The Story Until Now provides the wonderful opportunity to revisit the long and distinguished career of a singular American voice. Much to her credit, Kit Reed is a difficult writer to categorize. Her novels and short stories traffic in science fiction and fabulism, in the surreal and the fantastic, sometimes separately and sometimes all at once. She has described her fiction, quite appropriately, as “trans-genred” and it has earned her a Guggenheim fellowship among other awards.
What’s most impressive about this new greatest-hits collection isn’t the range of styles at Reed’s command or the stunning genius of her unique vision or even the strange timeliness of stories written decades ago. No. What makes The Story Until Now so spectacular is that it demonstrates the extent to which contemporary, literary fiction is finally catching up to the sorts of stories she has been penning for half a century.
The earliest story here ( Piggy) first appeared in 1962 and the most recent ( The Legend of Troop) just this year. Only 1979’s The Weremother, about a mother of two who turns into a snarling beast, appears to be previously unpublished. Reed’s major themes include the breakdown of our therapeutic institutions ( Wherein We Enter the Museum and High Rise High), Kafkaesque flights of fancy ( Sisohpromatem and On the Penal Colony) and, most notably, animals ( Monkey Do, the unqualified classic Automatic Tiger). Many of these stories feel like parables, but Reed is too smart to be pinned down with easy, pedantic explanations. These are stories more content to ask questions than answer them.
In High Rise High, a teacher at a fortress-like high school asks an unhinged kid named Johnny to play a fairy in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the request doesn’t go over well, and the inmates/students start a riot and take prisoners. The brave and diminutive Agent Betsy goes in undercover to defuse the situation before the mayor can nuke the entire building. Reed’s use of second person narration makes the situation all the more intense.
Some of the other standouts here include The Bride of Bigfoot, Incursions and Song of the Black Dog, which features a canny canine that can sniff out people who are soon to die. My favorite here might be Automatic Tiger, which while wholly original brings to mind Haruki Murakami and Nathanael West. Think about that for a moment. In the story, an exotic pet inspires a new confidence in the everyday working sap who owns it, but the hubris that follows leads him far astray.
The Story Until Now provides many, many hours of thought provocation and pleasure, but Reed’s greatest contributions to American letters might be her willingness and ability to storm the gates and break down the barriers that prevent science fiction and fantasy from getting the critical attention it so richly deserves.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas “Extraordinary Renditions.”