The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks

The Unfinished World: And Other Stories BY Amber Sparks. Liveright. Paperback, 240 pages. $15.

About halfway into Amber Sparks’s new collection of stories, a “feral” girl cursed by a witch, hiding out in a “wild, ancient wood,” receives an extraordinary visitor. A man “all black hair and sharp lines” drives up in a car that befits him, “sleek and modern.” The girl marvels: “It looked like an industrial beast fleeing unthinkable places, the new cowering from the oldest things in the world.” The sheer weirdness of the arrival fetches a grin, and whips the narrative around like a sling, taking it from a disturbed fairy tale to a feminist Game of Thrones. The turnabout, we come to understand, suits the story’s bifurcated title: “La Belle de Nuit, La Belle de Jour” (in either light, a woman’s story). The bizarre drop-in also illuminates the entire text. Readers who enter The Unfinished World themselves arrive from “the new,” the “modern,” but the stories again and again encounter “the oldest things”—they return to awe.

An awe, “safer than God,” pervades the opener, “The Janitor in Space.” In this brief meditation, the title character makes her rounds on the International Space Station, and meanwhile “makes loneliness beautiful”; the story unveils a paradise “removed from any human notion of heaven.” Such wonder is sustained through more eventful plotting, as well, in the first longer narrative, “The Cemetery for Lost Faces.” It begins with a brother and sister brought up strange, in a home that leaves others “in awe, suddenly child-eyed,” then forces them to grapple with adult hardships, like long-distance relationships and gun-toting friends. The sister proves to be more up to these challenges—this story, too, asserts a woman’s power—and she expresses her grasp of things with a telling analogy. She claims that an “impossible life” like hers and her brother’s is “a chimera.” The reference is to an older mythos, an awe whose time has passed. Yet in Sparks’s fiction, the Greek monster matters again. Other pieces make use of Cassandra or Cronus, and one of the shorter winners is titled “Lancelot in the Lost Places of the World.”

The title novella, crucial to the book’s overall impact, calls forth a range of apparitions out of dormant sacred spaces, from Adonis to the Egyptian Set, murderer and protector. These take fresh form, to be sure, in a narrative set at the turn of the twentieth century and concerning, among other things, the rise of two myth-besotted artistic movements: European Modernism (we tour the Armory Show of 1913) and Hollywood movies. Rather an action-adventure romp itself, with sojourns in both the Arctic and the South Pacific, this eighty-page romance nonetheless also delivers more than a few sympathetic shivers, since it brings together a boy and girl who are each outliers in their own family. By and large, though, this “World” engages us like the Cabinet of Curiosities maintained by one of its more tragic figures. The Cabinet, in fact, provides a storytelling frame, since most episodes are separated by excerpts from the catalogue (“Curiosity #145: Stuffed albino crocodile...”), and at the close of Sparks’s collection, it can seem like that catalogue contains the whole. Fascinating in its serendipity, yet alert to pangs of the ordinary, The Unfinished World succeeds well beyond the author’s debut, May We Shed These Human Bodies (2012), turning up “magic in every corner.”

To put it another way, Sparks relies on narrative resources older than psychological realism. Such realism, whether as simple as Carver or stylish as Updike, still rules the American short story. Exceptions can always be found, naturally, but starting about twenty years ago, with Aimee Bender, a number of younger writers, many of them women, began developing their own alternative, a fiction reliant on legend and fable. Kelly Link would be a recent case, with results that venture deeper into fantasy, while Amelia Gray’s tend to feel wised-up and urbane.

What this newcomer brings to the party is, first, her attraction to the classical, yoking in the likes of Adonis, and, second, a fondness for the heft and creak of old technology. The “Belle” story isn’t the only one that restores the automobile to the magic it once possessed, and “The Logic of the Loaded Heart” does the same for the apparatus of bar bands. “Loaded Heart” also proves a witty formal experiment, laying out three pages of math problems; others have tried such a mash-up (including Updike, in “Problems,” 1975), but this one possesses rare emotional clout. Sparks achieves similar poignance, and perhaps greatness, in one of two pieces featuring time-travel, “The Men and Women Like Him.” Here, the technology remains unexplained, to be sure, but the story gets into the grubby mechanics of the jobs created by time travel, the “Cleaners,” who forestall the notorious Butterfly Effect when others seek to change history. Cleaning—a job “with shitty pay and benefits”—also prompts nightmare questions: “Did a world that let happen the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the Trail of Tears . . . deserve to be spared?” The scope of that question, the depth, sets this author’s fairy tales apart.

Studying The Unfinished World’s publication credits, I was shocked to see how many of the stories have never turned up in a magazine, neither a literary quarterly nor a place like Fantasy & Science Fiction. Even “The Men and Women Like Him” only found a home after the whole set was under contract. The short-story market remains terrible, plainly—you hesitate even to call it a “market”—but insofar as the problem in this case lay with the work, it probably was due to Sparks’s occasional flirtation with the cute, the twee. The Lancelot piece, for instance, closes rather too neatly, its moral pat. Nevertheless, its miniature Grail Quest doesn’t shrink from the “bitter,” which “translates through all . . . languages and races.” What’s distasteful about humanity inspires this author as much as any sweeter faerie business. Another of the best in The Unfinished World, “We Were Holy Once” (the title, like so much else here, evokes a lost sanctity), plays out as horror. It makes a butchery of the pioneer story, and may provide this lovely, brave book’s most penetrating statement of why we continue to probe our capacity for awe: “Maybe worship and afraid is the same thing.”

John Domini’s latest book is The Sea-God’s Herb (Dzanc Books, 2014), selected criticism. This spring he’ll bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!