By Buffy Cram
Among the impressive line-up of talent assembled in the speculative fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards, a pair of stories by a couple of newcomers stood out: Matthew J. Trafford’s “The Divinity Gene” and Buffy Cram’s “Large Garbage.” Trafford’s first collection, which took its title from his story, was published last year and has now been followed by Buffy Cram’s debut.
As with Trafford’s The Divinity Gene, Cram’s best story is the one that appeared in Darwin’s Bastards, which is some credit to that anthology’s editor, Szuszi Gartner. Most of the stories in Radio Belly have a similarly speculative off-kilter tinge, with people breaking down mentally (the title story, for example, describes a case of schizophrenia), and the world breaking down in other ways. In “Large Garbage” the social order embodied in an upper-class bedroom community falls apart before a tide of overeducated bohemians and vagrants, while in “Floatables: A History” the environment has come undone, our overheated planet being swamped by rising sea levels.
Cram is at her best in stories like these, when her characters, like the disturbed woman in “Mineral by Mineral,” experience a shift in reality as “not a breaking down but a breaking through.” A loss of balance leads to a new understanding of who they are, often through a reconnection with childhood. The less successful pieces are more conventional: “Mrs. English Teacher” being about a woman who goes to teach English in an unidentifed but troubled country (now such a rite of passage for young writers as to seem almost hokey), and “Drift,” dealing with a woman who is on a cross-country trip to find her missing immigrant mother (“What could be more Canadian than this?” she thinks at one point, and it is a good question).
The title of the story “Drift” points to a theme, which is also illustrated by the people on the floating island in “Floatables,” a woman and her son adopted by pirates in “The Moustache Conspiracy,” and the narrator of “Large Garbage,” who cuts himself loose from his bourgeois existence to go “drifting into dreams.” There’s a liquid consistency here that sometimes leaves the stories hanging on a vague and unsatisfying note, but which also allows Cram to suggest shifts of mental and emotional ballast with a very light and nicely descriptive touch.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, March 2012.