“Passing Strange,” by Ellen Klages
What a sparkling jewel-box of a book is Ellen Klages’ World Fantasy Award-winning “Passing Strange” — full of intricate workings, hidden chambers, and textured glimpses into deeply private and profoundly magical lives.
A love story set in a shape-shifting city of fog and glorious sun, “Passing Strange” is a fantasia of lesbian San Francisco in the 1940s, and its injustices are despairingly similar to those of our own modern times.
Its memorable characters are debased by the gaze of a mainstream that has made their mere existence illegal. They exploit themselves before gawking outsiders simply to survive — and in so doing define themselves on their own terms, as exotic but ordinary, as inexpressibly beautiful but merely human. Their demand is nothing more than the privilege of simple intimacy, and the peace and privacy to be who they are, wherever they are.
Klages’ San Francisco is a city of dreams — as compellingly depicted as the magical, romantic, unabasedly decadent metropolis of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” and just as full of oppression and loss. Like any tourist hoping to take a stroll down Maupin’s fictitious Barbary Lane, you’ll dream of wandering through Klage’s North Beach, Telegraph Hill and Treasure Island.
Here is a city is full of color, light and revelation, from the exhibits, arcades and galleries of the Golden Gate International Exposition — which lit up the heart of wartime San Francisco Bay — to the bohemian Barbary Coast, lush with passions that strive to exist honestly and for their own sake in a world overrun with corruption and abuse.
Klages conjures a vision of the past from real places and thoroughly plausible people struggling with issues that are all too contemporary. They’re trapped a society that is at once fascinated and appalled by the fact of their existence. The manner of their escape — and the friends and family who help them along their way — is romantic wish-fulfillment at its finest.
As such, it is also celebration of genre — of cheap pulp potboilers and cheesecake cover art, of weird tales, forbidden cities and forbidden love — and an exploration of the ennobling, all-too-human vulnerabilities of outsiders before they are reduced to stereotypes and kitsch.
With its feet in these two two worlds — genre escapism and humanist realism — “Passing Strange” comes together as an interlocking portrait of lives and loves that are constantly threatened by life’s small, inevitable tragedies made horribly acute by the lifelong indignities that are routinely endured by oppressed peoples.
It begins arrestingly, with a look back over the years of a life from the vantage of death’s door — and it ends with death as well, the death of dreams. Really, just one beautiful dream that has run its course, that must evaporate with the dawn, like any dream, leaving you grasping after vapor and hope, eyes stinging from a rude — but just — awakening.
It is punctuated by the magic of grandmothers, and vexing existential ponderables that are not cleanly resolved. It leaps decades, it exists in more than one timestream, and possibly in more than one dimension. Spacetime — and the lives of its vividly rendered characters — are bent, creased and connected in origami folds by the brute injustices of American society, and by the art and intention of those who would survive and thrive despite it all.
More than a great work of fantasy, more than a tribute to the excesses and secret revelations of pulp, more than a wonderful romance with a satisfying twist ending — this is also a book about staying human, about staying humane, in a world that would prefer to deny you the former and destroy your will for the latter.
“Passing Strange” shows us not just how fragile these human conditions are, but also how friends and lovers can work together, keep their promises, and create shared worlds in which we are really and truly free.