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Love and speculation – ‘Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century’

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I’m on record as being a big fan of collections of short fiction. As someone enamored of both beginnings and endings, there’s something wonderfully satisfying about picking up a book that has plenty of both.

Now, there are those who ride hard for anthologies. It’s a proclivity that I understand, to be sure, but don’t quite share. Don’t get me wrong – love a good anthology – but to me, the big winner is always going to be a collection of work by a singular author, even if that means that I’m taking a bit more of a gamble on an individual’s style and substance. But when that gamble pays off? Jackpot.

“Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century” (Tin House, $16.95) by Kim Fu offers the kind of payout you hope for when picking up a collection by an author with whom you are unfamiliar. So it is with me and Fu’s work – she’s written a couple of novels and this is her first published story collection, but I had never read her work before. Such is the joy of the book critic life – sometimes, you take a swing and see what happens.

In this case, what happened was an engaging, thought-provoking collection of stories. A dozen works of speculative exploration that utilize and subvert genre tropes in equal measure. These are stories that venture into the shadows without fear and travel darkened pathways with resolute boldness. Smart and sharp, riddled with unsettling bleak humor and emotional impact, “Lesser Known Monsters” is a first-rate collection for any fan of speculative fiction.

There are some unsettling love stories – “Sandman” and “June Bugs” both delve into the nature of relationships via some unsuspecting paths. “Twenty Hours” is another one that explores what it actually means to love, and at what point the person you love becomes something else.

Some of the stories take less traditional forms. The collection opens with the enigmatically-titled “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” consisting entirely of the transcript between a person seeking to engage with a simulation and the person serving as that simulation’s operator. “In This Fantasy” consists of an unnamed narrator describing a variety of fantasies, viewing themselves as existing in different times and places. And then you’ve got a story like “#ClimbingNation” that doesn’t necessarily fit into our usual idea of speculative fiction, yet still slots in neatly with the rest of them.

Others focus on the imaginative power of children. Stories like “Liddy, First to Fly” and “The Doll” delve into the true capabilities of youth and how different their encounters with the unknown are from those experienced by adult minds conformed by the rigors of a life lived.

The collection’s final story – and perhaps my personal favorite – is “Do You Remember Candy,” a tale of one woman’s efforts to fight back against the feelings of loss that come from a world in which all sense of taste has been lost. “Scissors,” a story of the freedom of submission by way of avant-garde performance art, is another highlight.

Honestly, we’re talking all killer no filler with this one.

There’s a lot to admire about “Lesser Known Monsters,” but one of the most impressive aspects of the collection is its cohesiveness. These stories have their stylistic and tonal differences, but even as they each carve out their own distinct niches, they also cohere in a manner that ties them together beautifully. Even though a number of these stories appeared first in other venues, the book reads as if they were always intended to be a part of this particular whole. There’s none of the jaggedness or rough edges that you sometimes see in single-author collections, even in ones where all the individual work is of high quality. But here, we have something where the pieces fit together, even when they’re pulled from different puzzles.

Fu’s fiction is packed with ideas. Her methods of exploring those ideas are variable – as I said, while I’m comfortable calling this a collection of speculative fiction, not all of these individual stories necessarily fit that description. And that’s a good thing – that variety lends “Lesser Known Monsters” an energy that is all the more robust because of its broad range.

Ultimately, these are stories about relationships, about the connections between people. Some of those connections are real, others are manufactured. Some are healthy, others not so much. Some spring from the realm of the internal, while others are born of external circumstances. But in the end, the ways in which our lives become entangled are centered within the frame.

“Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century” is a marvelous collection of work by a writer of tremendous gifts. These are stories that manage to be both heavy and buoyant at once, stirring up shadows without ever losing sight of the light. Compelling, thoughtful fiction like this would be difficult enough to generate once; doing it a dozen times is a true feat. In the worlds created by Kim Fu, love – in its presence, its absence or both – is inescapable, orbits intersecting and capturing one another.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 February 2022 12:21

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