Carol Emshwiller’s collection I Live with You takes its title from one of its stories, “I Live with You and You Don’t Know It.” That “You” is an unnamed everywoman who spends too much time at whatever pointless job she’s given up to, comes home to a too-big house, empty save for the inevitable housecat. She could be anybody, me or, well, you. More interesting is the identity of the house’s newly arrived third occupant—that equally inscrutable “I”—a succubus-type of indiscriminate nature who goes unnoticed or at least unacknowledged. “I nibble at your food,” she taunts. “I nap in your bed when you’re at work and leave it rumpled. You thought you had made it first thing in the morning and you had.”
The appeal of “I Live with You” (and, for that matter, of I Live with You) is that none of this seems odd until you’ve left it alone for a while, abandoned the carefully and invisibly drawn completeness of this context for the reality you’ve created for yourself. While inside, though, your attention isn’t drawn toward where it normally would be—that woman, so all-encompassing that you’re bound to find yourself somewhere inside her—but rather toward her shadow. What is she? you’ll wonder later: some kind of mythological fantasy, or a ghastly/ghostly ex-person, or a once-normal driven somehow weird? But What? is beside the point, subordinate to Why?
These stories all seem slightly off, an angled aspect of the common, or a perfect portrait of the unusual. Spending too much time with any one could easily turn disorienting. The repetition of themes (men are just boys in adult drag, the extraordinary are routinely subsumed by the overwhelming average, war is ultimately and inevitably fruitless) and motifs can be literally dizzying: more than once, you might find yourself flipping through the book as if you’d unwittingly stumbled backward, wondering if you’ve already read a particular part or whole of a particular tale, and if so, how many times. To Emshwiller’s credit, this is more intoxicating than frustrating. These pieces collude and collide, retracing one another’s steps—“The Library” is about knowledge and warfare, “Boys” is about warfare and gender, “Coo People” is about gender and knowledge—creating a web of Venn diagrams presumably the size and shape of the author’s intentions.
You’ll find I Live with You, along with Emshwiller’s others, in your bookstore’s Science Fiction section; among its stories are some originally printed in journals like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and the curiously titled Sci Fiction. But very little here is demonstrably indebted to either genre. If there was anything particularly scientific about any of these, it escaped me. And even the overtly fantastic elements are downplayed, mitigated by an attitude that vacillates between embarrassment and boredom. Two stories feature characters who belong to races of men who fly. But neither group exactly soars through the clouds. In one story, the unnamed people levitate, slightly, but try not to. In the other, “Gliders Though They Be,” they simply fall slower.
What allows us to leave Emshwiller to her own devices in the backwoods of genre is what’s missing from the collection’s title: You Don’t Know It. Like the best- considered sci-fantasy, Emshwiller avoids making the generic elements—the robots and the elves—the point. Instead, they’re elegant tropes for the mundane. She takes the long way around, but her destination is ultimately the same. Where, we don’t know.