Amber Sparks has sloughed off all constraints on imagination to blend story with science, fabulism with deep truths, narrative prose with language play—lists, boxing-match transcripts, poetics—but who can think about form when reading these shorts? Instead, think: Andrea Barrett meets Karen Russell meets Kurt Vonnegut to sustain bullying in the chemistry lab, preach scantily-dressed on the streets, trip up to heaven, or sink inside the rotting tissue of a body. In Sparks’s fictional world, Death is just a regular guy who “looked kind of like a J. Crew model,” a disenchanted dictator longs for the life of an American cowboy and practices on his people, a bathtub splurges up a new configuration of family, and wives turn into animals leaving “the husbands to worry, most of all, that their wives will finally fly or crawl or swim away, untethered from the promises that only humans make or keep.” This is the kind of thing you’re in for with Sparks in charge of the page.
These shorts are flashes of brilliance, too many—thirty—to give each the words they deserve. But suffice to say, reading this debut story collection is like eating a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Jelly Beans. You can’t stop. And you never know if you’re going to get something sweet or acrid or maybe some flavor you’d rather not even think about, but you must. You must absolutely think about the remnants of a jagged suffering race marching on a benevolent wheezing planet, one foot in the land of fairy tale.
You learn from these stories: how a bullet travels; the physics of winning an argument; how a folktale grows old; how feral children are brought indoors, “taught to speak and shave and compose a sonnet and lead people or a nation or an expedition.” You learn how to throw “a blanket over your lonely life at last,” and how to “shed these human bodies for the punitive grace of greening branches and deep, steady roots once more.”
But the thing that left the most lasting impression on me at the end of this read—which followed me around the house for days and weeks after, “there are no clocks in the land of the dead”—is how life and death cohabitate. Crystal clear truths are embedded in off-the-charts creativity, the skillful dance of turning language into a strange new world that’s not only believable, but grabs your comfortable paradigm by its ear and leads it to the detention room. When I read about characters who fashioned the people they wished for out of nails and boards and twigs and leaves, I wondered, maybe that is what Sparks hopes to do, to teach us to create the kind of world we can imagine. Regardless, in May We Shed These Human Bodies, Sparks will grab your heart tissue and your grey matter, and make you look at the cloying and beautiful truths that underlie humanity in these far-fetched fictions.