Ellen Klages is an evil genius and I love her for it.
When I get a new book through I do not like to read any description but go in completely blind. I even try to avoid looking at author and title. So I open this and we get people talking about a Margaret Brundage parallel figure, but they are using male pronouns. I flew into such an absolute rage I could not sleep and I had to get other people to calm me down. Picking it up the next day it is revealed that the artist in question is indeed a woman, just thought of as a man.
I had to therefore sit back and question, why was I so angry? My significant other has recently been writing a piece which includes a discussion of Brundage’s art and we agreed that in spite of its skill it has a lot of problematic content and much of it really doesn’t hold up (to quote her on the subject “The more time she spent on the chest, the less she bothered anywhere else”). The reason is that experts talking about her as a man felt like total erasure. That people were completely side-lining one of the few female fantastical artists of the period and one who was so iconic despite all their flaws.
And so, this is why Klages is such a genius, because the whole story is about this much-ignored history of queer women in San Francisco and the contribution they made to our culture. The man, who is later shown once again to be a complete fool, becomes one of the figures of heteronormative patriarchy at which our anger should be directed in this novella. As the story reaches its climax the painting becomes the great symbol of love and truth that should be preserved, rather than a piece of disposable cover art representing the backward views of the time.
In fact, in many ways the story is a counterpoint to the Brundage art. One of the issues which could fit the description of the Weird Tales (in this universe named Weird Menace) contents at the start of the story is the July 1936 issue with the (in)famous Red Nails cover in which a pale woman is to be sacrificed by three darker skinned women with a hint of both sexual and violent threat. But the story of Loretta and Emily is tender and kind between them, it is the men around them and the laws of society that are the only things preventing their happiness.
Whilst Loretta Haskel is the artist of other people’s fantasies, Emily is fully living the life she wishes. She works as a singer in the famous Mona’s (often credited as the first Lesbian bar in the United States) and regularly dresses in male clothing in contradiction of the laws limiting the number of articles of clothing worn by the opposite sex. At the same time, they encourage each other to keep pushing to be the people they want to be. One quote which for me really sums up the book is:
For seven years I painted other people’s fantasies, tomorrow I’m going to paint ours.
But at the same time, this novella is tinged with a sense of regret and loss. By using the frame of Helen’s remembrance of the past on her last day, this moves from being a story which could be purely triumphal to one tinged with a sense of time passing and the opportunities that were lost. As such my emotions switched constantly right up until the final paragraph.
Passing Strange represents the best of what Tor Novellas can do. Klages produces a beautiful character-focused drama which rummages through all your emotions and illuminates a history all too often ignored in mainstream publications. Clever and poignant, righteous-rage inducing but heart-warming, I cannot think of anyone who shouldn’t read this.