As a reader, I was so won over I pressed the book on strangers on public transportation. As a reviewer, tasked with making sense of the magic, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Not that I mind.
Explanations could start, at least, with that rage. Feminism pervades everything here, both the fantastic and the mundane. It’s evident even in the title, an echo of the closing line in one of the best and longest pieces, “We Destroy the Moon.”
Set during a time when “the rain is endless and heavy with sludge” and featuring an apocalyptic cult, “We Destroy the Moon” might, like a few of the other stories, be termed science fiction. Yet unlike a lot of sci-fi, the piece is all about feelings, and specifically the hurt feelings of its unnamed female narrator. She’s fallen under the spell of the cult leader (“I orbited you . . . your companion star”), and now must undergo a late coming of age. This delayed education takes several forms, including research into words and their derivations. Some, like “end,” have an obvious bearing on her crisis, while others are more abstruse, like “apophenia.” The term means seeing patterns where they don’t exist, and in the end it too resonates. Only when this woman sees through her Jim Jones, his counterfeit patterns, can she renounce him, in a final fury.
A more ordinary initiation occurs in “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park.” The title refers to the local casino, where in fact “nobody’s a winner.” The narrator knows that much, though she’s too young to drive. Happily, her smarts carry over into a love of Shakespeare and an inkling of a better future, so long as she can steer clear of a predatory older man — or two. In a way, “Meadow Park” presents this author at her most down to earth, its bad guys grimly familiar.
But then again, it’s also a ghost story. The ghost sides with the girl, lending an impalpable hand, and if that sounds funny — well, yes. These little dramas set you laughing even when the subject is downtrodden. Harsh economics often supply the punchline, so that the wit has a tinge of rueful sympathy. Even in one of the book’s happier marriages, the husband proves to be “good at leaving people alone. . . . He maximized his time elsewhere.” What would you call such a partner, if not a ghost? Another story meditates on the “invisible people” who “haunt the shops and strip malls of suburban America.”
In her shorter pieces, sometimes the title alone takes us out of this world, as in the terrific two-pager “When the Husband Grew Wings.” Most of these brevities play with point of view or whip up entertaining alternatives to standard narration. The wry “DEATH DESERVES ALL CAPS” takes the form of a set of instructions for the author’s funeral.
Just about all these assemblages wouldn’t look out of place in an Escher exhibition. One way or another, they subvert our expectations for fiction. During one of the longer standouts, “The Eyes of Saint Lucy,” Sparks kicks aside any notion of “a normal family tale,” raising instead a rebel yell: “Things will happen out of sequence, because this is a family out of sequence. Lists will be made, dreams will be probed, jokes will be listed in alphabetical order.”
The result includes all that, I’d say, and one thing more — a language that blooms (as another story has it) “like some strange, bloody, chaotic plant.” Sparks forges a rhetoric of such warmth and swagger, it may be the single most potent strain in her magic. Even when casting a cold eye on our current anomie, she’s never less than lyrical, concocting mash-ups of outrage and celebration, archaic decorum and unbuttoned plainness. “I always thought of her,” she says of one major player, “as more unscripted than liturgy, more faery than faithful.” The passage strikes an exquisite balance, and at the same time speaks straight from the conflicted heart of this collection’s many heroines — hardheaded yet rapturous, besieged yet resilient.
John Domini’s fourth novel, “The Color Inside a Melon,” appeared on Dzanc Books last summer.
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges
By Amber Sparks
Liveright. 192 pp. $23.95