The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 14
February 19, 2021
Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 13.
“The Infinite Dream of Pao-Yu” and “The Mirror of Wind-to-Moon” by Ts’ao Chan
Both of these tales are selections from The Dream of the Red Chamber, so I’m lumping them together.
“Infinite Dream” is fine; as you might guess from the title it’s playing around with dream and reality. To be honest, it’s a theme that’s more compellingly explored elsewhere in The Book of Fantasy.
I like “Mirror” more. It features a Taoist mendicant, which is usually a good sign. There’s a mirror made by “the Goddess of Disillusionment of the Ethereal and Spiritual Palace in the Sphere of the Primordial Void”, which is definitely a good sign. And … well, it’s a very short piece, so that’s about all it needs to do to get me on board.
You heard it here first, folks! Put a mendicant and a cool goddess in your story, keep it short, and you’ve got a 5-star rave review from (*points at self*) this guy!
The story concludes with the protagonist being chained up by mysterious mirror-folk and disappearing forever.
Slightly relatedly: I really would like to tackle The Dream of the Red Chamber, but I somewhat despair that no translation into English will be able to do it proper justice.
“The Desire to be a Man” by Comte P.H. Villiers de L’isle Adam
An actor of a certain age realizes he isn’t passionate about anything, and decides that remorse will be a worthy passion for his temperament. So he does some crimes so that he might be tormented by regret.
On a technical level, this piece was kind of … hamfisted? I mean, you have the main character literally narrating his thoughts out loud to an empty street. It’s a bit silly.
More annoying is that fact that the author seems to think we are … kind of dumb? The guy who does heinous crimes to be haunted by remorse ends up not being haunted by remorse. Get it? It’s ironic! I mean, this is pretty straightforward stuff. Yet Comte P. H. Villiers blah blah blah isn’t confident that we can figure this shit out, so he bashes us over the head with it in final sentence of the story, in literal italics.
But the God he was invoking did not grant him this favour—and the old actor died, still expressing, in his vain rhetoric, his ardent longing to see some ghosts … without realizing that he himself was what he was looking for.
Look, Comtey, you’re not being that clever. Cool it with the typographical flourishes.
Anyway, there’s an Oscar Wilde story later in this collection that has a sorta similar theme, but it’s done with rather more charm and wit.
“Memnon, or Human Wisdom” by Voltaire
It’s an OK story and all, but it’s kind of a rehash of Candide:
“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds of which Your Lordship does me the honor to speak.” “Not quite,” said the spirit, “but very mearly: everything must be in its proper place.” “But are those poets and philosophers wrong, then, who tell us that everything is for the best?” “No, they are right, when we consider things in relation to the gradation to the whole universe.” “Oh! I shall never believe it till I recover my eye again,” said poor Memnon.
“The Man Who Liked Dickens” by Evelyn Waugh
This story apparently formed the basis for Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. A shallow Brit goes on an Amazonian expedition; it goes poorly, and he ends up being held prisoner by a madman, the end.
And just in case you felt like holding out hope the narrator might be rescued, Waugh takes extra pains to grind that hope into dust by having a search party come and go without finding him.
Look, it’s fine, stories don’t need to have happy endings. This particular conclusion felt rather mean-spirited; but then again, maybe it just suffered from where it was positioned in larger collection, coming as it does on the heels of a trio of tales that all end poorly for their respective protagonists.
In short: while this short story is perfectly worth reading, I don’t think I’ll be picking up A Handful of Dust any time soon.
 Or maybe a pre-hash? I don’t know if this story was written before or after Candide.