Ma Qui and Other Phantoms

May 3, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

maMa Qui and Other Phantoms by Alan Brennert


I read this collection before, in 1998, and liked it well enough, though when I sat down to re-read it now, nearly twenty years later, I couldn’t remember much about it. I hadn’t even planned on re-reading it, except after reading Time and Chance last year, I thought it might be worth revisiting the book to see if my thoughts had changed on it. Interestingly, the stories here are about the passing of time and how it affects how we feel and think about ourselves, so it was an appropriate feeling to have when I started reading.

The first story, “Ma Qui”, is about dying in Vietnam. The main character, our narrator, is a soldier who dies in battle and has his body stolen, preventing his spirit from moving on. He finds himself haunting the fields there, seeing other phantoms who have died in the war. He has to decide what kind of spirit he will be there, but sometimes those kinds of choices are outside of our control. It’s a moving story, as is the most horrific of the four tales here.

Next is “Ghost Story”, a fairly pointless piece of prose poetry. I don’t get a lot of poetry, and it turns out that prose poems are as incomprehensible to me as standard poetry. If not for this one story (and it’s a short one; it only runs about six pages), I might have given the collection one more star.

“Stage Whisper” reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Signal to Noise, as it’s about an aging playwright who is struggling to find meaning in his life as he nears the end of it. It was written in the late ’70s, published in the early ’80s, and it has a fairly balanced look at being gay for its time, aside from its liberal use of the adjective “faggoty” (though it appears to be an attempt on the main character’s part to reclaim the word). It’s a piercing look at how people view their present through the lens of their past, and it’s likely the most effective piece in the book. That it’s also the longest is no coincidence; Brennert has room to let his character grow.

The collection concludes with “Futures”, a story about a man who keeps seeing the people in his life aged thirty years older than they are. I’m amused that a story about looking backward and valuing youth is followed by one that looks forward, with the same value, but the conclusion here took me by surprise. It’s as effective as “Stage Whisper”, which is impressive, since it’s less than half the length.

I still think Brennert does his best work in novels, but these short stories highlight his writing skills. His characterization is like none other, and these stories (well … three of them, at least) show it. My first experience reading him was via “The Third Sex”, and everything else I’ve read by him has lived up to my expectations. Brennert is a writer who deserves a wider audience.

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