Ursula Le Guin’s The Unreal and the Real: Collected Stories, reviewed.

Stop Arguing About Genre Fiction When Ursula Le Guin Is the Best Writer Alive

Stop Arguing About Genre Fiction When Ursula Le Guin Is the Best Writer Alive

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 2 2012 11:28 PM

No Better Spirit

The incredible stories of Ursula Le Guin make arguments about genre seem foolish.

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The first volume of The Unreal and the Real contains the mode of Le Guin that I, and likely you, know least. These are extremely dense, interior, thorny, and realistic kinds of stories, some of which take place in her invented Central European country of Orsinia. Is it genre? Who can tell! These are beautiful and a kick in the teeth at first, but once you are inside them, you are all the way in. Take "A Week in the Country," in which a young man falls in love at the rural home of his college friend and then falls ill and stays on. His crush considers him:

He would get well, would go back a week late to the city, to the three bedsteads and five roommates, shoes on the floor and rust and hairs in the washbasin, classrooms, laboratories, after that employment as an inspector of sanitation on State farms in the north and northeast, a two-room flat in State housing on the outskirts of a town near the State foundries, a black-haired wife who taught the third grade from State-approved textbooks, one child, two legal abortions, and the hydrogen bomb. Oh was there no way out, no way? "Are you very clever?"

"I'm very good at my work."


"It's science, isn't it?"

"Biology. Research."

Then the laboratories would persist; the flat became perhaps a four-room flat in the Krasnoy suburbs; two children, no abortions, two-week vacations in summer in the mountains, then the hydrogen bomb. Or no hydrogen bomb. It made no difference. 

That is from 1976. It has a somewhat heavy hand, a dark view, but that’s the same year as her novel The Word for World is Forest, which has a lighter hand but an even darker view. (In it, humans enslave a planet, thereby teaching their slaves war. To return to the genre argument, it would be easier, and more generic and more commercial, to have written a timely novel set on Earth about environmentalism and imperialism. Setting it on another planet is exactly what allows her to "elevate" (barf?) the book to literature.)

She ambles into a different mode with her Oregon stories, like "Hand, Cup, Shell," about a family at a beach house, which has all the shininess of To the Lighthouse.

A tongue of the tide ran up the sand between them, crosscurrents drawing lines across it, and hissed softly out again. The horizon was a blue murk, but the sunlight was hot. "Ha!" Phil said, and picked up a fine white sand dollar. He always saw the invaluable treasures, the dollars of no currency; he went on finding Japanese glass netfloats every winter on this beach, years after the Japanese had given up glass floats for plastic, years after anyone else had found one. Some of the floats he found had limpets growing on them. Bearded with moss and in garments green, they had floated for years on the great waves, tiny unburst bubbles, green, translucent earthlets in foam galaxies, moving away, drawing near. "But how much Maupassant is there in The Old Wives' Tale?" she asked. "I mean, that kind of summing-up-women thing?" And Phil, pocketing his sea-paid salary, answered, as her father had answered her questions, and she listened to him and to the sea. 

That is from 1989. Promise me that, sometime this week, utterly inappropriately, you'll ask "how much Maupassant" there is in something, in anything!

Once we are off the planet, the (often, not always) more recent stories, in Volume 2, become more welcoming. Over time, like most all of us, it also feels like Le Guin becomes even more secure, less flamboyant, more affecting.