The only two books I’ve finished reading so far this month are two surreal collections of very short stories. Both contain magical and/or speculative elements, both focus on human relationships, both are divided into very small individual pieces- flash fiction. And so, I thought it made sense to review them together, and I hoped this would be an easy entrance to resuming my reviews.
I read Gutshot by Amelia Gray as a buddy read with the lovely and astute Melanie, who has also recently posted a review that you shouldn’t miss!
For me, Gutshot was a fun read full of creative premises and surprising events. These stories typically begin with a concept that seems ordinary or at least straightforward, and then follows the trail down an imaginative path of bizarre what ifs. Gray often uses otherworldly elements as symbolism, as an exaggerated way of pointing something out about our familiar world or human habits/emotions in a new light. A man enters a mysterious labyrinth, hoping his peers will think him brave. A damaged gravestone reveals beauty in destruction and incites a frenzy. One story about marriage is titled ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,’ in which the reader is advised to literally eat her husband piece by piece for every move he makes, because inevitably he’ll go astray anyway and deserve such a fate. The stories are designed to make one rethink assumptions: a piece about swans, those lovely creatures who mate for life, actually reveals them to be rather disgusting. I’d be shocked to find anyone who can say that Gray’s writing is ever predictable or boring.
And yet while I found the stories engaging and pleasant to read, I found the implied meanings of them either far too obvious to excite me or too vague to unravel at all- and in both cases, the lack of a nuanced concept to ponder past the end of each story ultimately meant that very few of the pieces in this set were memorable for more than bare details and their ability to amuse me at the surface level.
There are two qualities that particularly appeal to me in short story collections- the first is a touch of the bizarre, which is what originally drew me to Gutshot. I love magical or speculative elements in fiction that push the boundaries of reality; for a short story to impress me it needs to be unique and punchy from start to finish, without a lot of backstory or elaborate world building to bog it down, and a bizarre twist is usually the best way to draw me in immediately and set the story apart. It’s also typically a fun way to examine the real world at an unexpected slant; fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative elements are great for commentary on society or human nature. Sometimes Gray achieves this, but other times the moments of unreality feel too silly and unexplored.
“Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.”
The other quality I prefer (again just a personal choice), is that while the collection may have some broader theme or style that holds all of the stories together, each story should ideally also stand on its own. For the brevity of the short story to keep its appeal, it’s best to be able to dip in and out of the set, in my opinion, without feeling you’re missing something when you don’t read it all at once. But Gutshot doesn’t quite work in this way for me. The collection is divided into sections, and the closest I came to finding any depth of meaning from the book was to look at all of the stories in a section together and consider what they had in common. This of course necessitates reading at least one full section at once, which isn’t too challenging in a book of this size (just over 200 pages, each of the stories 10 pages or less) but just isn’t quite the reading experience I hope for with short pieces.
Across the five sections of this book, I found such concepts explored as: the danger in putting one individual above the good of the group, the violent and ugly side to love, the sorrowful and deadly nature of isolation, the consequences of loving something too much, and the possibility that nothing ever really ends, but all repeats again in its own cycle. The titular piece involves a man who has been shot in the gut; the shooter is remorseful and those sought for help are sympathetic, but none can provide sufficient care for the victim’s wound. Jesus Christ “helps” him in the end by telling him about people passing in a plane overhead. This is one of the stories that didn’t entirely make sense to me- is the focus on futility and despair? Is the message that kindness only goes so far? That the individual is small, and the world goes on? All a bit grim, and are we to determine from the title that one of these possibilities is central to the whole set? My confusion here is an accurate indicator of my struggle to find thematic depth throughout this entire read. I can make out some overlying arcs between the sections, but I am left frustratingly uncertain about what the reader is meant to take away from this experience.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undetermined on whether I’ll try more of this author’s work- it sounds like she’s got a novel that might appeal to me more, and I do generally like unpredictable and puzzling fiction, but I didn’t quite get what I came for here despite my surface-level amusement with the stories.
Next, I read Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut short story collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, which released September 15. The stories in this set are incredibly short, most of them 2-4 pages in length; the longest is 9 pages, and it’s an outlier. Many of these stories also include some sort of otherworldly element, infusing the work with a dreamlike quality.
Unlike Gutshot, this collection manages to accomplish both of the things I enjoy in short story collections- it is packed with bizarre details that effectively further a point about the human experience, and each of the stories stand alone well, though the style and themes are consistent throughout the book, linking them all together.
The stories in this collection tend toward the sapphic, though there are a fair amount of exceptions. Zambrano doesn’t shy away from sexual descriptions in the relationships that unfold across these pages, which I liked in principle but occasionally found overbearing in practice. The characters are diverse or unspecified, which gives the set a very inclusive and limitless aura. As the title indicates, most of the stories focus on death and desire in some form; there are many losses and longings in these pages, including miscarriages, breakups, and various other endings and false starts. A woman who goes for a bikini wax would rather forget about her husband and enjoy the touch of the esthetician. A widow believes her husband, upon death, became one with their house. A poisonous courtesan who can kill with a kiss but not feel love becomes entangled with a girl even more deadly than she. One girl removes the heart from her chest in order to get to know it properly.
What I liked most about these stories is that each one digs into a particular emotion that is easy to comprehend and even relate to, never mind the fact that the characters include aliens, snakes, ghosts, and more. Zambrano writes about the nuances of the human heart, with an otherworldly slant (just the way I like). Her writing is full of unusual imagery, especially involving the body and weather/atmosphere, and I found her metaphors constantly thought-provoking even if sometimes challenging to decipher. Though these moments contain impossibilities, they always paint a clear and intriguing idea.
“The shining dust from the rubble streams in and mixes with your breath. Like a fish swimming to the surface for oxygen, you open your mouth wide, eat the day slowly.”
If I had to pick a genre I’d say these stories are speculative overall, though there’s a timelessness to them that makes appearances of modern devices and futuristic scenarios (like weddings on the moon being a common practice) feel shocking in the reminder that these narratives are grounded in real possibilities- in essence, if not in details. All of these stories are separate and complete in themselves, though none of them seem mutually exclusive, and small details (like a particular animal or object or personality) popping up casually later on gives the whole collection a beautiful sort of flow.
I think there will be a particular sort of reader best suited to this collection; so much of it is melancholy and possibly triggering (CW: miscarriage, death of a loved one, cheating, mild body horror), the writing is gorgeous but oblique, and the reader needs a certain willingness to accept things that don’t make literal sense. It’s dreamy and evocative, but also strange. I know this won’t be to every reader’s taste, but for the right reader I think there’s a lot to love in this collection and in Zambrano’s style. I know I enjoyed my time with it, and I hope others will too.
“Abandoned, I hold on to the shape her body has left behind in me, part home, part grave.”
If you’re curious to learn more about the author and her work, Melanie hosted an interview with the Zambrano a few weeks ago on her blog!
I received an eARC; it’s possible that quotes and details could be different in the final version of this book.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. So much about this collection was just perfectly tailored to my short story tastes, and I had a delightfully sad time reading it (I love sad books). Though there are too many stories for me to say I’ll remember them all individually, I can already tell that the broader topics and emotions will stick with me.
The Literary Elephant