shining the spotlight on short story collections
“‘It’s silence I want to hear,’ he said. ‘That single instance where a person is bare and pure and doesn’t know how to feel. The silence that follows. That’s all.'”
The short stories in Peter Tieryas Liu’s sparkling debut flirt with the contours of magical realism, but they aren’t magical realism, not the way magical realism has been done, i.e. a fantastical element taking its place alongside the entirely mundane and normal as if it’s completely natural to do so. I’d say they go beyond magical realism — to use a term that Liu himself uses in a story in this collection, Urban Dreamers, these stories are gritty “fantasy gone awry”, more Etgar Keret than Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For example, in Chronology of an Egg, the protagonist meets a girl who lays an egg every time she has sex. This is such a strange state to be in that the protagonist himself has a hard time believing her, but naturally their mutual attraction leads to intercourse, and sure enough, she lays an egg, described for us in graphic detail. No return to the status quo is possible after this, not for the reader, not for the protagonist; his entire quotidian world, I imagine, is torn to pieces.
Rats overrun a fictional place called Antarsia in Rodenticide; a Chinese man is able to levitate when he’s pierced by 8,726 needles in Gradients, sort of like acupuncture gone amok; a man has HIV-resistant blood in Resistance. A host of other weird afflictions make an appearance: a woman suffers from motion blindness in Passing Glance; a man suffers from a colony of tapeworm in his brain in Colony; elsewhere in Unreflected, a woman (not a ghost, although she may as well be) has lost her reflection. What makes this collection unique is that these fantastical elements do not canter cheek-by-jowl with reality evoking mystery and wonder, but instead highlight and super-reflect the level of disconnect and isolation these characters feel in their urban, gritty world of global continent surfing, adrift somewhere in the liminal air-space between L.A. and Beijing, further cut off from spiritual or emotional connection through the increasingly dehumanising world of production economy and social networking. Liu manages to invoke this feeling of alienation best when he strips it down to a laconic itemisation of what an office looks like — “A conference room and an oak table, monitors for teleconferencing on the wall.” (The Interview). The overall feeling at the end isn’t wonder at all; it’s despair but suspended, horror but suspended. What we leave behind in Liu’s world in terms of remnants of our existence is not our best artistic expressions of singular immortality, but the trace of our ‘cruelty and kindness’ in our fecal remains (Gradient).
Many short story collections take on the moths-swarming-around-a-lightbulb effect, gravitating towards a central theme. There is a loose concept here at work as well — the shuttling between the disparate worlds of L.A. and Beijing, the unflinching male gaze in search of love and companionship (which I actually found too singular). However, what captured my continuing interest in this collection were the other tangential connections, so many of them, spiralling in all directions. Chinese folklore and history, for one. The original name for the Forbidden City was Purple Forbidden City — who knew — and this fact is imparted while one shoots forbidden hoops in a forgotten corner of the Imperial City (Forbidden City Hoops). Liu narrates the Chinese legend of two lovers who meet in a dream — the man transforms himself into a crow, falls in love with a female crow, but when he wakes, he’s back to a man again; never the twain shall meet. (A Beijing Romance) and then poses the metaphysical question: dream and reality, which the fiction, which the reality, and are they really unswappable?
This offside musing is picked up back in Forbidden City Hoops in the legend of Gumang, a province where the sun never rises and the moon never sets, and people there spend two-thirds of their lives sleeping and dreaming and hence, believe that waking life is illusion and dreams, reality. Liu then takes this metaphysical motif and spins it into existentialism in The Interview and Buddhist meditative practices in Gradients:
Three years, I didn’t think of right or wrong, benefit or harm. I cleared polarities from my head. Five years, I focused on good and evil, advantage versus disadvantage. Eight years later, my action had transcended consequence, and by my twenty-seventh year, my thoughts melded with nature and all my flesh and bones had evaporated.
I loved the literary effect of this follow-the-dots thematic chase or spirals of meaning; as if Liu is beckoning us, pick your itinerant choice: peaches, scars, routines, photography, urban legends, characters who make films or photograph urban legends, characters who work for SolTech, characters who are game-testers — follow that trail, see what you find.
Take urban legends for example. In The Buddha of Many Parts, our protagonist is a fiction translator but the stories he translates sound like urban legends — a gambler who lost his fingers plays mahjong with his tongue; a girl has the ability to destroy the world with a single thought but spares it just because of her vice for moon-cakes.
In Urban Dreams, more urban legends abound, panning back the reflection of the fantasy-gone-awry stories in this collection. In The Death Artist, Liu catalogues strange artists — a man can freeze his whole body, a woman has pubic hair longer than her legs. What made the urban legends here worthwhile cataloguing for Liu was perhaps the blend of ‘comedy and vaudeville’, as the protagonist himself did in 58 Random Deaths and Unrequited Love, and who ended up forecasting his own death in a ghastly prognostication. Liu follows the patterning with language too. ‘A heart worn out like a sieve’ (The Political Misconception of Getting Fired) pulsates into dishes of kung pao duck heart, evoking Eastern rites lost over ‘the sieve of time’ (The Buddha of Many Parts). ‘Routine was the breeze that drove us forward’ (Searching for Normalcy), recapitulated in ‘I experience four cyclical deaths every day: lavatory, office politics, televised Internet and dreamless sleep.’ (Colony).
The danger of course with this parade of surrealistic aberrations from the normal world is that this is quirk for quirk’s sake, but Liu side-steps this to a degree by mere cataloguing; in fact, navel-gazing at strangeness without a concomitant phenomenological inquiry into its nature would fail to satisfy. In places, I appreciated the quirky cuteness of characters who speak as if they’ve just walked over from an artsy Asian film set-up —
“Sometimes, a relationship is like coffee.”
“After a long day, you need a jolt to keep you awake.” (A Beijing Romance)
Other times, I’m left a bit puzzled.
“A true musician doesn’t use passion. She transcends it.”
“You did that?”
“I got mired in staccatos.” (Staccato)
Overall, a debut collection that brings something new to the short story scene (follow-the-dots/spirals of meaning) or sparks a mini-epiphany — wait, even emotional emptiness has levels? — gets a major nod of respect from me.
So, what does happen when a colony of tapeworm infiltrates one’s brain? Here’s Liu’s quirky sense of imagination at work: you get to experience emotions as sounds. That should be spectacular, wondrous — but in a world where there are no boundaries and categories and filter, Liu tells us that this actually leads to “eventual death, a neurological explosion that translates to darkness and inactivity.”(Colony) It triggers for me an associative Faulknerian vision: “between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Read Black Pug, a story from this collection, in Metazen.
About the author: Peter Tieryas Liu has almost 200 publications in magazines and journals including Adirondack Review, Camera Obscura Journal, Evergreen Review, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Word Riot, and Zyzzyva, and was the recipient of the 2012 Fiction Award from Mojo, the magazine run by Wichita State University. He has also worked as a technical writer for LucasArts, the gaming division of LucasFilm. By day, he’s a VFX artist who has worked on movies like Men in Black3 and Alice in Wonderland. You can find him at www: tieryasxu.com as well as travelling the world with his wife.
About the reviewer: Elaine Chiew lives in London. Her fiction has won awards (including the Bridport), and been shortlisted (Fish Short Story Award, Top 25 Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writer Award). She has written a short story collection and a novel, both of which are out in submission. Many of her stories can be found online at journals such as Metazen, Per Contra, Pedestal, African Writing Online, among others.