LESSER KNOWN MONSTERS OF THE 21ST CENTURY
by Kim Fu
Tin House Books, 220 pages
reviewed by Prisha Mehta
A customer seeks out advanced simulation technology to recreate a conversation with her dead mother, but is refused on the grounds that relief from grief is too addictive a product to ethically sell. A young woman moves into a house crowded with hundreds of out-of-season June bugs as she recalls the emotionally abusive relationship she has just left behind. Every person on the planet loses their ability to taste, all of a sudden, all at once, and an artist makes a new career out of recreating food with physical sensation.
These are the small worlds that populate Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st century, a short story collection containing twelve narratives that, though disparate in plot and subject, come together in a thematic and emotional symphony.
This collection is Fu’s fourth major work, following her debut novel For Today I am a Boy (winner of the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice), her poetry collection How Festive the Ambulance, and her second novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Fu’s writing has often been highlighted for its precision and freshness, and her latest publication does not disappoint, offering us a novel, sharp, and insightful perspective on the concept of normalcy.
The stories in this collection span across generations, the narrators ranging from young children to adults verging on old age. But in each story, Fu is determined to take reality and twist it. Ordinary life is teased apart and then slightly altered: a technology is added, a natural process is exaggerated, a standard element of life inexplicably disappears. Despite these alterations, the twists are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of our known world that we quickly come to accept them as just another aspect of reality. Though surprised when we initially find ourselves presented with the unfamiliar or the absurd, we soon find ourselves wondering why a Time Cube is any more difficult to believe than, say, an Apple Watch or a 3D Printer.
In many ways, Fu’s collection reads as a sort of Black Mirror in prose, but where Black Mirror’s episodes feel like warnings for the future, Fu’s stories read as commentaries on the present moment, despite (or perhaps because of) their elements of science fiction. We come to accept them just as quickly and casually as we come to accept a global pandemic, discriminatory legislation, a growing political divide. Part of the reason for this distance is perhaps that her narrators are never at the center of the world-changing events but rather at their periphery, feeling their ramifications but always equally if not more concerned with the small details of their own lives.
“After I killed my wife,” Fu writes, “I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs. I thought about how to spend the time. I could clean the house, as a show of contrition, and when she returned to find me sitting at the shining kitchen island, knickknacks in place on dusted shelves, a pot of soup on the stove, we might not even need to discuss it.”
Fu’s prose is unembellished but often sparsely beautiful and, true to its title, is deeply resonant for a modern audience. Well-paced, clear, and confident, the narration navigates both the familiar and the absurd with deftness and wit. A character’s ambivalence about traditional marriage is given equal, if not greater, narrative weight than a segment about a sea monster that appears on the local news. Though strange, futuristic, and at times magical, the irrealism of these stories is not mythological or epic in nature; the worlds in which these narratives exist feel no more dramatic or heroic than our own, and the concerns of their characters feel no more grand or meaningful than our day-to-day worries. In many ways, the collection is a meditation on how irreverently time can collapse entire ways of life, how shifts that were once devastating or groundbreaking come to feel commonplace in a matter of years, how the new is, sooner or later, inevitably drowned in the growing expanse of the ordinary.
My favorite story in the collection is “Liddy, First to Fly,” which follows an elementary schooler whose friend sprouts small, dark-feathered wings from her ankles but struggles to use them to fly. Despite its magic, the story avoids romanticism: the wings begin as large, unsightly blisters, and ultimately unfurl only when the girls prick them with a sewing needle. In this story, and in others in the collection, queerness is present but not central, running in the background of the characters’ emotional arcs. “We’d been told we would develop a new interest in boys,” Fu writes. “For me, that had not happened. Boys seemed yet more distant, less interesting, as the girls around me morphed in ways that were truly fascinating. As they grew wings.” With this offhand line, she offers us a new kind of queer narrative, one in which the queerness is tied into the fabric of the ordinary, allowed to be unquestioned and natural, to exist without justification or qualification–in fact, without even really being the point of the story.
There is something achingly and electrically familiar about the way that Fu characterizes the many dangers of modern life: insomnia, elementary school, climate change, intergenerational divide. While reading, I often felt as though she was taking words out of my mouth, recreating some essential aspect of experience which I could recognize but could not put into words myself. I felt, too, the echoes of pandemic and quarantine, of a world in which the absurd and unthinkable are rapidly becoming commonplace.
The familiarity of Fu’s prose is a testament to her ability to drop her readers fluidly and quickly into a fictional mind. The psychology of her characters is wonderfully immersive, and in a matter of lines, we believe them entirely as real and complex people. After the shock of the initial reading, printing a wife’s new body out in the basement comes to seem as ordinary a pastime as looking out a window or pouring a glass of orange juice. It is this combination of familiarity and strangeness, this simultaneous commitment to and deviation from normalcy, that makes Fu’s work so captivating.
Prisha Mehta is a writer from northern New Jersey. She is a rising sophomore at Yale University and an intern at The Writers Circle of NJ. Her short stories have appeared in Mud Season Review, The Baltimore Review, and Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2020. In addition to writing, she’s interested in psychology and philosophy. You can find more about her at prishamehta.com.