New York: Liveright/W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. 240 pages. $15.95.
It is fitting that a cabinet of curiosities is a central feature of the titular story of Amber Sparks’s second collection because The Unfinished World and Other Stories is less a book and more a glittering array of literary curios. There’s no size logic at work here; the nineteen stories range from a few pages to the length of a novella. They comprise character sketches, thought experiments, and stories that negotiate between flash fiction and prose poetry. Some stories have a linear arc, while others eschew chronology. The most experimental pieces proceed by association; the reader must assemble fragments scattered by space and time to restore the full artifact.
What the stories do have in common is a commitment to both unusual content and form. Sparks joins the swelling ranks of authors such as George Saunders, Karen Russell, Dan Chaon, Kelly Link, and Aimee Bender who have recently drawn the genres of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy closer to high literature. She doesn’t stop with genre, though. Sparks also taps the wilder tropes of magical realism as well as modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness and defocalization—one story, “The Process of Human Decay,” is narrated from the point of view of a body as it rots, which is a case of a radically embodied perspective. In other words, Sparks is a good rummager: energetic in every direction, and willing to find her treasures where they lie.
Sparks has established herself as a writer more interested in publishing avant-garde short and flash fiction with indie presses than in writing commercial novels. She was one of five female authors in an anthology of chapbooks called Shut-Up/Look Pretty (2012). Her debut collection May We Shed These Human Bodies came out the same year, followed by a book co-authored with Robert Kloss. The Desert Places (2013) is a series of vignettes cataloguing evil throughout history that are written in hybridized forms.
What is truly impressive about this new collection, however, is how consistently Sparks avoids the frequent corollary of experimentation: a loss of character depth and mimetic detail that make a world habitable for readers. In “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly,” for example, a husband grieves for his wife, who—believing herself to be a bird—casts herself out of a window. The widower now builds Leichenhaus, houses in which the bodies of the dead are kept permanently on display in hope of their resurrection. The story is fabulistic, but the husband-wife duo is more than an archetype substituted in for emotional heft—the characters exist in their own right. So do the other protagonists in this collection, no matter how ostensibly unreal: a librarian who guards all the fevers of the world until she succumbs to them; a janitor who cleans up after astronauts in a space shuttle; a chorus of werewolf-hunting girls; and a zombie Sir Launcelot.
As admirable as these works are, perhaps the subtlest characterization is contained in the last story in the collection, “The Unfinished World,” which charts two lovers through their respective youths: Set and Inge. Set died as a young boy in a freak accident involving a circus lion, but was brought back to life. For the rest of his adult life he believes himself to be a ghost, which makes relationships with women impossible—that is, until he meets the headstrong Inge out in Hollywood.
I have singled out this story because it typifies most of Sparks’s fiction and many contemporary stories that draw on the fantastic. A strange element (the miraculous resurrection) is included, but only to amplify an aspect of the psyche that is examined more extensively through realist prose. Furthermore, although this return-from-the-dead element is not irreducible (unlike that found in true magical realism, it could be explained as a self-mythologizing or delusion on the part of Set or his family) its presence in the story still imparts an antic quality. Form is also tailored to amplify the psychological drama: in this case, the perspective alternates between two characters who do not meet until three-quarters of the way through an eighty-page story. In subordinating the magical to the psychological, Sparks’s story is not making moves as bold as a true magical realist story might, but the author is using the tools of that genre to enhance an effective and affecting mode of domestic realism.
In a 2014 article published in Electric Literature, Sparks coined the term “domestic fabulism” to describe a tendency in contemporary American fiction. The term pertains to the work of authors such as Kelly Link, George Saunders, and Karen Russell, who bend postmodern and unreal elements to the service of a narrative that is not a fabulistic, globetrotting adventure, but is instead firmly grounded in the home space. Sparks does not necessarily place her fiction in this category, but I do. The Unfinished World charts spaces familiar to the contemporary American reader, and its outlandish content is always directed at familial and often quotidian relationships.
This is not to disparage Sparks’s originality and range. An artist’s creativity can be located in the myriad ways through which she achieves a single artistic goal. It does bring to mind, however, the argument—often made by writers who use magical elements—that their work is more “real” than standard realism. Such writers claim that by deploying magic they better transmit a felt experience to a reader than through the tired conventions of naturalism. In other words, the unreal functions as a kind of literalized (and rejuvenating) metaphor. Whether you make this argument or not, Sparks’s collection uses unreal elements to heighten the most human concerns of all: death, love, and how to go through the world feeling—as we often do—somehow unfinished.