"The Lollygang Save the World on Accident" by Jay Lake

Some authors are better at short form fiction, while others shine in their novels and strain at the edges of a short story. I like Clive Barker best when he's doing long form. Stephen King I'll take either way. I return to Charles DeLint's Newford most often through his short story collections. The opening paragraph of Jay Lake's short story "The Lollygang Save the World on Accident" is peppered with the best things about Mainspring without any of the bad. Something I didn't mention in my review of Mainspring was that chapter one (moreso than any other), the latter three-quarters of chapter three, and much of chapters four and six have scenarios in them which would have made great short stories. I read somewhere Jay Lake writes great short fiction. "Lollygang" is proof.

Consider the opening paragraph:
Per braced against the corroded stanchion protruding from a riveted curve of the Big Pipe. Wind tore at him like his ma'am after she'd been drinking too hard. He squinted against the unaccustomed daylight and tried not to look down. Outside loomed all around him like a scream. (401)
I've told my students that my definition of poetic language is when you "say more with less." In one paragraph, Lake has told us a great deal about Per: he has an alcoholic mother who beats him, he doesn't often see daylight, and he is currently at a great height, accentuated by the unstated but felt presence of Outside as a proper noun. In a writing course, you're told you have 50 words to hook the reader in a short story. Lake's used around 50, and I'm hooked.

One of Lake's other strengths in Mainspring, which I alluded to in my review in my comments about the point of the historical break, as well as steampunking Christianity, is his ability to build environments on a colossal scale. In Mainspring it's the Equatorial Wall and the Orbital track. In "Lollygang" it's the Big Pipe, a "tube almost a mile in diameter" (403) with numerous decks peopled by a diversity of cultures, "from all walks of life, all skin colors, all philosophical persuasions," or one might say world views: because the Big Pipe is a world, "another stage on which to play out the dramas of the psyche" (404).

The characters have great steampunk names: Shadowmite, Cleverdick Stafford, Green Charles, the McCrain Deck Beaters, the Lollygang itself. Anyone complaining that there isn't much punk in steampunk needs to read "Lollygang." Like conceptual ancestors of Powers' beggar lords in The Anubis Gates (86), who are in turn conceptual ancestors of Henry Mayhew's accounts of London Labor and the London Poor, the gangs of the Big Pipe are the punk of steampunk--low society which stands outside the status quo:
Others with reason to be dissatisfied found their way into gangs that lived intramurally. These were not cofraternities dedicated to a certain trade or style of living, but opportunists who preyed upon the settled order of life within the Big Pipe. They were generally not brutally violent, and they promoted an informal economic and technological interchange which over time led to new trading partners and novel combinations of the confraternities themselves. (407)
I was reminded in my reading of the opening scenes in Scorcese's Gangs of New York, with the various gangs of the four points and their colorful communal identities.

I won't say much about the plot, because while the title gives away the ending, unlike Mainspring, the how is a surprise, woven into an interesting cosmology, echoing that of Mainspring. I'll be interested to see in other works by Lake if the presence of religion is a common thread. I'm guessing by the title of Lake's short story "The God Clown is Near" in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer's Steampunk anthology, that it is. Given S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, an investigation of religious themes in steampunk might be warranted. At any rate, given the radiply immersive mise-en-scene of "Lollygang," I'm excited to read more of Lake's short fiction, and pleased that the potential in Mainspring was indicative of smaller, but better things.

Lake, Jay. "The Lollygang Save the World On Accident." Extraordinary Engines. Ed. Nick Gevers. Nottingham: Solaris, 2008. 401-422.

Powers, Tim. The Anubis Gates. New York: Ace Books, 1997 (1983).


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