Say you’re a fiction writer and you’d like to allude to the communications technologies of the present moment. There are plenty of ways you can do this, from coming up with your own lightly-altered versions of real-world services to embracing an accurate picture of your smartphone’s suite of apps circa the moment you’re putting words on paper. The difficulty with the latter, though, is that the ups and downs of the tech world don’t always match up with the time it takes to get a book published; the way that Vine went from buzzed-about to deprecated in a relatively short period of time illustrates just how difficult of a juggling act this can be.
All of this is a very long prelude to talk about one of the many reasons why Amber Sparks’s new collection And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories & Other Revenges struck a chord with me. Sparks does an excellent job of evoking 2020 in media and technology within her stories; she also does a fantastic job of creating a timeless, fable-like feel throughout the book. (If you aren’t yet a Sparks reader but do enjoy the fiction of, say, Steven Millhauser of Kelly Link, I suspect you’ll find much to like here as well.) It’s not an easy task, what Sparks has set out to do.
The collection’s second story, “You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women,” illustrates this quality best — it’s both a revisionist take on a contentious moment from mythology and, via its title, a commentary on headline conventions familiar to anyone reading media online. But that title has a second wrinkle: it does indeed deliver on its promise; it is, in fact, a story that offers a very different take on a scene of sexual violence and abuses of power.
Sparks revisits ages-old narratives about power and violence throughout the collection. “In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father” takes a similarly literal approach with its title: we readers are indeed given a front-row seat to Athena creating a video game to annoy Zeus. As she tells him:
“But the main point of the game is to avoid this one specific god until you’re powerful enough, because if you run into him before then, you’ll get turned into a cow or a tree.”
Zeus’s response? “That sucks.” The mediocre dudebro version of Zeus who appears here, both omnipotent and oblivious, is one of the small joys of this collection. Those joys are plentiful; in “The Eyes of Saint Lucy,” Sparks utilizes an absolutely fantastic opening sentence. To wit: “Because there is no God, my mother once married a man named Arnie Barney.” But Sparks also utilizes formal experimentation within the story, including descriptions of films, lists, and a selection of jokes.
It’s one of several places in the book wherein Sparks showcases a formally innovative approach to structure. When she’s not riffing on archetypes and revisiting myths, Sparks does an impressive job of finding ways to make story structures that don’t seem like they’d work on paper click neatly into place. Consider “Our Geographic History,” told through a series of vignettes set in places both physical (“Fort Wayne, Indiana”) and more metaphorical (“Dead center of my heart”).
Here, as is the case for several moments in the collection, Sparks alludes to religious traditions and characters with a frustrated relationship with Christianity. Given the way these stories grapple with millennia-old stories, the frustration that several of the stories’ protagonists have with faith and belief seems entirely of a piece with the grander issues that Sparks addresses: what does it mean to fixate on an ages-old story in which your closest analog is thoroughly marginalized? What does it mean to live in a society where those narratives go unexamined?
“I’ll bet you’d laugh your head off at the idea of a trailer park ghost,” says the narrator of “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park.” “Don’t.”
This is a book that knows a lot about a lot of things — whether it’s media headlines or mythological deep cuts. But there’s a big difference between being able to reference plenty of cultural touchstones and being able to combine them in fascinating ways. Thankfully, Sparks’s new collection takes the familiar and makes it fresh — and finds new and resonant ways to comment on thousands of years of culture.
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories & Other Revenges
by Amber Sparks
Liveright; 192 p.