People turning into animals, animals turning into people, people on journeys of self-reflection, animals on journeys of self-actualization, animals learning how to talk and people being jerks about it. Also, alien rapists. These are the stories of At the Mouth of the River of Bees.
1. The long-short traditional narrative
The Horse Raiders
The setup here is strong and immediately hooked me. The setting is a planet that has impossibly hot days but rotates slowly enough that nomadic peoples can keep ahead of the worst heat (they use their shadows to gauge the perfect position) while depending on horses and dogs for transportation and communication. As the title suggests, the inciting event is the main character’s tribe being horse raided! The story starts to falter midway through and ultimately ends in an unsatisfying fashion. The author could not pull off the difficult interpersonal relationships necessary to convince me someone could forgive so much, so easily.
The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles
One of the first cats in the world, or at least Japan, is separated from her family (I just googled ‘what is a pack of cats called?’ and I refuse to use the word… clowder) and treks across much of Japan having adventures. It is a blueprint for a Pixar movie. Or The Odyssey as experienced by a house cat. This is my favorite story. It’s paced very well, and bizarrely, I was more invested in Smallcat the plucky kitten than any of Johnson’s other lead characters.
The Man Who Bridged the Mist
In some fantasyland with a killer mist that has creatures swimming in it much like those in Stephen King’s version of a killer mist (The Mist), an architect plans a bridge. This story is fascinating as it succeeds while being almost entirely devoid of conflict. Everyone is super nice to each other and works together and gets the job done! I guess you could make a case for Man v. Nature but I would call your case flimsy.
At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Like the main character, I too drove all across the northern states on Route 2 in a Subaru. Unlike me, She discovered a river of bees. This is an engaging story of self-reflection, and what I thought was going to be a journey of accepting a beloved pet’s death. Instead the end is very silly and ruined the story for me, both thematically and narratively. This is unfortunately a common occurrence in this collection. There’s another story about a man’s wife turning into a Solitaire (relative of the Dodo bird) with a quirky 19th century prose-style that starts brilliantly but cannot sustain itself and peters off to predictable conclusion.
2. The postmodern nonsense / writing exercise
The meta-narratives. The third wall breakers. The gimmicks.
These are all over the place. Some number among the best of collection. For instance, Story Kit, a sort of David Foster Wallace-esque piece that combines the writer of the story, a woman suffering through a catastrophic divorce, with the story she is writing (and constantly changing to mirror her divorce-state) about Trojan hero, Aeneas, abandoning Dido, Queen of Carthage. It’s super obvious (but self-aware-of-it) low-hanging symbolism via writing-as-therapy and it just works. Dido/Writer’s mirror pain is visceral and cogent.
Then you have Schroedinger’s Cathouse, a navel-gazing, not-so-clever nod at the reader. Or Names for Water, which legitimately feels like an undergraduate course writing prompt.
But then, you have Ponies, a clever bullying metaphor involving magical talking unicorns that communicates an idea perfectly in two pages.
All over the place.
3. The fable or heavy handed metaphor
And I mean the wider reaching definition of Fable that includes all types of myths, not necessarily talking animals and a moral lesson (though there are some of those). These stories include Fox Magic, the story of a fox who falls in love with a man and magics herself into a woman, Chenting, where a man is offered a ministerial post in the underworld, and 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss — self reflection and a circus act.
They are the weakest. Johnson is a serviceable writer, but her biggest strengths lie in her imagination and pacing. When she is retelling a familiar tale, I found myself constantly aware of that thought: I have heard this sort of story before.
I glanced at the list of stories contained in the collection before writing this and there a handful of stories I completely forgot about it and they all fall into this category.
Overall verdict: Fun, but uneven and rarely extraordinary.