This week’s story is “21 Steps to Enlightenment” by LaShawn M. Wanak. Published February 2014 in Strange Horizons, it can be found here: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140203/steps-f.shtml
Continuing last week’s theme of “elaborately structured speculative fiction with numerals in the title”, Wanak’s story immediately sank its hooks into me when I discovered it.
Coming to—or re-entering—the world of SFF very late, I’m aware there’s a lot of great fiction out there that I’ve missed and which generated a lot of buzz when it was published. Most of of my access to pre-2015 speculative fiction comes in the form of deep diving into the bibliographies of authors where I’ve found something I loved; sometimes, though, I find myself leafing through old issues of Clarkesworld and Tor and Strange Horizons.
Which is great, because sometimes you find gems like “21 Steps to Enlightenment”. It’s a piece of magical realism which explores the idea of spiral staircases that simply appear in the world, and that hold dizzying epiphanies at the tops for their climbers. Mostly, Isa narrates, in a series of vignettes and meditations, her own experiences with these structures. How they’ve affected her, how they affect other people. And slowly, the story of her family unfolds; the complex telling of a generational history.
I’ll confess from the outset that I love these sort of deliberate, separated structures.
I don’t always love list stories which feel like lists, but Wanak’s doesn’t. Or more precisely, it deliberately does; it takes the trope and twists it, like the staircases themselves, around on itself until it’s coiling upwards and away from usual ground. The mechanic—I suppose SF people would say “conceit”—of the spiral staircase ensures that I read each step as a logical, necessary, inexorable progression from the moment she asserts “you can’t go back” from the first few sentences.
Interestingly, I didn’t. Not on the first read, at least.
And I’m a reader who consistently rewinds podcasts four or five times to make sure I got a phrase before going forward; I once reread a paragraph in A.C. Wise’s “And If The Body Were Not The Soul” four times before I moved on because I was so struck by its organization. But I didn’t reread any part of “21 Steps” until I reached the end. Something about Wanak’s clear voice, slipping from authoritative to confessional, made me feel as though I would be violating something sacred if I broke the rules of the spiral structure.
There’s something holy in the staircases Wanak writes of. Pilgrimage always involves a geographical journey, and climbing these staircases reads to me as a pilgrimage, a sort of quest: to determine what truth, for you, lies at the top.
But more than holy, it’s harmony. Isa’s voice is at some times hilariously funny and at others achingly profound. Sometimes the story is authoritative–everyone from “Beethoven to Stevie Wonder” has had a transcendent experience on a staircase; sometimes, in the case of Isa’s family, it’s utterly familiar. There’s even a dictionary definition, which serves to break up the profound, dizzying, emotionally fractured experience Isa has between steps 4 and 6 into something translatable.
I admire “21 Steps” from a design perspective. And I do think of it as design, of structural mechanic not only integrated into narrative content but an indivisible portion of that content. This story veers wildly between the warm intimacy of Isa’s voice and humor, her Momma’s unwavering principles, and the sheer alien unknowability of epiphany. All three of these facets could be jarring, but with the structure yoking them together, it works–and better than if one had been set apart.
It felt right to me, how this story was laid out. But then I’m predisposed to favor the shattering epiphany from out of the blue, the inevitable sense of forward momentum (you can never go back, only through). I carry these truths in my bones, which have radically molded my life into a shape I wouldn’t have recognized from the bottom of a staircase looking up. “That’s the trouble with spiral staircases…” Wanak writes, and it’s the same with life experiences, with well-told stories. “They change you up good.”