so, as he grows, he learns to fight — mostly, at first, by being badly beaten by another boy whom he asks to teach him. Once he has learned, he heads for the city, seeking to fight. He doesn’t know that there are soon to be auditions for the city guard, but he soon learns it from strangers on the road, with whom he forms a quad — the basic fighting group that must audition as such. As Mars learns to fight with his group, he finds that it is as exciting and intimate to him as making love, which leads him to refuse the offers of everyone in his quad for actual sex. Of course they get accepted into the guard, but the story’s only just begun there. How it plays out will not surprise you, precisely — as it plays out, it seems the only way the story could possibly go, the mark of a great storyteller. It’s a lovely fairy tale, told this time not from the point of view of the princess, but through the eyes of the guards.
The piece de resistance in this book is the novella “Dangerous Space.” This gorgeous story about a band and how it makes music — and how sex can screw everything up unless and until it becomes love — is so good that it will stay with you forever. I particularly liked that it is told from the point of view of an extremely skilled “sound guy,” the one who knows how to set the console, the monitors, the mix to make the band sound as good as it should. This might be the story of a band as it becomes famous, but it is really about how “the drummer brought down his sticks, the bass walked in, the guitar wailed an impossible chord, and the singer opened his mouth and took me apart and put me back together again and again and again.” And it’s about how sometimes those who create must be pushed and prodded to do their best work — not to hide from the raw emotion that sits at the base of their art, but to bleed before the world. It’s an amazing work, and it took me apart.
This collection will stay with you a long time, and you will ponder its stories long after you have finished reading them. Dangerous Space gets my highest recommendation.