In her new collection, The Unfinished World, Amber Sparks continues to evolve as an idiosyncratic storyteller, offering nineteen stories that crisscross genre and mood and that elevate her to the upper echelon of young American short fiction writers. Sparks’ work finds comfort in juxtaposing perceived normalcy with the bizarre, and it flourishes in catching the reader off-guard, usually with unexpected character actions or logic. Stories like the sublime “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting” and “The Men and Women Like Him” bend the restrictions of fixed timelines, as characters return, time and again, to the same repetitive moments. And “We Were Holy Once”—which includes the brilliant sentence “Maybe worship and afraid [are] the same thing”—hints at one conclusion for a family of religious hucksters before taking a violent turn in its closing paragraphs. These verbal ruses, as well as the many others Sparks employs, are impressive, and they shape a volume that’s impossible to classify, yet endlessly fascinating.
Solitude connects many of the lives in The Unfinished World. In “The Janitor in Space,” the collection’s opener, a custodian exists in ghostlike obscurity, cleaning up after messy astronauts when they sleep. She lies to herself when she claims that traveling in space closes the gap between her and God, but she remains convinced that her loneliness, “the only thing that’s hers,” is nevertheless beautiful, making her at one with the emptiness of space. This feeling of seclusion, and its power, continues to linger in the collection’s two longest stories, “The Cemetery for Lost Faces” and “The Unfinished World.” “The Cemetery for Lost Faces” concerns once-prosperous siblings holed up in their home after the death of their parents. They rely on one sibling’s gift of taxidermy to maintain their family estate, but when the other falls in love with an outsider, their welfare is threatened. The novella-length “The Unfinished World” follows two strangers—a boy, Set, and a girl, Inge—as they make their ways through adolescence, isolation, and adulthood. In “Cemetery,” Sparks writes of the fear of outside infiltration and destruction, but in the title story, she teases the reader with the inevitable collision of two outsiders. And once this occurs, she wisely pushes the narrative beyond the anticipated climax to one far more curious and haunting.
Sparks possesses enviable skill at eschewing expectation to present zigzag narrative puzzles, and her writing is often compared to contemporaries like Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, and Karen Russell. But while reading The Unfinished World, large chunks of the collection reminded me of Nance Van Winckel’s excellent recent novel, Ever Yrs. Like Sparks, Van Winckel relies on the familiar to dig deep into the strange, and the outcome is close to magical. A metafictional account told through a “found” photo album, the book opens with Van Winckel, author and character, receiving a scrapbook from a friend as a Christmas present (“I know you like this sort of thing,” the friend writes). Within this album, which was rescued from a garage sale, a story forms via annotated photos and altered magazine ads. These annotations are written by a 99-year-old woman in 1999 who, bound to life in a nursing home (which returns us to the idea of solitude), fears the Y2K threat and decides to construct the album as a history to be mailed to her great-grandchild. Van Winckel lures the reader in with a simple premise, and then tweaks the mundane when her narrator confesses, when mentioning her board game designer son’s boyfriend, “Randall thinks I may one day come to believe him about the underground Derros creatures.” These creatures, it turns out, could be involved in the impending destruction of the world, and the woman ponders their existence while telling stories of long dead relatives. She also keeps tabs on a young orderly who professes to be both pregnant and a virgin, explaining that the woman told others “what went into her and made a baby was a whistle.”
Utilizing a device like a photo album to tell her story permits Van Winckel to spin a narrative in ways typically impossible for written storytelling: bending space and time. Photos lead to hastily written or typed captions, which are taped to the page; odd advertisements from the 1930s and 1940s are placed here and there, doctored in ways that make their copy read like poetry; stories are disjointed, with characters introduced and dismissed on a whim, and threads are abandoned with little fanfare. In fact, many of the hybrid novel’s mysteries—like who the album was intended for, or who was supposed to smuggle it out of the nursing home—are answered with skim-and-you’ll-miss-it casualness.
Ever Yrs begs for close consideration, and, like The Unfinished World, it defies classification yet is impossible to resist. In writing, Van Winckel and Sparks continuously prod the traditional and defy the expected. Their books are cousins from different spatial planes, and the duo leads the reader down parallel, unusual paths, proving the well of innovation in literature is far from running dry.
The Unfinished World
by Amber Sparks
Liveright Publishing; 240 p.
by Nance Van Winckel
Twisted Road Publications; 156 p.
Benjamin Woodard is a senior editor at Numéro Cinq and helps edit Atlas and Alice. His recent writing has appeared in Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Publishers Weekly. Find him on Twitter @woodardwriter.