My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Super-short short fiction often leaves me cold; I’m not much for haiku either. Probably I’m inclined to be obstreperous about it for no other reason that bite-sized now seems to be the preferred length for everything; diminishment in attention span is a worldwide crisis when it comes to communication, journalism, fiction writing in general. The fiction particularly often reads to me like film treatments.
Think I’m being a drama queen? Try reading the first fifty pages of Dostoevsky’s Notes from The Underground. If memory serves, the sentences go on for pages and pages, but unlike the drugged-out stories I’d tell in my stoner youth, they never lose their thread. He packs perfect Chinese boxes with syntax, bracketing ideas inside each other to a central core, then coming right back out, completing every one. The failure when I was twenty and read it for the first time was mine; I thought I was a shit-hot speed reading freak scanning Umberto Eco over breakfast, and the Russians stopped me cold, in translation. Eco is pussy compared to any really great 19th Century novelist working their chops. Those guys and gals built complexity, characters whose minds were working on many levels. I mean, the modern world didn’t invent it, ya know?
So a three hundred word short story usually sucks, in my opinion. It’s the beginning of something, sure, but you work beyond first ideas, don’t you, as a writer? Apply some rigour? When I saw the brevity of most of the stories in this collection, I felt inclined to be snippy.
Cyril Wong suffers from this problem less than I’d anticipated, mostly because there’s a real variety of conclusions, of happenstance, in these small tales. Working with a fucked-up fairytale structure, he subjects his deftly but economically sketched characters to the random cruelties of existence, with an extra twist of the knife provided by the possibilities of supernatural interventions, unseen influences, and genderfuck. So, a queen discovers the love of her life after death, a child talks to the moon, a boy enters a cave that causes him to be reborn endlessly, joylessly.
But Wong also confounds the flinch he’s built in the response of the reader by NOT doing this in many of the stories. Perhaps what happens is infinitesimal, a tiny movement in a way of seeing, a new contentment. The dread is undercut with simplicity, or with the monumental. The book design is lovely too, kind of alchemical, secret drawings of arcane knowledge that support each tale in turn and have resonance when you turn back to look at them.
I was reminded of the stories told to the Shah in David Foster’s Sons of the Rumour, and also of his Land Where Stories End. There is the whiff of archetypes (yes, in the Jungian sense, sorry) about some of these tales – they are known to you before you read them. I didn’t find this a funny book at all, rather a deeply sad one – it paints an uncaring universe where those that find happiness must steer against a current of petty cruelties, violence and random bad luck. But some do. And meditating on the whole isn’t a bad thing either. Just ask Dostoevsky.