Friday, August 5, 2016

The Other Ever After

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 71
Amber Sparks, May We Shed These Human Bodies: Stories

A desperately solitary suffragette finds love in a bitter winter, and hates it, cursing her heirs for the burden. A banal schoolteacher, riven with heartbreak, finds himself the only survivor of a family plagued by heart disease. A school devises a curriculum for future teenage superheroes, but finds itself accidentally cradling a nascent supervillain. A young girl escapes her family ghosts, only to find the ghosts are her actual family.

Amber Sparks’ debut collection channels fairy stories and folktales, but in a contemporary setting, a permeable world where dream logic infiltrates our banal technological lives. It’s tempting to compare her work to Magic Realist authors like Borges and Kafka. But these very short stories, some under one page, represent a distinct Amber Sparks style that accepts influences, without remaining slavishly dependent upon them.

Early stories in this collection more obviously imitate Sparks’ fairy tale influences. The opening story, “Death and the People,” features a literally embodied Death simultaneously vacating the entire Earth. But massed humanity, initially embracing the opportunity for a clean break, discovers something unexpected in the Afterlife: eternal, transcendent boredom. This story, and some closely following it, blatantly resemble the narrative voice of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault.

Like the classic fairy stories, Sparks’ narratives are a collision between tone and content. Her voice of na├»ve innocence suggests a storyteller unaffected by life’s petty discontents. But like Red Riding Hood, her characters’ attempts to display basic independence explode in their faces. Hers is a world where people find themselves blown back into dependent, pre-written roles, though less from moral veracity than because it’s tough to fight indoctrination.

Amber Sparks
As the collection progresses, however, Sparks breaks from the storybook voice. Her tone becomes darker, more aggressive, deeply unsentimental. Stories like “Cocoon,” about a visit to an old-folks’ home gone terribly wrong, or “Vesuvius,” wherein a public figure’s wife reclaims control of her life by destroying what her husband loves, maintain the ethereal tone while refusing to be cute. These stories brim with the violence implicit in our postmodern situation.

Individual stories vary in tone from whimsy, to seductive bedtime story, to outright horror. Collectively, however, a through-line develops of a world still suffused with the wonder children take for granted. Though only a few tales involve recourse to the supernatural to explain this wonder-working influence, Sparks nevertheless evokes the speculation that, behind the world we all equitably see, resides another world visible to the blessed, or cursed, few.

Reading Sparks, I cannot help remembering Maria Tatar, who writes that children enjoy stories for different reasons than adults. Reading, for children, involves immersion into a deeply sensory world to which they haven’t become inured, like the adults around them. Children want experiences that, with their underdeveloped bodies, they cannot directly have. Stories then become ways, not to escape real life, but to immerse themselves more fully in reality.

Something similar happens reading Amber Sparks. We, as adults, have the bodily capacity to participate in real life’s wonder. But a life comprised of compromise, belittlement, and need, inevitably stunts our spirits: adults are capable of doing profound things, we just don’t do them. Sparks attempts, mostly successfully, to recapture the grand spirit children share, reconstituting that magnificence in full-grown bodies. She encourages the audacity we craved as kids.

“Urban fantasy” has become a mainstream genre in today’s publishing world. Generally, this means fantasy stories with contemporary settings, heroic quest epics that superficially resemble noir thrillers or bodice-ripper romances. But arguably, Amber Sparks deserves the “urban fantasy” moniker better, because her narrative uses the ambling, transcendent fantasy of childhood bedtime stories, transplanted into a close-set, claustrophobic adult world of city streets and sooty jobs.

Even the book’s physical design emulates this childlike clarity. Running under 150 pages (plus back matter), this book’s mass resembles children’s storybooks. Many pages are tinted to look faded and old, like yellowed heirloom pages: Mommy and Daddy are sharing the stories we loved when we were your age, Sweety. In that moment, we’re all immersed in childhood storytelling passion together, untethered by jobs or boring old physical age.

As a storyteller, Sparks captures the collision between childhood wonder and adulthood capability, often overlooked by other writers, because audiences overlook it in themselves. She encourages us to believe, unencumbered by demands of money or responsibility. Even if we can’t stop being boring grown-ups every day, Sparks gives readers permission to dream big for an afternoon, an hour. And we finish reading, feeling like we’ve been given a gift.

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