Saturday, February 11, 2017

On "The Unfinished World" by Amber Sparks ***

Long an admirer of some of Sparks's online stories, which are often kooky but more importantly are generally full of energy and verve. She writes in an unpredictable way that makes reading fun. So it was with great anticipation that I took up her second book of stories.

That weirdness is present from the start in "The Janitor in Space," which I'll save discussion for in the next post.

"The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies" is about two sisters whose desired lifestyle is curtailed by their parents, whom they think of doing a Lizzie on. But it's really about how siblings grown apart from one another as they age--and together.

"The Cemetery of Lost Faces" is a more traditional story insofar as it's more filled out, but narratively it isn't--chopping up space time to tell us about death and murder: of animals and relatives. Taxidermy plays a large role.

"The Logic of a Loaded Heart" performs a difficult trick. It's a story in the form of word problems, about a kid with problems, a man with problems. The next story plays a trick to: "Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting" is a science fiction piece. A woman travels back in time to destroy a painting she hates, but to no avail. Each time she returns to the future, the painting is still there--sometimes in a slightly different from, but still present. I like how the old kill a butterfly idea gets turned on its head here.

"Lancelot in the Lost Places of the World" didn't really grab me, nor did the next two stories. The first, I'll save for another time, but the second, "Birds with Teeth," is about anthropologists and is available online here at the Collagist.

In many ways, Sparks's stories at times seem like exercises--challenges she has managed to meet. Such is the case with "For These Humans Who Cannot Fly," which is about a widower who build little death houses for people. The story, however, begins with a quote from Jan Bondeson about some rather mysterious German structures. It's as if Sparks is answering the mystery here.

"Take Your Daughter to the Slaughter" introduces a set of stories that seem based around fairy tales and fantasy. This particular one focuses on a werewolf hunt, told like any other tale of girls going hunting with dad's. However, the fact that these are other sort of humans makes it rather grizzly. "We Were Holy Once" is a piece of lyricism that didn't speak much to me, but it spoke to the editors of Granta here.

"La Belle de Nuit, La Belle de Jour" reads like a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen tale. This one's about a family whose father marries a witch. The witch fills the daughter's mouth with stinging insects so that it is hard for her to speak. The sons are turned into birds. The daughter sews sweaters with magical powers to break the spell.

"The Fires of Western Heaven" is a lyrical piece about the World War I era, a setting that will be repeated in the novella that ends the collection. "The Process of Human Decay" performs an interesting trick by focusing the narration from the point of view of a cadaver, a dead person, as it dies, bloats, is buried, and learns of various things that are not done after death as it would wish.

The title story, a novella, follows two major storylines, one of Set and one of Inge, until of course they meet and fall in love. Both have lost parents of a sort. Inge grows up in a dilapidated estate with a man named Albert. Set, upon whom the narrative seems to focus more and which proves to be the more interesting side of the story, grows up among a set of siblings--one an explorer, one a collector of bobbles, one a slayer of conventions. Amid this family, Set begins to suspect that he is in some way not really alive, not really flesh and blood, in the same was as others. Obviously, he ends up in Hollywood, a filmmaker and playboy. Inge becomes an adventurer, a world-traveling photographer. Sparks first came to my attention as a writer of the quirky, but in this collection, it's her longer pieces such as this one that appeal most, where the stories might not be as quirky but where they maintain a lyricism that is flushed out and beautiful.

The closing story is part of that lyricism, about "The Sleepers," whose dreams never come to be. It can be read here at Necessary Fiction. Sparks remains a writer I will keep an eye on. I expect a novel down the road.

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