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***This is a Great Fiction Countdown 2015 post. I’ll be reading and responding to a new short story published or reprinted in 2015 every day throughout the month of December. If you have a recommendation, tweet at me or use the contact form.***
“Orsinus Liborum” by Catherynne M. Valente
Originally published in The Bestiary, edited by Ann VanderMeer
Pick up the whole anthology of original fiction here.
Valente’s story holds up well even outside the framework of VanderMeer’s rich, conceptual anthology, but the scaffolding of The Bestiary is worth visiting for context. In the spirit of historical bestiaries, the 27 pieces of original fiction contained herein recount and categorize unique mythical creatures, each one inspired by a letter of the alphabet (and an ampersand [ampusand? andperse? idfk]). The resulting gestalt is a stunning glut of imaginative creation, an alphabetical taxonomy of the uncanny that would make Lovecraft blush. Valente is charged with fulfilling the letter “O”.
It’s amazing how much Valente accomplishes in so little space. Her creation–the book bear (orsinus liborum)–functions both as a fearsome literary predator and commentary on the creative process.
With a gaping maw the color of gall ink, she chews the book entire, her gullet working obscenely, her growls unsettlingly coital in nature. She then spits the book back out onto the shelf, and you might be elated that the volume was spared, however, she will have eaten out the best of it, swallowed the exquisite spelling, devoured subtle metaphors, masticated the fine narratives and refined allegories, munched the polished punctuation and in a rapture eaten and digested the best parts of the book so that she may live and the book may suffer a living death.
The act of creating any work of art is inherently destructive of the idealized form the art occupied as idea in the mind of its creator. Any writer understands the frustrations attendant to the practice of translating from mind to page, trying to recreate the majesty of the initial inspiration. The book bear personifies (animonifies? There’s got to be a word for this, but I don’t know it) this process.
If only all the outliers in our canon could be explained away as works gored by the orsinus liborum. It’s impressive that such a big idea comes across fully formed in this abbreviated piece.
As usual, Valente’s language is an embarrassment of riches. From a craft perspective, I always come away from reading her work feeling challenged to elevate my own diction and poetic imagination.