Lee Killough’s Aventine Formula

This essay first appeared in Ecdysis #4, October 2014.

My copy of Lee Killough’s “Aventine,” ordered on Abebooks, arrived today, and so I confirmed my realization that I am subconsciously trying to be the literary reincarnation of her. While she is still alive (as far as I or Wikipedia knows).

I’ll forgive you for never having heard of (Karen) Lee Killough. Until today, I had only read one story by her, and that one in a secondhand copy of an anthology from five years before I was born. She seems to have been most active from 1970 to 1980 in short fiction, 1980 to 1990 in novels, and the 1990s involved forewords and introductions only (she did lose her husband, Pat Killough, apparently much beloved, in 1993). She published four novels in this century, but all with small presses I’ve never heard of, although apparently I should have heard of Meisha Merlin Publishing. She was born in 1942, so is about 72 years old, and had worked for many years as a veterinary radiologist at the University of Kansas.

All of this, I’ve concluded from her Wikipedia and ISFDB pages. She doesn’t have an author website that I’ve found.

I encountered her in Terry Carr’s Universe 10 anthology, acquired secondhand, possibly by my brother, possibly from a garage sale. There were four stories in that anthology that stood out for me: Michael Bishop’s “Saving Face,” Howard Waldrop’s “The Ugly Chickens,” R. A. Lafferty’s “And All The Skies Are Full Of Fish,” and Killough’s “Bete et Noir.” This would have been my first encounter with at least the last three authors, and both Howard Waldrop and R. A. Lafferty are known in science-fiction circles as “Nobody else writes like this, at all.” (And they don’t write like each other. Since then, I’ve grabbed onto Lafferty whenever I come across his stories, because they are so darned effortlessly-ineffably-weird, but I have not read more Waldrop that I know of. But Jonathan Crowe knows and loves Waldrop dearly.)

But it was “Bete et Noir” that must have sunk its tendrils into my heart, on multiple re-reads, and told me that “this is what you want to write like.” In early 2012 I wrote my first science fiction story that I felt could be made publishable, narrated by a young woman artist creating a sculptural Guardian to protect a coastal city against floods, but discovering it has a terrible price. An artist, as well.

At Clarion, I showed it to our Week One instructor Gregory Frost, who made some very kind comments and revision recommendations, and pointed out that the opening had to change, as I lost all tension in it by having the sculptor reminisce in the first paragraph how she made the Guardian, giving away that she survives and that she achieves it. I hadn’t seen that, myself, and only later did I realize that, like most novices, I had been unconsciously emulating an influential author’s style and work.

I had opened my story that way because “Bete et Noir” opened like that, with a first-person narrator looking back many years later at an immensely important and possibly tragic event. Then panning to some setting information, situating the narrator and key players in it, and thus beginning the plot, and then ending with the same reminiscence. Even my narrator’s voice is very much like Noir’s voice.

And “Bete et Noir” was about the arts. And what I’d been telling people at Clarion who asked me what I write, is that I write about the interaction between humans and the arts. Well, sometimes I write about other things, but the stories so far that have had a hope of working were about that. For some science fiction writers, the science is astrophysics, or anthropology, or biology, or computer science; for me, it seems so far to be art history.

So I went looking for the copy of Universe 10 to re-read the story and couldn’t find it any more. So I finally consulted the almighty Internet, and discovered that Killough had written seven stories set in that universe, the arts colony of Aventine, with “Bete et Noir” the final story, and they were collected in 1982 in a book titled simply Aventine (Del Rey) — which was out of print, but of course I was compelled to seek it out on Abebooks because I felt I needed to read the rest. How much of the vein I’ve been mining.

The taglines were “A haven for the rich, the powerful, the famous…and the deadly” and “Where beautiful women and twisted artists can get away with murder.” It’s a slim volume of 172 pages — they wrote shorter in those days. I sat down to re-read “Bete et Noir,” and then re-read the rest of the stories through.

And that formula of starting with a first-person reminiscence hinting at something very important and tragic, naming the crucial antagonist and protagonist, before panning back to some scene-setting and the start of the plot — is very, very characteristic of the Aventine stories. Six out of the seven stories do it exactly, the only exception being “Ménage Outré,” and I will discuss its exceptional status in a bit, once I show the rule.

All of the stories are in the first person, and the voices are for the most part very similar. And I think I can deduce the formula she is working with.

We have a Narrator, usually male (usually an artist of a science-fictional variant art form — crystal landscaper, tropic sculptor, holo-composer, choreographer, computer-guided writer, or theatre-verité actress — the exception being “A House Divided,” where he is a real-estate manager, but in even that, one can read his house-decorating as his art). The Narrator gets involved with a fascinating Personne Fatale of the opposite gender, and starts creating a Work for her. The Work is generally a reflection or other function of her personality in some way.

The Narrator may or may not be sexually interested, but is always artistically transformed by  the Personne Fatale, but the Personne Fatale always has a dark secret that leads to inexplicable behaviour, almost always involving a Secondary Character whom the Personne Fatale has some power over (dependent, adoring lover, actor to director), and inevitably involving death in the past. The Narrator uses a Confidante (often, either the Narrator’s agent — the agent Margo Chen appears in that role in two different stories — or a coworker) as a sounding board, and the Confidante drops a crucial clue about the Personne Fatale that the Narrator didn’t know. Finally, crisis as the Narrator finally realizes what is actually going on, too late to avert tragedy, either death or maiming, of the Secondary, whom the Narrator has also been sentimentally attached to, and the tragedy is partly the Narrator’s fault. The Narrator cannot deal with the Work again. The Personne Fatale and the Secondary are almost always both mentioned in the opening reminiscence paragraph. (“Bete et Noir” and “The Siren Garden” do not mention the Secondary.)

“Bete et Noir,” the last story and the only one not to be published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (except for “Shadow Dance,” new for the collection), is also exceptional in gender-flipping the formula. In all the others, the Narrator is male, and the Personne Fatale is female. In most, the Confidante is also female, but “The Siren Garden” is an exception; the Secondary is sometimes male. In “Bete et Noir,” Noir is the actress narrator, Brian Eleazar the brilliant director is the Personne Fatale, and the Confidante is Noir’s male agent while the Secondary is her male co-star.

The effect of the gender-flipping is that, coming in cold, it is much less apparent that Eleazar is Fatale. In stories like “The Siren Garden” or “Tropic of Eden,” we know as soon as she enters, “Oh yeah, femme fatale, you foolish narrator, don’t you see it?” Mysteries and noir movies are part of our culture; we know a femme fatale even if we learn about her from Calvin and Hobbes. However, in “Bete et Noir,” Noir and Eleazar are explicitly not at all sexually interested in each other, he is described as having given up romancing his leading ladies, and his actions as a director seem quite reasonable…or is it that we as readers are more likely to give men the benefit of the doubt for behaviours that in women would be dismissed as a type?

I am not sure. Killough’s world is very, very heteronormative. There is one character, the Confidante role in “The Siren Garden,” who is homosexual; “Since a ‘man’ of your sexual persuasion is incapable of understanding love between a man and a woman,” the Narrator tells him (p. 12). The scare quotes around the word “man” tell modern readers all they need to know about the narrator’s views, but the author seems to be on the narrator’s side: all the rest of Killough’s speaking role characters are flamingly heterosexual. It would have been interesting if she had gone further and tried a story where Narrator and Personne Fatale were the same gender, with or without a sexual component to the relationship, but that does not appear in the Aventine stories.

Another indicator of the stories’ age is that Killough was writing before the days of the Internet: having a futuristic Google handy to look up gossip on the Personne Fatale, rather than the Narrator vaguely remembering some of the details but not all until his or her memory is jogged, would obviate the need for the Confidante in most cases. (I also found amusingly dated in “Broken Stairways, Walls of Time” that the Narrator places a call to the Confidante from the Personne Fatale’s home landline, and realizes that the Personne is listening in on an extension — something imaginable in the late 1970s that simply jarred me today, as I assumed “I called Margo” meant on his cell phone.)

Of course, within this formula, there are variations on the theme. In “Shadow Dance,” the Personne Fatale is actually two people, one of which the reader expects until the climax to be the Secondary role, the real Secondary being a man. In “A House Divided,” besides there being no Work, the Personne Fatale and the Secondary are two personalities in the same body, and the Narrator learns the dark secret, and so becomes part of the secret, before the Secondary does. “Broken Stairways” does not have an overt separate Secondary, but as the Personne Fatale is the Narrator’s ex-lover from twenty-five years back, the Secondary can be taken as the person he remembers her as, in comparison to the reality.

“Ménage Outré” upends the formula by having the Narrator, Jason Ward, expect it. Interpreting that the Personne Fatale is Simha Barnard and the Secondary is his sister Dee, he rushes to the crisis to prevent Dee’s doom. However, Dee had willingly chosen her involvement with Simha, and in fact, the formula is being told from the wrong perspective: it is Simha who is the artist character creating a potential Work for Jason and Dee, and it is Jason who is actually in the Personne Fatale role of power over Dee that Dee finally breaks free of, his dark secret being that their relationship is abusive, and so Jason is shown as a prejudiced fool (which was a relief, as his narration, particularly about hunchbacks, was making me uncomfortable as I read it, and I was glad to see that it was the narrator’s prejudice and not the author’s). Clever, very clever subversion.

Why did Killough’s formula work surprisingly well even over seven iterations, while my attempt at writing something inspired by her did not, at least in the form I wrote it in? Because I was missing some essential parts of the formula. There was no real Personne Fatale with a dark secret, as my primary antagonist in that story is the sea. The sea doesn’t have dark secrets that keep the reader in suspense finding out what they are: the sea just makes people drown, because people can’t breathe water, no secret that.

And the Guardian cannot be read as the Personne Fatale, the dark secret being the limitations of its magic in keeping back the sea, because the Guardian is already fulfilling the role of the Work. So the suspense got shuffled from “What is the secret of the Personne Fatale?” to “Does the Narrator manage to make the Work?” and the answer to that question, I give away in that opening paragraph.

The thing is that I may be similar to Killough in writing about the arts, and in having similar voices — but she had a very strong interest in the mystery genre, and apparently many of her non-Aventine works are told from the perspective of private investigators. In a mystery, there is a clear hero, the investigator, and a clear antagonist/villain, the murderer, who has a clear dark secret, that he or she did the deed. (Of course, you will point out that in noir, the investigator is not a hero and may only be slightly better than the murderer villain — but the noir villain still begins the story having a one-dark-secret advantage over the noir hero, the secret of who killed Archer or Harry Lime or Mahalia Geary or Mendel Shpilman and/or why, which gets resolved at the climax of the story.)

I, on the other hand, tend to write like Miyazaki, without real villains. Nor do I find it easy to have people be keeping dark secrets, although Killough’s Personnes’ reasons for keeping them make more sense than most (career risk, usually). For the stories of mine so far that worked or are close to working, the antagonist is usually something systemic (sea, magic system, competition rules, prejudice, socioeconomic class, talent-based class).

And systems and environments do not really have dark secrets without the narrator looking stupid, and so tantalizing the reader with them at the opening is not the way to go, because the reader’s curiosity is tantalized by other things, like whether the protagonist accomplishes his or her desire.

Basically, the moral of the story is that you can tantalize the reader at the opening with a What, but not with a Whether. And it is not always clear to a writer like me whether a How is actually closer to a What or a Whether.

I think that realization, as to what a Person-System conflict tantalizes the reader with as opposed to a Person-Person conflict, will make me think differently about how I plan my plots. Somehow, when in grade seven we learned all the different types of conflict and had to diligently identify them, we never got into a conversation as to what literary tricks each one prescribes and proscribes.

I am very glad I read Aventine, because I don’t think I would have figured this out without a whole bunch of examples ramming it home. Here’s what my strengths are; here are other people’s strengths that are my weaknesses; and beyond the fundamentals, if you work on the weaknesses, you will just be good, but if you work on the strengths, you will be brilliant.

And it also makes clear what, in arts-inspired science fiction, has been mined, and what has not.

If the Aventine stories and Lee Killough have been forgotten, though, that is an injustice. They are beautiful and absorbing even if you know her formula; and if they abound with phenomenally gifted people, these people are vivid and flawed. Even if over a few stories, you recognize that they fall into types. I still fell for it.

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