After reading Aetherial Worlds, Tatyana Tolstaya’s new collection of short fiction, I looked up “aether” in a 1727 edition of Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences. I thought her choice of the antiquated spelling might say something about her use of the word throughout the book, whose Russian title uses легкий (lyögki), meaning “light,” or “easy.” Modern dictionaries say the Greeks called the substance between heavenly bodies ether or aether. The Cyclopedia weighs the ancients against Newton and Descartes at length, concluding:
In effect, Aether, being no object of our sense, but the work of imagination, brought only on the stage for the sake of hypothesis or to solve some phenomenon, real or imaginary; authors take the liberty to modify it how they please.
This seems appropriate. There’s no pixie dust in Tolstoya’s universe. Its zones are often dark and foreboding. At times, the most aetherial aspect of a story is the way Tolstaya turns it inside-out to reveal its meaning.
Tolstaya is a formidable figure in contemporary Russian culture. Five of her books have been published in English, including White Walls, which combines two collections and The Slynx, a novel. She’s also a political commentator, a historical novelist, the granddaughter of Aleksey Tolstoy, and an indirect descendant of Leo Tolstoy. She invokes her lineage in the first line of “20/20,” the story that opens Aetherial Worlds. As a young man, her grandfather quit engineering school, driven by the uncontrollable flow of stories in his mind. She too possessed “this ability to daydream,” but she had no plans to become a writer until age thirty-two, when she underwent pre-laser surgery for myopia. Convalescing in darkness, she discovered a “second world…a multi-faceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas.” She wrote her first story soon after.
Few of the eighteen pieces of Aetherial Worlds fit conventional genre or narrative forms, making it hard to characterize them individually, or even the book as a whole. “Aspic” starts with the second-person narrator bringing home ingredients for a New Year’s jellied consommé: “The chopped up legs in the shopping bag are pulling your arm down, and it seems as if at the very last moment they’ll refuse to get in the elevator. They’ll twitch, break free, and run away, clacking across the ceramic tile: clippity-clop, clippity-clop, clippity-clop. Maybe that would be for the best? No, it’s too late.” The parts are soon boiled down to “a lake of gold with fragrant meat.” The bowls cool on the balcony. There, the narrator confides: “Might as well stay out on the balcony, bundled up in your shawl…If you feel like senselessly crying, do it now, while nobody can see you. Do it violently, about nothing and for no reason…Because how to reach this there and where this there is—no one knows.” Like that, we are in the heart of a woman who can’t bear to mark another year. Is this an essay? A short story? Or something else?